SUBJECTS OF CHINESE PAINTING: LANDSCAPES, TAOSIM AND GHOSTS

SUBJECTS OF CHINESE PAINTING

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Gibbons

Chinese artists, wrote Boorstin, painted a "limited number or appropriate subject matters and these could be depicted in a certain number of techniques...To the inexpert Western eye, the Chinese painter seems less an original creator than a performer---like an inspired Western musician playing the composition of great artists before seasoned listeners." [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]

Even though painting techniques changed over time the subjects remained pretty constant, and included portraits, dragons and fishes, landscapes, animals, flowers and birds, vegetables and fruit, wild scenery and the hermit scholar. Things like pine trees, bamboo, rocks, mountains and running water were important symbols with easily recognizable meanings. Portraits were usually of emperors and noblemen.

"Ink bamboo," a subject that unified calligraphy and painting, was an especially popular subject. During the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) some painters painting nothing but bamboo their entire careers. Bamboo often symbolized the inner personality of the artist as the gentleman scholar. Bamboo stalks bend but don't break like a true scholar that adjusts with the times but stays true of his ethics. Bamboo was also a symbol of the ability to endure oppression.

"The composition, too," wrote Boorstin, "expressed the order of nature, with a tension between giving and taking, passive and aggressive, host and guest. In a group of trees, the “host” tree will be bent with spread branches, and the guest tree slim and straight. If a third tree is added, it must not be exactly parallel. Such a group of trees can itself be a host in relation to another “guest group” in another part of the painting...The host-guest principal of tree to tree can equally be applied to the relation of rock to rock, mountain to mountain, or man to man." [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]

Nature in Chinese Art

Serenity and tranquil beauty have traditionally been valued in Chinese culture and aesthetics. Fei Bo, a Chinese choreographer, told The Times: “Our culture is more about spiritual things, and nature is much more important to us. In our traditional painting the strokes are very simple but they leave a big space for your imagination.”

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “In no other cultural tradition has nature played a more important role in the arts than in that of China. Since China's earliest dynastic period, real and imagined creatures of the earth—serpents, bovines, cicadas, and dragons—were endowed with special attributes, as revealed by their depiction on ritual bronze vessels. In the Chinese imagination, mountains were also imbued since ancient times with sacred power as manifestations of nature's vital energy (qi). They not only attracted the rain clouds that watered the farmer's crops, they also concealed medicinal herbs, magical fruits, and alchemical minerals that held the promise of longevity. Mountains pierced by caves and grottoes were viewed as gateways to other realms—"cave heavens" (dongtian) leading to Daoist paradises where aging is arrested and inhabitants live in harmony. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

“From the early centuries of the Common Era, men wandered in the mountains not only in quest of immortality but to purify the spirit and find renewal. Daoist and Buddhist holy men gravitated to sacred mountains to build meditation huts and establish temples. They were followed by pilgrims, travelers, and sightseers: poets who celebrated nature's beauty, city dwellers who built country estates to escape the dust and pestilence of crowded urban centers, and, during periods of political turmoil, officials and courtiers who retreated to the mountains as places of refuge.\^/

“Early Chinese philosophical and historical texts contain sophisticated conceptions of the nature of the cosmos. These ideas predate the formal development of the native belief systems of Daoism and Confucianism, and, as part of the foundation of Chinese culture, they were incorporated into the fundamental tenets of these two philosophies. Similarly, these ideas strongly influenced Buddhism when it arrived in China around the first century A.D. Therefore, the ideas about nature described below, as well as their manifestation in Chinese gardens, are consistent with all three belief systems.\^/

“The natural world has long been conceived in Chinese thought as a self-generating, complex arrangement of elements that are continuously changing and interacting. Uniting these disparate elements is the Dao, or the Way. Dao is the dominant principle by which all things exist, but it is not understood as a causal or governing force. Chinese philosophy tends to focus on the relationships between the various elements in nature rather than on what makes or controls them. According to Daoist beliefs, man is a crucial component of the natural world and is advised to follow the flow of nature's rhythms. Daoism also teaches that people should maintain a close relationship with nature for optimal moral and physical health.\^/

