Chang Dai Chien (Zhang Da Qian) and Chen Wen Hsi, the Gibbon Testimony


This is a great masterpiece of Chen Wen Hsi, created circa 1982 - 1983. It is extremely rare to have bees to go along with gibbons in Wen Hsi’s paintings, meaning "feng-hou" or “straight promotion to marquis”.


Chen Wen Hsi hardly wrote calligraphy on his paintings, long calligraphy is extremely rare. A great majority of his works were simply signed with “Hsi Ji” (Hsi’s Work), “Wen Hsi Zhi Mo” (Wen Hsi Finger Work) or the most “Wen Hsi Nan Yang Hua Zuo” (Wen Hsi Nan Yang Painting). Any work with his signature of more than 6 characters is very rare. As what we found up to now, he only wrote long calligraphy on a work if he is very complacent with or upon the request of a good friend. For such, many collectors mistaken that he is poor on writing. On the contrary, he practiced his calligraphy after Huai Su and Huang Shen, the famous calligraphers of Tang and Qing Dynasties respectively, and had formed his own style since young. He hardly wrote much as concerned that any imprudent writing on the painting would spoil the composition.


In this piece with Wen Hsi's long calligraphy, he quoted the entire poem that Chang Dai Chien composed for him in 1982, right after his solo exhibition at National Museum of Taiwan History (NMTH). Dai Chien went to see Wen Hsi’s exhibition twice at NMTH, and in the poem put Wen Hsi as the No.1 artist to paint gibbons after Yi Yuan Ji of North Song dynasty, in 1000 years!


The poem reads:

Mighty force in Wen Hsi's brushes,

Yuan Ji shall resurrect to admire him;

Gibbons’ call suddenly vocalizing,

Recalling me for the mountains home thousand cloud away.


Dai Chien left Mainland in 1949 and had been staying overseas ever since. Staying in urban area with no mountain or waterfall, he has been painting grand landscapes to express homesickness. We may recall Li Bai, the great poet of Tang dynasty, who once composed that, “I raise my eyes to the moon, look down and think of home”.


Dai Chien echoes Li Bai of the 8th Century, and quoted the allusion of Li Bai’s poem “Early Departure from Bai Di”:

The gibbons’ call echoing from mountains along the river,

My boat home has swiftly passed the thousands mountains.


Gibbons stay far in the mountains so we hardly hear their call. Scholars from ancient China took gibbon’s vocalizing as the sound from heaven, and a very precious experience in one’s life to hear, so an ultimate spiritual sustenance of self-exiling. Gibbons’ weeping also symbols homesickness and sadness of separation.


Dai Chien sang high praise of Chen Wen Hsi that he mastered great skills with powerful strokes in gibbon painting, and Dai Chien associated gibbons’ weeping to his home in Sichuan “Ba-Shu” the habitat to gibbons, home but where he could never return. Wen Hsi has been staying in Nanyang, far from his home in Guangdong, and must share the same feeling as Dai Chien and experience the poem Dai Chien wrote for him.


In 1956 Chang Dai Chien visited Singapore and visited Chen Wen Hsi's house and played with Wen Hsi’s gibbons. Dai Chien himself was believed to be reborn from a black gibbon, so he named himself “Yuan” or “Gibbon”, and favored gibbons throughout his life. In 1981 when Wen Hsi had his solo exhibition at NMTH, Dai Chien invited Wen Hsi to his house in Taipei, Moye Jingshe, to meet his 4 gibbons. Being friends across 3 decades, Wen Hsi is very grateful to Dai Chien’s poem for him, and the sincere encouragement and recognizing from this old friend.


So for this piece, Wen Hsi was very satisfied after he finished, and he truly felt that he had indeed achieved what Chang Dai Chien had "status" him. So he wrote down the poem on the painting excitedly.  Wen Hsi really felt that he's No.1 after North Song dynasty after he did this work, and this piece could prove his standard and testify his achievement.


It's of even higher quality than the gibbon piece adoring our S$50 bill and 40% bigger in size too.



Allison Liu


Honorary Auditor of Southeast Asian Ceramic Society

at Bergen Scholarly Retreat