Women and Martial Arts

The theme of the third and final blog post in the series complementing the exhibition “A Century of Women in Chinese Art”, on show at the Ashmolean Museum until the 14th of October 2018 is women and martial arts.

First we will look at a hanging scroll that appears in the exhibition by Chen Chongguang 陳崇光 (1839-1896). This shows three characters from Qiuranke zhuan虯髯客 (The Legend of Qiuranke), a work of popular fiction written by the Daoist priest Du Guangting 杜光庭 (850-933) in the latter part of the Tang dynasty.

Chen Chongguang ,The Hero’s Happy Encounter, 1989, EA1966.85 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

In this painting, entitled: Yingxiong qiyu tu英雄奇遇圖 (A Remarkable Meeting of Heroes) (1878) the eponymous hero Qiuranke 虯髯客 (Knight with the Dragon Beard) can be seen on the left. After meeting Hong Fu Nü 紅拂女 (Lady of Red Fly-Whisk) (right) and her husband Li Jing 李靖 (centre), together, as the “Three Heroes of the Wind and Dust”, they strove to overthrow the Sui dynasty in order to establish the Tang.

In the story, before the scene depicted in the painting takes place, Hong Fu Nü eloped with Li Jing, escaping from the court of the powerful general Yang Su楊素 (d. 606) where she had been working as a courtesan. Despite her demure appearance as seen in this painting, she is said to have excelled at martial arts and indeed The Legend of Qiuranke, in which she appears so prominently, is often referred to as the earliest Wuxia 武俠 (Martial Arts) novel.

Famously, a poem about Hong Fu Nü can be found in the Qing dynasty novel of manners Honglou meng 紅樓夢 (The Dream of the Red Chamber) in which one of the central characters, Lin Daiyu 林黛玉, is humorously compared to her. The poem takes Hong Fu Nü’s elopement with Li Jing as its theme:

Bowing with hands clasped, the hero’s manner inimitable,

The beauty, with great vision, saw the dead end that lay ahead.

In that moribund place Lord Yang would meet his end,

How could he hope to rein in a heroic woman such as she?

The story of the three heroes became the inspiration for a number of related literary works, and, as with so many traditional stories in China, has recently been made into a television drama series – an historical love story – “Hong Fu Nü of the Three Heroes of the Wind and Dust” (Fengchen sanxia zhi Hong Fu Nü 風塵三俠之紅拂女) (2004), starring the popular actress Shu Qi舒淇. In this, it is she and her fellow Tang court ladies who take centre stage, all of whom excel at performing the most unlikely of airborne, acrobatic, martial arts moves.

Dish with figures from the novel The Water Margin, 1680 – 1720, Mallett bequest 1947, EAX.3531    © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

It will be remembered from the previous instalment that amongst the 108 “brothers” in the Ming dynasty novel, the Water Margin a handful are women and as with all other heroes in the story they excel at martial arts. There a number of ceramic examples in the Ashmolean collection decorated with figures from the Water Margin, each showing three heroes carrying distinctive weapons in a variety of martial arts stances.

In this example can be seen, from right to left: Zhang Qing 張清 “The Featherless Arrow”; Yang Zhi 楊志 “The Blue-Faced Beast”; and Suo Chao 索超 “The Impatient Vanguard”, all three carrying weapons as if ready to engage in battle. Suo Chao wields the Guandao關刀 (a weapon named after the Chinese god of war, Guan Yu 關羽), Yang Zhi has a sword sheathed on his belt and in addition, grasps in his hand a variation of the weapon known as the Monk’s Spade, and Yang Qing appears to carry a pot and a ball, no doubt also to be used as weapons.

Porcelain painted in enamel colours, ca. 1700, Salting bequest, C.1196-1910  © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A similar example in the Victoria and Albert Museum again shows Yang Zhi, this time together with Xie Zhen 解珍and one of the three female heroes from the novel, Gu Dasao 顧大嫂 “The Tigress” (Mu da chong 母大蟲), as introduced in the last instalment of the blog. In the scene depicted on this plate Yang Zhi and Gu Dasao have been battling with Xie Zhen and have apparently succeeded in disarming him. Yang Zhi holds a trident-like spear and Gu Dasao the sword known in Chinese as the baojian 寶劍 (Precious Sword).

