The Chinese poet and painter Wang Wei (699-759) was one of the greatest poets of the golden age of Chinese poetry, the T'ang dynasty, 618-907. He was also regarded by later critics as the founder of the Southern school of landscape painting.
Wang Wei was also called Mo-chieh (or ch'i, the name Wei-moch'i being a transliteration of the Sanskrit name Vimalakirti, the great lay disciple of Buddha) and Yuch'eng (assistant minister of the right, after his last government position). He was born in P'u-chou (the present Fen-yang county in Shansi Province) into a family which had contributed 13 prime ministers to the T'ang court. Because the traditional family seat was in T'aiyüan, Shansi, Wang Wei is usually called a native of T'aiyüan.
By the age of 15, Wang Wei was a skillful poet and musician. In 717 he won first place in the metropolitan examination in preparation for a government career, and in 719 he was awarded the highest degree in the examination system, the chin-shih. His long official career began immediately thereafter with his appointment as assistant director of the Imperial Directorate of Music; at the time of his death in 759, he directed the administration of 12 departments in the ministries of war, justice, and works. His career was not uneventful, however, and included demotion, exile, and forced service under the usurper An Lu-shan. Two personal losses also left deep imprint: when he was about 30, his wife died childless, and Wang never remarried; 20 years later, the death of his mother left him grief-stricken. Though he continued to hold office thereafter, he tended more and more to withdraw from public society to the solace of his country home at Lan-t'ien along the Wang River. There, in the company of fellow poets, Buddhist monks, and other friends, he roamed the hills and waters, studied Taoism and the Buddhist sutras, wrote, and painted.
Achievement as a Poet
Wang Wei is sometimes classed as one of the three greatest poets of the T'ang dynasty, along with Tu Fu and Li Po. While he was neither as brilliant a craftsman as Tu Fu nor as exuberant a genius as Li Po, he excelled in imagery, and his poems often hold a subtle metaphysical flavor testifying to his long study of Buddhism. Many of his works are such perfectly crystallized visual images that they became favored subjects of later artists, as in this couplet: "White herons drift across flooded rice fields/ Yellow orioles warble in shadowed summer trees." Or: "I walk to where the waters end/And sit and watch the clouds arise." Something of the personal warmth of Wang Wei's poems may be suggested in this translation of his "Answering Magistrate Chang": "In my late years I am only fond of quiet,/ The ten thousand affairs do not involve my heart./ I look to no long-range plans,/ Only the knowledge that I shall return to the old forests-/ The wind through the pines will loosen my belt,/ The moon in the mountains shine on my lute./ You ask me, sir, the cause of success and failure:/ The fisherman's song carries deep into the mountains."
His Landscape Painting
The great Sung poet, painter, and critic Su Shih (1036-1101) described Wang Wei's art in terms that suggest the complex interaction between poetry and painting in the later history of Chinese art: "Taste Wang Wei's poetry-there are paintings in it; look at his paintings-they are full of poetry." Just as his older contemporary Wu Taotzu carried painting to new levels through his study of calligraphy, so too did Wang Wei achieve a breakthrough because of his understanding of poetry. His poems convey thought by means of carefully chosen visual images; his paintings borrow the same technique. That is, it is no longer solely the image with which the painter is concerned, but mood, rhythm, key, the ineffable qualities of expression that ultimately escape definition.
Much earlier, the figure painter Ku K'ai-chih had sought to achieve a similar goal by "conveying the spirit" of men, the inner man, not his appearance. Wang Wei now brought the same purpose to an art form that had been largely decorative in function theretofore: landscape painting. Typical of the preceding taste was the courtly "blue and green" style of the father and son Li Ssu-hsün and Li Chaotao. Rich color, hard and even outlines, a somewhat decorative concept of natural form, and the use, still, of landscape elements as a backdrop for human narratives are characteristics of this art.
Some historians credit the crucial innovation to the great figure painter Wu Tao-tzu. His loose, fluctuating brushwork described form in a more organic, lively manner and thus allowed the creation of a new, vital landscape art. But it was Wang Wei who lent his name to the concept of pure landscape, enjoyed for its own sake. To Wang as well is credited the first systematic use of ink wash in conjunction with brush lines, and the initial development of monochrome landscape—all of which would thoroughly dominate the later history of Chinese painting.
As in his poetry, qualities, not forms per se, were pursued. One T'ang critic speaks of the "profound" expressive power of his landscape and elevates him above Li Ssuhsün, whose colorful style was still the standard to most critics. But in general Wang Wei was overshadowed by the more renowned masters of the day, and it was not until the 10th and 11th centuries that his stature began to grow toward its present eminence.
The Painting of the Wang-ch'üan Villa
Wang Wei's most celebrated work was his "portrait" of the estate he owned at Wang-ch'üan. Originally painted on the walls of Ch'ing-yüan monastery, it was a long, rambling portrayal of the favorite scenic sites in and around his country home.
Later it was copied on silk, recopied by the 10th-century painter Kuo Chung-shu and 11th-century painter Li Kung-lin, and finally engraved on stone in 1617. Through its successive reincarnations it has remained the most influential single landscape composition in Chinese history.
Among the 126 works by Wang Wei owned by the Sung emperor Hui-tsung, snow scenes predominate. And among extant works still attributed to the master, it is snowscapes which appear to best reflect the nature of his achievement. While none of these works can be considered original, several of them are consistent enough among themselves, and in sufficiently close harmony with genuine but anonymous works of the T'ang period, to warrant consideration.
Best is the composition surviving in one complete but very late copy (Honolulu Academy of Arts), one shorter but earlier and better copy (Ogawa Collection, Kyoto), and a fragmentary recension on Taiwan (Palace Museum), known as Clearing after Snow over Mountains and River. The composition is the prototype of the continuous landscape hand-scroll format, a classical sequential mode equivalent to the sonata form of Western musical composition. The painter introduces: themes in the form of basic motifs; a spatial structure within which the themes are elaborated; elements of anticipation and surprise; a key or mood—here the minor key of frozen winter; and movements, here, as is usual, a beginning, middle, and final development.
The only break in the dominance of landscape elements is an occasional tiny human figure or house. Such paintings are to be understood as journeys: the mental journey through snow-covered landscape, and the spiritual journey into metaphysical realms. The landscape hand scroll, which begins at that time, deserves to be recognized as one of the unique art forms of world art.
Patriarch of the Southern School
When the great Ming critic and painter Tung Ch'ich'ang (1555-1636) drew up his ambitious and extraordinarily influential theory of the Northern and Southern schools of landscape painting, he honored Wang Wei as patriarch of the Southern school, which included all of the great literati, or scholar-painters. As poet, painter, and scholar; as innovator in ink-wash landscape painting; and as one of the first masters to lodge poetic expression in painted forms, Wang Wei stands at the opposite pole from the professional and academic masters of the Northern school. He has been honored since the 11th century by every great landscape painter who sought to perpetuate this ideal.
When Wang Wei died in 759, he was buried in the deer park on his beloved estate, not far from the tomb of his mother.
Further Reading on Wang Wei
A collection of Wang Wei's poetry, translated by Ching Yin-nan and Lewis Walmsley, is Poems by Wang Wei (1968). There is a monograph in English on Wang Wei by Lewis and Dorothy Brush Walmsley, Wang Wei, the Painter-Poet (1968).
Additional Biography Sources
Wagner, Marsha L., Wang Wei, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981.