CHINA -- SONG through MING DYNASTIES
(960 - 1644)
Peeping at the Bath
(late 11th to early 12th cent.) shows Tang Emperor Ming-huang (r. 712 -
756) stealing a glance at the bathing of his beloved consort Yang Gui-fei,
one of the fabulous beauties in Chinese history. A small pine in
a quatrefoil pot, dark with small feet, is in the lower right-hand corner
of the picture. Both the tree and pot would be surprisingly modern-looking
to twentieth century observers.
The Subject: The true story of the romance of the emperor and his concubine, the facts of history, are not very edifying. In A.D. 745, the emperor, then over sixty years, was attracted by the beauty of the wife of his son, Prince Shou. He forced the Prince to divorce his wife, gave him another bride in compensation, and took the infamous Yang Gui-fei into his own harem. Yang soon managed to acquire a complete domination over her aged consort. It was through her influence that An Lu-Shan rose to the highest favor and obtained the power to organize his terrible revolt. After fleeing the capital with the emperor, she was strangled on the insistence of his bodyguards. The emperor never recovered, and after abdicating, wandered unhappily about the palace mourning his concubine.
The Artist: Attributed to the Zhang Zeduan [Chang Tse-tuan], a member of the scholar-gentry, appointed to the Hanlin Academy between 1110 and 1117, and perhaps the greatest Song painter of realistic scenes. Famous for his paintings of boats, wagons, markets, bridges, and architecture, his works are almost photographic in their range of detail depicted and Zhang's complete mastery of shadowing. He did not consider it beneath him to concern himself with the mundane details of everyday life. 1
Lou Shou (1090-1162), a magistrate of Yu qian County (today's Lin'an
County in Zhejiang Province) who first drew pictures of farming and
weaving in order to describe the various links in the working
procedures of farming and sericulture and to reflect the general
development of farming techniques in the Song Dynasty. Later
artists followed his lead and "Pictures of Farming and Weaving"
gradually became a set form in drawing agricultural works.
The Work: Old Lai-tzu is an illustration of one of the Twenty-Four Stories of Filial Piety which would be memorized by generations of Chinese children. The Daoist philosopher, in order to show his seventy-year old parents that seventy is not old, amuses them by dressing and playing with toys like a small child. Just off the left front corner of the square mat on which the parents sit with their couch/platform are two containerized plantings. A round light colored pot, resting in a shallow flaring bowl with at least three feet, holds a penjing which is equivalent to perhaps nine inches in height. To the left of this is a larger round lipped pot, perhaps eight inches deep by eighteen or more inches across. This is supported by a large dark X-shaped stand having four legs, each connected to its opposite by two horizontal bars. The pot, which has some type of design on its sides, holds a wide V-shaped plant or possibly a penjing.
The Artist: Chao Meng-chien (1199-1295). 3
The Work: Mahaprajapati Nursing the Infant Buddha (I-mu yü Fo t'u) is an ink and color on silk scroll 31.9 x 508cm (12-9/16 x 200"). The left and right-most sections have calligraphy. The central section (94.4 cm or 37-3/16" wide) is the subject drawing. Toward its right edge there is a flower-petal-spiked and globular metal bowl on an elaborately decorated stand holding a curious-shaped en-tendrilled rock rising out of a base of about two dozen small light-colored stones. To the left of this are the central figures, Mahapajapati Gotami, the maternal aunt of the Buddha, holding the infant in her arms and nursing the little prince with a peach She became his foster mother after the early death of Mahamaya. Mahapajapati's own child, Nanda, is left aside to the care of one her five attendants. A dog rests on the floor to the left side of this section.
The Artist: Wang Zhenpeng (zi P'eng-mei, hao Ku-yün-ch-u-shih, c.1280-c.1329), a landscape painter from Zhejiang province who was active in the imperial court. "He was the most famous exponent of 'boundary painting' (jiehua), which is characterized by precision and accuracy, especially in the depiction of architectural details, usually achieved with a ruler. He served at the Yuan court in Beijing and became known to the emperor, Renzong (reg 1312-21), who bestowed on him the name Guyun Chushi ('The Hermit of Lonely Clouds'). Appointed an official in the fifth rank, he served in the Imperial Library, thus having an opportunity to view many of the paintings and books in that collection, sometimes even making copies of the paintings. He painted many works of interest to the Emperor and the court, such as famous palaces of the past, well-known pavilions and buildings, activities in the court and historical and Buddhist figures, all executed in extremely fine lines without color." 4
The Work: The Reclining Pine or Dwarf Siberian Pine depicts a flat rectangular tray, light colored with corner feet, holding a tree which curves away from and then back over a rockery to the immediate left of the pine. What appears to be a thin wire is very loosely draped around the tree's trunk. The wire so positioned serves no apparent purpose -- perhaps the artist depicted the tree or at least the wiring only from second-hand knowledge. Was the wire perhaps left on the tree loosely after being unwound, waiting for the next tightening and shaping? If so, this is probably the earliest evidence of a tree wired. Or is the wire actually string, used in Buddhist temples as a symbol of a connection with the Buddha?
