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Paintings (To General Ba Cao)

Du, Fu 1 (712-770 CE)

General Ba Cao was a descendent of Emperor Wu-di of the Wei dynasty.
Now demotion has made him a commoner 2.
Although Emperor Wu-di' heroic achievements became history,
His artistic talent is preserved by Ba Cao.
Ba Cao began his study of calligraphy with Lady Wei's examples 3.
He laments that his calligraphy cannot surpass Shi-zhi Wang's.
He is so immersed in painting that he is unaware of his aging.
Wealth and power are like passing clouds to him.
During the Kai Yuan Period, Emperor Xuan-zong frequently summoned him for an interview.
Due to the emperor's favor, General Cao visited Nan-xun Palace 4 several times.
In Ling-yan Tower the paintings of meritorious statesmen had faded in color 5.
General Cao's renovations gave these paintings a new life.
The head of each great chancellor was given a "Jin-xian" Hat 6.
A quiver of long arrows with quills attached hung on the waist of every valiant general.
The Duke of Bao and the Duke of E 7 were painted so vividly that their hair seemed to flutter.
They fought bravely in bloody battles.
All the imperial painters failed to capture
The spirit of the late emperor's heavenly horse, Yu-hua-cong 8.
One day it was brought to the base of the red steps.
The horse held its head high and stood spiritedly in front of the palace door.
The emperor asked Ba Cao to unfold the white silk.
General Cao adhered to his design with painstaking effort.
In an instant the painting of the fine horse was finished.
All the horse paintings of the past paled in comparison.
The emperor hung the painting on the wall of his bedroom.
The horse on the wall and the one in front of the palace stood in the same high spirits.
The emperor smiled and urged his officials to reward Ba Cao.
The grooms and stablemen were upset
Because the horse in the painting looked better than the real one.
Gan Han, a disciple of Ba Cao, is taught the essence of Cao's artistry.
Han can paint all varieties of postures true to life.
However, "Hua-liu" 9 in his painting looks depressed
Because Han can paint only flesh, but not bones.
General Cao's paintings are elegant because his brush can capture an object's spirit.
Only after Cao met a virtuous man would he paint his portrait.
Now he drifts aimlessly during the chaos of war.
He has to paint common passersby.
Poor and frustrated, he is looked down upon by common people.
There is no one as poor and honest as Cao.
If we study ancient sages,
We will find that they all suffered endless difficulties in life.

1 Ba Cao was a talented painter and Fu Du was an accomplished poet. Both of them suffered demotion and hardship. In this poem, Fu Du expressed his indignation at the injustice of the plight of Ba Cao, himself, and all the talented artists who were suppressed and ruined by the treatment of the government. This is the reason this poem has impressed people for more than a thousand years. Dong-po Su commented, "Fu Du's poem is a painting without shape;/ Gan Han's painting is a poem without words."

2 General Ba Cao was demoted to a commoner due to his crime. His crime may have been accepting a post of the rebel troops or serving a prince who later failed to win the emperorship. In 756 CE, the rebel troops led by General Lu-shan An stormed and captured the capital. Emperor Xuan-zong fled into the west.

3 Shuo and Mao-yi were Lady Wei's first names. She was a famous calligrapher during the Eastern Jin dynasty. Xi-zhi Wang, the Father of Chinese Calligraphy, studied calligraphy under her tutelage.

4 Nan-xun Palace was an inner palace of Xing-qing Palace which was located in the southern part of Chang-an City.

5 Emperor Tai-zong ordered Painter Ben-li Yan to paint the portraits of meritorious statesmen such as Wu-ji Chang-sun and Zheng-wi. The portraits were displayed in Ling-yan (riding above mist) Tower.

6 "Jin-xian" means to promote the worthy and able. "Jin-xian" hat was the ceremonial hat an official wore when he went to the emperor's court.

7 The Duke of Bao refers to Zhi-xuan Duan whose portrait was placed in the tenth position among other portraits. The Duke of E refers to Jing-de Wei-chi whose portrait was placed in the seventh position among other portraits.

8 "Yu-hua-cong" means a horse with a green and white mottled coat. Here the term refers to one of the treasured horses Emperor Xuan-zong rode.

9 "Hua-liu" was one of Emperor Mu-wang's eight fine horses during the Zhou dynasty. The essay "Autumn Water" in Zhuang-zi says, "Qi-ji and Hua-liu ran a thousand miles a day." Later, "Hua-liu" referred to any fine horse.