Read the private letters of Suzhou Wu School artists

A collection of private letters of Suzhou Wu School artists is on display at the Shanghai Museum.
Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

A letter from Tang Yin (1470-1523) to Shi Jingting. Tang is one of the most notable painters and poets of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

In ancient China, letters were often compared to koi fish, messenger birds or rosy clouds as a way of expressing feelings between families and friends. In the era before the Internet, letters as a form of communication played an important role in people's lives.

A collection of well-kept private letters of Suzhou Wu School artists is on display at the Shanghai Museum, featuring 49 letters of many famous Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) scholars and painters whose calligraphy works represent the best of the Wu School.

Wu is the ancient name of Suzhou and its surrounding areas. The Wu School refers to the painting and calligraphy style originated from the Wu region during the mid-Ming era, represented by Wen Zhengming, Shen Zhou and Wang Chong.

A Wu School painting is characterized by inscriptions describing the painting, the date, the style or the reason for the work, which is usually seen as a genre for personal expression.

The letters on show are largely divided into two categories — private letters and artistic letters. Most of the private letters were written by scholars to their families concerning daily affairs, such as reporting their whereabouts and asking about the health of family members, from which people of today will get an insight into the daily lives way back in the Ming Dynasty.

In contrast to the ordinary family letters, the artistic letters among the Wu scholars were more formal in the choice of words, and more exquisitely mounted and framed.

Some of the letters were more like a competition between the two sides, in which they not only exchanged their opinions on books, but also showed the art forms they had recently mastered, such as seal carving, painting or a new style of calligraphy.

To provide a better understanding and appreciation of the Ming Dynasty arts and culture, Shanghai Museum will also publish a book featuring copies of all the 82 private letters of Wu School artists, including the ones on display.

Exhibition details

Date: Through October 22, 9am-5pm

Venue: 4/F, Shanghai Museum

Address: 201 People’s Ave

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

A letter from Wang Ao to Mao Cheng

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

A letter from Chen Yuansu to Qingxia

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