“Within this structure, each part of the universe is made up of complementary aspects known as yin and yang. Yin, which can be described as passive, dark, secretive, negative, weak, feminine, and cool, and yang, which is active, bright, revealed, positive, masculine, and hot, constantly interact and shift from one extreme to the other, giving rise to the rhythm of nature and unending change.\^/

“As early as the Han dynasty, mountains figured prominently in the arts. Han incense burners typically resemble mountain peaks, with perforations concealed amid the clefts to emit incense, like grottoes disgorging magical vapors. Han mirrors are often decorated with either a diagram of the cosmos featuring a large central boss that recalls Mount Kunlun, the mythical abode of the Queen Mother of the West and the axis of the cosmos, or an image of the Queen Mother of the West enthroned on a mountain. While they never lost their cosmic symbolism or association with paradises inhabited by numinous beings, mountains gradually became a more familiar part of the scenery in depictions of hunting parks, ritual processions, temples, palaces, and gardens. By the late Tang dynasty, landscape painting had evolved into an independent genre that embodied the universal longing of cultivated men to escape their quotidian world to commune with nature. The prominence of landscape imagery in Chinese art has continued for more than a millennium and still inspires contemporary artists.” \^/

Later when the learning process begins, the student is expected observe and copy his master. Students are supposed to hang on every word the master says and are supposed to do things exactly as the master does.

Chinese Symbols

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Butterfly, symbol of joy

In China, lucky symbols appear on everything from handkerchiefs to tombstones. Many auspicious symbols are homonyms of Chinese characters associated with good fortune, prosperity and longevity. Many inauspicious ones are homonyms of Chinese characters for "death" or "bad luck."

Chinese buy good luck charms with a picture of Mao on one side and an image of a Bodhisattva on the other. Man himself is considered a symbol. Heaven is round, the earth is square and man is regarded as a link between the two because it has a round head and a square body.

Well-known symbols of prosperity and good luck are: 1) jade (protection, health and strength, See Art); 2) eggs (tranquility, fertility and good luck in Hong Kong); 3) a bearded sage (longevity or success on exams); 4) a lady bearing fruit (prosperity); 5) a gourd with spreading tendrils (fertility); 6) plump, lively boys (happiness and many sons); 7) bamboo, plums and pine trees ("three friends of winter").

Imperial symbols included the colors yellow and purple. The Emperor wore yellow robes and lived under roofs made with yellow tiles. Only the Emperor was allowed to wear yellow. No buildings outside those in the Forbidden City were allowed to have yellow-tiled roofs. Purple represented the North Star, the center of the universe according to Chinese cosmology.

The dragon symbolized the Emperor while the phoenix symbolized the Empress. The cranes and turtles associated with the Imperial court represented the desire for a long reign. The numbers nine, associated with male energy, and five, representing harmony were also linked with the Emperor.

The fungus Geroderma ludidum is said to bring life because its Chinese name is a homonym with the Chinese word for good fortune. Elixirs of immortality often included it as one of the key ingredients. Other good luck symbols derived from homonyms: 1) Lanterns (homonym with promotions); 2) bees (homonym with abundance); and 3) fish (homonym with surplus). A clock sometimes is used to denote death because the Chinese character for "clock" resembles the character for "death."

Chinese Animal and Fruit Symbols

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Crane, symbol of joy

The most prominent animal symbols are: 1) cranes (peace, hope, healing, longevity and good luck); 2) turtles (long life, but a tortoise refers to a cuckolded husband and a turtle egg is the Chinese equivalent of a bastard); 3) carps (good luck, they are admired for their strength and determination to swim upstream, traits that parents want their children to have): 4) lions (good fortune and prosperity, stone lion gates guard temples and even shopping malls); 5) deer (wealth and long life); 6) horse (success); 7) sheep (auspicious beginning of a brand-new year); 8) monkey (success);

Fruit symbols: 1) orange (happiness); 2) many-seeded pomegranate (fertility); 3) apple (peace); 4) pear (prosperity); 5) peaches (long life, good health and sex, both Chinese and Arabs regard the fury cleft on one side of the peach as symbol of the female genitalia). Peach trees mean dreams can come true. Beginning in the 2nd century B.C., Taoist kept peach-wood charms to ward off evil. Sometimes handmade noodles are served on birthdays for long life.

