Ni Zan, a native of Wuxi, Jiangsu, was one of the four leading painters of the Yuan dynasty. He was also an avid collector of ancient paintings and calligraphy and had the repository Qingbi Hall purpose-built for housing his collection.
There are eight sheets to this scroll, of which the second, third, sixth and seventh are unquestionably authentic. The second is a set of poems written for the painter Chen Zhi relating how he had endured poverty without complaint and compromise. The third, believed to be written in 1372, is a letter to Master Jiucheng requesting him to send over some pulou wine. The sixth, being undated, is a set of poems dedicated to a friend called Ye Cheng. By inference from the content, they were probably composed in 1366, or the year when Ni arrived in Songjiang from Lize as an elderly man seeking refuge from wars. The seventh, possibly written between 1359 and 1360, is a letter to Zhou Di with a newly composed poem for the latter’s perusal, which is followed by some discussion on calligraphy among other things.
Despite the sweeping dominance of Zhao Mengfu in the Yuan dynasty, individual calligraphers strove for alternative development in order to forge a style of their own. Ni was one such example. Envisioned to inform his calligraphy with the merits of the Jin-Tang tradition, he immersed himself in the style of Zhong You and made constant reference to the clerical script to arrive at a well-grounded vigour and elegance with a strong archaic appeal. In the words of Xu Wei, he was able to attain transformation through inspiration gained from Zhong You’s Jian Jizhi Biao (Memorial Recommending Jizhi). The juxtaposition of various pieces in a single scroll such as the present one contributes to a multifaceted understanding of Ni’s calligraphy which can at times be unbridled and spontaneous and at times restrained and disciplined.