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Taking pains to explain Li Keran's The Pain of Composition.

Our SERAS cover art is carefully selected: we know that pose, those knitted brows. The artist is Li Keran [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1907-89), one of twentieth-century China's artistic titans and the last great practitioner in the guohua [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or traditional ink brush style. The painting, which belongs to a private collection and probably dates from the 1980s, is titled Kuyin tu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or The Pain of Composition (fig. 1). The work plainly effuses charm and humor; it less obviously frames an involved aesthetic and metaphysical debate with the poetic voices of the past, and demonstrates the polyphony of colophon, seal, and image that defines Chinese painting at its most subtle and cohesive.

The painter or poet at his table was one of Li's favorite motifs. He painted the scene repeatedly, invariably inscribing lines that he attributed, not quite accurately, to the famous Tang poet Jia Dao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (779-843):
   I compose through the night and into the dawn,
   My toil would exhaust even gods and ghosts.
   Three years yield two lines.
   Two tears celebrate the finished work.


The last two lines indeed derive from Jia's four-line "Tishi hou" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("An Epilogue to a Poem"), (1) but the first two lines derive from Meng Jiao's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (751-814) four-line "Yegan ziqian" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("Nocturnes to Wile away my Leisure"). (2) Meng's alternate title "Kuxue yin" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("Poem on the Pains of Study") presumably inspired the title of Li's painting. Li's commentary on these lines varies only slightly from painting to painting. In this instance he comments:
   These are Jia Dao's words.
   I've always been a dimwit--what do I know about cleverness?
   All my life, though, I've revered the ancients' spirit of diligence.
   --Keran, self-encouragingly.


Li may have amalgamated the two poems for reasons of mistaken scholarship or errant memory, but more likely he sought to intensify the theme of scholarly martyrdom, as the excluded lines tend to question whether such labor is ultimately justified ("Why not release oneself / From the war of mind and body," writes Meng).

Li's brief commentary revealingly misreads the Jia-Meng poem. The cobbled lines exalt poetry by emphasizing its tormenting, inhuman difficulty (in Yeats' version of the sentiment: "Better go down upon your marrow-bones / And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones / Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather"). Li, however, reads the lines as a panegyric on diligence, interpreting consistent effort as a compensatory posture--as the necessary mode of the tortoise that competes with the hare. In keeping with this emphasis, Li punningly transforms Meng's allusion to "shen" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("god" or "spirit") into the more mundane "kuxue jingshen" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("spirit of diligence"). What does this misreading imply about Li Keran? Nearly everything, one is tempted to answer. His art does not attempt godlike or ghost-like exertion, nor does it even recognize a transcendent order that would make sense of this exertion. The subject of his art is the given world in all its immediacy and charm; his guiding notion is the amiability of the actual. He is best known for his depictions of peasant boys herding buffalo, not wearily or discontentedly (which would suggest an order of value or meaning beyond the herding of buffalo), but casually, habitually, and unmindfully (fig. 2). one feels the afternoon heat, the buzzing flies, the boys' lazy camaraderie and long silences. This artistic mode has nothing to do with the kind of superhuman labor Jia describes ("Three years yield two lines"), though it requires a certain resistance to its own mood and attention to the subtle inflection of line and form. Li's art is sometimes loftier and more ambitious, but even his black mountainscape, which soar and plunge magisterially, have a roughness of line that acknowledges the scruffiness of the earth.

The painter-poet of The Pains of Composition is far more in Li's spirit than Jia's or Meng's. The figure toils "through the night and into the dawn," but his struggle is not exactly sublime. Li represents the "war of mind and body" as a grimacing, almost literal constipation. The muddy tones, the heavily planted feet, and the hunched shoulders indicate the inescapability of the mundane, with the suggestion that the poet is just as implicated and compromised as the rest of us. The brush is optimistically cocked skyward, but the angle is off-kilter, and in any case the brush merely pokes from the grounded slump of the figure. In Li's interpretation, Jia-Meng's perplexity is not a tragedy of incomplete transcendence, but a comedy of thwarted pretence, welcoming us with its implicit fellow-feeling: we may not know the exquisite spiritual torment of the poet, but we know the frustration of a brain that won't solve a problem. In this respect, Li, for all the humility of his colophon, assimilates the great poets within his own unpretentious conception of the world and makes light of the painter-poet's drama of creation. In this respect also, Li's conceptualization of the poetic enterprise rejects the most obvious precedents in Chinese art tradition, as exemplified by Liang Kai's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (active in thirteenth century) portrait of Li Bai [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (701-62). This arch-canonical work depicts the great poet gazing heavenward in solitary contemplation, an Eastern version of the rarefied hero in Caspar David Friedrich's Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818).

