Signatures and Inscriptions of the Song Literati

Sammy Lee Seminar

When Su Shi’s (1037–1101) attributed painting Old Tree, Rock, and Bamboo emerged into the public eye last year after decades of being hidden from sight it attracted a torrent of renewed scrutiny. Predictably, much attention landed on the scroll’s seals and inscriptions, as scholars attempted to resolve questions of authenticity, authorship, and provenance. Somewhat lost in the debate was the opportunity the scroll provides to consider the broader and more intriguing issue of inscriptive practices among the Song literati. In the field of literary studies, tiba 題跋, “inscriptions,” have recently gained interest as a genre, but regarding them only as texts decidedly limits our perspective on how tiba functioned as integral elements within a system of communication that was centered on the visual and material. Our working premise is that recognition of the self-expressive capabilities of the visual extended to the markings eleventh century literati artists and their audiences added to the primary image. Beginning with Old Tree, Rock, and Bamboo before moving on to other examples of painting and calligraphy by literati artists active in the late Northern Song, we will examine closely the roles signatures, seals, and inscriptions played in the dialogue between maker and viewer.

Suggested Reading
Sturman, Peter C. “Su Shi Renders No Emotion,” The Journal of Chinese Literature and Culture 6:1 (April 2019), 15-55.

Peter Charles Sturman PhD, Yale University (1989), is professor of Chinese art history in the History of Art and Architecture Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research interests center on literati culture of the Northern Song and its immediate aftermath, though he has published widely on text-image relationships in China from the premodern to the present. He is the author of Mi Fu: Style and the Art of Calligraphy in Northern Song China (Yale University Press, 1997) and co-editor of The Artful Recluse: Painting, Poetry, and Politics in 17th-Century China (The Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 2012), winner of the Alfred H. Barr Jr. Award for museum scholarship. Current projects include a book on the development of literati painting in the late Northern Song, provisionally titled Form and Shadow: Painting and the Literary Mind in Song Dynasty China, and collaborative books on Tang dynasty writings on calligraphy and on the noted Ming dynasty polymath Xu Wei (1521–1593).

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Published: Friday, November 1, 2019