Mi Fu (Chinese, 1052–1107)
Handscroll; ink on paper; 44 columns in running-cursive script
12 1/4 in. x 18 ft. 3 1/4 in. (31.1 x 557 cm)
Gift of John M. Crawford Jr., in honor of Professor Wen Fong, 1984 (1984.174)
Sun Guoting states in his Manual on Calligraphy (dated 687) that calligraphy reveals the character and expresses the emotions of the writer. Few works demonstrate this principle as clearly as this handscroll by Mi Fu, the leading calligrapher of late Northern Song.
Mi wrote Sailing on the Wu River—his longest and most dramatic large-scale calligraphy—with a suspended arm, working from the elbow rather than the wrist. The brush moved lightly with changing pressures within each stroke; the size of the individual characters, the thickness of the brushstrokes, and the amount of ink used vary dramatically from column to column. It was not his aim to form perfect individual characters; instead, he entrusted his writing to the force of the brush—giving full reign to idiosyncratic brush movements, collapsing and distorting the forms of the characters for the sake of expressiveness. Su Shi (1036–1101) likened Mi's writing to "a sailboat in a gust of wind, or a warhorse charging into battle."