Once upon a time, in the faraway land of China, a recluse named Zou Fulei labored at his masterpiece, an ink-and-brush hand scroll titled "A Breath of Spring." With a steady hand and infinite patience, he created a massive, sweeping tree branch decorated with hundreds of plum blossoms shaped like gauzy gray cotton balls. By stamping his rectangular red seal in the upper right corner of the painting, he secured his place in art history.

"A Breath of Spring" is the only work of Zou's known to exist. Nothing else has been discovered about the artist's identity besides information from inscriptions painted on the 600-year-old scroll. "The entire personality, the entire identification of this artist, derives from this one single work," says Stephen Allee, research specialist at the Freer Gallery of Art and curator of "A Breath of Spring," which is part of the Freer's collection and is currently on exhibit there. "Since we have no biography of the artist, we are forced to look at the art first, rather than the other way around."

The colophons on the 28-foot-long scroll reveal that Zou had an older brother, Fuyuan, also a painter. They lived in a place named the Cinnabar Chamber of the Cavern Mystery, near modern Shanghai. He called his own quarters the Tumbleweed Shack and passed the hours reading, writing and playing the zither, typical gentlemanly pursuits of the time, Allee says. And he painted at least one hand scroll, which Allee calls "a virtuoso performance of the highest technical and artistic merit."

Accompanying "A Breath of Spring" are five poems, the earliest written by the artist and the latest published just this year by Michael Ondaatje, author of "The English Patient." All the verse except Ondaatje's is executed in different styles of calligraphy, written on delicate paper affixed to the scroll.

In neat, short columns of characters, Zou's four-line poem is a nod to the creator of plum blossom paintings, the Buddhist monk Huaguang (d. 1123). Plum blossoms symbolize a variety of ideas in Chinese tradition, among them purity of character. They also act as metaphors for the political outcast and the moral recluse. The delicate flower blooms briefly in early January and serves as a harbinger of spring.

Zou might have thought his work complete before a random appearance from a literary star of the age, Yang Weizhan, who visited the brothers Zou in August 1361, one year after Zou finished "A Breath of Spring." The painting inspired Yang to compose in calligraphy an eight-line poem. The first two lines read: "Of alchemist masters in Hedong, there are the brothers Fu,/ Men among gods and immortals, nothing about them is common." He then added a postscript, explaining the circumstances of his visit to the region. In addition to providing clues about Zou, Yang's calligraphy is one of the most "striking and expressive" examples made during the Yuan dynasty, says Allee.

Another visitor to the Tumbleweed Shack, Gu Yan, contributed the scroll's third poem. Strangely, this one, written in neat clerical script, seems to have been created about a decade earlier than "A Breath of Spring." Allee says either Zou or a later owner of both works attached Gu's poem to the canvas. Gu's lines concern themselves with purity and nature, the symbolic focus of Zou's painting. The last poet to add his verse was Chinese emperor Qianlong (ruler from 1735 to 1795), who brought the painting into the royal collection, where it remained for about 150 years.

Many owners and red seals later, the Freer Gallery acquired "A Breath of Spring" in 1931. Ondaatje came across the work in a catalogue sent to him a few years ago by Freer Director Milo Beach. Inspired by the words of Yang Weizhan and the delicate brush strokes of Zou, he composed "The Great Tree" (published in "Handwriting," Knopf, 1999), part of which reads as follows:

It was Zou Fulei, almost unknown,

who made the best plum flower painting

of any period

One branch lifted into the wind

and his friend's vertical line of character

their tones of ink

--wet to opaque

dark to pale

"A Breath of Spring" is on display in its entirety for the first time in 15 years, partly because of Ondaatje's verse, which hangs on the wall next to the scroll. At the Freer Gallery of Art, 12th Street and Jefferson Drive SW, through Jan. 9. Free. 202-357-2700.

ARTS BIT

"Art Night on the Mall" begins tonight, with four Smithsonian art museums extending their hours until 8 p.m. every Thursday until Sept. 3. Participating museums include the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Freer Gallery, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the National Museum of African Art. A variety of activities will also be planned for these evenings, including dance and music performances and children's activities, as well as access to the galleries. Free. 202-357-2700. The Phillips Collection and the Corcoran Gallery of Art also stay open late Thursdays. Until July 15, the Phillips hosts "Artful Evenings" on Thursdays until 8:30 p.m. Admission is from $5 to $12.50 (the higher fee includes the O'Keeffe show). 1600 21st St. NW. 202-387-2151. The Corcoran stays open until 9 p.m. Free. 500 17th St. NW. 202-639-1700.

CAPTION: Detail of "A Breath of Spring," Zou Fulei's only known work. "Since we have no biography of the artist, we are forced to look at the art first," says Stephen Allee, Freer Gallery curator.