Xu Wei (徐渭, 1521-1593) was a Ming Chinese painter, poet, calligrapher and dramatist famed for his artistic expressiveness. His courtesy names were Wenqing (文清) and then Wenchang (文長). His various pseudonyms include Tianchi Shanren (天池山人, The Mountain Man of the Heavenly Pond) and Qingteng Daoshi (青藤道士, Resident of the Green Vine House).
Born in Shanying district (now Shaoxing in Zhejiang Province), Xu Wei was raised by a single mother who died when he was 14. At 21, he married Pan-shi (潘氏), who died five years later. Xu Wei attempted the civil service examinations eight times, but he never succeeded. Nevertheless, Xu was employed by General Hu Zongxian (胡宗憲), Supreme Commander of the Jiangsu-Zhejiang-Fujian coastal defense against the wokou (倭寇, Japanese pirates).
After General Hu was arrested and lost his position, Xu Wei became excessively fearful of a negative fate for himself. Xu became mentally distraught at this juncture, attempting to commit suicide nine times. His mental imbalance no doubt led to his killing of his wife Zhang-shi (張氏), after he became paranoid that she was having an affair. As a result, he was jailed for seven years until his friend Zhang Yuanbian (張元忭) from the Hanlin Imperial Academy managed to free him at the age of 53. It is possible that Xu Wei suffered from Bipolar Disorder, a condition actually recognized in China at this time. Xu Wei spent the rest of his life painting, but with little financial success. However, his paintings have been highly sought after in modern times.
Xu Wei’s flower-and-bird painting in the sketching-ideas manner is wild and unconstrained by physical likeness. His painting style influenced and inspired countless subsequent painters, such as Zhu Da (朱耷), the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou, and the modern masters Wu Changshuo (吳昌碩) and Qi Baishi (齊白石), who once exclaimed in a poem that “How I wish to be born 300 years earlier so I could grind ink and prepare paper for Green Vine (one of Xu Wei’s pen names)” (恨不生三百年前，為青藤磨墨理紙).
Xu Wei was also a poet of considerable note. His collected works exist with a commentary by the late Ming writer Yuan Hongdao (袁宏道), who and the others of his literary movement were highly influenced by the writings of Xu. Of the various arts Xu Wei practiced, he held his calligraphy in highest esteem. Next was his poetry, followed by prose, and painting. However, he is probably best known today for his flower-and-bird painting.