Wu Changshuo. Life, Painting, and Sentiments of a Nostalgic Artist in Changing Times

Term Paper, 2013

20 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Wu Changshuo

Life, Painting, and Sentiments of a Nostalgic Artist in Changing Times


Being established as one of the most influential artists of the Shanghai School, Wu Changshuo’s life and work have been investigated on several accounts, each adding more to the picture of the highly unorthodox painter, whose focus on self-expression stood above all other aesthetical issues. The aim of this study is therefore not to try and add more details to his story, but to introduce Wu Changshuo specifically as a painter – though his painting was least appreciated by himself[1] – and to show that underneath the quite modern style typical of the Shanghai School there was still an orthodox painter, clinging to literati ideals of long gone dynasties. I will also show thatthe actual Wu Changshuo – the painter and the person – can be seen in his landscapes rather than in his multitudinous paintings of flowers and fruits.


Wu Changshuo吳昌碩was born in 1844 in the village of Zhangwu鄣吳, Zhejiang浙江 province.[2] He was born into a time of turmoil, two years after the end of the First Opium War, after which Shanghai had been opened to Western traders through the treaty of Nanjing.[3] In spite of his family being rather poor, all male members managed to achieve an education, enough so to be called literati[4]. In this setting he was pushed to strive for the same idelsas his father and thus indulged in scholarship from an early age. Also influenced by his father, he began to practice the art of seal carving around the age of eleven[5].

Personal disaster struck his family in the spring of 1860 when the Taiping rebellion reached their home of Zhangwu after about ten years of social upheaval and violent conflicts between the Taiping rebels and the Chinese government. During the rebels’ passing through Zhangwu, Wu’s family was scattered, seven members lost their lives and he and his father were forced to escape into the wild. They roamed around for about five years before returning to their village, which had lost 4,000 inhabitants and harbored only 25 survivors.[6]

One year after the Taiping rebellion was overcome by the Chinese government, in 1865, Wu Changshuo and his father moved to Anchengzhen安城鎮. In the same year he took the civil service examination and achieved the qualification of xiucai 秀才[7].

More importantly, Wu spent the years between 1872 and 1887 in the region of Hangzhou 杭州 and Suzhou 蘇州. It was there that he met illustrious Confucian scholars such as Yu Yue (1821-1906) and Yang Xian (1819-97)[8] and came into contact with artists and art collectors such as Gao Yong 高邕 (1850-1921) through whom he got to see paintings by Zhu Da 朱耷 (~1626-1705) and Shitao石濤 (1642-1707).[9] Numerous writings about paintings by these masters were found in his assets and serve as evidence for the fact that he had seen them.[10] Another important acquaintance he made during that time was Ren Yi任頤 (1840-1896), who can be seen as the major motivator behind Wu Changshuo’s painting. He urged Wu to pick up painting as an additional art form and said to him: “In the future, you will achieve fame in painting. […] Even at this point, your brush and ink already surpass mine.” Ren presumably already said this after Wu’s first few brushstrokes.[11]

In spite of his reputation as a seal carver and poet among his friends, his time during his stay in Hangzhou and Suzhou was not an easy one. There were no immediate threats by spreading violence as in the 1850s and 60s. However, his family of four could barely live off his seal carving and calligraphy[12], nor had his low position in official administration any financial impact on their lives worth mentioning.[13] Therefore, he left the area in October 1887 to go to Shanghai. At the time, Shanghai’s art scene was bustling with famous names amongst which Wu’s own circle would after a while include painters such as Zhang Xiong (1803-1886), Hu Yuan (1823-1886), Yang Borun楊伯潤 (1837–1911), and the aforementioned Ren Yi.[14] In the light of Ren Yi’s anticipation of Wu’s painting career and the fact that Wu would eventually achieve fame through painting it is worth noting that Wu called his studio in Shanghai QuzhunSuiyuan 去駐隨緣, meaning “abandon your stay and follow your fate”. When in 1894 due to his medical condition he had to reduce his seal carving, he focused his artistic energy on calligraphy and painting while also becoming more active as an official of low rank.[15]