One of the best sign of all is a red bat. Red is a lucky color and a bat is considered a fortunate sign because its name in Chinese is a homonym with the Chinese word for "good luck, "plus bats sleep with their head down and their feet up, which shows how relaxed and worry free they are. Chinese and Vietnamese believe that people can achieve the relaxed, worry-free state of bats by eating red bat meat. Five flying bats symbolize the “Five Blessings”: longevity, wealth. health, virtue and a long life span.

Fish are is also important. According to legend many Chinese dragons begin life as fish. They have magical powers to leap over waterfalls. Carp especially are associated with this legend. The saying, “The carp has leaped through the dragon’s gate” is used to describe success in Chinese society. Fish are always served on New Year’s Eve as a symbol of prosperity and wealth.

Chinese Color Symbolism

Colors: 1) red or orange (happiness and celebration), 2) white (purity, death and mourning); 3) yellow and gold (heaven and the emperor, a reference the mythical first Yellow Emperor, sometimes yellow is a mourning color); 4) green (harmony); 5) grey and black (death and misfortune).

Red, gold and green are associated with good luck. Red is the most auspicious color. It is well represented at weddings and holidays and fits nicely into Communist models. Red signifies luck, happiness, health and prosperity. Brides wear something red on their wedding day and red lanterns are hung on New Year's Day and weddings. Chinese have traditionally given out "lucky money" on special occasions in red envelopes. Walls are painted red for good luck but writing in red is bad luck. Sometimes red clothing worn by women ias linked with prostitution.

Green can also be a symbol of cuckoldry. Green hats have traditionally been worn by men whose wives have cheated on them. The New York Times described how one American agricultural expert found this out the hard way when he traveled around China giving out bright green hats and found out that whenever he handed them out the men refused to put them on and the women laughed.

Chinese Landscape Painting

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Leisurely Sound of
Mountains and Spring
by Shi Tao

Unlike traditional Western painters, who used landscapes as background filler for battle scenes, portraits and central images of suffering religious figures, Chinese artists painted landscapes as the main subject matter. Religious, historical and mythological themes that were dealt with explicitly in the West were captured in the symbolism of trees, rocks, rivers, mountains and birds in the natural landscapes in Chinese paintings.

Landscape painting developed in the 4th and 5th century and became the most popular theme for painters beginning in the 11th century. While early figure painting was influenced by Confucianism, landscape painting found inspiration in Taoist thought. As it developed artists often sought inspiration more from artistic tradition than directly from nature. The painter-connoisseur Dong Qichang (1555-1636) wrote, "If one considers the wonders of nature, then painting does not equal landscape. But if one considers the wonders of brushwork, then landscape does not equal painting. "

Buddhism, Confucianism and early Taoism all emphasized the concepts of reclusiveness and communing with nature and this was reflected in landscape painting. Popular subjects such as mountains, streams, trees and mist were all prized for the transcendent freedom they inspired. Mountains usually come in two types: the rugged, steep, precipitous of northern China, or the misty, elegant, rolling mountains of the Kiangnan region in southern China.

Some landscape paintings are descriptive: an accumulation of painstaking details. Other are more emotional. Figures are mere specks that are primarily there to establish scale.

"All landscapes," wrote the 11th century critic Shen Kua, "have to be viewed from the angle of totality...to see more than one layer of the mountain at one time...see the totality of its unending ranges." In the early fourteenth century the philosopher Tang Hou wrote: "Landscape painting is the essence of the shaping powers of Nature. This through the vicissitudes of yin and yang---weather, time, and climate---the charm of inexhaustible transformation is unfailingly visible. If you yourself do not possess that grand wavelike vastness of mountain and valley within your heart and mind, you will be unable to capture it with ease in your painting.