Li's deflation of Jia-Meng conceivably has a political dimension. It was Li's genius to devise an aesthetic that both served and transcended political exigencies. Julia F. Andrews, the leading scholar of the post-Revolutionary politics of Chinese art, characterizes Li's balancing act:
   He managed to bring into existence a new style that satisfied both
   his own artistic aims and those of the Chinese system, while
   largely protecting his art from the vagaries of politics.... As a
   result, he was rewarded for aspects of his art that harmonized with
   party policy and, except for the early years of the Cultural
   Revolution, rarely punished for those that might not. (402-3)

Li's famous red landscapes, which illustrate Mao's poetic allusion to "ten thousand red mountains," are a signal instance of Li's gift for serving two masters; these beautiful paintings are at once orthodox and aesthetically justified in every detail. As at least a nominal communist, Li may have unconsciously reacted against the elite sentiment implicit in the Jia-Meng poem and attempted to deflate the lines upon the point of his own wry humor. The Cultural Revolutionaries trafficked in mockery, of course--the de-legitimation of public laughter and ridicule. The Pain of Composition seems to adopt a related strategy of subversion, though it possesses an entirely different order of sophistication, humanity, and wit. Nothing in this requires forgiveness. The painting is not a Maoist rectification, but a wry retort, even if it serves or respects underlying ideological considerations.

The Pain of Composition displays five seals, two of which give Li's name, three of which function as implicit commentary on the image. The three editorial seals are "Fenggao wu tantu" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("No flat road to high peaks"), "Baifa xuetong" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("White-haired student"), and "Shiniu Tang" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("Hall of Ox Teachings"). "No flat road" clearly indicates the transcendental and high-aesthetic aspiration of the Jia-Meng poem. As if metaphorizing Jia-Meng's lofty solitude, it occupies an isolated position in the lower right-hand corner of the painting; at the same time, its grounded position suggests the inescapable weight of being and signifies Li's insistent humanism or anti-transcendentalism. "White-haired student" seems to mediate between the other two seals. on the one hand, it suggests the transcendental exertion that turns youth to premature age (Shelley, in "Alastor," describes his poet's thinning hair as "sered by the autumn of strange suffering"; George Sand, in Lelia, has her poet exclaim, "Look at these grey hairs around a face where the beard has not yet grown"); on the other hand, the seal suggests the lifelong project of learning. The former implication comports with the Jia-Meng poem; the latter with Li's own ethic of diligence (interpreted this way, the seal echoes "No flat road," the low position of which suggests the long journey of learning ahead). In addition to recalling Li's signature motif of the herd-boys at work, "Hall of ox Teachings" echoes Li's allusion to his own plodding intellect ("dimwit") and epitomizes his general doctrine of consistency, determination, and practicality. By associating this doctrine with the august context of the "hall," Li humorously dignifies and sanctifies it; by placing the ox seal in the upper right-hand corner next to the painting's title, he privileges it. In conjunction, then, the seals reiterate the painting's insistence on its own homely wisdom.


If it takes an unorthodox view of the poetic spirit, The Pains of Composition is fully orthodox in the cohesive unity of its poetry, calligraphy, and image. This cohesion and unity had been an artistic ideal since the eleventh century, when literati theorists grasped an analogy between calligraphy and painting and hypothesized a shared origin, as enshrined in the adage "shu hua tong yuan" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("calligraphy and painting flow from the same spring"). The literati complemented the theory of shared origin with a theory of shared principles, as expressed in the adage "shi hua ben yi lu" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("poetry and painting abide the same law"). (3) There emerged an almost mystical conflation of poetry, calligraphy, and painting (the so-called "three perfections") indicated in the common dicta "shizhong youhua" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("painting within poetry") and "huazhong youshi" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("poetry within painting")--phrases Su Shi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1037-1101) used in praise of Wang Wei's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (701-61) poetry. (4) According to literati aesthetic principle, each medium should reflect the spirit of the other, and each painting should enact their interplay. Some painters--Zhao Mengfu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1254-1322) and Wu Chuangshuo [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1844-1927), for example--went so far as to incorporate specific calligraphic strokes in their art. This ancient body of theory explains why literati tended to function as both painters and poet-calligraphers, and why they considered these functions inseparable.