The Artist: Li Shixing [Li Shih-hsing] (1280-1368). 5
The Work: Gathering in the Apricot Garden (c.1437) is an ink and color on silk painting about a meeting by the celebrated civil servants, the three Yang brothers, with scholar officials at Yang Rong's garden on April 6, 1437. Right of center and partially hidden behind a wall of sorts are two elaborate pots on a stone table. To the left and slightly forward is a scalloped/fluted oval bowl containing companion grasses (?), and a little towards the back to the right is a larger rectangular pot containing a tree.
The Subject: The three Yangs were celebrated for their exemplary service as consultants to the empire. Yang Shiqi, Rong and Pu [Shih-ch'i, Jung and P'u] entered the Hanlin Academy -- as did most other consultants who were then recruited through examinations -- at about the same time and served five emperors in their roles of increasing importance. Their scholarship, brilliance, and justice contributed greatly to the stability and moderation of the Ming empire up to 1440, when old age and death began to eliminate them from the court. All three were grand secretaries.
The Artist: Xie Tingxun [Hsieh T'ing-hsun]. 6
The Work: Befriending the Pines ( You song tu ), hand scroll, ink and colour on paper. Just left of center is a low table supporting three pots, two with trees and a middle one with accessory plants. Both medium-sized trees are apparently pines, partly the source of the scroll's title. The left pot is a round vase with narrowed neck and rim base; the right container is rectangular with small corner feet. The small round pot holds some form of grass. These penzai are outside the vertical or cross-woven bamboo-fence surrounding the compound, but still within the confines of a three-rail open fence which may be around the entire property. Children and adults are front and left of the potted trees. A pine-clad group of low hills are left of them; the compound with pines and other trees is to the right.
The Artist: Du Qiong (1397-1474) was a major figure of the Suzhou elite. His father had been one of the victims of the forced population migration initiated by the Ming founder. During the period of 1426-1435, Du Qiong partially rebuilt the "Pleasure Patch," a famous urban site of the Song dynasty which had been laid out and named by Zhu Changwen (1039-1098) on the site of a yet more ancient property, the Golden Valley Garden of the Qian family. 7
The Work: Wuling in the Spring Facing forward, a woman of education is seated on a stool in front of a table which has legs in the form of rocks -- the table itself appears to be carved from a slab of rock with a fairly smooth upper surafce. Behind her and to her right on the table are a book, a ch'in (zither), a scroll-painting, and an inkwell in the form of a mountain. Left of the table on the ground/floor is a landscape in a dark rectangular container. A tree, perhaps equivalent to 18 inches tall, is in the left half of the container. It appears to be near leafless but has good rootage. The soil surface is light colored The right half of the container is empty and might have been used for holding water. The septum dividing the two portions is slightly curved.
The Artist: Wu Wei (fl. 1495-1508). 8
Night Entertainments of Han Xizai (first half 16th cent.), in the Sichuan Provincial Museum, Chongqing.
The specimen of interest is at least 2' tall and 3' wide, a non-coniferous plant with small reddish flowers. The dark
brownish-black trunk curves to the right above the base, backtracks to the left and curves a bit more to the left and upwards.
The first branch comes off from the left for a length equal to that of the trunk, with a second branch off to the right a shorter length.
The tree is planted in an 8-lobed shallow dish that tops a fancy raised piece of sculpture, all white (marble?). A bluish-green
curving wall decorated in honey-comb pattern comes close behind this composition. A woman (used here for scale) stands perhaps 4'
to the right of the tree.
The Subject: A Ming copy of the older scroll by Gu Hongzhong (937-975) depicting Han Xizai, a minister of Li Yu. "Gu was supposedly sent to 'spy' on Han Xizai. Depending on the version of the story, Han Xizai was either suspected of rebellion or repeatedly missed early-morning audiences with the emperor because of his revelry and needed to be shamed into dignified behavior. In yet another version of the story, Han Xizai was not a minister, but had refused Li Yu's offer to make him prime minister. Curious, Li Yu wanted to know what was more desirable to Han Xizai than such a high position." In Tang's version of the picture, the tradition was followed of updating the interior decorations, while leaving the original figures largely unchanged. He inserted costly furnishings, screen paintings, textiles and other collectible objects to reflect Suzhou's status as the Ming center for silk weaving and handicraft production, and its local market for luxury goods.