History of Chinese Landscape Painting

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “ By the late Tang dynasty, landscape painting had evolved into an independent genre that embodied the universal longing of cultivated men to escape their quotidian world to commune with nature. Such images might also convey specific social, philosophical, or political convictions. As the Tang dynasty disintegrated, the concept of withdrawal into the natural world became a major thematic focus of poets and painters. Faced with the failure of the human order, learned men sought permanence within the natural world, retreating into the mountains to find a sanctuary from the chaos of dynastic collapse. [Source: Department of Asian Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

“During the early Song dynasty, visions of the natural hierarchy became metaphors for the well-regulated state. At the same time, images of the private retreat proliferated among a new class of scholar-officials. These men extolled the virtues of self-cultivation—often in response to political setbacks or career disappointments—and asserted their identity as literati through poetry, calligraphy, and a new style of painting that employed calligraphic brushwork for self-expressive ends. The monochrome images of old trees, bamboo, rocks, and retirement retreats created by these scholar-artists became emblems of their character and spirit.\^/

“Under the Mongol Yuan dynasty, when many educated Chinese were barred from government service, the model of the Song literati retreat evolved into a full-blown alternative culture as this disenfranchised elite transformed their estates into sites for literary gatherings and other cultural pursuits. These gatherings were frequently commemorated in paintings that, rather than presenting a realistic depiction of an actual place, conveyed the shared cultural ideals of a reclusive world through a symbolic shorthand in which a villa might be represented by a humble thatched hut. Because a man's studio or garden could be viewed as an extension of himself, paintings of such places often served to express the values of their owner.\^/

“The Yuan dynasty also witnessed the burgeoning of a second kind of cultivated landscape, the "mind landscape," which embodied both learned references to the styles of earlier masters and, through calligraphic brushwork, the inner spirit of the artist. Going beyond representation, scholar-artists imbued their paintings with personal feelings. By evoking select antique styles, they could also identify themselves with the values associated with the old masters. Painting was no longer about the description of the visible world; it became a means of conveying the inner landscape of the artist's heart and mind.\^/

“During the Ming dynasty, when native Chinese rule was restored, court artists produced conservative images that revived the Song metaphor for the state as a well-ordered imperial garden, while literati painters pursued self-expressive goals through the stylistic language of Yuan scholar-artists. Shen Zhou (1427–1509), the patriarch of the Wu school of painting centered in the cosmopolitan city of Suzhou, and his preeminent follower Wen Zhengming (1470–1559) exemplified Ming literati ideals. Both men chose to reside at home rather than follow official careers, devoting themselves to self-cultivation through a lifetime spent reinterpreting the styles of Yuan scholar-painters.\^/

“Morally charged images of reclusion remained a potent political symbol during the early years of the Manchu Qing dynasty, a period in which many Ming loyalists lived in self-enforced retirement. Often lacking access to important collections of old masters, loyalist artists drew inspiration from the natural beauty of the local scenery. Images of nature have remained a potent source of inspiration for artists down to the present day... Viewing Chinese landscape paintings, it is clear that Chinese depictions of nature are seldom mere representations of the external world. Rather, they are expressions of the mind and heart of the individual artists—cultivated landscapes that embody the culture and cultivation of their masters.” \^/

Taoist Painting

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Fanghu Island
of the Taoist immortal

Taoism had a major influence on Chinese art forms such as painting, ritual objects, sculpture, calligraphy and clothing. Themes include rituals, cosmology and mountains. Birgitta Augustin of New York University wrote: “Daoist art reflects the broad timespan and the diverse regions, constituencies, and practices of its creators. The artists—commissioned professionals, but also leading Daoist masters, adepts, scholar-amateurs, and even emperors—working in written, painted, sewn, sculpted, or modeled media, created an astonishingly eclectic body of works ranging from sublime evocations of cosmic principles to elaborate visions of immortal realms and paradises as well as visualizations of the Daoist pantheon, medicinal charts, and ritual implements. [Source: Birgitta Augustin Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