In numerous ways, The Pain of Composition conforms to traditional ideals of technical excellence and philosophical subtlety by intertwining poetry, calligraphy, and image. In the most obvious example, Li renders both his calligraphy and image in the same heavy, broken line. The calligraphic strokes exemplify the celebrated style called feibai [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (flying-white), the hallmark of which is the thick, ragged line streaked with white. The streaks give the impression of spontaneity, accident, and informality, as if the artist had taken no particular pains and the brush had moved lightly and carelessly over the paper. The same technique is employed to render the figure, the table, the candle, the writing paper, the ink stick, and the ink stone (for grinding the stick). The analogy between the calligraphy and image suggests the more basic analogy between the poet and the painter, while the feibai style impishly subverts the Jia-Meng poem's tenets of concentration and deliberation and instantiates the more casual principles of Li's aesthetic. The painting's more esoteric humor involves the incompatibility between the spirit of the poem and the spirit of the brushwork.

In addition, numerous congruities associate the calligraphy and the image. The red seals echo the red candle and the red flame. The water radical ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) in the character lei [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (tear) echoes the painter- poet's left sleeve, as well as the self-under-looping line of his right sleeve. Not incidentally, the painter-poet's brush points toward this character and toward the character of liu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (flow) just below it, as if wryly emphasizing that the literary enterprise yields more tears than text. In Jia's poem, the tears celebrate the completion of two lines; here--in humorous self-deprecation--the tears fall on a maddeningly empty page. There is arguably an additional congruity between the candle flame and the character shen [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (god or spirit) above the painter-poet's left shoulder, the latter resembling an upside-down version of the former. The parallelism ascribes a certain ritual aspect to the aesthetic implement of the candle and analogizes the artistic and religious mindsets. Furthermore, the character and candle nicely frame the upper body of the painter-poet, implying the complementarity of spirit and body and reversing the implication of Meng Jiao's lines ("Why not release oneself / From the war of mind and body"). Meng's lines assert a transcendental dialectic, a tension whose ultimate intensification yields the work of art. By contrast, Li's configuration of character and candle asserts a certain symmetry and fraternity between the poles of experience ("mind and body"), though this fraternity by no means ensures human achievement. If the Jia-Meng poem suggests that poetry requires a certain unnatural concentration, Li suggests that our normal human balance and sense of proportion is the mode of art as well as life, though it may not be sufficient for all our purposes.

The figure of the painter-poet is ambiguous; it may represent the generic literati or Jia or Li himself. The latter interpretation is perhaps the most plausible, as the empty page is consistent with Li's self-deprecation and his emphasis on effort rather than achievement. The painting's title employs the character ku [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (bitterness, pain) to characterize the anguish of the painter-poet's mental block, and the figure's expression--the glory of the painting--marvelously illustrates the sensation of ku. Moreover, the face clearly--almost explicitly--mimics the strokes of the character ku ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) in the upper-right corner of the painting (the first character of the colophon). The eyebrows correspond to the "grass" radical ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]); the nose and closed eyes correspond to the "ten" character ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]); and the moustache and beard correspond to the "mouth" character ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). The closed eyes suggest grunting, clenched effort, and the painful, difficult reversion to inner resources; they also enhance the visual echo of the "ten" character ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). This cross-media punning is a display of literati cleverness, but it also has a doctrinal point, privileging ku (pain) over yin (composition), the other word in the title. once again, Li underscores his moral commitment to the pains of diligence, irrespective of aesthetic achievement. Finally, the figure's dark, clay-like pallor, which differs from other versions of the image, suggests the flush of almost physical effort and underscores the context of the earth.

