Ming Huang’s Journey to Shu

The History of a Painting

By: Elizabeth Lyons

Originally Published in 1986

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During its five-hundred-year history, this painting has been admired, looted, rescued, honored, forgotten, found and restored to esteem.

Hanging on the wall of the Museum’s Rotunda is a large Chinese painting on two joined strips of closely woven silk (see cover and Figs. 1-3). The scene is dominated by slender, very jagged mountains painted in strong blue and green colors. A group of people on foot and horseback are winding their way through narrow passes of the mountains. In a clearing in the middle, some of the party have stopped to rest, and an unsaddled horse freed of its burden rolls on the ground. Along the sides and on top a sharp-eyed visitor can see a num­ber of small red rectangles, the seal impressions of the painting’s pre­vious owners during the last four hundred to five hundred years.

This piece came into our collec­tions in 1916, one of a group of 30 rather undistinguished paintings bought from KnoedIers for an aver­age of $500 each. It was catalogued as “Travellers in the Mountains,” and briefly described as being in the T’ang “blue and green” style and having seals of the Emperor Ch’ien Lung (1736-1795). Shortly thereafter it sank into the oblivion and neglect of storage. In the late 1960s, I examined the painting and, recognizing its subject matter and convinced of its quality, asked the Women’s Committee to provide funds for its restoration and refram­ing. There was some official protest on the lines of  “we are not an art museum,” and it was suggested that if the work dated after A.D. 1000 it should go to the Philadelphia Mu­seum of Art. The problem was resolved on the grounds that it was indisputably in the rang style and would fit nicely with the T’ang sculpture in the Rotunda, where we could use a spot of color.

AU was justified when the painting was published by two eminent schol­ars, Alexander Soper and Max Loehr, the latter asserting it was one of three important paintings on the subject (the other two are in the Palace Museum, Taiwan). The sub­ject is a famous episode in Chinese history, a grand opera drama of love and tragedy which has been told in poetry, plays, and novels for a thousand years, and in modern film. It is the story of the rang Emperor, Ming Huang (r. A.D. 713­756) and his love for Yang Kwei Fei, an enchanting beauty.

Ming Huang and Yang Kwei Fei

Ming Huang reigned over the most brilliant court in Chinese history and made his capital, Ch’anng-an, the civilized center of the 8th century world. It was a center of art and learning, with the kingdom’s best poets, painters, musicians, and scholars. Chinese influence extended as far as Samarkand and attracted a stream of foreigners—Syrians, Turks, Per­sians—to a peaceful city tolerant of all religions.

In 745, when Ming Huang was 60, he met the 27-year-old Lady Yang, a concubine of his 18th son. He soon installed her in the palace, giving her the title of Exalted Princess along with anything she wished, from palaces for her sisters to a constant supply of fresh lichi fruit imported from a thousand miles south. As all of this took most of his time, he gave less and less attention to the affairs of state.

Around A.D. 750, the villain of the drama, An Lu Shan, appeared on the scene. He was a warrior-brigand of Tartar Turkic ancestry, a very talented and ambitious man who had flattered and bribed his way to court. Once there, he made himself a congenial companion: Yang Kwei Fei adopted him as a brother, and the Emperor treated him as a trusted friend, even taking his advice to replace the Emperor’s Chinese generals with tougher-minded Tartars.

Ming Huang and Yang Kwei Fei were utterly surprised when An Lu Shan, who had gone north to muster an army, used it to capture Hon an and Shansi in A.D. 758 and marched on the capital. The court panicked and fled in such haste that they took no provisions for themselves or the imperial guard. After a night and a day they reached an inn at Ma-wei. The escorting soldiers were tired and hungry. Suspecting that Yang Kwei Fei’s brother was in secret communication with the rebels, they killed him and then directed their anger toward Yang Kwei Fei, blam­ing her for the whole disaster. After long argument, an officer convinced Ming Huang that the soldiers were hostile and might turn on him: the Emperor finally gave his permission for Yang Kwei Fei’s execution.

Ming Huang abdicated in favor of his son. Ch’ang-an was eventually regained, but the ex-Emperor never recovered his spirit. It is said that twice a day he stood in tears before her portrait and mourned her until he died at the age of 78.

The remaining years of the rang dynasty are a dismal record of weak rulers, troubles, and defeats. If Yang Kwei Fei is never completely ab­solved from blame, in time she gradually becomes the tragic heroine of past drama. An Lu Shan remains the black villain—it would be lèse majesté to criticize an Emperor.

