“Wood and Rock” by Su Shi: All About the $60 Mn Chinese Painting

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Wood and Rock Chinese Painting by Su Shi
  • Art: “Wood and Rock”
  • Artist: Su Shi (1037- 1101)
  • Country: China
  • Year: Between 1071- 1101
  • Type: Ink on Paper
  • Style: Chinese Literati

The Wood and Rock painting is part of a scroll, which was made during the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), which was a time of great artistic revolution in China. During this period, there was a shift away from the traditional focus on religious and court art, and towards a new emphasis on literati painting.

Literati painting is a type of Chinese painting that was created by scholars and artists. It is characterized by its simplicity, elegance, and expressive power. Literati painters were often inspired by nature and by the writings of Chinese philosophers and poets.

The “Wood and Rock” scroll is a prime example of literati painting. It is a simple and understated painting that captures the beauty and mystery of nature. The painting is also a reflection of the artist’s inner thoughts and feelings.

The shift towards literati painting during the Northern Song dynasty was a major artistic revolution. It marked a new era in Chinese art, and it had a profound influence on the development of Chinese painting in the centuries that followed.

The “Wood and Rock” scroll is therefore not only a masterpiece of Chinese art, but it is also a testament to the artistic revolution that was taking place during the Northern Song dynasty.


About the Artist: Su Shi (1037- 1101)


Su Shi, also known as Su Dongpo, was a Chinese poet, writer, calligrapher, and painter during the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127). He is considered to be one of the greatest poets and artists in Chinese history.

Su Shi received a classical education, and he excelled in poetry, calligraphy, and painting. He was also a brilliant student of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism.


Su Shi’s life was influenced by a number of things, including:

His Family:

Su Shi’s parents were both highly educated and cultured people. They instilled in him a deep love of learning and appreciation for the arts.

His Education:

Su Shi’s classical education gave him a deep understanding of Chinese literature, philosophy, and history. This knowledge informed his poetry, writing, and painting.

His Travels:

Su Shi traveled extensively throughout China during his life. He visited many of the country’s most famous mountains, rivers, and lakes. His travels inspired much of his poetry and painting.

His Political Beliefs:

Su Shi was a strong advocate for social justice and political reform. His beliefs were often controversial, and he was exiled on several occasions. His political beliefs also influenced his poetry and writing.

Su Shi’s Profession:

Su Shi’s profession was scholar-official. This was a highly respected position in Chinese society during the Song dynasty. Scholar-officials were responsible for governing the country and maintaining social order. They were also expected to be well-educated and cultured.

Su Shi was a brilliant scholar and a gifted writer. He passed the imperial examinations at a young age and entered government service. He held many important positions throughout his career, including vice minister of war and governor of several provinces.

Su Shi was also a renowned poet, writer, calligrapher, and painter. He is considered to be one of the greatest poets and artists in Chinese history.

So, while Su Shi’s primary profession was scholar-official, he was also a prolific writer and artist. He was a true Renaissance man, and his legacy continues to inspire people around the world.

Su Shi was Banished Twice During His Life:

The first time was in 1080 when he was banished to Huangzhou (modern-day Hubei province). The reason for his banishment was his criticism of the New Policies of Wang Anshi, the then-prime minister of the Song dynasty. Su Shi believed that Wang Anshi’s reforms were too radical and that they would harm the people.

Su Shi spent five years in exile in Huangzhou. During this time, he wrote some of his most famous poems and essays. He also developed a deep love for the natural world, and his poetry from this period is full of evocative descriptions of the landscape.

In 1086, Su Shi was recalled from exile and returned to the capital. However, he was banished again in 1094, this time to Huizhou (modern-day Guangdong province). The reason for his second banishment was his involvement in a political scandal.

Su Shi spent six years in exile in Huizhou. During this time, he continued to write poetry and essays. He also developed a deep interest in Buddhism.

In 1100, Su Shi was pardoned and recalled from exile. He returned to the capital and served in several government positions. He died in 1101 at the age of 64.

Su Shi’s banishments were a major turning point in his life. They forced him to confront his mortality and to reconsider his priorities. During his time in exile, he developed a deeper understanding of himself and the world around him. This understanding is reflected in his poetry and writing, which are some of the most profound and moving in Chinese literature.


Now that we have a glimpse into the life of the artist, let’s talk about the artwork!


Why was the Painting Sold for a Whopping $60 Million?


If you are not already aware, this iconic painting was sold for USD 60 Million at an auction in Hong Kong, led by Christie’s. The buyer’s identity is not known. However, it was clarified by the bidder that it was bought by someone from the Greater China. Earlier, the painting was owned by a Japanese collector, and it returned to China after a very long period.

Let’s dive into why the painting received so much attention at the auction:

1) The Rarity of the Painting:

The painting is one of only a handful of known works by Su Shi, who is considered to be one of the greatest Chinese poets and artists of all time.

2) Excellent Condition of the Painting:

In addition to these factors, the fact that the scroll is in excellent condition also contributes to its high value. Chinese paintings are often delicate and prone to damage, so the fact that this scroll is over 1,000 years old and is still in such good condition is remarkable.

3) The Historical Significance of the Painting:

The painting is over 1,000 years old and is considered to be a masterpiece of Chinese calligraphy and painting. It is also one of the earliest examples of Chinese literati painting.

4) The Artistic Merit of the Painting:

The painting is highly regarded for its simplicity, elegance, and expressive power. It is also a rare example of a Chinese painting that is both aesthetically pleasing and intellectually stimulating.

5) Seals of the Collectors:

The scroll bears 41 collectors’ seals dating from the Southern Song (1127-1279), the Yuan (1271-1368), and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties. These seals are a testament to the painting’s long and distinguished provenance. They also add to the scroll’s aesthetic value, as the seals are often beautifully carved and inscribed.

