Fiery Battles and Pure Wanderings: Illustrating the ‘Eulogies of the Red Cliff’
Depictions of Su Shih’s “Ode to the Red Cliff “(ch’ih pi fu 赤壁賦), “Remembering the Red Cliff” to the tune of Nien Nu-chiao (ch’ih pi huai ku 赤壁懷古), and other literary works written in commemoration of the famous Three Kingdoms battle site are generally referred to as Illustrations of the Red Cliff (ch’ih pi t’u 赤壁圖). Such illustrations became a prominent painting theme in the Southern Sung. Over the subsequent centuries, Chinese painters repeatedly returned to the theme of the Red Cliff, producing countless works upon which poets in turn inscribed their praises. Literary verses on the Red Cliff, painted depictions of these verses, and inscriptions on these paintings together form a creative chain that presents a multi-facetted pattern of at times parallel, interrelated, and/or deviating images and words.
The present essay is divided into three sections. The first examines the development of Red Cliff paintings, the forms of which can be divided into two types – narrative and landscape depictions. Landscape illustrations, which compose the dominant group, in the beginning tended to follow Su Shih’s text quite closely, speculating at the image conveyed by his words. In later period, the theme gradually began to develop in independent directions, as painters placed more importance on presenting their own individual styles. The arrangement of time and space in these later works tends to reflect the contemporary surroundings of the painter. This is especially true of the works of the Ming dynasty Wu school, based in Soochow, which are imbued with the characteristics of the Chiang-nan environment and replete with the flavor of literati wanderings among mountains and streams. The second section of the paper deals with the thematic content, or literary direction, of Red Cliff illustrations. It divides the words into three literary categories: those that emphasize famous personalities, specifically Su Tung-p’o and, to a lesser exent, Ts’ao Ts’ao and Chou Yü; those that recall the history of the Three Kingdoms, condemning Ts’ao Ts’ao and honoring K’ung-ming, to the effect of “Spirit Wanderings in Old Kingdoms” (ku kuo shen yu 故國神遊); and those that use painting for lyric effect, lamenting the rise and fall of “the past, today just a dream” (ku chin ju meng 古今如夢). The essay concludes with a discussion of the concepts of “history’s tracks” (li-shih ch’en chi 歷史陳蹟) and “wandering in the lands of old” (ku ti ch’ung yu 故地重遊), as they pertain to both the cultural meanings presented through depictions of the Red Cliff and the symbolism of the site as it has developed over time.
The National Palace Museum Research Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Summer 2001), pp. 63-102.