The Artist: Attributed to Tang Yin [Tang Bohu, 1470-1524], born in Souzhou, a scholar, painter, calligrapher, and poet. 9
Penjing with Rock and Acorus Grass, c. 1554, ink on paper hanging scroll, 75.2 x 20.8 cm
(29-5/8 x 11-3/4"), signed by the painter, with a poem inscribed in 1554 by Peng Nian (1505-1566). A low three-footed
oval pot, with drum nails between the thin lip and slightly expanded middle, holds a tall hole-ridden rock. The stone
widens at mid-point from almost half the width of the pot's opening to almost the entire pot's width towards its top.
The rock stands about two pot widths high and its lower half is liberally springing with three separate tufts of thin-bladed
The Author: Lu Zhi (Suzhou, Jiangsu; 1496-1576). 10__________
The Jin Gu (Golden Valley) Garden of Shi Chong [Chin-ku, Shih Ch'ung]
(first half 16th cent.), 224 x 130 cm, ink and colors on silk.
Two large potted trees, in light colored low wide 4-lobed containers,
are on the ground outside of a covered breezeway. The trees are the
equivalent of at least four feet in height. The left-hand tree
holds at least four pale pink flowers; the right tree at least two
The Subject: An imaginative portrayal of the third century C.E. garden as a sixteenth century-style elaborate estate. Despite the protestations by Shi Chong (249-300) that his estate was only a simple country retreat, his garden has gone down in history as one of the most opulent estates of all time. It was northeast of the capital city of Luoyang and lasted until Tang dynasty times (seventh century). The legendary garden, with its "many thousands" of cypresses, numerous buildings and a private orchestra, was the site of many festivals and poetic compositions. It became a classic symbol of luxurious living.
The Artist: Qiu Ying [Ch'iu Ying, c.1494-1551], born in Wuxian [Wu-hsien] of lowly origins, was neither a court painter nor scholar but a humble professional. This Suzhou artist was at the top of the market in the Ming period and spent part of his career living with the wealthy merchant and collector Xiang Yuanbian (1525-1590). Idealizing in his pictures the leisurely life of the gentry whose equal he could never be, Qiu was happiest if one of the great literati condescended to write a eulogy on one of his paintings. He left no body of writings himself and inscribed his work with no more than a simple signature. The fact that his dates are not known, at a time when large amounts of writing about art and artists were being produced, is itself indicative of his status in the eyes of the landowning, bureaucratic élite of the empire. Qiu is also famous for his long handscrolls on silk depicting exquisite detail and done in delicate color. His delightful pictures are widely appreciated both in China and in the West, and next to Wang Hui [1632-1717, one of the so-called Six Great Masters of the early Qing Dynasty], Qiu is probably the most forged painter in the history of Chinese art! 11
Early Spring in a Palace Garden during the Han period
Han Gong Qun Xiao Tu
Han Kung Ch'un Hsiao T'u
]). Two separate groups of pentsai are to be seen
on this scroll. The one about a quarter of the way from the right
edge is made up of a medium grouping of three columns of rock in a large
raised basin/stand, and flanked by two potted broad-leaf trees. The
right pentsai with at least four pom-pom layers of foliage is in a round
pot; the left with at least six is in a rectangular container. The
group -- just above the horizontal centerline of the scroll -- is in the
middle of the balustrade-enclosed open space. The women viewing these
do so from outside the space.
The Subject: This long scroll illustrates the occupations of a noble lady and her female friends in an exclusive private garden with pavilions, mirroring ponds, tunneled rocks, and flowering trees. The sight as depicted is not meant to be a historical reconstruction, and it bares little connection with the actual styles of the Han Period. Rather, it gracefully represents the elegant modes and the architectural decoration of the Ming Dynasty. The scroll, of course, is meant to be viewed right to left, winding up in one's right hand what has been seen and unrolling with one's left hand new sections. The entire scroll is not meant to be viewed at one time, as Western style museum displays seem to require. Palace in Spring is considered as the first long scroll heavy meticulous style of Chinese painting mounted in silk, in its dimension of 37.2cm x 2038.5cm (14.65" x 802.56" = 66.88' long).
The Artist: Attributed to Qiu Ying also. 12
The Work: Writing in the early 17th century, Wen Zhenheng recommended a simple daybed ( ta ) for a gentleman's sleeping quarters; his suggested arrangement -- with a couple of stools and a small table set to the side -- corresponds closely to scene painted by Qiu Ying some 50 years earlier.
Therein, a gentleman relaxes leisurely upon on a simianping daybed, and while reclining against a backrest, looks out upon an enclosed private garden.
The Author: Also ascribed to Qiu. 13
The Work: In an untitled painting, three women are examining a penjing in a low round light-colored container resting on a low table in a palace garden. One of them invites a fourth to join them. Just right of the fourth woman is a lotus-dotted bathing pool.
