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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Warning to Women From 700 Years Ago

The last scene of the Admonitions Scroll, showing the Court Instructress.
The exact date of the scroll is unknown, but estimated to be circa 6th-8th
century CE, and is a copy of one made in the 4th-5th century.

One of the most important paintings in the world was created for a Chinese empress.  Not to honor her, but to chastise and correct her.  Empress Jia Nanfeng was the first wife of Emperor Hui of the Jin Dynasty (265-420 CE), and earned a notorious reputation for murder, intrigue, and manipulation.  The painting is on a scroll and is called "Admonitions of the Instructress of Ladies in the Palace".

Scene 11:  A lady sits and reflects upon her conduct.

After the collapse of the Han Dynasty, China was in a state of chaos, with different factions competing for supremacy.  Emperor Hui was considered developmentally disabled and his wife, Empress Jia, assumed much of his power and is said to have misused it.  Her courtier, Zhang Hua, a poet-official of the palace, was appalled at her usurpation of her husband's power, and thought by appealing to her through his poem he would inspire her to commit correct actions.

Scene 2 from the Palace Museum scroll.  Lady Fan, the consort of
King Zhuang of Chu, refused to eat the meat of any animals he killed
in protest of her husband's excessive feasting and hunting.

Zhang Hua wrote the poem to all the ladies of the court, but it was meant for the Empress.  Some consider it a political parody which took a moralizing tone.  Some think it is an insightful look at statecraft and principled ruling, in line with the prevalent Confucian thought, and shows humor and wit.  Yet others consider it a moral reflection with aspirations of virtue:

Keep an eager guard over your behavior;
For then happiness will come.
Fulfill your duties calmly and respectfully;
And then shall you win glory and honor.

A century later, the situation was the same, and the court was scandalized by the murder of Emperor Xiaowudi by his consort.  To remind the court how to properly behave, the poem was resurrected and placed in a scroll done by the leading artist of the time, the legendary Gu Kaizhi.  This scroll is spectacular for its blending of the three most valued forms of expression at that time:  painting, poetry, and calligraphy.

Scene 4:  Lady Feng, consort of Emperor Yuan of Han, placed herself in front of
him to protect him from an attacking bear.  Fortunately his guards killed the bear
 which saved her.  This is the first surviving scene in the British Museum scroll.

Each of the painted scenes on the scroll are divided by the text of the poem.  It was meant to be unrolled frame-by-frame - the unrolling was part of the experience. The imagery was established in the Han Dynasty, and the message is clear:  a healthy and successful society is the result of everyone assuming their proper roles and places.  Women, in particular, must remember to be humble and a positive force in promoting social order.

Scene 7:  the palace ladies at their toilette.  It is suggested that the two
mirrors in the scene "reflect" the inner natures of the women.

The scroll is clear in "admonishing" that a woman should never exploit the weakness of her man, unless she is protecting him from danger.  Self-sacrifice is tantamount.  A woman must always play by the rules.

Scene 3 of the Palace Museum scroll:  Lady Wei, consort of the Duke Huan
of Qi, refused to listen to his licentious music, choosing instead to listen to
morally uplifting ritual court music of bells and chimes.

Despite his legendary status, none of Gu Kaizhi's original work has survived. Copies of his work exist, and he has been mentioned in dynastic histories.  He also appears in a seminal text on painting that was written by Zhang Yanyuan in 847 CE.  Known for his "gossamer brush line", Chinese artists have sought to emulate his work for centuries.

Scene 8:  the emperor visits a consort, but since his feet are on the floor, it
seems he can't decide to enter.  Or perhaps he's leaving?

The main copy of the scroll, estimated to have been made one hundred years after the original, is in the British Museum.  It was last known to be in the hands of the Qianlong Emperor, who had designated it as one of his "Four Beauties", which could stand for his four most precious paintings or the four qualities of leadership he aspired to - kindness, righteousness, loyalty, and trustworthiness - but never seemed to achieve.  The scroll has a unique aspect to it, as it harbors the seals and colophons of the Chinese emperors and collectors who once owned it.  In the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion (1899), a British officer "acquired" it and sold it to the British Museum.

Scene 9:  The Family scene showing the Emperor surrounded
by his wives and children, suggesting stability.

It is very fragile and can only be seen for brief periods and in low light levels.  UV light is particularly harmful, and when not on view it is kept in the dark.  Painted on silk, the fabric is very frail and the paint has cracked and flaked.  It is kept where rapid or extreme changes in temperature or humidity cannot affect it or weaken it by shrinking or expanding.  Initially it had twelve scenes, but nine remain.

Scene 10:  The emperor rejects his consort with his gesture and a look.

There is another copy, in monochrome paper with twelve scenes, in the Palace Museum in Beijing.  This one was made during the Southern Song era (1127-1279), and is believed to be a copy of the one in the British Museum.  The additional scenes in this one are not as detailed as the rest of the scroll, so the other copy may have already lost the scenes when this one was made, and the additional scenes were reconstructions by the painter of what he imagined they might have been.

Scene 5 from the Palace Museum scroll showing Lady Ban refusing to
ride in the Imperial litter.
Same scene from the British Museum scroll.  She was the consort of the
Emperor Cheng of the Han Dynasty, and refused to ride with him as paintings
of wise rulers always showed them riding with their ministers and not women.

Whether her ruthlessness was warranted at the time she lived or not, Empress Jia apparently ignored the admonition.  There were civil wars, and she was captured in a coup and forced to commit suicide in 300 CE.  But rather than correcting her behavior, the scroll immortalized her and she has become part of the history of a remarkable and precious work of art.  We may never know her true story, but she lives on tied to a thing of great beauty.

All nine scenes of the scroll, which is 10'10" long and 9.8" high.
Images courtesy of Wikipedia (which had the best quality).
The British Museum webpage is here.

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