By the second half of twentieth century martial arts had become firmly established as a national sport in China, having been formalised in the decades immediately prior to this. In a 1974 Cultural Revolution propaganda poster in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum, a young girl demonstrates her skill with the baojian in front of her classmates, with their master looking on in approval. The poster is a reproduction of a painting by the artist Ou Yang 鸥洋 (b. 1937) entitled Chuying zhanchi雏鹰展翅 (The Fledgling Eagle Spreads its Wings). The painting, showing members of the youth organisation, the Shaoxiandui 少先队 (Young Pioneers), promotes the future role these young people might go on to play in the defence of the Mother Country, as suggested by the martial theme and the large cannon seen in the background.

The Fledgling Eagle Spreads its Wings. Poster (1974), EA2006.208 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

More examples of girls practicing with a baojian can be seen in a set of souvenir matchboxes showing a variety of different postures. These postures, all standard forms learned in martial arts practice, are not named, the writing on the reverse of each matchbox simply listing basic instructions on how to use matches.

Four matchboxes with small girls practicing martial arts, EA2010.95

Four matchboxes with small girls practicing martial arts EA2010.95

For an excellent example of sword technique and the postures as practiced in one style of martial arts we can see the extraordinary skill of Chen Suijin in the 1st Taolu World Cup – first place in Women’s Taijijian (Taiji sword).

A stylised form of swordplay is also central to martial roles played in Peking Opera and one of the most famous of these is the sword dance performed by Yu Ji in Bawang bieji 霸王別姬 (Farewell my Concubine), the story of Xiang Yu 項羽, King of Chu, and his concubine Yu Ji 虞姬.  In recent times this was made famous by Chen Kaige’s film Farewell my Concubine (1993).  Earlier in the century, though, the double-sword dance towards the end of the opera was made a speciality of the great male performer of female roles Mei Lanfang. Following the sword dance Yu Ji snatches Xiang Yu’s sword with which she commits suicide.

Another martial role played by a woman is Mu Guiying 穆桂英 from the Peking Opera Yangjia jiang 楊家將 (Generals of The Yang Family), a staple of the Peking Opera repertoire, in which the female members of the family are prominent in their exhibition of martial prowess.

Song Guangxun 宋广训 (b. 1930, Baxian, Hebei) from The Generals of the Yang Family, Mu Guiying in a Beijing opera, 1978 (design), 2006 (print), EA2007.48 © The artist

An inkstick with impressed decoration, showing a baojian and a set of Chinese books, is dated the eighth year of the Xianfeng reign (1858) and is made in a traditional form that stretches back centuries. Such inksticks were ground with water on an inkstone to produce the pigment that was applied with a brush in both traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy practice. This example was made by the Hu Kaiwen, an ink factory established in 1765.

Ink stick with decoration showing a book and sword, Hu Kaiwen Ink Factory, EAX.5521 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The decorative motif found on this inkstick refers obliquely to one of the group of semi-mythological figures known as the Baxian 八仙 (Eight Immortals). This is in fact an example of one of the An Baxian 暗八仙 (Hidden Eight Immortals). In such imagery, the Eight Immortals do not appear in person but are substituted by the specific attributes with which they are associated, in the case of Lü Dongbin, as shown on the inkstick, these are the baojian and a set of books. A mythical figure associated with both scholarly pursuits and martial arts Lü Dongbin 呂洞賓 is said to have been the founder of the internal martial arts style known as Baxian jian 八仙劍 (Eight Immortals Sword). The silk hanging below is one of a pair in the current Ashmolean exhibition and depicts the Eight Immortals with their attributes.

For more on the Eight Immortals please see my previous blog for the exhibition “Pure Land: Images of Immortals in Chinese Art” shown at the Ashmolean in Gallery 11 in 2016.

Embroidered Hanging (detail: Lü Dongbin) EA1958.83 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Despite what is often suggested by martial arts practitioners, it is most unlikely that a style of sword practice such as this could have been passed down through the centuries, and this example, as with most martial arts styles, no doubt developed into what we see today during more recent times; perhaps more specifically in the nineteenth century or the Republican period at the time when martial arts made a resurgence as a national sport.


