Mi Fu

From New World Encyclopedia
Chinese: 米黻
Pinyin: Mǐ Fú
Zi: Yuán Zhāng (元章)
Also known as: Madman Mi

Mi Fu (Chinese: 米黻; pinyin: Mǐ Fú, 1051 – 1107), also known as Mi Fei (米芾), Pinyin Mi Fei, original name (Wade-Giles Romanization) Mi Fu, also called Yüan-chang, Hai-yüeh Wai-shih, or Hsiang–yang Man-shih, was a Chinese painter, poet, and calligrapher born in Taiyuan, Shanxi (太原) during the Song Dynasty (宋朝). In painting, he gained renown for his style of painting misty landscapes, the "Mi Fu" style, which involved the use of large wet dots of ink applied with a flat brush. His poetry followed the style of Li Bai (李白) and his calligraphy that of Wang Xizhi (王羲之). His uninhibited style made him disliked at the Song court. He is best known for his calligraphy, and he was regarded as one of the four greatest calligraphers in Song Dynasty. While he acquired his style by emulating other calligraphers from earlier dynasties, his style was unique and distinct.

Mi Fu was raised in the imperial court alongside the imperial family, and exhibited exceptional talent in poetry, calligraphy, and memorization. However, his eccentric behavior resulted in his being frequently moved from one official post to another. In 1081, Mi Fu met Su Shih, the great poet, calligrapher, and art theorist, and together they formed a circle of brilliant artists who emphasized personal expression over mere technical excellence. The poetry of Su Shih, the figure painting of Li Kung-lin, and the calligraphy of Mi Fu became standards against which artists would be judged for the next five hundred years.


Mountains and pines in spring

Mi Fu was born in 1051, to a family that had held high office in the early years of the Sung dynasty (960–1279). His mother was the wet nurse of the emperor Ying Tsung (reigned 1063/64–1067/68), and he was raised within the Imperial precincts, mixing freely with the Imperial family.

According to tradition, he was a very smart boy with a great interest in arts and letters and an astonishing ability to memorize. At the age of six he could learn a hundred poems a day and after going over them again, he could recite them all. He showed a precocious talent for calligraphy and painting. He disliked the formal lessons in the Confucian classics, but displayed a quick understanding of learned argument and an aptitude for poetry. His mother served the wife of the Emperor Renzong of Song (仁宗), and Mi Fu began his career as Reviser of Books in the capital of Kaifeng. In 1103, he was appointed a doctor of philosophy and was briefly military governor of Wu-wei in the province of Anhwei. He returned to the capital in 1104, as Professor of Painting and Calligraphy, and presented the Emperor with a painting by his son, I Yu-jen. He then served as Secretary to the Board of Rites, before being appointed Military Governor of Huaiyang. These frequent changes of official position were a result of Mi Fu's sharp tongue and his open criticism of official ways. He is said to have been a very capable official, but unwilling to submit to conventional rules; and he manifested a spirit of independence which caused him serious difficulties.

He died in Huaiyang, in Kiangsu Province, at the age of fifty-two, and was buried in Tan-t'u, in Kiangsu Province; his epitaph was written by Mi Yu-jen. Mi Fu was married and had five sons, of whom only the two eldest survived infancy, and eight daughters. His son, Mi Youren, also became a famous painter in his father's artistic style. Unlike his father, Mi Youren lived to be quite elderly, dying at the age of 79.

Mi Fu was noted as an eccentric. At times, he was referred to as "Madman Mi" because he was obsessed with collecting stones. He declared one stone to be his brother, and would bow to his "brother" rock in a display of the filial devotion usually given to older brothers. He also was known as a heavy drinker.

Mi Fu was very peculiar in his manners and the way he dressed. Wherever he went, he attracted a crowd. He was also very fond of cleanliness. He used to have water standing at his side when working, because he washed his face very often. He would never wash in a vessel that had been used by someone else or put on clothes that had been worn by another person.

Mi Fu's passion was collecting old writings and paintings. As his family wealth was gradually lost on relatives, he continued to collect and made every possible sacrifice to get the samples he wanted. According to one anecdote, once when Mi Fu was out in a boat with his friends, he was shown a sample of Wang Xianzhi’s writing and became so excited that he threatened to jump overboard unless the owner made him a present of it, a request which, apparently, could not be refused.

Gradually his collection became a big treasury, and his simple house a meeting place for the greatest scholars of the time. He inherited some of the calligraphies in his collection, but others were acquired. He also exchanged the poorer quality ones for better ones. He wrote: “When a man of today obtains such an old sample it seems to him as important as his life, which is ridiculous. It is in accordance with human nature, that things which satisfy the eye, when seen for a long time become boring; therefore they should be exchanged for fresh examples, which then appear double satisfying. That is the intelligent way of using pictures.”

Mi Fu was fanatical in regard to safeguarding, cleaning, and exhibiting of his pictures. He arranged his collection in two parts, one of which was kept secret or only for a few selected friends and another which could be shown to ordinary visitors.