Chinese painting was greatly influenced by Taoism, a mystical religion-philosophy based on the principal that following the rhythms of nature are key to reaching heaven. The Tao tradition brought together past and present, nature and art, and poetry and painting. The best Tao-influenced Chinese art was defined as "divine class" or "marvelous class," terms that describe works by painters who developed their individual capacities to reveal the spirit of heaven and nature found in everyone.” [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]

One of its most important goals of Taoist painting was revealing qi, variously known as the "Breath of Heaven," the "Breath of Nature" or the "Quality of Spirit." According to one painting manual, "qi is as basic as the way [people] are formed and so it is with rocks, which are the framework of the heavens and of earth, and also have qi. That is the reason rocks are sometimes spoken of as 'roots of the clouds.' Rocks without qi are dead rocks, as bones without the same vivifying spirit are dry bare bones. How could a cultivated person paint a lifeless rock...rocks must be alive."

Taoist painting often contained heavenly deities, roaming immortals, guardian figures and protectors of the faith. These images helped propagate Taoism by informing illiterate people though images rather than texts.

Among the popular subjects of Taoist paintings are the Eight Immortals, Liu Hai and his golden three-legged toad, deities on flying dragons, guardian figures, protectors of the faithful, "The Three Purities" (three important Taoist deities roaming through heaven), and "Three Officials on an Inspection Tour" (deified officials of heaven, earth and water on a procession through the clouds, land and water).

Immortality was a central element of Taoism. Famous Taoist painting dealing with immortality include “Immortal Ascending on a Dragon”, “Riding a Dragon”, “Fungus of Immortality”, “Picking Herbs”, and “Preparing Elixirs”.

Books: Augustin, Birgitta “Eight Daoist Immortals in the Yuan Dynasty: Note on the Origin of the Group and Its Iconography.” Orientations 41 (September 2010), pp. 81–87.. Augustin, Birgitta “The Daoist Image—Portrait of the Immortal.” In The World of Khublai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty, by James C. Y. Watt et al., pp. 128–57.. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010; Eichman, Shawn “Immortals of the Wine Cup: Religious Images on Seventeenth Century Chinese Porcelain.” Orientations 34, no. 3 (2003), pp. 86–92.. Eichman, Shawn “The Art of Taoist Scriptures.” Orientations 31, no. 10 (2000), pp. 36–44. Fong, Wen C. Beyond Representation: Chinese Painting and Calligraphy, 8th–14th Century. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992; Hay, Jonathan Shitao: Painting and Modernity in Early Qing China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001; Katz, Paul R. Images of the Immortal: The Cult of Lü Dongbin at the Palace of Eternal Joy. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1999; Kohn, Livia Daoism and Chinese Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Three Pines Press, 2001; Little, Stephen “What is Taoist Art?” Orientations 31, no. 10(2000), pp. 26–35. Little, Stephen; Eichman, Shawn, et al. Taoism and the Arts of China. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2000; Pregadio, Fabrizio, ed. The Encyclopedia of Taoism. 2 vols.. London: Routledge, 2008; Robinet, Isabelle Taoism: Growth of a Religion. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997.\^/

Taoism and Painting Quickly From Memory

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Taoist immortal

To paint in a Taoist manner, painters had to paint quickly in an attempt to capture nature in its true state. "To paint the bamboo," the poet and painter Su Shih wrote in the 11th century, "one must have it entirely within one. Grasp the brush, look intently [at the paper], then visualize what you are going to paint. Follow you vision quickly, lift your brush and pursue directly that which you see, as a falcon dives on a springing hare---the least slackening and it will escape you."