When the First Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1894, Wu joined the Chinese army under the command of Wu Dacheng吳大澄 (1835-1902). In 1895, however, he returned home under the pretext of his sick mother. This is noteworthy as a station in his life because Wu Dachengwas not only a significant politician but also an educated scholar, artist, and art collector. He influenced Wu Changshuo in terms of his seal script as well as a fountain of inspiration, as it is likely that he saw Wu Dacheng’s collection of art.[16]

After the war and his involuntary renunciation of seal carving, he started taking painting more seriously[17] and regularly practiced and discussed it with Ren Yi, who was not only another famous figure of the Shanghai School, but also a close friend of Wu Changshuo’s until his death in 1895. He must therefore be seen not only as the main motivation for Wu to pursue the art of painting but also a major influence throughout a period of around sixteen years.[18]

During the period from 1904 until his death in 1927 China went through political turmoil, most of which did not reach or affect Wu Changshuo directly. In one of his poems he even speaks of his increasing deafness in a way that can easily be interpreted as his will to stay out of political matters:


[1] Lee (1999), p. 129.

[2] This short biography is based on the the following accounts: Lee (1999), pp. 32-67, Kuo (1998), pp. 80-93, and Yang (2010), pp. 73-78. This shall only serve as a summary of said studies, because I do not attempt to add to Wu’s biography, but rather include it as context for his art. Since Lee Joohyun’s work is in German, I should note that his biography in turn is based on works by Wang Jiacheng, NieZhengfu, Wu Changye, and Ding Xiyuan. Lee (1999), p. 32, n65.

[3] Gernet (1996), p. 540.

[4] Lee (1993), p. 98.

[5] Different accounts state different starting points for his seal carving. However, these differences might stem from the difference between the Chinese sui and the western way of telling age. Lee (1999), p. 33, Lee (1993), p. 98.

[6] Lee (1993), p. 99; Lee (1999), p. 34-36.

[7] Lee (1999), p. 37.

[8] Lee (1993), p. 99.

[9] Lee (1999), p. 41.

[10] Ibid., p. 60.

[11] Chou & Brown (1992), p. 274. For a short discussion of this encounter, see Andrews &Shen (1998), pp. 93-94, n4.

[12] Lee (1999), p. 48.

[13] This is also strikingly illustrated in Ren Yi’s portrait of Wu titled “Portrait of the Shabby Official” [Fig. 1], a hanging scroll, painted in 1888, printed in Andrews &Shen (2012), p. 13 & Yang (2010), p. 61.

[14] Chou & Brown (1992), p. 274; Andrews &Shen (1998), p. 81.

[15] Lee (1999), pp. 50, 56. Apparently, his shoulders were increasingly causing him pain from 1890 onwards, which is mirrored in a declining number of seals he carved.

[16] Ibid., p. 53, n139.

[17] Or, as he himself put it: 三十學詩, 五十學畫 “When I was thirty years old I studied poetry, when I was fifty years old I studied painting.” Clearly, he painted before the age of 50. Lee (1999), p. 59.

[18] Lee (1999), p. 59, n157.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Wu Changshuo. Life, Painting, and Sentiments of a Nostalgic Artist in Changing Times
School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
Late Imperial and Contemporary Arts of China
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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4431 KB
China, Chinese, Chinese Painting, Art, Wu Changshuo, Wu Changshi, Wu Ch'ang-shih, Wu Ch'ang-shuo, Nostalgia, nostalgic, Qing Dynasty, Republican Period, culture, cultural, artistic, modern
Quote paper
Tony Buchwald (Author), 2013, Wu Changshuo. Life, Painting, and Sentiments of a Nostalgic Artist in Changing Times, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/274526


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