Poem Written in a Boat on the Wu River

Artist: Mi Fu (Chinese, 1052–1107)

Period: Northern Song dynasty (960–1127)

Date: ca. 1095

Culture: China

Medium: Handscroll; ink on paper

Dimensions: 12 1/4 in. × 18 ft. 3 1/4 in. (31.1 × 556.9 cm)

Classification: Calligraphy

Credit Line: Gift of John M. Crawford Jr., in honor of Professor Wen Fong, 1984

Accession Number: 1984.174


In Manual on Calligraphy, Sun Guoting (648?–703?) states 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 late Northern Song calligrapher.

Mi created Poem Written in a Boat on the Wu River 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, as well as the amount of ink used vary dramatically from column to column. His aim was not to form perfect individual characters; instead, he entrusted his writing to the force of the brush—giving full rein to idiosyncratic brush movements, collapsing and distorting the forms of the characters for the sake of expressiveness. Su Shi (1036–1101) described Mi's writing style as a "sailboat in a gust of wind, or a warhorse charging into battle."