Chinese painters were expected to paint from memory rather than depicting a landscape that lay before them. The artist was expected to have a kind of "photographic memory" which psychologists G. W. Allport later described as a "visual-memory image [that] revives the earlier optical impression when the eyes are closed...with hallucinatory clearness." [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]

The Chinese were also forced by their materials to paint quickly in one continuous process. Unlike Leonardo da Vinci, who developed oil paints for the Last Supper which could applied at a rate of only a few strokes a day, Chinese painters used quick drying ink and absorbent paper which could not be erased or retouched. In the 11th century landscape painter Kuo His wrote: "In painting any view the artist must concentrate his powers to unify the work. Otherwise it will not bear the peculiar imprint of his soul...If a painter forces himself to work when he feels lazy his productions will be weak and spiritless, without decision."

"As the arts of the calligraphy and painting developed," Boorstin wrote, "these arts developed a discipline to assure a calm mind, a cultivated memory. All the scholars activities were acts of reverence for nature, or as a metaphor for the nobility of man." To prepare for painting some Chinese artists medited on the rhythms of nature by taking reflective walks in the forest. The goal wrote the Taoist scholar Chang Tzu was to "achieve the goal of self-cultivation" through "sageliness within and kingliness without." [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]

History of Taoist Art

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Early Spring by Guo Xi
The earliest examples of Taoist art---murals, sculptures and talisman made by shamans and Taoist adepts---have been lost to time. Although works of Taoist art remain from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) none of them are paintings. Taoism spread throughout China during the Six Dynasties Period (220-588 A.D.), when Taoist art was often featured on the walls Taoist monasteries and temples. The father of Taoist painting is regarded as Ku K'ai-chih, a 4th-century sage-painter. Although none of his works remain, we know about him from the Tang Dynasty text “Record of Famous Painting Throughout the Ages”. Ku K'ai-chih is credited with painting images of Illustrious Fairies and Illustrious Immortals.

Taoist painting flourished during the Tang dynasty (618-906) under the generous patronage of the imperial court. Famous Taoist Tang painters include the muralists Wu Tao-tzu (690?-758?) and Yang T'ing-kuang (713-741). Chang Su-ching produced great images of guardian figures during the Five Dynasties period (907-960).

During the Sung dynasty (960-1279), Taoism and Taoist art were lavishly supported by the emperors Chen-tsung (998-1022) and Hui-tsung (1101-1125). The zenith of Taoist painting occurred in the 11th century, when 100 artists, chosen from 3,000 candidates, lead by chief painter Wu Tsung-yuan produced the wall painting “Immortal Protectors of the Dynasty” in the Three Purities temple at Lonyang.

Very few paintings remain from the golden period of Taoist periods. All of the Taoist paintings from the Tang dynasty have been lost but a few from the Sung dynasty survive. The Yung-lo Temple, built during the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), in Shaanxi Province contains some old Taoist paintings. Most of the Taoist paintings seen in temples and museums come from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1645-1911) dynasties. Works by the artists Ma Yuan (1190-1224) from the Sung Dynasty and Chang Yü-ch'u from the Ming dynasty can be seen at the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

Examples of Taoist Art

Birgitta Augustin of New York University wrote: “The Daoist sage Laozi is often shown riding on an ox or in an ox cart as he prepared to leave China by way of a pass to the West. Legend has it that he authored the Daodejing, or Scripture of the Way and Virtue, when the guard at the pass asked him to write down his teachings. A small bronze sculpture presents the sage in a full robe, topknot, and a long narrow beard. Images of the other paramount figure of Daoist philosophy, Zhuangzi, are less common, but The Pleasure of Fishes by the late thirteenth-century painter Zhou Dongqing evokes a famous passage from Zhuangzi's writings about recognizing feelings of joy in others. Wu Boli's Dragon Pine presents a Daoist manifestation of qi, or "cosmic energy," as a powerful pine tree that recalls the double-S curve of the cosmic yin-yang diagram. The horizontal landscape Cloudy Mountains by the Daoist abbot Fang Congyi similarly transforms a mountain range into a writhing dragon vein of energy that uncoils out of the distance only to vanish into a misty void. [Source: Birgitta Augustin Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

