Wu Daozi was a famous painter during the Tang Dynasty and was revered as the “sage of paintings.” His pictorial artwork has left many legendary stories that have been passed down through generations. The most notable painters in ancient China, including Wu Daozi, shared a similar characteristic in that their paintings were very lifelike. Behind the vividness was a secret that the essence of life existed behind the painting.
Wu Daozi had skills that put him above the rest. One legend states that Emperor Xuanzong asked him to complete a mural of the entire course of the Jialing River. Wu Daozi spent weeks touring the river and came back with no sketches. He told the emperor they were all in his heart. He then proceeded to complete the mural from memory in only one day.
Another time, Wu Daozi visited an art gallery. The gallery staff didn’t recognize him and were not very attentive to him. Wu asked for a glass of water, but the staff did not get it for him. He took a calligraphy brush and started to paint on the wall. He painted a scene with a donkey and several swallows. After he was finished the staff was so impressed by the liveliness of the painting, they offered Wu Daozi the best tea they had. He smiled and left.
Wu Daozi’s painting came to life
That night the donkey hopped out of the painting and ran into a nearby farm. The farmer saw the donkey nibbling on his hay and chased after it. The donkey ran back to the art gallery and disappeared. The farmer asked a gallery worker for the donkey, and he replied: “This is an art gallery, we don’t keep any donkeys here.” The farmer didn’t believe him and went inside the gallery to look for the animal.
Then a very strange thing happened. The farmer saw Wu Doazi’s painting of a donkey on the wall, and it had a mouthful of hay. Then the gallery staff arrived and saw swallow droppings everywhere. They were very puzzled. Then they looked at Wu Daozi’s painting on the wall: the donkey’s mouth was full of hay, and the swallows were at different locations than before. They wanted to find out what was going on.
A well-known artist saw the painting on the wall and knew it was Wu Daozi’s work. He knew about the mystical effects of Wu’s artwork, so he asked an employee if they had offended the painter. “He wanted a glass of water and we ignored him at first, so he made this painting,” said the employee. The artist suggested: “Whoever created this situation must address it. You need to apologize to Wu Daozi and ask for his help.”
After the apology, Wu Daozi returned and painted a rope to tie the donkey and added a lot of grass near the donkey. He also gave the swallows a nest. After that, the donkey and the swallows never left the painting.
Someone might ask why the gallery staff didn’t just wipe off the donkey and swallows instead of apologizing? Wu Daozi’s artwork was too valuable, so who would want to erase it?
Translated by Elaine