A scroll painting of a blossoming plum branch by Wang Mian, who inscribed six poems on the painting. Four of his contemporaries also added their own poems; calligraphy often served as a frame for the images or became an integral part of the composition.

Wang Mian was a Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) painter most renowned for his momei (ink plum) paintings on silk and paper. In his compositions he integrated pictures and words by framing his calligraphic inscriptions with images of flowering plum branches.

Wang Mian ?? was a Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) artist noted for his momei (ink plum) paintings. He also composed poetry. He was born into a farmer’s family in Zhuji, Zhejiang Province, and received his Confucian education and mastered classics. But Wang failed the civil service examinations, and he later rejected several civil appointments. After spending one year in Beijing Wang retreated to his hometown in the Guiji Mountains, where he made a living by selling his paintings.

Wang Mian’s poetry, recorded in Zhuzhai shiji (Poetry Collection of the Bamboo Studio), conveyed his awareness of the danger and uncertainty of late Yuan society., expressed his concern for the suffering of the people, and criticized the failure of the government to protect them. During his later years Wang witnessed ethnic Han Chinese rebellions against the Mongolian court and probably even offered his advice to the rebels.

Wang painted plums on both silk and paper. He juxtaposed image and inscriptions in such a way that the image framed the inscriptions, his calligraphy enhancing the beauty of flowering plums. The organic forms and elegant, S-curved plum boughs contrast with the square, rustic, poetic or prose inscriptions and characterize the radiant beauty, self-assurance, and reclusion of Wang’s plum world.

Wang’s extant dated works span the period of 1346–1355. He painted the plums either in a plain style, with S-curved bough, or in a more ambitious style. In the plain style he used smooth, even brushstrokes to portray the rhythm and grace of the gentle main plum branch. The round petals of the blossoms were often rendered in several overlapping ink washes to symbolize the purity and virtual transparency of the flower. In the ambitious style the plum bough is painted in an S-curve, forming the backbone of the composition, which is often counterbalanced by blossom-bearing branchlets. Thick and thin applications of ink create varied tones that suggest the uneven texture of the branches. The main bough also defines the space where inscriptions are placed, although the inscriptions sometimes overlap with the plums. In the ambitious style massive old plum trunks and boughs meander through the painting space. The main bough gradually tapers toward the top, with secondary branches growing from the bough. The balance between the monumental old branch and the graceful, snowy petals is remarkable. The inscriptions never compete with the image in the ambitious style. Surely Wang Mian was associating himself with the old plum tree that lives a tough life but still grows younger branches with blossoming flowers. He took pride in his own perseverance, confidence, heroism, and ultimate triumph over harsh conditions. By using stylized forms and masterfully contrasted petals and boughs, Wang Mian created an idealized world of flowering plums as emblematic of the gentleman’s endurance and resilience.

Wang Mian’s influence on later ink plum specialists cannot be overestimated. They expanded the aesthetic scope of the ink plum genre and set a new standard that brought grandeur, intensity, scale, and visual power to later practice.

Further Reading

Bickford, M. (1996). Ink plum: The making of a Chinese scholar-painting genre. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Cahill, J. (1972). Treasures of Asia, Chinese painting. New York: Crown Publishers.

Cahill, J. (1997). The Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). In Barnhart, J. C., Yang Xin, Nie Chongzheng, J. Cahill, L. Shaojun, & W. Hung (Eds.), Three thousand years of Chinese painting (pp. 192–193). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Source: Jiang, Yu. (2009). WANG Mian. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2403–2404. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

WANG Mian (Wáng Mi?n ??)|Wáng Mi?n ?? (WANG Mian)

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