The Historical Record

One of the earliest commem­orations of the event is a poem by Po Chü-I (A.D. 772-846). He was a precocious schol­ar and high official and so famous a poet that his verses were collected and engraved on stone. His best-known work is a very long narrative poem about Ming Huang and Yang Kwei Fei titled “The Everlasting Wrong” (see box).

It is impossible to say when the first painting of the subject was done. Credit used to be given to Li Ssu Hsün (A.D. 651-ca. 716), who certainly invented the distinctive style of dramatic, jagged mountains painted with the mineral colors of azurite and malachite, but who died before Ming Huang’s flight. His son Li Chao Tao (A.D. 870-730) contin­ued the style in a manner close to the surviving “Journey” paintings.

Historical records note at least 30 paintings of various episodes in the life of Ming Huang. Most are only recorded by title, a few are briefly described as Ming Huang playing chess, playing a flute, playing polo, teaching Yang Kwei Fei to play a flute, etc. None are firmly dated and none refer to the exodus from Ch’ang-an. Nine short scrolls or album leaves have survived.

The best known of the three ver­sions of the “journey to Shu” is the short scroll hanging in the Palace Museum, Taiwan (Fig. 4). For a long time it was considered to be of Tang date, but modern scholars now place it in the 10th century, or a bit later. The basic composition is nearly identical with The University Museum’s painting. On the lower right is a circling group of riders, and in the center is a group resting. Both paintings have the same detail of an unsaddled horse rolling on the ground (see Fig. 2). On the far left are riders seen on a railed wooden ledge built out over the side of the mountain, a distinctive construction found on the route from Shansi to Szechuan (Shu).

Outside of size the only significant difference between the two versions is the placement of the Emperor. In the Palace collection painting he is identified as the rider on the bottom right approaching a small bridge. He wears a red cloak and is mounted on a horse whose mane is braided in three tufts, a style permitted only to royal steeds. (The horses on the two stone reliefs of Emperor T’ai Tsung [r. 628-491 in the Rotunda have the same treatment of the mane.) In The University Museum’s painting, the Emperor must be the portly, dominant figure on horseback on the right side, preceded and fol­lowed by foot soldiers still on the mountain trail (Fig. 3).

The third painting, not repro­duced here, has the same basic composition. The mountains, how­ever, are painted in a much more eccentric, almost abstract manner, and the work is obviously of later date.

Loehr argues that the similarity of these three paintings presumes a Tang prototype, and he thinks The University Museum one is the closest in concept to the prototype, no matter its actual date. It will probab­ly never be possible to determine when the first portrayal of the sub­ject was painted, or the dates of the three subsequent versions we know. If speculations are fruitless, never­theless it is difficult to resist making them. One wonders how soon after the disaster it would have been safe for an artist to portray it. The poem by Po thought to have been composed around A.D. 800, is two generations later than the event but still within living memory. One would imagine that if a poem could be written at that time, a picture could be painted. It would probably be natural to do such a painting in the blue and green style of Li Ssu Hsün and his son, because they were the acknowledged masters of the “landscape with figures” genre.

When an artist paints in a style of the past, he puts aside his own manner, and if the work does not bear datable seals, period identifica­tion is difficult and always arguable. None of the three Ming Huang paintings is marked with the name of an artist or an identifying inscrip­tion. They all appeared to the public in recent times under a generic title like ‘Travellers in the Mountains.’ Version I was so published in the respected work by Sickman and Soper, Art and Architecture of China. Ours, Version II, was so catalogued. Version III went to the famous London Exhibition of Chin­ese art in 1935 under the same vague title. Yet, surely their early owners must have known what was depic­ted. Was the knowledge lost or concealed?

To portray the rather ignominious flight of a renowned Emperor may always have been considered offensive to proud rulers. Or it may simply be a matter of the Chinese preference for the oblique and subtle approach to a subject rather than an easy and obvious one. In Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts there is a painting of some fluttering banners visible over a hill top. Without a title, only the well educated would recognize the theme as a portrayal of the first Han Emperor victorious­ly entering a city. It is a game the Chinese literati played with increas­ing delight and frequency through­out the Ming and Ch’ing periods. The three paintings under discussion are ostensibly pictures of travelers in picturesque mountains, but there are clues to their identity and the site of their route.

The Message of the Seals

Before identifying the seals on our painting, I might remark that the Chinese custom of a collector stamping his name on a work of art seems to many Western­ers to be a rather peculiar act, one that should be as disfiguring as graffiti on a Rembrandt. As most Westerners can’t read the seals as names, however, the small red stamps often add a kind of snow­flake decoration to a painting. It is an ancient and honorable custom. In the Shang and Chou periods, ca. 1600-200 B.C., identification signs were carved on oracle bones, bam­boo slips, and clay. With the inven­tion of paper, seals were made of stone and used with a red paste ink made of cinnabar and oil.