Several versions of The Pains of Composition have surfaced in recent years, differing from our cover image only in the wording of their signature lines ("Li-Keran, self-encouragingly," etc.) and in their combinations of seals. Christie's auctioned versions on October 30, 2000 ($11,351), and May 28, 2007 ($61,618), while Sotheby's auctioned versions on October 7, 2006 ($245,443), and April 5, 2009 ($149,677). (6) All four paintings are notably inferior to the version on our cover in terms of execution, which probably explains why in two of four cases they fetched such modest prices. Li Keran Huaji [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (The Collected Paintings of Li Keran) includes another version of the scene (Li 2003, 2: 307; fig. 3). As it belongs to the Li family collection, this painting, unlike those auctioned by Christie's and Sotheby's, is presumably exempt from the usual debates about authenticity. What this version of the scene lacks, most obviously, is the sense of a cohesive system of meaning. The parallelism between the calligraphy and image is spotty at best (notice for example the incongruency between the candle and the "shen" character), and the visage has little expressive personality: the nose and chin are plainly botched, and face has none of our cover painting's psychological precision or humor. The upper-right seal ("shen gui chou" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) merely repeats lines from the Jia-Meng poem ("exhaust even gods and ghosts") without adding either commentary or complication. The mediocre execution dulls or obscures the nimble interplay detailed above, and the image never quite coalesces as the eloquent voice of a philosophical position.


In their imperfection, these paintings embody the tireless, thwarted effort to get things right, and exemplify Li's philosophical point. The page remains blank though the teachings of the ox have been heeded and the hair has turned white. The spirit of diligence continues to ply its way by trial and error; the flat road continues flat. Our cover image philosophizes but does not exemplify the problem. It belies Li's dimwittedness and justifies the tears of joy.


Andrews, Julia F. 1994. Painters and politics in the People's Republic of China, 1949-1979. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: Univ. of California Press.

Li Keran [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. 2003. Li Keran huaji [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [The collected paintings of Li Keran]. Eds. Huang Daojing [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and Jia Dejiang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Beijing: Beijing Gongyi Meishu Chubanshe.

Peng Dingqiu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Shen Sanzeng [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Yang Zhongna [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], et al., eds. 1960. Vols. 11 & 17 of Quan Tang shi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [The complete collection of Tang poetry]. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju.

Su Shi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. 1971. Dongpo tiba [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [Colophons by Su Shi], Jigu Ge edition. In Song ershi mingjia tiba huibian [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [Anthology of colophons by twenty famous writers of the Song]. Taibei: Guangwen shuju.

--. 1982. Vol. 5 of Su Shi shiji [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [The collected poems of Su Shi]. Ed. Wang Wengao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju.

--. 1985. Su Shi lun wenyi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [Su Shi on the arts]. Ed. Yan Qizhong [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Beijing: Beijing chubanshe.


(1) The whole poem reads: "Three years yield two lines. / Done at last, two tears flow. / If friends don't approve / I will return and repose in the autumn of my home mountains." The poem is appended to the end of the third couplet of Jia's eight-line poem "Song Wuke shangren" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("For Monk Wuke") (Peng 1960, 6692).

(2) The whole poems reads: "I compose through the night and into the dawn, / My exertion would exhaust even gods and ghosts. / Why not release oneself / From the war of mind and body. / The humiliation of death is only a moment's pain. / The humiliation of life is enduring shame. / Pure cassia has no straight branch, / Thinking of old friends on the green river" (Peng 1960, 4203).

(3) See Su Shi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], "Shu Yanling Wang Zhubu Suohua Zhezhi Ershou" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("Two Poems on a Flower Painting by Wang Zhubu of Yanling") (Su Shi 1982, 5: 1525-6). The first of the two poems elaborates Su Shi's famous painting theory: "If one is going to discuss a painting in terms of likeness, / One might as well parade it for the neighbors' children. / To insist that poetry must be definite, / Is to know nothing about poetry."

(4) In his comments titled "Shu Mojie Lantian Yanyu Tu" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("On Wang Wei's Picture of Mist and Rain over Blue Fields"), Su Shi writes: "Savoring Wang Wei's poem, I discern the painting; viewing Wang Wei's painting, I discern the poetry" (Su Shi 1971, 5.1a).

(5) Su Shi, "Wen Yuke Hua Mozhu Pingfeng Zan" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("Assessing the Ink Bamboo Screen Painted by Wen Yuke") (Su Shi 1985, 217).

(6) See Christie's and Sotheby's websites: and (keyword: Li Keran).


University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Li-ling Hsiao and David A. Ross explore the intricacies of Li Keran's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] The Pain of Composition, which appears on the cover of this volume of SERAS, as well as below. They argue that the painting's surface charm conceals an underlying sophistication and complexity and that the painting is nothing less than an intellectual tour de force.
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Author:Hsiao, Li-Ling; Ross, David A.
Publication:Southeast Review of Asian Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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