The Branches Are Messy and Overflowing (excerpt from “The Art of Wu Changshi”)


Wu Changshi 吳昌碩 was an extraordinary artist and a major force in late-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Chinese art. A true literatus in a changing cultural landscape, he combined the traditional scholarly arts with popular subject matter in a manner that would revolutionize painting. The following series of “views” represent an accumulation of forays into an understanding of Wu Changshi (also pronounced Wu Changshuo, 1844–1927).



A Metaphorical View of the Artist

“The branches are messy and overflowing, [but] please do not chop off the vines!” Wu Changshi inscribed this on the narrow, vertical painting Wisteria, where the vines clearly extend beyond the boundaries of the paper’s edges. While the artist has limited our view of this natural form, in a sense chopping the vines, the wisteria nevertheless exists in our imagination, extending into as vast a space as our minds choose to encompass.

We can consider Wu Changshi’s Dragon Pine as a kind of self-portrait, reflecting the staunch spirit that carried him through the harshness of his life. The image of the pine as representative of the virtuous, persevering gentleman has a long and well-established history. But if we take the less obvious tack of considering Wisteria as representing the artist, the results are intriguing.

Wu Changshi mastered poetry, seal carving, and calligraphy long before turning to painting. One important aspect of calligraphy is composition, or arranging the required lines of a character into a balanced and aesthetically pleasing square. Chinese poems, too, are form-bound, having a prescribed number of characters per line so that they fall into a metrically rectangular format. In a hand-written text, however, there is some leeway, as the squares flow one into the other; furthermore, there are script styles that allow the character to escape the confines of the square. In seal carving the final shape of the characters is absolutely limited by the shape of the stone. Thus, through years of practice, Wu Changshi became utterly proficient in composing lines to suit perfectly a given square or rectangle. With seal carving, calligraphy, and painting, there is no going back: a knife cut or a brushstroke, once made, cannot be unmade or covered over. The daily practice required to obtain and maintain proficiency in each of these arts inevitably leads to interwoven influences between the three. The act of composing and carving a line into a seal informs the writing of a character or “writing” of a line in painting. Yet, there is a different feel: seals must be designed in reverse and, in the case of intaglio seals, the positive printed line is the expression of negative space. Alternating between these overlapping yet distinct disciplines goes far to cultivate an agile mind.

The performance aspect of seal carving, calligraphy, and ink painting parallels the manner in which a life must—or can—be lived. None of them allow for corrections: each moment must be accepted. It is impossible to go back, but in going forward adjustments can be made to aim for the best result possible. Perhaps Chinese tradition venerates these three arts because of the inherent, tightly controlled discipline of their practice. Similar discipline is also required to lead a focused life. In these circumstances, it is relatively easy to understand the parameters of art and of life. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, numerous artists, including Wu Changshi, studied epigraphy (jinshixue 金石學)—the investigation of ancient scripts as found on early bronzes and engravings in stone. And many of them took that knowledge as a foundational force underpinning their calligraphy and seal carving, thus radically changing the scope of these arts even while keeping the limits of their formats and media intact. Calligraphers, for instance, developed brush techniques to capture the strength of line they found in the ancient scripts. Painting affords more freedom than these other two arts. In general, the people producing the seals and calligraphy were literati who underwent a demanding and strictly focused education. Only after mastering seal carving and calligraphy and pouring the required energy into completing a high level of education in the classics did Wu Changshi turn to painting. It’s as if, having established a level of maturity in life, he found it easier to take risks and experiment because experience affords a better understanding of how to achieve the desired outcome. When Wu Changshi turned to painting, he had already mastered the necessary brush techniques, such as the centered-tip brush, used in copying ancient inscriptions carved in stone. He was ready to bring his epigraphic brushwork to pictorial art; all he needed for this revolution was the desire to take the leap, to dare to experiment with a new art form, and to find the freedom to express himself in a way that would extend beyond the seemingly confining borders.

Dragon Pine
Dragon Pine

In Wisteria, Wu Changshi releases a sense of exuberant freedom that goes beyond that found in the act of creating calligraphy or carving seals. His brushstrokes retain the decisiveness of his calligraphic strokes, and he is perfectly in control of the composition, fitting all elements beautifully within the frame of the paper’s edges. But we know there is more than what is shown—more of the vine, to be certain, but also more of the artist. Wu Changshi proved to be stalwart in the face of adversity, as suggested in Dragon Pine, but the vicissitudes as well as the opportunities he faced during his life differed from those generally faced by literati of the past. Wu Changshi’s great success as an artist stems in part from his ability, tempered with great good humor, to understand and embrace these opportunities. In the end, he found an easy freedom within painting, a freedom grounded in his mastery of calligraphy and seal carving.


