Huā qì xūn rén yù pò chán.
The fragrance of flowers are so intoxicating that it threatens my Zen’s mediation.
Xīn qíng qí shí guò zhōng niá
I have passed middle age, (I am still vulnerable to mundane desires.)
Chūn lái shī sī hé suǒ shì.
Spring comes, I should have inspirations to write poems, why am I like that….(no motivations to write…)
Bā jié tāntóu shàng shuǐ chuán.
The boat is struggling upstream against the rapid water in Bā Jié Tān (八節灘).
Bā Jié Tān (Beach) (八節灘) was mentioned in the preface of a poem by Bái Jūyì (白居易), a great poet in the Táng Dynasty, “ South of Dōng Dū Lóng Mén Tán(東都龍門潭), located Bā Jié Tān (Beach), Jiǔ Qiào Shí (cliff) (九峭石). When boats sailed through those places, they are bounded to be damaged to a certain extent.” The location is near Luò Yáng (洛陽) in Hé Nán (河南).
It is difficult to figure out the meaning behind this poem. However, Huang wrote to his good friend Wáng Gǒng (王鞏) in 1087 saying that Wáng Jìnqīng (Shēn) 王晉卿 (詵) sent him poems to ask for his complimentary poems (「和」他的詩). Huang did not like to do so. Wang was so cunning, he kept on sending flowers to Huang reminding him to respond. Huang playfully replied with this piece.
元祐二年（1087）寄揚州友人王鞏二詩之後，前有識語：“王晉卿 (詵) 數送詩來索和，老懶不喜作，此曹狡猾，又頻送花來促詩，戲答。”
Wáng Shēn (王詵) has married a princess and liked to befriend scholars. He asked Huang to write a poem to respond to his own. Huang was really reluctant to do so and wrote this poem in a cheeky way to explain why he could not get the right inspiration.
This piece of calligraphy is made up of 4 sentences, each contains 7 words. Those 28 words are in 4¼ rows. The characters of the first two sentences are more close together, the characters of the last two sentences less so. This gives a good rhythm. The words are in cursive scripts but not linked together except for the two last words 破禪 in the first row, and the last two words 何所 in the third row.
The last word 中 of the second row is long and gives greater contrast and dynamic interaction with other words.
The brushwork is strong and upright, and the ink varies between moist and dry. The last three words 上水船 was written in dry ink. This gives a strong impression of the struggle to advance the boat.
This piece was not signed nor dated by Huang. Some scholars suggested that this was executed around 1102 (instead of 1087) when Huang was 57 years old.
Huang Tingjian (黃庭堅) (1045–1105), also known as Lǔ Zhí (魯直), Shān Gǔ (山谷), Fú Wēng (涪翁). He was a native of Hóng Zhōu Fēn Níng (洪州分寧) (now Jiangxi Xiushui County 江西修水縣). Huang was a Chinese calligrapher, poet, scholar and government official of the Song Dynasty. He was one of the Four Calligrapher Masters of the Song Dynasty (宋四大家).
Huang Tingjian passed his imperial Chin-shih examination (登進士第) in 1067 and was granted some posts in the government. At the time, there were two major parties, a “reform” party lead by Wang Anshi (王安石) and a “conservative” party, which included prominent officials such as Sima Guang (司馬光), Ouyang Xiu (歐陽修) and Su Shi (蘇軾). As Emperor Shenzong (神宗) increasingly favoured Wang Anshi’s New Policies, as they were known, their opponents suffered politically. This included exile for Su Shi, beginning in 1080 to Hangzhou. Huang Tingjian was falsely accused of conspiracy. After 1086, Wang Anshi’s party was out of favour, and Wang Anshi himself was forced into retirement. Huang and other exiles were recalled from their places of banishment.
However, Su Shi and Huang Tingjian were repeatedly caught up in the political in-fighting in the Imperial Court and had to endure several cycles of exile and pardon.
Su died in 1101 and Huang died in 1105 in Yí zhōu (宜州)(now Guǎngxī Province廣西).
Further reading / viewing :
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wvwwswqOgWs 20130722《殷瑗小聚》中國美術史–宋代書法家:黃庭堅)(Excellent presentation on Flowers’ Fragrance from 10:24 to 18:49)
http://www.chinaonlinemuseum.com/calligraphy-huang-tingjian-huaqixunren.php (Flowers’ Fragrance (花氣薰人帖)
http://www.epochtimes.com/b5/1/9/12/c5637.htm (蔣勳) (excellent reading)
http://blog.udn.com/damifel/801945 (good explanation)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e2YNj8UM6yM (modern presentation by National Palace Museum)
Alfreda Murck (2000) Poetry and Painting in Song China – The Subtle Art of Dissent, Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series, 50, ISBN 978-0-674-00782-6 (Excellent English translation)
Ouyang Z and Wen C.F. (2008) Chinese Calligraphy, Yale University Press, ISBN 978-0-300-12107-0