6) Colophons, or Commentaries:

The scroll also bears four colophons, or commentaries, written by prominent scholars and artists over the centuries. These colophons provide valuable insights into the painting’s history and significance. They also add to the scroll’s intellectual value, as they are written by some of the most respected minds in Chinese history.

The seals of the collectors and the colophons are therefore important factors in the high value of the “Wood and Rock” scroll. They add to the scroll’s rarity, historical significance, and aesthetic appeal.

As the scroll unrolls past the painting, we find commentaries inscribed by successive generations of connoisseurs and collectors. Mi Fu (1051-1107), a close friend of Su Shi, is foremost among this illustrious roll of inscribers. Both Su and Mi rank among the four greatest calligraphers of the Song dynasty. Mi’s short verse reflects on Su’s long life, the introspection he was inclined to in his later years, and the profound value of their shared friendship. The undulating turns of Mi’s brush and his careful balance of form and rhythm make his inscription a masterpiece in its own right. Su and Mi’s deep affinity is visible in their paired examples of artistic excellence and signify a glorious monument of World Culture.


Here’s are the Rough Translations of All the Colophons of the Painting Scroll:

Su Shi scroll

1) Colophon by Liu Liangzuo:

It has been thirty years since Qiyun of Runzhou, the venerable Master Feng, resigned from his official position and followed the Way of Tao. Now in his seventies, his dark beard and hair ever glowing, he carries an elegant, calm air. As he showed me Wood and Rock by Dongpo [Su Shi], I hereby inscribe a poem for him and still invite the respectable Haiyue [Mi Fu] to respond in the same rhyme. Liu Liangzuo of Shangrao.

From ancient dreams, a rock rises from the clouds,

In vicissitude, the wood sheds its skin;

Its gnarled branches forever blessed by the heavens,

Heroically defying worldly fates.

Unrolling the scroll brings me so much joy,

For true friends are rare behind closed doors.

Such a sight exists in the garden of my home,

Only embarrassed am I, to have forgotten to return.

brushstrokes by Mi

2) Colophon by Mi Fu:

Fu, following the rhyme:

Who can say what it is like at the age of forty?

For three years, I haven’t had any new clothes made.

In poverty one understands the dangers of life;

In old age one feels the intricate wisdom of Tao.

Already too late to devote oneself to an official career,

Not to mention how few souls truly know me.

Delighted am I to find such refined company,

In the autumn years of my life, I have yet to speak of returning home.

Su Shi wood and rock painting scroll


3) Colophon by Yu Xilu:

Having read Ode to Old Tree by Yu Zishan [Yu Xin, 513-581], I loved the incomparable sharpness of the language and tried to paint the old tree from my imagination, but to no avail. Now I see this painting by Dongpo where the proud, withered tree branches resemble giant creatures and dragons appearing and disappearing from stormy seas – a phenomenal result of the artist’s years of experience. I can almost see Zishan’s Ode coming to life! Master Liu of Shangrao and Master Mi of Xiangyang both composed fine poems; particularly, the calligraphy by Master Mi is most attractive. What a rare treasure combining both painting and calligraphy!

On the occasion of Zongdao [Yang Zun] showing me this fine scroll in his collection, I hereby inscribe my joy upon seeing it. Yu Xilu of Jingkou.

Su Shi wood and rock painting scroll

4) Colophon by Guo Chang:

Withered wood, bamboo, and rock by Su Changgong [Su Shi] with calligraphy by Mi Yuanzhang [Mi Fu] – a renowned work by two masters showcasing the finest achievements in both painting and calligraphy. A real treasure to be cherished! At the Pavilion of the Omniscient Mind. Jiayin year of the Wanli Reign (1614), two days after the Dragon Boat Festival.

Some Possible Interpretations of the Painting “Wood and Rock” by Su Shi:


Even though, now, you might have some idea of what the painting could be about, let’s brainstorm a bit and refresh your creativity by offering you some interpretations and meanings of this artwork!  


1)     Imagining Beyond the Stereotypes of Where Life Could Thrive: 

The Rock in the Painting is something inanimate, yet, there is life growing on it. You can see small plants that have just grown on something as inanimate and dead as a rock. However, a tree, which is supposed to be living does not have any leaves on it and it is not a tree anymore, it is merely a piece of wood.

This painting makes us challenge our biases and stereotypes. It could also be implemented in our careers and life choices. Maybe you could contribute something to an unknown and undesired field, by turning a rock into a fertile and living space.


2)     Two Natural Resources: 

This painting could also be just a depiction of two of the most important natural resources exploited by humans over many years of evolution- ‘wood and rock’. Rock can light up sparks and wood can sustain it in the form of fire. They both have been essential in human development, and it could be that Su Shi was inspired by these two great symbols of human development. It could also just mean something as simple as the celebration of the beauty of nature. Just a rock and a tree on a windy day.  


3)     An Inner Turmoil: 

The painting could be seen as a representation of the artist’s inner journey. The tree branch could represent his creative spirit, while the rock could represent his steadfast commitment to his principles.


4)     A Greater Meaning: 

The painting could also be seen as a meditation on the relationship between the individual and the cosmos. The tree branch could represent the individual’s aspirations, while the rock could represent the vastness and mystery of the universe.


5)     Time and Timelessness: 

The painting could also be seen as a reflection of the passage of time. The gnarled tree branch could represent the aging process, while the sturdy rock could represent the timelessness of nature.


However, like always, the interpretation of any artwork is subjective. After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder 😉

Now that you have realized so much about this fascinating artwork, we are pretty sure you have no problems with this artwork being valued at more than $60 Million. Also check out our other art interpretations on Artspace. And let us know if you still have any questions about this painting or would like to know about another artwork. We are always excited!

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