Wen Yuke (also known as Wen Tong) was an artist during the Song Dynasty (A.D. 960–1279) who was very famous for his bamboo paintings. His reputation as a painting master and his bamboo art became known far and wide. Many people came to him and asked to be his students.
When Wen was young, he was especially fond of painting bamboo. He planted a grove of bamboo in his yard so that he could observe their growth and appearance in all growth stages and conditions.
Over a long period of time, the images of the bamboo in the different seasons, under different weather conditions, and at different moments in its lifecycle were deeply imprinted in his mind.
Each time he took up the brush to paint bamboo, he already had a suitable picture in his mind. Therefore, all the pictures he painted were unique, vivid, and lively.
When people asked how he could paint bamboo so well and so fast, he would answer, with a shy smile, “I just paint the bamboo that appear in my mind.”
It is said Wen was so skillful that he could hold two brushes in one hand and paint two different bamboo plants simultaneously.
After Wen’s death in 1079, Su Shi(1), a good friend of the painter and a great writer and poet of the Song Dynasty, missed Wen very much whenever he looked at his friend’s paintings.
In remembrance of his friend, Su wrote an essay about Wen and his bamboo paintings that included the following poetic line: “When painting, there are already bamboo in Yuke’s mind.”
Later on, the description from the poem, 胸有成竹 (xiōng yǒu chéng zhú), which literally translates as having complete bamboo in mind, became an idiom.
The idiom once described how someone was calm or cool-headed in dealing with things, already having the results in mind.
Today, it is used to indicate already having a well thought-out plan before one sets out to achieve something. It is also used to describe someone who looks at every angle before deciding to do something.
This idiom is somewhat similar to the English phrase to “look before you leap.”
Su Shi (A.D. 1037–1101), also known as Su Dongpo, is recognized as a master of literature from the Song Dynasty. He was famous for his poems, essays, rhapsodies, and calligraphy. His works have historically been popular and influential in China, Japan, and other Asian countries.