Spreading Falling Blossoms: Style and Replication in Shen Zhou’s Late Calligraphy

Vol. 40 No. 3   09/2010    


Spreading Falling Blossoms: Style and Replication in Shen Zhou’s Late Calligraphy


Peter C. Sturman









Key words

Shen Zhou, Wen Zhengming, calligraphy 


    The renowned artist Shen Zhou (1427–1509) began to explore the theme of falling blossoms as a subject for poetry, painting, and calligraphy in his very late years. The theme stands out both for the number of times Shen Zhou worked on it and for the quality of the poems, calligraphies, and paintings that he produced. He began with ten poems in 1503, prompted by an illness that kept him from enjoying the seasonal blossoming of spring fruit trees in the Suzhou area. His intention was to record his meditations on the passage of time and human mortality, but the act of writing these verses quickly shed its private, meditative cloak and became something fundamentally different as Shen Zhou shared them with a number of prominent cultural figures in the Jiangnan region (Suzhou-Nanji g area), including his students. The poems became objects of celebration — admird products from a revered, sage-like elder in the cultured city of Suzhou — and they consequently prompted the rhyming poems of others on the theme. These, in turn, were rhymed again by Shen Zhou. In the end, from the period of 1504–1508, Shen Zhou produced some fifty poems on the theme of falling flowers, as well as numerous calligraphic transcriptions and paintings. Recognizing that his own end could not be far off, and playing off of the falling blossoms theme’s focus on the passage of time and loss of youth, in a highly conscious manner, Shen Zhou made falling blossoms his swansong. 

    The many manifestations of the falling blossoms theme raise a number of issues, from the practical matter of authenticity to more intriguing questions of the role of style in Shen Zhou’s promotion of his late-life artistic persona and the circulation of artistic identity in early sixteenth-century Suzhou. This article introduces the primary materials of the Falling Blossoms project, including important comments made by Shen Zhou and others that address problems related to the artistic process. The focus is on Shen Zhou’s practice of calligraphy. A synthesized approach is presented, in which the usual coordinates of connoisseurship — quality, style, and habit — are balanced by considerations of intention and social practice, and the visual properties of calligraphy are recognized as part of a broader discourse on culture-formation.



Author: Peter C. Sturman
Genre: Article