How the Grief of Losing Loved One Led to the Birth of the Celebrated ‘Falling Flowers’ Poems

It’s not easy to get over the loss of your loved ones. Some people may find their comfort in friends and family, while for literary giants, they turn the grief into masterpieces loaded with deep emotions. Their works can even offer consolation to broken hearts of the modern day. One example is the Ming dynasty painter, calligrapher and poet Shen Zhou (1427-1509).

Self-Portrait of Shen Zhou at age 80. Palace Museum, Beijing

Shen Zhou was a leading member of a group of scholar-artists later known as the Wu school (after Wu district). Born in a wealthy family in Jiangsu province, China, Shen Zhou received artistic training in poetry, painting and calligraphy. Together with Wen Zhengming (1470-1559), Tang Yin (1470-1523) and Qiu Ying (c.1494-c.1552), Shen Zhou was one of the Four Masters of the Ming dynasty.

Shen Zhou’s Poems on Falling Flowers in Running Script

Shen Zhou’s Poems on Falling Flowers in Running Script

Shortly after the Mid-Autumn Festival in 1502, then aged 76, Shen Zhou suffered the loss of his son. By late spring of the following year, having gradually recovered from his grieving, he wrote a set of ten poems on the theme of falling flowers, perhaps inspired by their occurrence in nature seeing their colours or because he was then able to allow his feelings of sadness to be expressed.

Shen Zhou’s Poems on Falling Flowers in Running Script

These lines inspired a poetic exchange with Zhou’s peers, Wen Zhengming and Xu Zhenqing (1479-1511) who each composed more poems in response to the content and rhyming scheme of Shen’s poems. After reading their compositions, Shen Zhou was inspired to compose ten more poems in response to them.

In 1505, Wen Zhengming called upon the high minister Lu Chang in Nanjing and presented him with Shen Zhou’s original verses, to which Lu composed ten poems in response. Very pleased, Shen Zhou in turn composed ten new poems in response to Lu. Later, Tang Yin (1470-1524) wrote thirty poems using Shen Zhou’s rhyme scheme. The creation and exchange of these poems on falling flowers, 90 in all, by what is known as the Wu School literati artists, would become a celebrated story in the study of Chinese calligraphy and literature.

Shen Zhou’s Poems on Falling Flowers in Running Script is a calligraphic rendition of the ten original poems on falling flowers as well as three of the poems that he wrote in response to Wen Zhengming and Xu Zhenqing.

This scroll is one of the finest examples extant of Shen Zhou’s writing in the style of Huang Tingjian. Every stroke confident and crisp, the characters are tilted but linked in a continuous and steady flow of energy. It will be offered at Sotheby's Fine Classical Chinese Painting & Calligraphy in New York.

Shen Zhou (1427-1509). Poems on Falling Flowers in Running Script
Ink on paper, handscroll

Lot no.: 1168
Size: 28.5 x 286cm

  • Yuanjin temple collection.
  • Wu Dacheng collection.
  • Wu Hufan collection.
  • Yu-te tang collection.

Estimate: US$1,200,000 - 1,800,000

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Chen Hongshou (1598-1652). Lotus and Rock
Ink and colour on silk, hanging scroll

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Size: 119.4 x 46.4cm
Zhang Daqian (Chang Dai-chien) collection.
Estimate: US$1,000,000 - 1,500,000

Zhang Daqian (1899-1983). Scholar’s Boat Passing Lofty Mountains

Lot no.: 1135
Size: 44.5 x 90.8cm
Consignor received the painting directly from the artist.
Estimate: US$300,000 - 500,000

Ding Yanyong (1902-1978). Eight Immortals
Ink and colour on paper, hanging scroll

Lot no.: 1142
Size: 136.5 x 69.2cm
Acquired directly from the artist.
Estimate: US$30,000 - 40,000

Guan Liang (1899-1986). Characters From "Dream of the Red Chamber"
Lot no.: 1146

Size: 94.2 x 49.5cm
Sotheby's New York, Fine Classical Chinese Paintings & Calligraphy, September 18, 2014, lot 894
Estimate: US$30,000 - 50,000

Auction details

Auction house: Sotheby’s New York
Sale: Fine Classical Chinese Painting & Calligraphy
Lots offered: 116 (lot 1101-1216)
14-15, 18-21 March 2019|10am - 5pm
16-17 March 2019|10am - 6pm
Auction date: 22 March 2019|10am