“A superbly crafted gilt-brass sculpture by a fifteenth-century artist may be identified as the Celestial Worthy of the Primordial Beginning, one of the Three Purities—the highest deities in the Daoist Pantheon. The robe of a Daoist dignitary (daoshi), probably worn during Daoist rituals, features numerous auspicious symbols, including sun and moon medallions on the shoulders as well as cranes, deer, and dragons. Beneficent Rain by the Celestial Master Zhang Yucai, the highest dignitary of the Orthodox Unity sect of southern Daoism, illustrates dragons—embodiments of cosmic energy capable of bringing forth clouds and rain. The painting was likely intended to demonstrate Zhang's prowess in rainmaking rituals.\^/

“Two Ming-dynasty paintings depict members of the Daoist pantheon, which resembles a complex bureaucracy made up of deities in the form of stars, officials, marshals, and lords. Star Deities of the Northern and Central Dippers presents two constellations in anthropomorphic form, while Marshal Wang illustrates a protective deity and his retinue. Both images, which recall large-scale temple murals, were created as part of extensive sets of icons used in religious rituals similar to those performed by Buddhists. The Lord of the Northern Palace, Zhenwu, one of the most prominent deities in the Daoist pantheon, can be identified by the serpent coiled around a tortoise that appears at the front of the pedestal on which he sits. The Daoist deity , decorated with yellow, green, black, and white glazes typical of Ming-dynasty Daoist and Buddhist ceramic sculptures, probably represents the Heavenly Marshal Zhao (Zhao Gong Ming), and epitomizes the kind of local gods that were absorbed into the Daoist pantheon. The Investiture of a Daoist Deity, an extraordinary nine-meter-long handscroll, depicts such an appropriation.\^/

“Among the many divinities in the Daoist pantheon, few are as prominent as the Eight Immortals, a group of legendary figures that first became popular in the twelfth century (2006.238). In the fan painting Immortal Lü Dongbin Appearing over the Yueyang Pavilion (17.170.2), one member of this group is seen "flying" through the sky. Lü is said to have received sacred knowledge from Zhongli Quan, another of the Eight Immortals, who is shown framed by clouds on a Ming blue-and-white ceramic bottle (2010.312). Landscape representations often evoke Daoist themes, such as Spring Dawn over the Elixir Terrace (1982.2.2) by the literati artist Lu Guang, or the miniature mountainscape sculpted in jade (02.18.684)—a stone of such hardness and purity that it bears connotations of immortality. Often landscapes allude to Daoist paradises, as is the case in Outing to Zhang Gong's Grotto (1982.126) by the Ming loyalist painter Shitao (1642–1707), who renounced his status as a Buddhist monk late in life and adopted the Daoist identity of Dadizi, "the great purified one."

Luo Ping, the Ghost Painter

Luo Ping was an 18th century Chinese artist who specialized in rendering ghosts. Yale historian and China expert Jonathan D. Spence wrote: “Luo Ping was not only innovative in “portraying” his ghosts with such specificity, he kept the element of surprise constantly to the fore...In the third section of his Ghost Amusement portrayed an absorbed amorous couple in unmarred human form, gazing into each other's eyes, while a man in the tall white hat of the underworld's guardians prepared to lead the couple into the netherworld. The woman's bared red shoes offered the viewer a signal that was, for the times, shockingly erotic. After four more panels of the magically displayed ghost figures, the eighth and final panel would have come with a startling force to the unprepared viewer---as two complete skeletons were portrayed standing tall and opposite each other in a clump of bare trees, dark rocks, and wild grasses. The precisely delineated specificity of these figures did not convey an auspicious message, but instead closed the scroll on a somber more than a mysterious note.”[Source: Jonathan D. Spence, New York Review of Books, in connection with Eccentric Visions: The Worlds of Luo Ping (1733-1799): an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, October 6, 2009; January 10, 2010]

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Luo Ping ghost painting
In one series of Luo Ping scrolls he art historian Yeewan Koon wrote: “Half naked with bald pates and small swollen stomachs, the two figures also recall the world of hungry ghosts, one of the Buddhist realms of existence. But the human emotions on the faces of Luo's ghosts place them in a gray consciousness that lurks between the real and the otherworldly. In this painting, Luo has created an ethereal existence by making his ghosts both strikingly familiar, through their human pathos, and evocatively strange,through their physical deformities.

