Three Letters (San zha)

Mi Fu (1052-1107)
Three Letters (San zha)
China, Northern Song
ca. 1093-1094
Calligraphy album
3 leaves
Ink on paper
a. 31.7 x 33.0 cm., b. 30.9 x 40.6 cm., c. 31.7 x 39.7 cm.
Bequest of John B. Elliott, Class of 1951


The official, artist, collector, and connoisseur Mi Fu developed a personal, idiosyncratic form of running script, though he took pride in having mastered many earlier models. He especially admired the unaffected spontaneity of Eastern Jin calligraphers such as Wang Xizhi (303–361), whose brushwork seemed to reflect personal moods. Similar qualities enliven Mi’s Three Letters, written when he was serving as a local official. Identified by their opening lines, the letters display subtle contrasts of brushwork that correspond to the differing circumstances under which they were written.

In Abundant Harvest, Mi refers to his good fortune in holding office during a time of peace and prosperity. His calligraphy was written at a leisurely pace with smooth, elegant turns of the brush. Escaping Summer Heat reports his satisfaction at spending summer in the cool mountains, without mention of his refusal to collect taxes after a bad harvest. In this letter, Mi employs more angular brushwork in characters that appear slightly misshapen. In Hasty Reply before Guests, Mi confesses that he is dodging a visit from a court official sent to investigate his management of district affairs. Mi’s unease seems to be reflected in the impetuous, more cursive brushwork of the letter.

Published References & Reproductions

Shen C.Y. Fu et al., Traces of the Brush (New Haven: Yale University Art Museum, 1977), pp. 101, 148-49, 246-47, pls. 9a c.

Nakata Yujirō, and Fu Shen, Ōbei shūzō Chūgoku hōsho meisekishū (Masterpieces of Chinese Calligraphy in American and European Collections) (Tokyo: Chūōkōron-sha, 1981-83), vol. 1, pp. 140-41, pls. 74-76.

Nakata Yujirō, Bei Futsu 2 vols. (Tokyo: Nigensha, 1982), vol. 1, pp. 217-18; vol. 2, pls. 110-115.

Suzuki Kei, Comprehensive Illustrated Catalog of Chinese Painting (Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1982-83), A17-105.

Wen C. Fong, Images of the Mind (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), pp. 86-90 (partly trans.), 262-64 (illus.). Xu Bangda, Gu shuhua guo yan yaolu (Changsha: Hunan meishu chubanshe, 1987), pp. 364-65.

Harrist and Fong, The Embodied Image: Chinese Calligraphy from the John B. Elliott Collection (Princeton: The Art Museum, Princeton University, 1999), cat. no. 7, pp. 10-13 (illus.), 260-67, 277.

Osaka Shiritsu Bijutsukan 大阪市立美術館 ed., Umi o watatta Chūgoku no sho: Eriotto korekushon to Sō Gen no meiseki 海を渡った中国の書: エリオット コレクション と 宗元の名蹟 (The Embodied Image: Chinese Calligraphy from the John B. Elliott Collection) (Tokyo: Yomiuri Shinbunsha, 2003), cat. no. 7.