The exhibition “A Century of Women in Chinese Art”, at the Ashmolean Museum closes on 14 October 2018.

Posted on behalf of  Dr Paul Bevan, Christensen Fellow in Chinese Painting, Ashmolean Museum.


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Women in Peking Opera

In the second instalment of this blog, complementing the exhibition “A Century of Women in Chinese Art” now on show at the Ashmolean Museum until the 14th of October 2018, we will look at examples in the museum’s collection of objects on Peking Opera themes.

These include two paintings by Gao Made 高馬得 (1919-2007); one by Guan Liang 関良 (1900-1986); a popular print from the beginning of the twentieth century showing a selection of heroes of the Water Margin (a common theme in Peking Opera); and a small group of matchboxes from the 1970s.

Three figures from the ballet version of Red Detachment of Women, 1970s, Gittings Gift, EA2008.36.c © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

In the previous instalment of the blog mention was made of the Red Detachment of Women. The most famous version of this story is the ballet version, based on a 1961 film of the same name. Following this came the Peking Opera version, which, to the fan of Peking Opera is equally impressive, if not quite so exciting for the lay viewer.

Peking Opera version of the Red Detachment of Women

Before going any further I feel it is important to say a word or two about the term “Peking Opera”. The type of sung drama to which this term refers is known in Chinese as jingju 京劇 (or sometimes jingxi 京戲), a term that might be best translated into English as “Drama of the Capital”. The term “Peking Opera” is not a translation of the Chinese term jingju but was devised by English speakers in the nineteenth century to refer to this specific dramatic form.
Peking Opera was, then, an English-language term used to refer to the Chinese art form known in Chinese as jingju and in much the same way that “Peking University” is still the official name of that university (i.e. it has not changed its name to “Beijing University”), it should be seen as more correct to use the term “Peking Opera” when referring to jingju; the term “Beijing Opera” being something of an anomaly, with the word “opera” used simply to refer to a form of sung drama.

Gao Made, The Legend of the White Snake (Baishe zhuan 白蛇傳), 1990, Reyes Gift, EA1995.190 © the artist’s estate

Returning to the theme of Peking Opera as it appears in the Ashmolean exhibition. Gao Made’s interpretation of “Stunned by the Transformation” – a scene from The Legend of the White Snake (Baishe zhuan 白蛇傳) – is a good example of his work and is part of trend particularly prevalent after the foundation of the PRC to paint scenes from Peking Opera with a view to displaying one of China’s national treasures to the world. A similar promotion can be seen in the case of martial arts, the subject of the next instalment of this blog.

Gao Made is a largely self-taught painter and was heavily influenced by the cartoonist and guohua (“National Painting”) painter Ye Qianyu, an example of whose work can also be seen in the exhibition (EA1995.274). Gao is particularly well known for his paintings of scenes from Chinese drama following in the tradition of artists such as Guan Liang 关良 (1900-1986).

Guan Liang, Scene from the Peking Opera The Case of the Beheading of Chen Shimei (Zha Mei an 鍘美案), EA1968.74 © the artist’s estate

See for example a painting in the museum’s collection showing the Peking Opera The Case of the Beheading of Chen Shimei (Zha Mei an 鍘美案). This was a court case presided over by Judge Bao, a popular figure in Chinese fiction based on the Song dynasty magistrate Bao Zheng (AD 999-1062). In the painting, to the right, can be seen Chen Shimei who betrayed his wife Qin Xianglian by marrying the emperor’s daughter (the honour of coming first in the imperial examinations having rather gone to his head). At the order of Judge Bao, his faithful servant Zhan Zhao, who can be seen in the centre, executed Chen Shimei and saved the life of Qin Xianglian who Chen had plotted to murder.

The Legend of the White Snake a scene of which can be seen in Gao Made’s painting in the exhibition is one of the most popular dramas in the Peking Opera repertoire, not least because of the extraordinary acrobatic sequences that appear towards the climax of the story. The actor who plays the female lead – the White Snake – rarely leaves the stage during the entire length of the performance and has an extremely demanding role as both a singer and acrobat.

