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(712 - 770 / Henan Province / China)

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A Song Of Painting: To General Cao Ba

You, General Cao Ba,
descendant of Cao Cao,
now live as a peasant,
a cold-door commoner.
Your ancestor's heroic age
carved out kingdoms of old,
and its cultural brilliance, its style,
still survive in your work.

To learn calligraphy
you first studied Lady Wei;
your only regret was not surpassing
the great Wang Xizhi .
You said, 'Caught up in my painting,
I give no thought to old age;
riches and rank are to me
no more than clouds floating by.'
Often summoned to court
during the Kaiyuan period,
frequently you ascended the dais
to receive the Emperor's praise.
In the Gallery of Famous Men
the noble faces were fading;
going to work with your brush
you brought back their freshness.
On the ministers' heads you repainted
their hats of office,
at the waists of the fierce generals,
their great feathered arrows.
The Duke of Bao and Duke of E--
so lifelike their hair bristles--
stand grim, bold and heroic,
as if in the midst of battle.

The late Emperor's imperial horse,
Jade-Flower Dapple,
had been painted by artist after artist,
but none could capture his essence.
One day he was led into the courtyard
below the red steps of the palace;
standing there by the palace gates
he embodied the wind of the plains.
At the Emperor's command
you stretched white silk to paint on;
calling up all of your skill,
you formed the image in your mind.
In a flash, from the nine-fold heavens,
the true 'dragon' emerged!
At one stroke, the horse paintings of ages
were obliterated.
When the painting was taken up
and hung above the throne,
the horse on the wall and that in the yard
gazed proudly into each other's face.
Smiling, the Emperor hastened his aide
to bring a handsome reward;
stable-boys and grooms stood long-faced,
jealous of His Majesty's favor.

Your pupil Han Gan was long since
shown all your techniques;
he too can paint horses,
horses in every stance imaginable,
but Gan paints only the outer flesh,
not the strength that lies beneath;
his brush would dampen the spirit
of legendary Hualiu!

The General is a superb painter
because he captures the essence.
In the past you often rendered
likenesses of distinguished men;
in the present troubled times,
uprooted and homeless,
you are reduced to painting portraits
of humble passersby.

So desperate are your straits, you put up
with the snubs of commoners--
never in the world
has anyone been as poor as you!
But look at the lives of famous men
throughout history--
they too were forced to deal
with endless frustrations

Submitted: Thursday, April 08, 2010
Edited: Monday, May 09, 2011


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