The painting Picking Osmund by Li Tang depicts the story of two righteous and resolute historical characters — Bo Yi and Shu Qi of the Shang Dynasty. Bo, the eldest, and Shu, the youngest, were two of the three sons of a vassal. The youngest was the designated successor to the throne, but he was determined to pass it back to the eldest brother in accordance with tradition. Bo refused to accept because it went against the wish of their late father. Bo left to save his young brother Shu from the dilemma. Despite his sacrifice, the brother followed him.
The escaping pair wanted to seek shelter from another vassal in the area who had a good reputation. Unfortunately, the vassal died and while still in mourning, his son Wu was getting ready to rebel against the ruthless king, Zhou. Bo and Shu thought that this was not the proper thing to do and advised the young man not to follow this course of action. The young vassal continued without heeding the warning. Eventually, he overthrew the Shang Dynasty and started the Zhou era.
Bo and Shu despised the new emperor, King Wu, for his actions that destroyed the Shang Dynasty and refused to eat food from the Zhou territories. They went to a remote mountain and ate osmund leaves to sustain themselves, but eventually died from starvation in the wilderness still holding fast to their principles as they came to appreciate that these leaves also belonged to the new emperor. Therefore, they could eat nothing at all.
Li Tang’s painting depicts the two brothers Bo and Shu sitting opposite each other on a big rock at the edge of a cliff. Bo, the older brother leans against a pine tree with hands clasping his knee, while Shu, the younger brother, leans slightly forward toward him with his hand pointing in an uplifted, focused gesture.
The posture of each brother depicts their inner strength and characters, one uplifting and one considering. Their expressions are relaxed and calm. Their lean faces reflect their physical suffering from life in the wilderness, but their tranquil expressions show their honorable unyielding spirit, which is not influenced by life’s inadequacies. Beside them is a small woven basket of picked osmund with a hoe and chisel used to harvest the leaves, subtly capturing the title of this painting with its simple significance in the meaning of life and death for the two brothers.
The two trees in the picture complement the poses of the two brothers, showing how connected and intertwined their spirits are. The trees themselves are chosen for their inner significance, which is connected with the essence of the two characters and represents connotations of their virtues. Thus the painter superbly captures the external presence and internal spiritual natures of Bo and Shu in an exceptional way.
Bo Yi and Shu Qi died on the mountain for their beliefs. Prior to their passing, they composed a ballad to express their stance:
We climb onto the west mountain ah
And pick osmund for food
Fight brutality with brutality ah
King Wu cannot tell right from wrong!
Emperor Yen, emperor Shun and the Xia Dynasty were bygones ah
Where is the happy land we can go to?
How pitiful we are on our way to the underworld ah
As our life is coming to an end