Fatima WU

A sample of the calligraphy of Mi Fu (1051–1107), an artist, art critic, and calligrapher of the Northern Song dynasty.

Mi Fu, nicknamed “Madman Mi” lived an extraordinary life in his time. The Song artist and critic left behind great calligraphy pieces, poetry and books on painting. Mi’s artistic works carry heavy impact on Chinese art even today.

Mi Fu (also known as “Mi Yuanzhang”) was born in Zhenjiang, Jiangsu Province, during the Northern Song dynasty (960–1126 CE). Mi’s ancestors were the Hu minorities from Turkish tribes in northern China, from where they migrated to Xiangyang, Hebei Province, about five generations before Mi Fu was born. Mi had a strong tie with the imperial family because his mother served as the wet nurse to Madam Cao, the wife of the future Emperor Yingzong (reigned 1063–1067). Mi grew up in the palace compounds and began his career as the reviser of records of books and professor of painting and calligraphy. Later he served as secretary to the Board of Rites and then as military governor of Huaiyang. However, Mi’s real passion was in poetry, painting, calligraphy, artistic criticism, and connoisseurship. Mi, along with Huang Tingjian (1045–1105 CE), Su Shi (1036–1101), and Cai Xiang (1012–1067), was known as one of “the four great calligraphers of the Song dynasty.”

Mi was eccentric and peculiar in his behavior and appearance. Wherever he went, his outlandish clothing would attract a crowd. Legend tells that Mi always had water with him in order to clean his hands, especially when he was about to handle his art works, which he allowed no one to touch. He was seen bowing to a stone and addressing it as his brother because it was a collector’s item. In his time he was known as “Madman Mi.”

As a painter Mi was especially adept in nature scenery. Critics credited Mi as being the first Chinese artist who made use of dots (Mi dian) with lots of moisture on the brush tip to depict misty rivers and hills. Mi used brushes, paper sticks, dried sugarcane, and the calyx of a lotus plant to paint. Spring Mountain and Pine Trees and Tower of the Rising Clouds are two of his extant works.

However, Mi Fu is best known in Chinese history as a master calligrapher whose works exhibit creativity, freedom of expression, and a sense of spontaneity. After imitating past masters such as Wang Xizhi (303–379 CE), Wang Xianzhi (344–388 CE), Yan Zhenqing (709–785 CE), and Chu Suiliang (596–658 CE), Mi found that he was being confined within the rules and theories of old masters rather than expressing his own feelings. In his critical essays Mi wrote that to follow one’s nature and sentiments at the time of composition is more important than to imitate the prescribed strokes of old masters. To Mi art was about creativity and the expression of sentiments, not about styles or prestige. In terms of technique, Mi was also the first calligrapher who experimented with various brushstrokes using the front tip, side tip, and central tip, which allowed him to create more forms and styles. “Three Letters,” dated 1093, and “Poems Written at Huangzhou on the Cold Food Festival,” dated 1082, are examples of his fine calligraphy. His style is sometimes referred to as the kuangcao or mad cursive.

As a critic, Mi wrote books and essays, such as Shu Shi (History of Calligraphy), Hua Shi (History of Painting), and Haiyue Mingyan (Famous Words of Haiyue). He saw spontaneity and sentiments as integral components of art. Mi died at the age of fifty-six, survived by two sons and eight daughters. Only Mi Youren continued his father’s artistic legacy. About a dozen of Mi Fu’s original works are available today in museums in China, United States, and Europe.

Further Reading

Chen Wendao. (1993). Mi Fu: The romantic painter and calligrapher. Taipei, Taiwan: Hanxin Cultural Industries.

Ecke, Tseng Yu-ho. (1971). Chinese calligraphy. Boston: David R. Godine.

Gotze, H. (Ed.). (1989). Chinese and Japanese calligraphy: Spanning two thousand years (B. Crook, Trans.). Munich, Germany: Prestel-Verlag.

Harrist, R. E., Jr., & Fong, W. C. (1999). The embodied image: Chinese calligraphy from the John B. Elliot collection. New Haven, CT: Art Museum, Princeton University.

Sturman, P. C. (1997). Mi Fu: Style and the art of calligraphy in Northern Song China. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Zhao Lengyue, (Ed.). (1993). Ten calligraphers. Taipei, Taiwan: World Cultures Publishers.

Source: Wu, Fatima. (2009). MI Fu. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1445–1446. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

A painting by Mi Fu. Mi, who felt constrained by the rules and theories of old masters, believed that artists should freely express their emotions. He earned the nickname “Mi Yuanzhang,” or “Madman Yi,” for his eccentric behavior and appearance.

MI Fu (M? Fú ??)|M? Fú ?? (MI Fu)

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