Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Master of Five Excellences/Perfections

Cheng Man-ch'ing was often called a master of "Five Excellences" in reference to his skills in poetry, calligraphy, painting, Chinese medicine, and taijiquan.But what did that mean?

Since an early time, the three perfections of a Chinese artist—poetry, calligraphy, and painting—were admired talents("Excellences" 絕 jue, can also be translated as "perfections"). Noted artists were labeled as such in admiration. Mastery of the three arts became an ideal. Meaningful poetry executed with a skilled calligraphic hand enhanced a painting, the brushwork of calligraphy and painting were considered to be of the same origin, and "in poetry there was painting, and in painting, poetry." Thus the three perfections were intertwined.

Cheng Man-ch'ing became known for his three perfections by 1926, when Cai Yuanpei, the great educational reformer, inscribed a prefatory page as such for a painting album of Cheng's. In the 1930s, Cheng added the skills of Chinese medicine and taijiquan to his repertoire. Because of this, he later was known as a master of five perfections/excellences.
The illustration above shows part of a painting and poem about a narcissus from Cheng's early album. In it we can clearly see the intertwining of these arts that Cheng had already achieved by his early twenties.