CHINA -- Up to the SONG DYNASTY
(to the year 960 C.E.)
Tribute Offered by a Vassal
) (c. mid-7th century
depicts a scene of at least twenty-five men presenting gifts to the court. Three of them each
carry long columns of rock, equivalent to three or four feet in length and perhaps six inches in diameter.
Each stone is riddled with hollows. (In a cropped view,
one particular specimen apparently has some flowers growing from it --
but when viewing the larger scene, one can see these are actually
ground plants juxtapositioned behind the rock.)
Three other persons are seen bringing exquisitely shaped rocks.
These are perhaps equivalent to between twelve and eighteen inches high,
arranged in a light brown/tan oval container of from nine to twenty-four inches
in length and three or four inches in depth. (These gifts bear a
striking resemblance to some of the landscape penjing we know today.)
Behind each of the two smaller rock carriers on the left is a fellow carrying an elephant tusk.
These two left-most men have beards, wear uncolored full-length cloaks, and appear to be of Mediterranean heritage. One has sandals and a covered head; the other is barefoot and has an uncovered head. The containers they carry have wider bases than brims. (Almost dogfood bowl-shaped, if you will.) The third container -- which is carried by a bare-foot and clean-shaven but balding character with a strange countenance, loin cloth and reddish wrap under one arm and across the other shoulder -- has more of the wide-brimmed serving tray look. These non-Chinese-appearing persons bringing strange-shaped rocks: Was this because the person receiving the tribute was fond of such things already or could these be original gifts which may have started something? Evidence of native Chinese gardens with rockery predates this work, but what is the earliest a container landscape can be identified elsewheres? Which vassal state is represented here? To which Chinese ruler is the tribute offered and was this a one-time occurrence or a repeated event? Who specified that these rocks be given at this time -- or on other occasions? Were the articles of tribute recorded and what became of the records? What became of the rocks? If, less likely, this is all just a fanciful depiction, what is the symbolism and origin of the concept?
(Now, the fortunes of the An family declined in the winter of 1746 and they decided to sell some ancient paintings and calligraphy. Word came to the Ch'ien-lung emperor and several pieces were purchased. Various works by famous masters had been sold to the imperial court by the An family, headed by An Ch'i (1683-1744), a Korean and the son of a servant of Mingju (1635-1708), an important minister during the K'ang-hsi period. An Ch'i's younger brother, An T'u, was the household manager for Mingju's son, who was an official in the Ministry of Works. An Ch'i himself was a salt merchant in Ch'ang-lu and Yang-chou. An Ch'i managed financial affairs for Mingju's son, and in return he received special protection in the salt trade. Because the entire operation ran so smoothly, there were gains on both sides.
(An Chi had not only the resources to purchase masterpieces but the eye of a connoisseur. Old families in the Chiang-nan region sought him out to authenticate their works, not infrequently offering to sell them to him as well. One of the famous works in An Ch'i's collection was the Tribute Bearers by Yan Li-pen. This entered the imperial collection when the An Ch'i's collection was dismantled in 1746.)
NEW DISCOVERY (late January 2012): This handscroll, now in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, bears an attribution to Yan Liben, but it is in fact a copy after the lost original, or possibly after early copies. Probably done in the Ming or early Qing period, the present painting may substitute items prized in the copyist's day for less familiar items shown in the Tang-dynasty original. Thus it becomes apparent that establishing a stylistic chronology for scholars' rocks may at times help clarify the dating of other media. The three rocks on the right side of the painting resemble the narrow, nearly cyclindrical black Lingbi rocks with deep, vertical furrows highly prized during the Qing dynasty ten or eleven centuries later.
Therefore, the question is: how faithful to the original painting is this copy? What were the original shapes of the stones, and were there actually stones depicted in the original?
Yan Liben [Yen Li-pen, 600 - 673] was a minister of state and a court painter, in fact, the most celebrated
painter of the seventh century in China. He was the son and brother of two other famous artists, had been a court painter
in attendance to the second Tang emperor, Taizong [T'ai-tsung], and rose to the high office
of Minister of the Right under the emperor's successor. His father, Yan Bi,
served Northern Zhou and Sui rulers with his expertise in architecture, engineering,
and the visual arts. He also designed weapons, organized imperial processions,
and supervised the construction of a section of the Great Wall; such duties apparently
exceeding those of a court painter as narrowly defined in later times. His two sons,
Lide (d.656) and Liben, both served in Taizong's court. As the designers of Tang
imperial mausoleums, they were probably responsible for the six famous stone horses in
front of Taizong's tomb at
Zhaoling, which have survived as the best examples of early Tang relief carving. Lide
was less a painter than an engineer and architect. Although he made some court portraits,
it was other kinds of service -- designing ceremonial costumes, constructing palace buildings,
and building bridges and ships for military purposes -- that won him the title of grand duke.
