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Master of Xie Yi Paintings: Xu Wei

The latter period of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) saw the emergence in southern China of an outstanding artist, Xu Wei -- best known for his Xie Yi, or free-style flower-and-bird paintings.

Talented but miserable, Xu's life experience was quite similar to that of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), a famous Dutch painter. Xu's paintings were imbued with destructive emotions. The rash and impatient mood displayed in his works is considered somewhat shocking. With a distinctive expressionism and irrational wisdom, the artistic value of Xu's works achieved a high level.

A native of Shanyin (Shaoxing), today's
Zhejiang Province, Xu (1521-1593) had sobriquets like Tianchi Shanren or Qingteng Jushi. The very talented Xu passed the imperial examination in the county at age 20, although he was not promoted. In his youth Xu lead an active life, dreaming of managing country affairs; he had his own views on the country's military affairs, politics and economy. Xu even took part in the war against Japanese pirates along southeast coast of China. He enthusiastically praised patriotic heroes and once wrote Xian Bailu Biao for Hu Zongxian, which was highly regarded by the emperor. Later, Xu's involvement in politics led to his near self-destruction: He attempted to commit suicide nine times in astonishing ways. Painting became the only way Xu could empress himself; his misery was a driving force of his success as an artist. Over the past centuries, Xu has become a legend among ordinary Chinese people.

During the Ming Dynasty, Chinese paintings experienced a clash between two theories: learning from the predecessors and innovating. Xie Yi ink and wash painting quickly developed, and many famous painters emerged, including Xu, as the most outstanding painter. His Xie Yi flower paintings contained unrestrained strokes. Painting with ease and verve, Xu did not only pursue the superficial phenomenon but also the essence of his subjects. Xu's Xie Yi flower-and-bird paintings became quite fashionable and had a far-reaching significance. Technically, Xu was on a par with Chen Daofu; together, they were regarded as Qingteng and Baiyang. Apart from painting, Xu was also skilled in Chinese theater. His Zaju (poetic drama set to music) Sisheng Yuan had a niche in theater history. Compared to the dull atmosphere of calligraphy in the early Ming Dynasty, Xu's style was prominent. He had mastered a magnificent, wild cursive hand using disordered strokes, even though few could understand what Xu wrote. He was very content with his calligraphic works, asserting: Calligraphy is my best, followed by my poems, prose and paintings.

Twenty years after Xu's death, the leader of the Gong'an School, Yuan Hongdao, was determined to collect Xu's works, research him and make him known. Later, Yuan, Xu's first bosom friend, created the famous biography Xu Wenchang. Following Yuan's cue, many Xu fans began to surface, including Zhu Da (known as Ba Da Shan Ren) and Zheng Banqiao. Qi Baishi, the famous modern painter, even declared himself as Xu's running dog.

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