Xu Wei (1521–1593) was a Ming dynasty Chinese painter, poet, and dramatist famed for his artistic expressiveness. He is considered the founder of modern painting in China.
Xu, a child prodigy, was raised by a single mother who died when he was 14. At 21, he married a woman surnamed Pan, who died five years later.
Though he passed the county civil examination at age 20, Xu was never able to pass the provincial civil service examinations, even after attempting it eight times. Nevertheless, Xu found an unspecified job working with Hu Zongxian, Supreme Commander of the Jiangsu-Zhejiang-Fujian coastal defense against the wokou pirates.
During the 1550s and ’60s he succeeded in gaining a reputation as a poet and painter, but as his reputation as an artist grew, so did his infamy as a drunkard and a madman.
When General Hu was arrested and lost his position, Xu Wei feared a similar fate for himself. Xu became mentally distraught and attempted to commit suicide nine times, such as by axing himself in the skull and drilling both of his ears. His mental imbalance led to his killing of his second wife Zhang after becoming paranoid that she was having an affair. He was jailed for seven years until a friend managed get him released at the age of 53 by reason of insanity.
Xu spent the rest of his life painting, but with little financial success. However, his paintings are highly sought after in modern times.
Xu Wei wrote a play based on the Ballad of Mulan. Yes, that Mulan, Disney lovers. She may have been an actual female warrior between 420 and 589 AD. He also wrote three other plays with women’s themes. Xu was an early women’s rights advocate.
Xu Wei was also an accomplished poet. Xu’s collected works in 30 chapters exists with a commentary by the late Ming writer Yuan Hongdao.
Of the various arts Xu Wei practiced, he held his calligraphy in highest esteem. Next was his poetry.
It’s ironic that a scholar who could not pass the civil service examination is remembered today for his achievements in the realms of literature and art.
You can see more of Xu’s paintings here.