Courtiers and Guests (aka "Courtiers and Foreign Envoys," c. 706) is the ink and color on
plaster wall mural on the eastern wall in the middle of the passage to the tomb of
at Qianling [Chien Ling]. It vividly reproduces the scene of Tang officials greeting foreign envoys. In
the front are two enthusiastic court officials, and behind them are three foreign envoys. Research confirms that
the first envoy came from the Tujue tribe,
an ethnic minority tribe in north-western ancient China. This mural reflects the active exchange of friendly and
diplomatic visits between China and foreign countries during the Tang Dynasty.
Prince Zhang Huai (posthumous
name for Li Xian [Li Hsien], 655-684) was the second son of Empress Wu Zetian (r.690-705) and
the sixth son of the third Tang emperor, Gaozong (r.650-683). Zhang was named heir apparent
in 675, but five years later was accused by his mother of plotting a coup and
was banished to Sichuan. There he was later forced to commit suicide.
Following the restoration of Emperor Zhongzong (r.684, 705-710) and the death of the
empress in 705, Li Xian's title of Prince Yong was posthumously reinstated and his
remains were reinterred as one of the seventeen attendant tombs in the vast double
Qianling Mausoleum complex of his father -- and mother -- at Qianxian
[Chienhsien] county, Shaanxi province, to the northwest of the capital city of Xian.
In 711, Emperor Ruizong (r.684-690, 710-712) further restored Li Xian's status as heir
apparent with the title Crown Prince Zhanghuai. Later that year, Li Xian's consort,
Madame Fang, was buried with him and, although his tomb was not enlarged, the murals
were repainted to accord with his more exalted status.
Eighty-seven Immortals or Eighty-seven Celestials is a paper scroll picture believed to be a copy of a temple mural.
The scroll is approximately one foot high by six foot long. Assuming a height of ten feet, this would cover sixty
feet of temple wall, perhaps a panorama of three sides, say 15-30-15 feet. (The location of the temple mural is not known
to us currently.) This procession of deities, immortals, celestial
musicians, and attendants are on their way to pay respect to the highest celestial power. The figures are walking in line, having various poses
and holding different things, such as a canopy, a flag, a lotus, a lute, a sheng (a reed pipe) or a flute.
The primary and secondary figures are properly patterned, the civil and military ones are clearly differentiated.
It is really a spectacular paradise scene.
The section of the scroll brought to our attention includes a figure on the right bearing what appears to be an odd-shaped perhaps 6"-equivalent-tall rock on a thin round tray with a short edge and possibly a figure on the left carrying a thin lobed-tray holding a small flowering plant. It is quite possible that there are other magical miniature landscapes in the full scroll. If nothing else, by this date the little landscapes were well-known and highly-prized enough that they were considered proper for a heavenly inventory.
The Xu Beihong Museum is in Beijing. Xu Beihong (1895-1953) was an outstanding Chinese artist and educator of the fine arts. His works cover a wide range of styles and mediums, though he is best known for his horse paintings. His collection is comprised largely of works collected by the master, works from the Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties up to the May 4th Movement of 1919. All together, there are over 1,200 art objects, 10,000 ancient books, stone inscription rubbings, bronze vessel rubbings, and prints. Included is the expensive Tang painting Eighty-seven Immortals by Wu Daozi, which the master purchased in Hong Kong in 1938.
(The Picture of Eighty-seven Immortals is carved on the surface of a dam of the Panshan Reservoir in north China. Based on the work by Wu Daozi, the mural of 3,200 square meters is the largest in the world and has been listed in the Guinness Book of World Records.)
Wu Daozi (680-759) was born in Yangzhai (Yu County in Henan Province) of Han nationality. In
Chinese history, three people are revered as sages: the calligrapher
Wang Xizhi (303-361) of the West Jin Dynasty,
the poet Du Fu (712-770) of the Tang Dynasty, and the painter Wu Daozi,
also of the Tang Dynasty. Wu lost both his parents at a young age and lived a difficult life when he was young.
He learned painting from folk artists and sculptors. Because Wu studied hard and was talented in art, he earned
himself a good reputation as a painter by the time he was 20 years old.
Emperor Xuanzong invited Wu as an
imperial painter in the court and named him as Daoxuan. As an imperial painter, Wu only painted at the emperor's
request, which was a big restriction for a civilian painter. On the other hand, the court provided the best
living conditions and was an outlet for artistic creativity. Wu's character was unrestrained, direct and indifferent
to trivial matters, and it is known he always drank while painting.