 Modern Ink: The Art of Wu Changshi, Britta Erickson (ed), Craig Yee (ed) (The Mozhai Foundation & University of Hawai’i Press, April 2008)

Modern Ink: The Art of Wu Changshi
, Britta Erickson (ed), Craig Yee (ed) (The Mozhai Foundation & University of Hawai’i Press, April 2018)

A Concrete View

Wu Changshi was a major transformational force of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a pivotal historical period not only for Chinese art but also for society. As an exceptional poet, calligrapher, seal carver, and painter, he tapped into the zeitgeist on many levels, forging a bridge between calligraphy and painting, between elite aesthetics and popular aesthetics, and between art of the late Qing and developments still to come in the twentieth century.

Born in 1844 in the remote mountain area of Zhangwu Village 鄣吳邨, Anji County 安吉縣, in Zhejiang Province, Wu Changshi came from a scholarly family. His father, Wu Xinjia 吳辛甲 (1820–1868), was a poet, seal carver, and student of epigraphy as well as his first teacher, setting an early direction for the son’s growth as a scholar and artist. As scholars had done for many generations, Wu Changshi studied the Confucian classics in great depth and cultivated clear and elegant calligraphy that could be used for composing formal essays in particular formats. The woman he married in 1872, Shi Jiu 施酒 (1848–1917), was also well-educated and versed in the arts of poetry and calligraphy; they made a well-suited pairing of intellectuals. Wu Changshi, as a literatus in the traditional Chinese sense, aspired to use his rigorous education to gain an official position via the examination system. In 1861 he passed the lowest level of exam, the xiucai 秀才, but due to a dearth of positions did not find such employment until decades later. (His father had achieved the second of the three levels, the juren 舉人.) Living on the cusp of change from the traditional bureaucratic system to the increasingly commercial socio-economic system, he was swimming against the tide in this aspiration. He proved, however, to be superbly effective in adapting the skills he had honed as a literatus—most particularly calligraphy—to answer and shape the tastes of the time.

Wu Changshi was without doubt an extraordinary artist—and an extraordinary individual—living in extraordinary times. Such has been said of other remarkable artists active in previous dynasties and in other locations. But there are many aspects of Wu Changshi and his era that are quite unusual and worthy of consideration. First, during his eighty-three-year lifespan, not only did the long-lived Qing dynasty (1644–1912) come to a turbulent end, but the entire dynastic system of four millennia was overthrown and a republic established (1912). The deadliest civil war in human history, the Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864) was a slaughter that, combined with the violence wrought by several other contemporary rebellions as well as the deaths caused by disease and starvation indirectly attributable to the uprisings, resulted in a population decrease of up to thirty million people.[1]This is out of an estimated population of China of 430 million people in 1850. See Peter Schran, “China’s Demographic Evolution 1850-1953 Reconsidered,” The China Quarterly, No. 75 (Sept 1978), p. 639. Another dramatic and important historical event was the Treaty of Nanjing (1842), signed at the close of the first Opium War (1839–1842). It mandated that China be open to foreign trade on a much grander scale than had previously been the case. This particularly impacted Shanghai. We can think of these matters as effecting a major upheaval of physical circumstances as well as of the socio-economic framework: the land itself was wounded by fighting; the human constructions on that land laid waste in some areas, while “colonized” by diverse imported architectural styles in others; and the structure of the regional government and commerce, particularly the latter, reshaped. That was the framework within which a new cultural landscape coalesced. And this framework nurtured, supported, shaped, and celebrated a new manner of painting, the “Shanghai school.”

The Shanghai school was not a formal academy or exclusive circle. Rather, it comprised a loose grouping of artists with shared painting characteristics and a shared locale: their proximity fostered cross-fertilization of ideas and painting techniques. Some artists shared similar philosophies, and many became fast friends; for example, a famous friendship existed between Wu Changshi and Ren Yi 任頤 (Ren Bonian 任伯年, 1840–1895), another great Shanghai master. There are numerous paintings created by two or more Shanghai school artists, mostly for pleasure or as a performance for collectors. But more notable than this, these artists liked to paint portraits of one another. For example, Ren Yi painted at least five portraits of Wu Changshi during the short span between 1883 and 1888. This was part of a general shift in attitude toward portraiture catalyzed by the same factors driving change in Shanghai—contact with the West and the rise of commerce—which resulted not only in a redefinition of social status and socio-economic relations but also the availability of new printing techniques and the mixing of visual modes: photographic portraiture, vernacular and elite painting styles, foreign imagery, and so on.[2]See “Portrait and Position in Nineteenth Century Shanghai,” in Vinograd, Richard Ellis. Boundaries of the Self: Chinese Portraits, 1600–1900. (Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 127–55.

The advent of photography affords us a more concrete image of artists and their milieu than ever before. Not only were there a number of painted portraits of Wu Changshi, but there were also quite a few photographic portraits capturing him at different ages and in different roles. Photographs that go beyond the posed, single-figure studio portrait can be particularly enlightening. For example, while there is much evidence that Wu Changshi had Japanese patrons, students, and artist friends, we can be absolutely certain of it thanks to extant photographs of them together. Furthermore, Wu Changshi’s home still stands in Shanghai: we can see how he would have lived from photographs and from diagrams of the layout inside the house. And photographs are invaluable for their ready ability to bring the general milieu of Shanghai to life.

