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Xu Wei

1600 printed woodcut of the Artist

Xu Wei (Chinese: 徐渭; pinyin: Xú Wèi; Wade–Giles: Hsü Wei, 1521–1593) was a Ming dynasty Chinese painter, poet, writer and dramatist famed for his artistic expressiveness.[1] Revolutionary for its time, his painting style influenced and inspired countless subsequent painters, such as Bada Shanren, the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou, and the modern masters Wu Changshuo and Qi Baishi.[2] Qi once exclaimed in a poem that "How I wish to be born 300 years earlier so I could grind ink and prepare paper for Green Vine ( A Xu Wei pen name)" (恨不生三百年前,為青藤磨墨理紙). Xu Wei can be considered as the founder of modern painting in China. His influence continues to exert itself. Despite his posthumous recognition, Xu was manifestly mentally ill[1] and unsuccessful in life, ending his life in poverty after the murder of his third wife and several attempts at suicide.

His courtesy names were Wenqing (文清) and then later Wenchang (文長). His pseudonyms were "The Mountain-man of the Heavenly Pond" (天池山人 Tiānchí Shānrén), "Daoist of the Green Vine House" (青藤道士 Qīngténg Dàoshì) and "The Water and Moon of the Bureau's Farm" (署田水月 Shǔtián Shuǐ Yuè).[1] Born in Shanyin (山阴 - now Shaoxing in Zhejiang Province),[1] Xu was raised by a single mother who died when he was 14. At 21, he married a woman surnamed Pan (潘氏), who died five years later. Though he passed the county civil examination at age 20, Xu was never able to pass the provincial civil service examinations, even after attempting it eight times.[3] Nevertheless, Xu was employed by General Hu Zongxian (胡宗憲), Supreme Commander of the Jiangsu-Zhejiang-Fujian coastal defense against the wokou pirates.[1]

Chrysanthemums and Bamboos (菊竹图), Xu Wei, Liaoning Museum

After General Hu was arrested and lost his position, Xu Wei feared a similar fate for himself. Xu became mentally distraught at this juncture, attempting to commit suicide nine times, such as by axing himself in the skull and drilling both of his ears. His mental imbalance led to his killing of his second wife Zhang (張氏)[3] after becoming paranoid that she was having an affair. As a punishment for this murder, he was jailed for seven years[3] until his friend Zhang Yuanbian (張元忭) from the Hanlin Academy managed to free him at age of 53. It is possible Xu Wei suffered from bipolar disorder, a condition actually recognized in China at this time. Xu spent the rest of his life painting, but with little financial success. However, his paintings have been highly sought after in modern times.

Literary career

Xu was a playwright who wrote the following four plays: The Heroine Mulan Goes to War in Her Father's Place (雌木蘭 Ci Mulan): describes Hua Mulan, A Female Degree Holder (女狀元 Nüzhuangyuan): The Adventures of the Intelligent Huang Chongjia (黃崇嘏), The History of the Mad Drum (狂鼓史 Kuanggu Shi): crimes of Cao Cao, and A Zen Master's Dream of the Land of Green Jade (翠鄉夢 Cuixiang Meng): a Buddhist story. Xu's dramatic efforts often deal with women's themes and Xu can be regarded as something of an early women's rights advocate.

The British orientalist Arthur Waley, in his introduction to the 1942 translation of Jin Ping Mei argued that Xu Wei was the author but later scholars have not been convinced.[4]

Xu Wei was also a poet in shi style of considerable note. Xu's collected works in 30 chapters exists with a commentary by the late Ming writer Yuan Hongdao. Yuan Hongdao and the others of his literary movement were undoubtedly influenced by the writings of Xu. Of the various arts Xu Wei practiced, he held his calligraphy in highest esteem. Next was his poetry. A modern typeset edition of Xu Wei's collected works, Xu Wei ji, was published by the Zhonghua Publishing House in Beijing in 1983. Previously a 17th-century edition of his collected works known as the Xu Wenchang sanji was reproduced in Taiwan in 1968. In 1990 a book length study of Xu Wei concludes that Xu Wei can be seen as the quintessential “scholar in cotton clothes” or buyi wenren (布衣文人), a scholar who could not pass the civil service examination, yet became active in the realm of literature and cultural achievement. Many such individuals appeared in the late 16th and early 17th centuries and attached themselves to successful officials or became independent in late Ming China.

Grapes (葡萄), Xu Wei, Palace Museum


  1. ^ a b c d e Cihai: Page 802.
  2. ^ Barnhart: Page 232.
  3. ^ a b c Barnhart: Page 230.
  4. ^ Shizheng Wang, translated from the German of Franz Kuhn by Bernard Miall, with an Introduction by Arthur Waley. Chin P'ing Mei: The Adventurous History of Hsi Men and His Six Wives. (London: John Lane, 1942; rpr. New York, Putnam, 1947. For more details, see the article on Jin Pingmei.


  • Chaves, Jonathan. "The Columbia Book of Later Chinese Poetry." New York: Columbia University Press, 1986; pp. 310–320. First scholarly presentation of Xu as a poet.
  • Liang and Goodrich in Goodrich and Fang, Dictionary of Ming Biography 1368-1644, Columbia University Press, New York, 1976, vol. 1, pp. 609–612.
  • Bruce E. Carpenter, "Cruelty and Genius: Poems of Hsü Wei", Tezukayama University Review (Tezukayama Daigaku Ronshu), Nara, Japan, 1979, no. 26, pp. 16–36. ISSN 0385-7743
  • Yu Jianhua and Chen Sunglin, A Complete Collection of Chinese Paintings (Zhongguo huihua chuanji) Zhejiang Peoples' Art Press, 2000, vol. 15, pp. 1–51.
  • Ma Liangchun and Li Futian, Encyclopedia of Chinese Literature, vol. 7, p. 4904.
  • Shen Moujian, Encyclopedia of Chinese Artists (Zhongguo meishu jia renming cidian), Shanghai, p. 73.
  • Zhang Xinjian, A Preliminary Study of Xu Wei (Xu Wei lungao), Wenhua yishu Publishing Co., Beijing, 1990.
  • Ci hai bian ji wei yuan hui (辞海编辑委员会). Ci hai (辞海). Shanghai: Shanghai ci shu chu ban she (上海辞书出版社), 1979.
  • Barnhart, R. M. et al. (1997). Three thousand years of Chinese painting. New Haven, Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-07013-6
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