A Scroll of Chen Xianzhang Greatest Lesson

An article published by Dr. John Stucky in a spring 2016 issue of the “Lotus Leaves” discussed the story and the meaning of the Chinese antique hanging scroll, which is stored in the Department of Chinese Art of the Asian Art Museum. The article was written by a man, who, admiring to the editor’s remark, “has been obsessed with Chinese philosophy, Taoism & Chinese Buddhism, and Chinese poetry and painting/calligraphy since high school” (15). John Stucky, Director of the C. Laan Chun Library at the Asian Art Museum, offers both a small study and profound meditation on the history of Chinese calligraphy masterpiece and its author. He is talking about “After the Rain” (“Song of the Morning”) calligraphy by Chen Xianzhang (1428-1500).

The article also includes a short biography of Chen Xianzhang – Ming neo-Confucian philosopher, educator, poet, and calligrapher, whose poems continues in the Chinese literary tradition. The poet came from the village of Baisha – the name of his native village became his nickname. Chen Xianzhang was one of the first neo-Confucian philosophers of Ming period, distinguished by the depth of his ideas and opinions. A follower of Taoism, he also was a teacher who had an enormous number of followers. However, Chen Xianchang prefers privacy, leading remote life and enjoying the surrounding nature. Alone with nature, he could well improve his poetic gift and talent of a calligrapher. As a visioner, fulfilled with emotions, Chen Xianchange periodically received deepest spiritual insights, as if Heaven spoke to him through his poetry. An example of such illuminated clarity is a brief but expressive poem “After the Rain”.

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In the museum collection there are also other exhibits related to the work of Chen Xianzhang: for example, it is owned by his brush Four-line poem on bamboo in cursive script, and a Poem in a wild-cursive script by the monk Pomen. Therefore, Stucky compares the selection and disclosure of the theme, style of writing, the ability to control brush (the scroll by the monk Pomen done with a conventional brush, Xianzhang allegedly used a cane or a tuft of grass), and most importantly – a sense of unity with the world, which is experiencing both monk Pomen, and Chen Xianzhang. However, as noted by John Stucky, “After the Rain” script is “truly displays Chen`s masterful hand” – and so it becomes the center of the publication.

Calligrapher’s work adds to the Chinese poetry sensuality and expressiveness, on a subconscious level. For a Western man who used to express his thoughts linear chain of letters, such integrity of a text and form can be unexpected. The viewer who is not familiar with the text of the poem will perceive Chinese manuscript as a certain pattern of abstract art, seeing in ancient hieroglyphics symbols, pictograms underlying archaic writing. Accordingly, the picture can be just contemplating or already knowing the content; you can contemplate and imbued with its spirit.

John Stucky offers to his reader a precise and accurate translation of the poem “After the Rain”. The 25 hieroglyphs, each of which is a meaningful sign, makes more meaningful a description of the landscape, but at the same time, the style of writing is a description of the internal state of the author. Bad weather has subsided, the world after the storm is gradually returning to the peaceful state and filled with joy. Bright, shiny day – and everyone rejoices.

The mood, which is expressed in this poem, give, according to the John Stucky conclusions, “a single greatest lesson: to be open to everything” (14). It is worth to remember that at the heart of Chinese calligraphy lies the observation of nature and the admiration of its perfection.

The feeling of admiration for the beauty of a resurrected world, which is incorporated in the lines of poetry, calligraphy master amplifies, using the expressive means. Sprawling handwriting, which he chose to write a poem (an “extreme form of wild cursive”, as noted by John Stucky) perfectly conveys the recent noisy gusts, as well as the confusion of the soul (“almost collapse”, Stucky noticed). This manner of writing, according to the author, probably associated with Taoist or Buddhist artist, rather than a Confucian scholar. Thus Chen Xiang Zhang, as a master of calligraphy, followed a Confucian principle: to study the ancient heritage and to extend it throughout his works.

Analyzing the writing style, John Stucky also suggested that the inscription could be made not with a brush, but a reed or a tuft of grass – this is indicated by “the loose and rough or scratchy quality of the strokes” (12). The artist lived isolated at the remote area in the mountains, and when he ended his brush, reeds and grass were successfully used.

The canvas, which is stored in the Asian Art Museum Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture, could be called as a large-scale. It has 4 feet in height and over 7 feet with the mounting. The size which was selected by the author is not accidental – it is proportionate to the emotions planted in poems, and expressed calligrapher mood.


According to the John Stucky point of view, the world was for a Chen Xianzhang a source of great joy and spiritual strength. The artist graphically demonstrates it even when writing a small poem, but perfect by its form, studying “to be open to everything”.

Speaking about the Chen Xianzhang achievements and comparing the inscription of “After the Rain” with other works of the author, John Stucky comes to the conclusion that the art of poetry occupied a central place in the multifaceted work of the Chinese philosopher. This fact, as the author notes, “a silent message” (15) lets for nowadays, throughout the centuries, and it still broadcasts thoughts, pedagogical and philosophical ideas Chen Xianzhang, and his sensitive and deep feeling of a surrounding world.

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