When he painted at Longxing Temple, the temple was always packed with observers. He moved his brush very quickly
and most of his works were accomplished in a single session.
Frescoes featuring dwarf potted trees were found near Hebei in the graves of nobles who lived during the
Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period (907-960). Discovered in 1978, these paintings have images
of a variety of red blossoms arranged in floral pentsai. Six of these are placed on a five-cornered table.
The plants, containers and stand, the three elements of the gardening art's display, result in a work of unsurpassed beauty.
1. Liang, Amy The Living Art of Bonsai
(New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.; 1992), pg. 101 in color;
Zhao, Qingquan Penjing: Worlds of Wonderment (Athens, GA: Venus Communications; 1997), pg.
40, small in color;
Hu, Yunhua Chinese Penjing (Portland, OR: Timber Press; 1987) pp. 129
-130, has as "Paying Tribute" with a detail of one section;
Yang, Xin et al Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting (New Haven
& London: Yale University Press and Beijing: Foreign Languages Press; 1997), pp. 60-61.
Hu, Kemin Scholars' Rocks in Ancient China: The Suyuan Stone Catalogue
(Trunbull, CT: Weatherhill; 2002), Fig. 1 with the alternate title;
Goepper, Roger The Essence of Chinese Painting
(Boston, MA: Boston Book & Art Shop; 1963), pp. 34, 244;
Hucker, Charles O. China's Imperial Past (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press; 1975), pg. 262;
Hay, John Kernels of Energy, Bones of Earth: The Rock in Chinese Art
(New York: China House Gallery; ©1985 China Institute of America), quote from pg. 49.
Sullivan, Michael The Arts of China(Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press; 1984,
Third Edition), pp. 128-130;
Fitzgerald, C.P. China, A Short Cultural History (Boulder, CO: Westview Press; 1985), pg. 368;
Per Sunset Bonsai (Menlo Park, CA: Sunset Publishing Corporation; 1994, Third Edition), pg. 8, "Chinese frescoes
dating back sometime before A.D.220 clearly show floral bonsai [sic] -- what we would think
of as flower arrangements -- in complementary containers. Painted during the late Han dynasty, these frescoes were
discovered in the 1970's."
Fong, Wen C. and James C.Y. Watt
Possessing the Past, Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Tapei (New York:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Taipei: National Palace Museum; 1996), pp. 21-22.
Koreshoff, Deborah Bonsai: Its Art, Science and Philosophy (Brisbane, Australia: Boolarong Publications; 1984),
Stein, Rolf A. The World in Miniature (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press; 1990), pg. 40;
Wen, Chin "Two Underground Galleries of Tang Dynasty Murals" in New Archaeological Finds in China, II
(Peking: Foreign Language Press; 1978), pg. 101;
Wyatt, James C.Y. et al China, Dawn of a Golden Age, 200-750 AD (New York: The Metropolitan Museum
of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press; 2004), pp. 302-303.
Liang, pp. 100-101;
The Story of "Bonsai", The History of Bonsai from ancient times to the present, The Omiya Bonsai Art Museum,
Saitama, issued on March 21, 2014, detail of cover;
Hu, Yunhua pg. 128 with b&w photo;
cf. "Princess Zhang-Huai" in the caption of a different picture in Samson, Isabelle and Rémy Samson
The Creative Art of Bonsai (London: Ward Lock, Ltd.; 1986), pg.9, and the pg. 8 text which reads:
"The first mention of the art of bonsai goes back to the Tsin era (third century BC): on the tomb of Zhang Huai,
the second son of the Empress Tang Wu Zetian, there is a figure of a woman carrying a bonsai in both hands.";
both attendants are shown together in one picture on the "Bonsai in Evolution" information board at the Fuku-Bonsai Center,
Hawaii, and also on pg. 19 of Giorgi, Gianfranco Simon & Schuster's Guide to Bonsai
(New York: Simon & Schuster; 1990);
Chan, Peter Bonsai, The Art of Growing and Keeping Miniature Trees
(Secaucus, NJ: Wellfleet Press; 1985), pg. 144, has close-up of left servant, possibly retouched;
Zhao, pg. 40 has small in color of left servant with the tray being orange in color;
Lesniewicz, Paul Bonsai in Your Home (New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.; 1994), color
of left servant on pp. 3 and 8, taken at a slightly oblique angle;
Wen, pp. 95-98;
Sullivan, pp. 128-130;
Zhongmin, Han and Hubert Delahaye A Journey Through Ancient China (New York: Gallery Books; 1985), pg. 212;
Gender identification of servants based on Tang clothing styles courtesy of Dustin Martinez in conversation with RJB Feb. 21, 2002.