The seal itself was a minor work of art designed by an artist and often carved by him. The most common material for seals was soap­stone, but jade, crystal, marble, and ivory were also used. A few gold and silver ones are known. They come in all sizes, from the imperial or official ones that are usually large and heavy down to small ones that can be tied to a belt or slipped into a pocket (Fig. 5). They might be a simple unadorned block, or in­scribed with a poem or carved with a scene. An owner could have his seal cut in various ways, from left to right, right to left, horizontally or vertically, with the edges of the characters straight or slanted. The manner of cutting usually was not perceptible in the stamped impres­sion, but in case of forgery or confu­sion of identical names, it was a means of identification by the owner. There were also different recipes for the ink, which was basic­ally powdered cinnabar, oil, and wax, to which might be added cinnamon, pepper and, inexplicably, a pinch of mugwort.

Scholars of Chinese painting are often grateful to the seals as aids to identification, although they can also be pitfalls of deception or frustra­tion. Chinese artists and collectors don’t stick to one seal or even one name. They may use a nickname, the name of their house, a literary allusion, or the name of their favor­ite cat. Those who can be identified today have been catalogued by V. Contag and C.C. Wang under “Fan­cy Names,” in Seals of Chinese Painters and Collectors of the Ming and Ch’ing Periods (1966).

The seal is not always a guarantee of date or authenticity. A collector may put his seal on a copy or a forgery, perhaps through ignorance, perhaps merely because he has ac­cepted it “as in the style of,” and sometimes for deception. A genuine painting may be given the seal of an earlier period for the same reasons.

Modern collectors owe a debt to Contag and Wang for their corpus of Ming and Ch’ing seals. Some fifty years ago there was a gathering of experts in Shanghai for the pur­pose of determining the authenticity of paintings from the imperial col­lections that had become the pro­perty of the Chinese Republic, and are now in Taiwan. Contag and Wang saw the value in comparing a large number of seals. Fortunately they had access to the great paintings of the region and in five years had compiled a corpus of 9,000 seals, photographed in great detail with a fingerprint camera. In 1966 they added a supplement from Western collections. The seals on The Univer­sity Museum’s painting are not in­cluded because the piece was still immured in storage and unknown to them.

Two of the ten seals on “The Journey to Shu” are small and lightly stamped, and the impressions are so fuzzy that they cannot be read even under magnification. It is possible that they could be brought out by x-ray or sophisticated laboratory analysis, and it might be worthwhile doing in the future on the rare chance that they could be Sung or Yuan. Pre-Ming seals of private indi­viduals were usually modest in size; they were occasionally used with a sticky paste and powdered cinnabar and frequently did not produce a clear impression.

The earliest readable seal is that of Hsiang yuan-pien, tzu Tzu-ching hao Mo-lin, also known by the names T’ien-lai-ko, Hsiang Yen chu-shih, or Hsiang Mo-lin, the name on the seal used here (Fig. 6). He was born in 1525 and died around 1590. He came from a wealthy family in Chia-hsing, Chekiang, and was able to amass a large and famous collection of paintings said to be compara­ble in size and quality to the imperial collections. His seal on a painting was considered by collectors of the time to be an affidavit of quality.

At the end of the Ming Dynasty, sometime around 1644, his collection was taken over by the commanding officer of the Manchu army. No doubt some of the paintings were destroyed, others were sold or passed on as gifts, and many of his best eventually went into Emperor Ch’ien Lung’s collection. Our “Journey to Shu” survived and was in the hands of at least one other collector before it passed into the royal col­lection. There are two seals of An Ch’i, who was born in 1683 and died after 1742 (Fig. 7, top, and Fig. 8). Little is known about him except that he was an official in Hopei and Korea.

The next seals are those of the Emperor Ch’ien Lung (Fig. 9). The top seal shown in Figure 9 merely notes that it has been seen by him, perhaps about the time he acquired it. Below it is the seal of the Ning Shou palace, the building in which he placed it. Figure 10 shows another seal of the Emperor.

In Figure 7, beneath the gourd­shaped seal of An Ch’i, is a seal of the Academy of Calligraphy that was only awarded to works of high merit.

Figure 11 shows the last two seals. The oval seal reads ‘given/bestowed (by the Emperor).’ Beneath it is a square seal with a character of a pair of outstretched hands in the upper left corner. It reads, ‘carefully/respectfully received by Minister . . .’ The name character has been damaged, but we know from official records that when the Emperor re­tired he gave the painting to his Minister of State, Ying 110.

