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A painting of bamboo, chrysathemums and orchids by Zheng Xie 鄭燮 (Pt. 1)

An untitled painting of bamboo, chrysanthemums and orchids by Zheng Xie 鄭燮 (i.e. Zheng Banqiao 鄭板橋, 1693-1765)

The numbering of inscriptions and seals in this blog.

Detail of the right end of the handscroll.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Inscription A:





A cluster of real chrysanthemums depicts [their] bowing and slanting:

A comparable autumn scene is to be found in Tao’s place.

No need for half-a-year’s effort to grow [them],

Water and ink can bloom into flowers in a moment.


1. Liufenbanshu 六分半書 (six-and-a-half-division script): this is derived from the term bafenshu 八分書 (eight-division script), traditionally believed to be an early form of lishu 隸書 (clerical script). As Zheng Banqiao integrated characteristics of the clerical script into xingshu 行書 (running script) and zhengshu 正書 (standard script), he dubbed his own calligraphy “six-and-a-half-division script”.

2. Henbude tianman le putian jizhai 恨不得填漫了普天飢債 (anxious to pay off the famine debts of the world): a personal seal with unusual use of colloquial language.

3. Kangxi xiucai Yongzheng juren Qianlong jinshi 康熙秀才 雍正舉人 乾隆進士 (Distinguished Talent of the Kangxi era [1661-1722], Recommended Man of the Yongzheng era [1722-1735], Advanced Scholar of the Qianlong era [1736-1796]): this personal seal is somewhat self-mocking as it suggests a long journey through the imperial exam system. Zheng Xie did not pass the triennial court exam and become a jinshi (advanced scholar) until he was 43 years old (1736).


Brimming with visual dynamics and unconventionality, this painting offers a vivid representation of Zheng Xie’s character as one of the Yangzhou ba guai 揚州八怪 (Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou). It is not common to fill almost all the empty space on a painting with inscriptions as Zheng Xie does here. Besides, the calligraphy style is almost rebellious, reworking the strokes and forms of conventional writing with remarkable creativity. Whether this creativity yields favourable results, however, has always been a matter in dispute. Therefore, the expression frequently used to characterise Zheng Xie's style, luanshi pujie 亂石鋪街 (a clutter of cobbles on the street), may be used as a compliment as well as criticism.

As the poem suggests, Zheng Xie is paying tribute to the model of virtuous recluse and farmstead poet, Tao Qian 陶潛 (i.e. Tao Yuanming 陶淵明, 365-427), who is known for his fondness for chrysanthemums. While adopting conventional symbolism in Chinese art, Zheng Xie has a distinctive approach to this familiar topic. Instead of a tranquil, neutral scene that dominates visual representations of reclusion and chrysanthemums, he offers a much bolder expression of his aspirations, full of confidence, pride, and vigour.


Three examples of paintings of reclusion and chrysanthumems:

"Moju tu" 墨菊圖 by Shen Zhou 沈周 (1427-1509)

"Dongli cai ju" 東籬採菊, album leaf inspired by Tao Qian's poem, by Wen Boming 文伯明 (1502-1575)

"Wanju tu" 玩菊圖 by Chen Hongshou 陳洪綬 (1598-1652)

Picture credit: National Palace Museum, Taipei


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