Koon wrote: “The second leaf is a contrast of types: a skinny, bare-chested ghost with an official's hat follows a fat, bald ghost in tattered clothes against an empty background. The oscillation between specificity of types and ambiguity of situation allows room for a range of interpretations; some viewers were prompted to read this scene as phantasmagoric social commentary. [One scholar], for example, a Hanlin academician and playwright, described the figures in leaf 2 as a ‘slave ghost” and his master, whom he then compared to corrupt Confucian officials.

This “urge to rationalize the ghosts as allegories of human behavior,” adds Koon, “is derived in part from the theatrical immediacy of the images,” and in this sense the ghost paintings catch the tensions and contrasts that were coming to dominate this time in China's history---as well as the layers of religious euphoria that lay behind the alternate reading of the scrolls title as a “realm of ghosts,” a literalness of interpretation that Luo Ping deliberately fostered by his repeated claims that he had seen the ghosts in person on many occasions. This claim, writes Koon, was a part of Luo Ping's “invented persona as an artist who saw and painted ghosts,” a persona that ‘set him apart in a capital teeming with talent.”

Life of Luo Ping

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Luo Ping ghost painting
Spence wrote: “Luo Ping, who lived from 1733 to 1799, was perfectly placed by time and circumstance to view the shifts in fortune that were so prominent in China at that period. He grew up in Yangzhou, a prosperous city on the Grand Canal, just north of the Yangzi River, which linked the capital at Beijing with the prosperous commercial and intellectual hubs of Suzhou and Hangzhou. Yangzhou's strategic location and commercial prominence served it well, and by the time of Luo Ping's birth it” was---the financial center for the salt merchants of coastal and central China, who purchased from the central government the right to sell and transplant salt, and built up colossal private fortunes from this lucrative trade.” [Source: Jonathan D. Spence, New York Review of Books]

“Partly because of the lavish kickbacks that the merchants made to local officials and to the emperor's personal household managers, the city was graced with six visits from Emperor Qianlong, visits that sparked a building boom in order to provide adequately opulent living quarters for the imperial visitor and his entourage. At the same time there were correspondingly lavish expansions of Buddhist temples, decorative waterways, elaborate gardens, and a predictably energized ambience of restaurants, teahouses, and brothels.”

“The city was favored with both imperial patronage and the generosity of the salt merchants---many of whom assembled magnificent libraries and hired renowned local scholars as cultural amanuenses or tutors to their children, so that they might have a chance to pass the imperial examinations. This vibrant intellectual world in its turn attracted other scholars and artists to the region so that Yangzhou became a byword for informed connoisseurship and aesthetic exploration.”

“Luo Ping's father had passed the second level of the state examinations, which was no small feat, and could be achieved only by those with excellent academic training---but he died before Luo Ping was one year old; the most celebrated ancestor Luo could claim was a great-grandmother who was glorified---at least in family lore and reminiscence---for having taken her own life in the fierce siege of 1645. Luo was raised by an uncle, who saw that he got a good education, fostered his skills as a poet, and introduced him to some of the wealthy merchants known for their cultural gatherings. At age nineteen, Luo married a finely educated woman, already celebrated for her literary and artistic skills, with whom he had three children, who also became accomplished poets and painters.”

Image Sources: 1, 14) Wikipedia; 2, 4, 8, 9, 10) University of Washington; 3) Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html ; 5, 6, 7 ) China Beautiful website; 9, 12) Palace Museum, Taipie; 11, 13) Metropolitan Museum of Art; 14) Shanghai Museum. Luo Ping ghost painting from the Met in New York, Nelson-Atking Museum, Ressel Fok collection, Shanghai Museum.

Text Sources: Palace Museum, Taipei, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2016


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