Historical background

After the rise of the landscape painting, the creative activity which followed was of a more general kind and subject matter included both profane and religious figures, birds, flowers, and bamboo, in addition to landscapes. The painters were mostly highly intellectual scholars. To most of these men, painting was not a professional occupation but only one of the means by which they expressed their intellectual reactions to life and nature in visible symbols. Poetry and illustrative writing were in a sense even more important to them than painting, and they made their living as more or less prominent government officials if they did not depend on family wealth. Though some of them were true masters of ink-painting as well as of calligraphy, they avoided the fame and position of professional artists and became known as “gentleman-painters.” Artistic occupations such as calligraphy and painting were, to these men, activities to be done during leisure time while resting from official duties or practical occupations. The foundation of their technical mastery was training in calligraphy, which allowed them to transmit their thoughts with the same easiness in symbols of nature as in conventional characters. Their art became a very intimate kind of expression, or idea-writing as it was called in later times. The beauty of this art was closely associated with the apparent ease with which it was produced, but which could not be achieved without intense training and deep thought.

Mi Fu was one of the highly gifted gentleman-painters. He was not a poet or philosopher; nevertheless he was brilliant intellectually. His keen talent for artistic observation, together with a sense of humor and literary ability, established him prominently among Chinese art-historians; his contributions in this field are still highly valued, because they are based on what he had observed with his own eyes and not simply on what he had heard or learned from his forerunners. Mi Fu had he courage to express his own views, even when these were different from the prevailing ones or from official opinions. His notes about painting and calligraphy are of great interest to art historians, because they are spontaneous expressions of his own observations and independent ideas and help to characterize himself as well as the artists whose works he discusses.


Mi Fu calligraphy

In 1081, Mi Fei met Su Shih, the great poet, calligrapher, and art theorist. This was the beginning of the formation of a circle of brilliant artists. Other members of this group were Li Kung-lin, painter and antiquarian; Huang T'ing-chien, poet and calligrapher; and Chao Ta-nien, painter and art collector. Su Shih's cousin, the bamboo painter Wen T'ung, who had died in 1079, was also a key figure through his art and his influence on Su Shih. Out of their association came the theory and practice of wen-jen-hua, or literati painting, which has continued until the present to be the most dynamic and creative branch of painting. In place of the long-dominant view that painting was a public art, subject to public standards, scholar-painters held to the view expressed by Li Kung-lin: "I paint, as the poet sings, to give expression to my nature and emotions, and that is all."[1]

These eleventh century scholars rediscovered the T'ang poet Tu Fu, now universally regarded as "China's greatest poet," who had been largely ignored; and rescued Ku K'ai-chih and Wang Wei, the two greatest scholar-painters of earlier centuries, from obscurity and lifted them to the eminence they have ever since enjoyed. The poetry of Su Shih, the figure painting of Li Kung-lin, and the calligraphy of Mi Fei became standards against which artists would be judged for the next five hundred years.

For these scholar-artists, the personal relationships within their artistic and intellectual circle were very important. Art was nothing without personality, not in the sense of deliberate eccentricity, but as an expression and development of innate qualities such as strength of character, will, honesty, creativity, mental curiosity, and integrity. In 1060, Su Shih had written a poem comparing paintings by Wu Taotzu and Wang Wei, in which he declared that Wu Tao-tzu could finally be judged only in terms of the craft of painting, while Wang Wei, in contrast, "was basically an old poet" who "sought meaning beyond the forms."[2]

Mi Fei was highly critical of art that was technically excellent but divorced from personal expression. He described the work of the imperial academicians and professional painters, who commanded a large popular audience, as "fit only to defile the walls of a wine shop." He even accused the academy of murdering one of its members because he was too gifted and original. Mi Fei and his friends admired the "untrammeled" masters of the ninth and tenth centuries, who had broken every rule and defied every classical model in their quest for artistic freedom, but felt they were far too uncontrolled and eccentric to be emulated. Instead, they admired the "primitive" and forgotten masters of the orthodox heritage.

To Mi Fu, the brush was not only the sword of his proud spirit but a magic stick, which brought life whenever he held it in his hands to write or paint. The two arts of calligraphy and painting were to him essentially one and the same.

In painting, he gained renown for his style of painting misty landscapes. This style, deemed the "Mi Fu" style, involved the use of large wet dots of ink, described as "Mi dots," applied with a flat brush. Starting with very pale ink, he began painting on a slightly wet paper, amassing clusters of shadowed forms, then adding darker ink gradually, building up amorphous, drifting mountain silhouettes bathed in wet, cloaking mist. The style is best seen in a large hanging scroll, the Tower of the Rising Clouds. On the painting is an inscription: "Heaven sends a timely rain; clouds issue from mountains and streams."[3] His poetry followed the style of Li Bai (李白) and his calligraphy that of Wang Xizhi (王羲之). His uninhibited style made him disliked at the Song court.

