Qiao Zhongchang’s Illustration to the Second Prose Poem on the Red Cliff: Text and Image, Poetry and Painting, and Narrative and Lyrical


Wei Jiang

PhD defended at: 

Brown University


Qiao Zhongchang’s (active early twelfth century) Red Cliff is a multiple-scene handscroll illustrating Su Shi’s (1037–1101) narrative poem, “The Second Prose Poem on the Red Cliff.” Sherman Lee hailed it as a “masterpiece of the highest quality and originality” and a “key monument” in the early history of scholar painting. The work, however, possesses peculiar formal features that challenge our understandings of the emergence of scholar painting during the late Northern Song (960–1127) period and the text–image and poetry–painting relationships in the Chinese tradition. Popular semiotics and narratology theories developed out of the Western art and literary traditions appear to be inadequate to explain the purposes and functions of these features.

This dissertation takes a new approach. It applies a literary theory proposed by Kao Yu-kung specifically for Chinese poetry and narrative to an investigation of Qiao’s Red Cliff. The theory suggests that when composing poems and narratives, pre-modern Chinese authors used two types of languages—propositional and imagistic languages—to invoke in their readers two sets of experiences—narrative and lyrical experiences.

Because the Northern Song scholars considered poetry and painting to be homologous arts, this theory is applicable to a scholar painting such as Qiao’s Red Cliff. Furthermore, by performing visual analyses on the images and inscriptions, examining the colophons written by the artist’s contemporaries, and utilizing recent findings derived from multimedia learning and teaching, this dissertation reconstructs Qiao’s Red Cliff’s original viewing situation and its intended viewers’ viewing behaviors, and reveals the rationales behind the features that we deem peculiar today. For example, it answers a question that had long baffled many of us: Why is the protagonist not rendered in the climax scenes?

In conclusion, this dissertation finds that the conventions of poetry making influence the image composition and text placement of a scholar painting and that a scholar’s poetry reading habit affects his painting viewing practice. More importantly, this dissertation’s theoretical framework has general applicability—it offers a new perspective and method to study scholar painting, narrative painting, handscroll painting, and text–image tradition in China.