One of the most esteemed modern Chinese artists, Wu Changshuo was born on September 12, 1844, in Anji County, northwestern Zhejiang Province. During the late 1870s he began to make a living from his art. For much of his life thereafter he resided in the art centers of Suzhou (1882–87; 1896–1912) or in the nearby city of Shanghai (1887–96; 1912–27). After the founding of the republic in early 1912, Wu’s national fame began to soar, and the following year he was elected the first director of the Xiling Seal Carving Society (Xiling yinshe) in Hangzhou, as well as chairman of the Shanghai Calligraphy and Painting Association. He attracted many younger artists as his students and exerted a powerful influence on the next generation of calligraphers, seal carvers, and painters. Wu Changshuo died in Shanghai on November 29, 1927.
As a calligrapher, Wu Changshuo was particularly admired for his running script and seal script, both of which can be seen on this scroll. His seal script was based on the unique regional form of writing seen in poems inscribed on the “Stone Drums,” ten carved granite boulders dating to around the fifth century BCE. Rediscovered in the Tang dynasty around the seventh century CE, the Stone Drums have attracted considerable interest ever since among scholars and epigraphers.
Through years of study, experimentation, and practice, Wu reconstructed the ancient stone-carved script and adapted it to the more limber, expressive medium of calligraphy written on paper with brush and ink. He developed the loose, subtly exaggerated forms seen here, which are taken for granted by modern practitioners of the style. Judging from comparable dated examples, this scroll falls within Wu Changshuo’s most intense period of engagement with Stone Drum calligraphy during the last decade of his life. Brushed with smooth, even strokes; rounded corners; and dark, uniform ink, Wu’s energetic characters are not strictly symmetrical—but his writing maintains a confident, natural balance, and his artistic vigor is evident.
Wu Changshuo borrowed fourteen characters from the Stone Drum poems and rearranged them to form an original couplet of two seven-character lines, each written on a separate hanging scroll. This work is the second (or left side) of the matching pair of scrolls. Although the scroll bearing the first line is missing, over the years Wu Changshuo produced multiple versions of the same text and composition. Intact versions of the couplet supply the missing first line and show the carefully balanced interaction that the artist originally intended:
[Dashing about in your deer cart and roaming far and wide] [< missing scroll]
Drop me a note by carp and let me know you’re doing well
To the left of the main text, Wu added his signature in running script, which shows his hallmark leftward slant. Below this, he impressed two of his personal seals.
Two other inscriptions appear on the scroll. Renowned calligrapher, professor, and teacher Tai Jingnong 臺靜農 (1902–1990) wrote the first inscription in 1987, and Jiang Zhaoshen 江兆申 (1925–1996), deputy director of the Palace Museum, Taiwan, added a second inscription around the same time. Both colophons extol this example of Wu Changshuo’s calligraphy in the Stone Drum style.