To place the story of the White Snake into geographical context we will first look at a poster that depicts West Lake in Hangzhou on a festival day in more recent times. In this scene a number of theatrical performances can be seen taking place amongst the thronging crowds. Towards the lower right-hand side of the scene can be seen a performance in miniature of the Model Opera Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy (Zhiqu Weihushan 智取威虎山). Small though it is, it can be identified as the scene from this play in which the huntsman’s daughter Xiao Changbao 小常宝sings a solo aria in the company of the stories hero, a soldier of the People’s Liberation Army. It is interesting to note that the actress who played this role in the 1970 film became well known for her performance as Bai Suzhen, the lead role in “The Legend of the White Snake”.

An outline of the story is as follows:

At the time of the Qingming Festival, the white snake spirit, and her servant the green snake descend into the mortal world in human form as Bai Suzhen and Xiao Qing. On arrival at West Lake, Hangzhou, Bai meets with a young scholar, Xu Xian who offers her his umbrella against the rain. They fall in love, are married, and soon after establish an apothecary shop in Zhenjiang. The Buddhist monk Fa Hai knows of Bai’s otherworldly origins and persuades Xu to give her realgar wine (made from arsenic sulphide), in full knowledge that by doing so she will reveal her true identity. Having drunk the wine she reverts to her original form and Xu Xian promptly dies of fright. This is the scene depicted in the painting, before her actual transformation. In order to bring her husband back to life, Bai Suzhen is compelled to risk her own life to go in search of the antidote, a magic herb, found only at Mount Emei.

This is often performed at the time of the Dragon Boat Festival when realgar wine is traditionally drunk to drive away poisonous creatures such as snakes, centipedes and scorpions. The scene is also known as Stunned by the Transformation at the Dragon Boat Festival (Duanyang jingbian 端陽驚變).

Gao Made, Chun Cao Outwits the Magistrate , 1989, Reyes Gift, EA1995.192 © the artist’s estate

A woman takes centre stage again in a second Peking Opera excerpt illustrated by Gao. This is a scene from Chun Cao Outwits the Magistrate (a.k.a. Chun Cao Braves the Court). In this story, a maidservant Chun Cao, learns that a righteous and morally upright man – typical of the young scholar gentleman of the time – is to be wrongly sentenced to death. She decides to trick the magistrate into believing that the accused is betrothed to her mistress, the prime minister’s daughter, as a ruse to save him. The two eventually marry.

The men in the scene depicted by Gao – four attendants and the magistrate leading at the front – are all examples of the clown role, known as chou 丑in Chinese, and the white make-up applied to the ridges of their noses indicates this to be the case. In the centre is Chun Cao.

New Year’s Print showing characters from the Water Margin, EA2006.3 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

In a popular woodblock print showing a scene from a Peking Opera version of the Ming dynasty novel the Water Margin three women appear amongst the assembled crowd.

Wearing full Peking Opera regalia and seated in the centre of the Hall of Loyalty and Righteousness (in this print a depiction of the typical theatrical stage on which Peking Opera is performed) is the leader of the 108 rebels, Song Jiang, and assembled around him can be seen several other key figures in the story:

Centre stage, out in front, is Li Kui, a fearsome character known as the Black Whirlwind.

Standing on stage, to the right, is Lin Chong, one of the central figures in the popular Peking Opera Yezhulin (Wild Boar Forest). As with many full-length Peking Operas, Ye Zhulin was originally just a short excerpt from the Water Margin. On the left is Wu Song, whose story covers several chapters in the original novel: from the time when, under the influence of strong alcohol he beats a tiger to death with his bare hands and becomes the hero of the local villagers, to his involvement with the lecherous dealings of Ximen Qing and his own brother’s wife Pan Jinlian, both of whom meet their deaths at his hands for the murder of his brother.

To the left of the print can be seen three women. These are amongst the small number of women bandits that appear in the Ming dynasty novel:

At the back: Gu Dasao顧大嫂, nicknamed “Tigress” (Mu da chong 母大蟲 ), a prolific martial artist. In front, to the right, is Hu Sanniang扈三娘, also known as Yi Zhangqing 一丈青 (as indicated in this print). On the left is Sun Erniang孫二娘 who is nicknamed “Yaksha” (Mu yecha 母夜叉) after the female Buddhist spirit, due to her fierce and wild appearance.


