The renowned artist Shen Zhou (1427–1509) began to explore the theme of falling blossoms as a subject for poetry, painting, and calligraphy in his very late years. The theme stands out both for the number of times Shen Zhou worked on it and for the quality of the poems, calligraphies, and paintings that he produced. He began with ten poems in 1503, prompted by an illness that kept him from enjoying the seasonal blossoming of spring fruit trees in the Suzhou area. Shen's intention was to record his meditations on the passage of time and human mortality, but the act of writing these verses transformed when Shen shared them with a number of prominent cultural figures in the Jiangnan region. Rhymed by admirers, and then rerhymed by Shen Zhou, the poems became part of a greater project, broadly shared, that ultimately became a highly self-conscious reflection on mortality and its presentation through art.
The essay focuses on the evolution and scope of Shen Zhou's Falling Blossoms project, the motivations and concerns behind Shen's activities as reflected by revealing texts, and the manner in which Shen chose to illustrate the theme in painting. Three paintings—a fan in the Shanghai Museum and handscroll compositions in the Nanjing Museum and the National Palace Museum (Taipei)—demonstrate how Shen utilized a rich store of iconographical and stylistic models to establish the theme of contemplating mortality. The essay ends with consideration of a very late composition, Shen's 1507 rendition of Misty River, Layered Peaks (Liaoning Provincial Museum), an ambitious painting that seemingly voices a defiant resolution to some of the existential questions posed by Shen's Falling Blossoms.