The Author: Also ascribed to Qiu, but executed later. 14
The Work: An unattributed work (1637) depicts three gentlemen in long-eared officials' hats inspecting handsome pentsai in an outdoor courtyard. Three servants left of center each hold a container for one of the officials in particular to examine. The rearmost pentsai possibly is a maple with a rock in an outsweeping-lipped circular bowl; the front left one, a pine -- a symbol of incorruptibility -- in a tiled or lined circular pot; and the right front rectangular container has one or two rocks which are slightly taller than the narrow-leaved plants around them.
The Subject: A four line caption down the upper right edge of the painting translates approximately as:
who was very clean, honest and incorruptible. He has never accepted a bribe. 15
The Work: An unattributed 12-section folding screen (c.1625-1650) which adorned the reception room of a wealthy family. Tinted lacquer and oil paint applied to carved lacquer on wood. Around the approximately 20% outer edge are assorted flowering branches (along bottom), bronze vessels and baskets/containers of flower decorations (along top and top half of sides) and at least two miniature landscapes. These edge decorations are placed somewhat symmetrically for a pleasing composition. The two rock and flowering plant landscapes are on the end panels about a third of the way up from the bottom left and right.
The birthday of Xi Wang Mu, the "Queen Mother of the West,"
who is receiving the peaches of eternal life from the Eight Immortals, central figures
in Daoist mythology.
1. Wu, Yee-Sun Man Lung Artistic Pot Plants
(Hong Kong: Wing-Lung Bank Ltd; 1974, Second edition), pg. 30, with b&w photo;
Resnick, Susan M. Bachenheimer
Bonsai (Boston: Little, Brown and Company; 1991, 1992), pg. 13, with color photo;
Sullivan, Michael The Arts of China (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press;
1984, Third Edition), pg. 159;
Fitzgerald, C.P. China, A Short Cultural History (Boulder, CO: Westview Press; 1985), pg. 299.
2. Personal e-mail to RJB from Tomas Melo,
March 27, 2001. Pictures "found in library." Personal
e-mail to RJB from Prof. Dr. Gunter Lind, Jan. 13, 2006, identifying
Tomas' 3 small images and adding two larger ones, with thoughts about
the landscapes being not restricted to the upper class. Source is
Keng Tschi Tu, Ackerbau und Seidengewinnung
(Agriculture and Silk Production in Ancient China) (Hamburg, 1913);
Review of Farming and Weaving Pictures in Ancient China, http://www.hceis.com/Product/index/agriculture/Agi-AncAg.htm ;
You, Xiuling "Historical Growth and Values of Rice Culture," Zhejiang University of Agriculture, Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, PR China (Agricultural Archaeology 1998:406–8. Transl/interp. by Dr. W. Tsao, 6/14/01; ed. by G. Leir & B. Gordon), http://admissions.carleton.ca/~bgordon/Rice/papers/you98.htm.
3. Fairbank, John K., Edwin O. Reischauer and Albert M. Craig: East Asia, Tradition & Transformation (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company; 1989. Revised Edition), pg. 45. An 1873 Shanghai woodblock print is also shown on this page illustrating the same story. In its lower right corner there are two tall containers, with triangular petals along the bottom and drum-nails along the top. These pots hold flowering plants, somewhat stylized, with thin trunks/stems. Compared to other portrayals of that era, there is no justification in terming the plants here as pentsai.
Hay, John Kernels of Energy, Bones of Earth: The Rock
in Chinese Art (New York: China House Gallery; ©1985 China Institute of America), pg. 79, Pl. 44 (Fig. 17),
"section of handscroll, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Chinese and Japanese Special Fund."
Pertaining to the early existence of wire in China, the twelfth-century
writer Dong Yu [Tung Yu] said of the greatest Tang writer and possibly
greatest master of painting in the history of the Far East: "Wu Daozi [Wu
Tao-tzu, born c. A.D. 700]'s figures remind me of sculpture. One
can see them sideways and all around. His linework consists of minute
curves like rolled copper wire; however thickly his red or white paint
is laid on, the structure of the forms and modelling of the flesh are never
obscured." per Sullivan, pg. 125;
Fitzgerald, pg. 447;
The string theory, per conversation with Fred Carpenter at the Phoenix Bonsai Society, 12/15/92.
Keswick, Maggie Chinese Garden: History, Art & Architecture
(New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.; 1978), pg. 74, location given as Chion-in, Kyoto;
Sullivan, pp. 209, 236-237;
Sirén, Osvald Gardens of China (New York: The Ronald Press Company; 1949), Plate 82;
Wu, pg. 33, who lists the artist as Chao Ying.
Michael, Vince "In Search of Luxury," February 18, 2014, https://vincemichael.wordpress.com/2014/02/18/in-search-of-luxury/ 2nd image.