Xu Wei - A Famous Ming Chinese Painter, Poet and Dramatist
Xu Wei (Chinese: 徐渭; 1521—1593) was a Ming Chinese painter, poet and dramatist famed for his artistic expressiveness. Revolutionary for its time, his painting style influenced and inspired countless subsequent painters, such as Zhu Da, the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou, and the modern masters Wu Changshuo and Qi Baishi, who 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，为青藤磨墨理纸). 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 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 Wenchang (文长). His various pen names were The Mountain-man of the Heavenly Pond (天池山人), Resident of the Green Vine House (青藤居士) and The Water and Moon of the Bureau's Farm (署田水月). Born in Shanying district (now Shaoxing in Zhejiang Province), Xu was raised by a single mother who died when he was 14. At 21, he married Pan-shi (潘氏), who died five years later. Xu attempted to pass the civil service examinations eight times, although he never succeeded. Nevertheless, Xu was employed by General Hu Zongxian (胡宗宪), Supreme Commander of the Jiangsu-Zhejiang-Fujian coastal defense against the wokou (倭寇) Japanese pirates.
After General Hu was arrested and lost his position Xu Wei also feared a negative fate for himself. Xu became mentally distraught at this juncture, attempting to commit suicide nine times, such as by axeing himself in the skull and drilling both of his ears. His mental imbalance no doubt led to his killing of his wife Zhang-shi (张氏) after becoming paranoid that she was having an affair. As a punishment for committing this murder, he was jailed for seven years until his friend Zhang Yuanbian (张元忭) from the Hanlin Imperial 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.
In addition Xu was a relatively unknown playwright, authoring the following four plays: The Heroine Mulan Goes to War in Her Father's Place (雌木兰): describes Hua Mulan, A Female Degree Holder (女状元): The Adventures of the Intelligent Huang Chongjia (黄崇嘏), The History of the Mad Drum (狂鼓史): crimes of Cao Cao, and A Zen Master's Dream of the Land of Green Jade (翠乡梦): a Buddhist story. Interestingly, Xu's dramatic efforts often deal with women's themes and Xu can be regarded as something of an early women's rights advocate.
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 practised, 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 1600s 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 by Xu Wei can be seen as the quintessential “scholar in cotton clothes” or buyi wenren, 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 1500s and early 1600s and attached themselves to successful officials or became independent in late Ming China.