Mi Fu has been admired by later critics as one of the most important representatives of the "Southern School" of landscape painting. Most of the paintings attributed to him represent a rather definite type or pictorial style which existed also in later centuries, but unfortunately it cannot be determined to what extent they are Mi Fu's own creations. The general characteristics of his style are known, but it is not possible to be sure that the paintings ascribed to him represent the rhythm and spirit of his individual brush work, as is possible with the authentic samples of his calligraphy, which still exist. Therefore, he is remembered more as a skilled calligraphist, and for his influence as a critic and writer on art, rather than as a skilled landscape painter.

Mi Fu was regarded as one of the four greatest calligraphers in Song Dynasty. His style arises from that of calligraphers in earlier dynasties, but with a unique mark of his own. He was among those for whom writing, or calligraphy, was intimately connected with the composition of poetry or sketching. It required an alertness of mind and spirit, which he thought was best achieved through the enjoyment of wine, through which he reached a state of excitement rather than drunkenness. A friend of Mi Fu, Su Shi admired him and wrote that his brush was like a sharp sword handled skillfully in fight, or a bow which could shoot an arrow a thousand li, piercing anything that might be in its way. “It was the highest perfection of the art of calligraphy,” he wrote.

Other critics claimed that only Mi Fu could imitate the style of the great calligraphists of the Six Dynasties. Mi Fu seems to have been an excellent imitator; some of these imitations were so good that they were taken for the originals. Mi Fu's son also testified that his father always kept some calligraphic masterpiece of the Tang or the Qin period in his desk as a model. At night he would place it in a box at the side of his pillow.

According to some writings, Mi Fu did most of his paintings during the last seven years of his life, and he himself wrote that “he chose as his models the most ancient masters and painted guided by his own genius and not by any teacher, and thus represented the loyal men of antiquity.”

The pictures which still pass under the name of Mi Fu represent ranges of wooded hills or cone-shaped mountain peaks rising out of layers of woolly mist. At their feet may be water, and closer towards the foreground, clusters of dark trees. One of the best known examples of this kind of Mi style is the small picture in the Palace Museum known as Spring Mountains and Pine-Trees. It is the size of a large album-leaf, but at the top of the picture is added a poem said to be by the emperor Emperor Gaozong of Song. The mountains and the trees rise above a layer of thick mist that fills the valley; they are painted in dark ink tones with a slight addition of color in a plumelike manner that hides their structure; it is the mist that is really alive. In spite of the striking contrast between the dark and the light tones, the general effect of the picture is dull, which may be the result of wear and retouching.

Among the pictures which are attributed to Mi Fu, there are apparently imitations, painted in a similar manner with a broad and soft brush. They may be from Southern Song period, or possibly from the Yuan period, when some of the leading painters freely utilized the manner of Mi for expressing their own ideas. The majority are probably from the later part of Ming period, when a cult of Mi Fu followers that viewed him as the most important representative of the "Southern School" began. Mi Fu himself had seen many imitations, perhaps even of his own works, and he saw how wealthy amateurs spent their money on great names rather than on original works of art. He wrote: “They place their pictures in brocade bags and provide them with jade rollers as if they were very wonderful treasures, but when they open them one cannot but break out into laughter.”

Mi Fu's own manner of painting has been characterized by writers who knew it through their own observation or through hearsay. It is said that he always painted on paper which had not been prepared with gum or alum (alauns); and never on silk or on the wall. In addition, he did not necessarily use the brush in painting with ink; sometimes he used paper sticks or sugar cane from which the juice had been extracted, or a calyx (kauss) of the lotus.

Though Mi Fu was principally a landscape painter, he also did portraits and figure paintings of an old fashioned type. Nevertheless, he must have spent more time studying samples of ancient calligraphy and painting than producing pictures of his own. His book on History of Painting contains practical hints as to the proper way of collecting, preserving, cleaning and mounting pictures. Mi Fu was no doubt an excellent connoisseur who recognized quality in art. In spite of his rebellious spirit, his fundamental attitude was fairly conventional. He appreciated some of the well-recognized classics among the ancient masters and had little use for any of the contemporary painters. He sometimes had difficulty in admitting the values of others, and found more pleasure in making sharp and sarcastic remarks than in expressing his thoughts in a just and balanced way.

Landscape painting was, to Mi Fu, superior to every other kind of painting; revealing his limitations and romantic flight: “The study of Buddhist paintings implies some moral advice; they are of a superior kind. Then follow the landscapes, then pictures of bamboo, trees, walls and stones, and then come pictures of flowers and grass. As to pictures of men and women, birds and animals, they are for the amusement of the gentry and do not belong to the class of pure art treasures.”


  1. Encyclopedia of World Biography, Mi Fei. Retrieved December 12, 2007
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Cooper, Rhonda and Jeffrey. 1997. Masterpieces of Chinese Art. Todtri Productions. ISBN 1577170601
  • Ledderose, Lothar. 1979. Mi Fu and the Classical Tradition of Chinese Calligraphy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691039372
  • Mi, Fu and Robert Hans van Gulik. 2006. Mi Fu on Ink-Stones. Bangkok: Orchid Press. ISBN 9745240834
  • Sturman, Peter Charles. 1997. Mi Fu Style and the Art of Calligraphy in Northern Song China. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300065698


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