In the Peking Opera Shizipo 十字坡 based on an episode in the book, Sun Erniang and her husband Zhang Qing own a tavern to which they lure travellers, drugging them, slaughtering them, and filling their steamed dumplings with their cooked flesh. Following an encounter with Wu Song (who did not fall for their ruse) and after a fierce fight between them, Wu becomes the sworn brother of Zhang Qing. The married couple later join the bandits at Liangshanbo.

Four matchboxes depicting figures in Peking Opera roles, EA2010.84 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Wu Song can be seen as he appears in the opera Shizipo on one of four matchboxes in the Ashmolean collection. These are just a small sample of a collection of several hundred matchboxes that was accumulated in China in the 1970s and 1980s, and entered the museum’s collection rather more recently. Three more examples show heroes from the Water Margin. The first two, on the left of the picture, show Sagacious Lu and Lin Chong as they appear in the popular opera Yezhulin (Wild Boar Forest). The fourth example shows Qin Ming, the “Fiery Thunderbolt” a brave warrior figure, as indicated by his painted face and long stage beard.

In the Water Margin print, the banner on the left above the heads of the assembled crowd tells us that they are all gathered together in the bandit’s lair – Liangshanbo – in the marshes far from the eyes of the imperial court. The banner on the right: “Root out the Cruel to make way for Peace” (Chubao anliang 除暴安良) is part of the maxim of the bandits at Liangshan, which continues: “Carry out ‘The Way’ for the Sake of Heaven” (Titian xingdao 替天行道).

This depiction of the Water Margin is an example of a New Year’s Picture, a type of popular print that often took Peking opera excerpts as its theme. The New Year’s Picture that appears in the exhibition “A Century of Women in Chinese Art” is rather different as it shows two women in a domestic scene. Despite being different in both theme and appearance these prints both served the same function: to act as auspicious decoration displayed as part of the New Year festivities. A related print again shows three women in a domestic setting. This is replete with symbolism, showing off particularly well the clothes of the young women that are very much of the same period as the silk jacket and skirt on display in the exhibition.

Embroidered Jacket, 20th century (before 1938), EA2015.32

Embroidered Skirt, 20th century (before 1938), EA2015.32

For more on women in martial arts, as seen in the Water Margin, see the next instalment of this blog.


Dr Paul Bevan, Christensen Fellow in Chinese Painting, Ashmolean Museum

11 July 2018 Guided tour of the exhibition with Dr Paul Bevan







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Women in the Cultural Revolution

In this blog we will be looking at a small number of the exhibits in the current exhibition “A Century of Women in Chinese Art” now on show at the Ashmolean Museum until the 14th of October 2018, with reference to a variety of additional objects in the museum’s collection that it has not been possible to include in the exhibition.

The Ashmolean Museum holds an extensive collection of objects from the Cultural Revolution period (1966-1976). One striking exhibit that appears in the exhibition is a ceramic figurine of a young woman in army uniform washing the floor with mop and pail.

Girl in Army Uniform with Bucket and Mop (1970-1979)
Porcelain figure, with polychrome glazes; wooden mop handle
Jingdezhen, Wade Gift, EA2010.78 © the artist

Throughout the period of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) the porcelain kilns at Jingdezhen, renowned as the imperial kilns since the early Ming dynasty (c.1400), continued to produce fine quality porcelain. Much of the output from this time used the forms and decoration of revolutionary imagery, often depicting Chairman Mao himself, heroes from revolutionary history, and in particular figures from the eight Yangbanxi – often known in English as the “Model Operas”. These revolutionary dramas, ubiquitous during the period and still hugely popular today, originally included five modern Peking Operas, two ballets – Red Detachment of Women and The White Haired Girl – and one symphonic work, the Shajiabang Symphony. Later the symphony was replaced by other theatrical productions. Women play central roles in all of these.

At the time of the Cultural Revolution, images taken from these popular dramas could be found reproduced on all manner of everyday objects, from thermos flasks to teapots, from biscuit tins to matchboxes. One example of the latter in the Ashmolean collection shows an image of the lead female character from The Legend of the Red Lantern (红灯记 Hongdeng ji) (EA2010.229.1). This drama tells the story of Li Tiemei and her role in the communist underground during the War of Resistance against Japan (1937-1945); this conflict, and the civil war that succeeded it, being the most common themes on which these dramas were based.

