Tang Yin (唐寅,1470–1524), better known by his courtesy name Tang Bohu (唐伯虎), was a Chinese scholar, painter, calligrapher, and poet of the Ming Dynasty whose life story has become a part of popular lore.
Tang Yin is one of the most famous painters in the history of Chinese art. He was a pupil of the great Shen Zhou (沈周,1427–1509) and a friend of Wen Zhengming (文徵明, 1470–1559). Since his thirties, Tang also studied painting under Zhou Chen (周臣, 1460–1535) and copied the works of such artists as Li Tang (李唐, c.1066–1150), Ma Yuan (馬遠, c.1160–1225), and Xia Gui (夏珪, fl. 1180–1230) from the Southern Song. In addition, Tang Yin also assimilated the techniques of scholar landscape painting from the Four Great Masters of the Yuan, thus creating a distinct personal style. Tang Yin is regarded as one of the painting elite—“the Four Masters of Ming” (明四家), which also includes Shen Zhou, Wen Zhengming, and Qiu Ying (仇英, ca.1495–1552). Tang was also a talented poet and scholar. Together with his contemporaries Wen Zhengming, Zhu Yunming (祝允明, 1460–1526), and Xu Zhenqing (徐禎卿, 1479–1511), they are known as the “Four Literary Masters of the Wuzhong Region (in today’s Suzhou)” (吳中四大才子) or “Four Literary Masters of Jiangnan (south of the Yangtze River)” (江南四大才子).
Tang came from a mercantile background and excelled in his studies. In 1498 Tang Yin came first in the provincial examinations in Nanjing, the second stage in the civil service examination. The following year he went to the capital to attend the national examinations. However, he and his friend Xu Jing (徐經, ?–1507) were accused, perhaps unfairly, of bribing the servant of one of the chief examiners to give them the examination questions in advance. This deprived him of the security of a government sinecure and comfort for the cultivation of scholarly pursuits.
Denied further official progress, he pursued a life of pleasure and earned a living by selling his paintings. That mode of living brought him into disrepute with a later generation of artist-critics (for example, Dong Qichang 董其昌) who felt that financial independence was vital to enable an artist to follow his own style and inspiration. While Tang Yin is associated with paintings of feminine beauty, his paintings (especially landscapes) otherwise exhibit the same variety and expression of his peers and reveal a man of both artistic skill and profound insight.
Tang Yin perfected an admirable hand in the semi-cursive script (also known as running script). His poems touch on themes which people like Wen Zhengming or the older Shen Zhou would have never taken up. Tang seems compelled to deal with the base elements in man—envy, greed and venality. Tragic unfulfillment, driven by belief in the relentlessness of fate and the bitterness of the ultimate truth imbues his more thoughtful poems. Sometimes he is overwhelmed by tragic sorrow for the loss of childlike innocence; other times even love is fraught with ruin and unhappiness. Those poems which do manage to begin on an optimistic note often end on a note of regret.