In concert with this availability of visual representations, we also have a greater quantity of more personal anecdotal information about artists, likely enabled by new, cheaper printing methods. A prime example of this is the fifty-seven-page biography, Wu Changshi 吳昌碩 (1963), written by Wu Changshi’s son, Wu Dongmai 吳東邁 (1885–1963). Furthermore, because of Wu Changshi’s closeness to us in time, there were until recently a number of people who still remembered the artist vividly. It is a rare privilege to be able to gain such first-hand information regarding a great historical figure such as Wu Changshi. Many such memories were recorded, before they faded or were lost, by the scholar Kuiyi Shen as he researched his doctoral dissertation.[3]Shen, Kuiyi. “Wu Changshi and the Shanghai Art World in the Late Eighteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.” (PhD diss., Ohio State University, 2000.)

And finally, as a concrete record of the location of particular artists, the growing number of artists’ societies kept records of their membership and activities. There was a marked growth of such societies after 1911, the year Wu Changshi moved from Suzhou to Shanghai. Chia-ling Yang has noted that in the first three decades of the twentieth century, there were twenty-one artists’ societies in that city, ten of which focused on epigraphy as well as calligraphy and painting.[4]Yang, Chia-Ling. “Power, identity and antiquarian approaches in modern Chinese art.” Journal of Art Historiography, no. 10 (June 2014): [separately paginated], p. 6. In 1913 Wu Changshi was elected president of the Xiling Yinshe 西泠印社 (Xiling Society of Seal Arts) in Hangzhou. He had been a founding member of this, the premier association of seal carvers and epigraphers. In addition, he became president of the important Shanghai Tijinguan Calligraphers and Painters Association 海上題襟館金石書畫會 (Haishang tijinguan jinshi shuhua hui) in 1915.[5]Ibid., p. 7 To be recognized thus indicates that Wu Changshi was considered the most important figure in the field of epigraphy and the most important painter, calligrapher, and seal carver in Shanghai.


“The branches are messy and overflowing, but please do not chop off the vines!”

Wu Changshi was educated deeply in the classics and was a superior scholar of epigraphy. The changing times forced him to adapt: he produced paintings that would generate a wide appeal and yet draw accolades from the most knowing of his peers. He did this through subtle means, not showing all but revealing enough so that his audience could grasp the whole. Wu Changshi’s method of adapting epigraphic brushwork to paint popular subjects was revolutionary; the exuberance we feel in the painting Wisteria brought joy to the flower painting genre; and the extent of the picture plane that is invisible yet palpable always added a frisson of interest.

Contemporaries recognized Wu Changshi’s unparalleled talent as the author of an impressive oeuvre in poetry, calligraphy, and seal carving as well as painting. Because of this, he held leadership positions in the organizations most important to his field. As we look back with a broad vision of his place in art history, the extent to which he brought important changes to the arts is absolutely clear. Back in his hometown of Anji, he had aimed for the kind of success his father had achieved on a small scale as a traditional literatus. Wrenched by circumstance from that purpose, his nascent creative strength was unfettered and encouraged by his displacement to the growing metropolis of Shanghai. He was a man of native talent and of a temperament fortuitously suited to his time and place.


This essay is an abridged excerpt from Modern Ink: The Art of Wu Changshi by Britta Erickson, and Craig L Yee (The Mozhai Foundation and University of Hawai’i Press, April 2018). Reprinted with permission. This volume, the third in the Mozhai Foundation’s Modern Ink series, presents outstanding examples of Wu Changshi’s calligraphy and paintings, illustrated in full color, along with scholarly discussions of his important contribution to the development of ink painting in the modern world.

Modern Ink series editor and co-author of Modern Ink: The Art of Qi Baishi Britta Erickson, PhD, is an independent scholar and curator. She now serves as artistic director at INK Studio, a Beijing gallery devoted to contemporary ink artists. Her current projects include the production of a film series, The Enduring Passion for Ink.

Notes   [ + ]

1. This is out of an estimated population of China of 430 million people in 1850. See Peter Schran, “China’s Demographic Evolution 1850-1953 Reconsidered,” The China Quarterly, No. 75 (Sept 1978), p. 639.
2. See “Portrait and Position in Nineteenth Century Shanghai,” in Vinograd, Richard Ellis. Boundaries of the Self: Chinese Portraits, 1600–1900. (Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 127–55.
3. Shen, Kuiyi. “Wu Changshi and the Shanghai Art World in the Late Eighteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.” (PhD diss., Ohio State University, 2000.)
4. Yang, Chia-Ling. “Power, identity and antiquarian approaches in modern Chinese art.” Journal of Art Historiography, no. 10 (June 2014): [separately paginated], p. 6.
5. Ibid., p. 7