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The Origins of Shen Zhou's Art

The Suzhou area, known in the past as Wuzhong ("Region of Wu") and Wujun ("Commandery of Wu"), witnesed political chaos in the late Yuan dynasty, when large numbers of literati and gentry moved to Jiangnan and took refuge in Suzhou. After the Yuan, Zhu Yuanzhang became the first emperor of the Ming dynasty and implemented a policy of enforcing centralized authority to consolidate his power.

Zhang Shicheng, who came from the area of Wu, and Zhu Yuanzhang had both fought Yuan dynasty forces in contending for control of China. After the Ming dynasty was established, however, the people in Suzhou, the stronghold of Zhu's bitter rival, Zhang Shicheng, suffered both political and economic repression. Such literati artists who had associated with Shen Zhou's father and grandfather as Chen Ruyan, Wang Meng, Xu Ben, and Wang Fu at one time or another suffered political persecution or exile at the hands of the Ming court. In this atmosphere of autocratic suppression, many early Ming literati lodged their feelings in gardens and the landscape, using poetry, calligraphy, and painting to amuse and express themselves. Although their painting styles follow those of the Four Great Masters of the Yuan, they gradually transformed the untrammeled simplicity of the Yuan into a culture of reservation and refinement, becoming a reflection of the ideas and lifestyle of literati and recluses at the time. Representative painter-calligraphers included Shen Zhenji, Shen Hengji, Du Qiong, Liu Jue, and Yao Shou, all of whom achieved renown in Wuzhong for their poetry and painting, becoming known as "Pioneers of the Wu School." Among them, Shen Zhenji and Shen Hengji were Shen Zhou's uncle and father, while Du Qiong and Liu Jue were both his teacher-friends, their style in the arts having an influence on Shen's poetry, calligraphy, and painting.

During the middle Ming dynasty, commerce and the economy rebounded in Suzhou, the lives of people becoming more affluent and leading to the rise of art and culture as well. At this time, scholarly figures with a strong background in art and culture, such as Shen Zhou, Wu Kuan, Huang Yun, Li Yingzhen, Shi Jian, Zhu Yunming, and Wen Zhengming, often gathered together and reciprocated in poetry and painting, holding banquets and visiting gardens or appreciating artworks in their collections. They associated with each other as teachers, through marriage, or as friends, forming a complex and intricate network of interaction and exchange. The atmosphere of this culture gave rise to Shen Zhou's consummate achievements in painting and calligraphy, becoming the toast of art circles at the time and having a great influence on later generations.

Letter to Huang Yun
Shen Zhou (1427-1509), Ming dynasty

Letter to Huang Yun(New window)

Shen Zhou was not only a master and leader in the Wu School of painting, he was also one of the forerunners in the Wu School of calligraphy, often keeping company with such eminent figures as Wu Yue.

This letter was written to Huang Yun (style name Yinglong), a native of Mount Kun in Suzhou Prefecture. His poetry and calligraphy were both admired at the time, and he often exchanged poetry with Shen Zhou and Wen Zhengming. The letter here refers to the "Great Commissioner, Mr. Zhang," who was Zhang Mu (1415-1487, style name Jingzhi), a Presented Scholar of 1439. Zhang became Administration Vice Commissioner of Zhejiang in the early Chenghua era (1464-1487), hence the reference here. Shen also mentions the "style of Shangu," referring to the manner of the Northern Song calligrapher Huang Tingjian, who was much appreciated by him and Huang Yun; both earnestly studied Huang's style. The manner of calligraphy in this letter no longer features the elegant beauty found in Shen's earlier years, the brushwork strong and mature with solidly composed character forms, suggesting a work of his middle years or later.