All of the three surviving versions of the Ming Huang story were in Ch’ien Lung’s collection. One won­ders if along with his artistic appre­ciation of them he also saw a moral lesson. After all, he was a hard­working ruler, an able administrator, and a patron of letters who had compiled the great descriptive cata­logue of the Imperial Library. He did not neglect the affairs of the state for the affairs of the heart, and he reigned for sixty prosperous years without personal scandal.

After Ch’ien Lung there is a gap of a century in the known history of the painting. A penciled note by Helen Fernald, curator at The Uni­versity Museum until 1933, says that a letter from a John Ferguson states that he bought the painting in Peking from a descendant of the Minister Ying Ho It must have remained in that family’s possession for around a hundred years as an honored gift to their ancestor.

The story of the Tang Emperor who inspired this work continues to live in literature and painting, in plays and film. During its ca. five­hundred-year history, this painting has been admired, looted, rescued, honored, forgotten, found and re­stored to esteem. Once it was a prize of connoisseurs and an Em­peror, a work seen only by a small elite circle of admirers. It is now a treasure of an American academic institution, available to viewing by the general public; but on the wall of The University Museum’s Rotun­da, it also remains among friends of its own time and country.

Excerpts from “The Everlasting Wrong” by Po Chü-I (A.D. 772-846)

Beauty. From the Yang family came a maiden,

just grown up to womanhood, Reared in the inner apartments, altogether unknown to fame.

But nature had amply endowed her with a beauty hard to conceal, And one day she was summoned

to a place at the monarch’s side.

Revelry. Hair like a cloud, face like a flower,

Amid the delights of the Hibiscus Pavilion She passed the soft spring nights.

Three thousand peerless beauties adorned the apartments of the monarch’s harem, Yet always his Majesty reserved

his attentions for her alone.

Her sisters and her brothers, one and all, were raised to the rank of nobles.

In the gorgeous palace

piercing the grey clouds above, Divine music, borne on the breeze, is spread around on all sides;

But suddenly comes the roll of the fish-skin war-drums Breaking rudely upon the air

Flight. Clouds of dust envelop the lofty gates of the capital.

A thousand war-chariots and ten thousand hors

move towards the south-west.

A hundred beyond the western gate, leaving behind them the city walls, The soldiers refuse to advance;

nothing remains to be done

Until she of the moth-eyebrows perishes in sight of all.

The monarch covers his face, powerless to save

Exile. Across cloud-capped mountain-tops they make their way.

Daily and nightly his Majesty

is consumed by bitter grief. Travelling along, the very brightness

of the moon saddens his heart

Return. Time passes, days go by, and once again

he is there at the well-known spot,

But from the clods of earth

at the foot of the Ma-wei hill, No sign of her lovely face appears, only the place of death.

Eastward they depart and hurry on to the capital at full speed.

If vine. There is the pool and there are the flowers, as of old.

In the hibiscus he sees her face,

in the willow he sees her eyebrows:

How in the presence of these should tears not flow—

But never once does her spirit come back to visit him in dreams.

Spirit- A Taoist priest of Lin-ch’ung,

Land of the Hung-tu school,

Was able, by his perfect art, to summon

the spirits of the dead.

Anxious to relieve the fretting mind

of his sovereign,

This magician receives orders

to urge a diligent quest.

High up to heaven, low down to earth, seeking everywhere.

At length he hears of an Isle of the Blest away in mid-ocean,

And there many gentle and beautiful Immortals pass their days in peace.

Among them is one whose name

sounds upon lips as Eternal,

And by her snow-white skin and flower-like face he knows that this is she.

Subduing her emotions, restraining her grief,

she tenders thanks to his Majesty, Saying how since they parted

she has missed his form and voice;

Then she takes out the old keepsakes, tokens of undying love,

A gold hairpin, an enamel brooch,

and bids the magician carry these back. One half of the hairpin she keeps,

and one half of the enamel brooch,

“Tell him,” she said, “to be firm of heart, as this gold and enamel,

And then in heaven or on earth below we two may meet once more.”

Heaven and Earth, long-lasting as they are, will some day pass away;

But this great wrong shall stretch out for ever, endless, for ever and ay.

Cite This Article

Lyons, Elizabeth. "Ming Huang’s Journey to Shu." Expedition Magazine 28, no. 3 (November, 1986): -. Accessed July 23, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/ming-huangs-journey-to-shu/

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