Matchbox with image of Li Teimei from The Legend of the Red Lantern, Wade Gift, EA2010.229.1 © the artist

Perhaps the best known of the Model Operas is actually a ballet: The Red Detachment of Women (红色娘子军Hongse niangzijun). This tells the story of a young woman who escapes servitude on Hainan Island, one of the last stands of the Nationalists in the Civil War before the People’s Republic of China was established. Wu Qinghua defies the local gentry that have enslaved her, and the Nationalists authorities who prop up the corrupt landowners, and joins the “Red Detachment of Women” to overthrow them.

Another example, in which women are represented in their new role as active participants in the military struggle for a socialist society, is on display in the exhibition. This a woven silk picture based on an oil painting by the artist Luo Qi 罗祺 (b.1929) (EA2010.284). The scene depicted shows a group of armed female militia looking up towards the red glow at the mountain top, on which a gun placement can be seen and where the red flag of the People’s Republic of China is flying; the ‘red glow’ of the title alluding to the Chinese Communist Party and to Mao Zedong himself.

Red Glow (1964) after a painting by Luo Qi 罗祺 (b.1929)
Woven silk with applied colour pigments, EA2010.284 © the artist

Luo Qi’s original painting, on which this silk textile is based, was awarded the highest prize when it was displayed in the Fourth National Art Exhibition; the exhibition to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the establishment of the PRC that took place in 1964. This silk example was woven in black and white and colour was later applied by hand, a speciality of the “Hangzhou Picture Weaving Factory” at which it was made.

Figures from The Red Detachment of Women can be seen in two sets of papercuts in the Ashmolean collection (EA2008.37.b). This story was known to all during the period of the Cultural Revolution and was performed across China, adapted to local theatrical forms using a host of different Chinese dialects. The most famous filmed version of the story is the ballet; so famous was it that it later became an inspiration for the American composer John Adam’s modern opera Nixon in China. The ballet version of the Red Detachment of Women was based on a hugely popular feature film that had been released in 1961 and the ballet was followed by a Peking Opera version.

Wu Qinghua from the ballet Red Detachment of Women
Gittings Gift, EA2008.37.b © the artist

For more on Peking Opera, see the next instalment of this blog.

In another set of paper cuts in the museum’s collection can be found an image of a woman dock worker, calling to mind the Model Opera On the Docks (Haigang 海港) (EA2008.34). This revolutionary drama, written by Xie Jin and originally staged in the 1960s, was filmed in 1972 and starred Li Lifang as Fang Haizhen. It tells the story of a team of dock workers loading a cargo of rice to be shipped to Africa, overseen by the heroine Fang Haizhen, local communist party secretary. A counterrevolutionary attempts to sabotage their mission by substituting glass fibre for the rice, but is discovered by Fang. The plot is foiled and the perpetrators brought to justice.

Papercut – Woman Docker
Gittings Gift, EA2008.34.c © the artist

A poster from the museum’s collection shows stars from the Model Operas, (EA2006.261). The main caption reads: ‘Long Live the Triumph of Chairman Mao’s Revolutionary Line of Literature and Art!’ It will be noticed that four of the ten figures depicted are women, although, Li Tiemei, from the Legend of the Red Lantern and Wu Qinghua are not amongst those shown here. In the front row can be seen Xi’er – the White Haired Girl, lead protagonist in the 1966 ballet, based on a story from the 1940s.  In the middle row, from right to left, can be seen the female leads from other revolutionary operas: Ke Xiang from Azalea Mountain (Dujuan shan) (1973), Jiang Shuiying from Ode to the Dragon River (Longjiang song) (1972), and, on the left, Fang Haizhen from On the Docks.

Poster – Characters from Revolutionary Operas, EA2006.261 © Shanghai People’s Publishing House

Another type of revolutionary woman altogether, can be seen in the 1971 print “There are Heroes Everywhere” Biandi yingxiong 遍地英雄 by the printmaker Zhang Chaoyang 張朝陽 (b.1945) (EA2007.90). This print, the title of which suggests that revolutionary heroes could be found in all walks of life, shows a harvest scene during the Cultural Revolution, at a time when young educated city dwellers had been sent “Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside” Shangshan xiaxiang 上山下鄉 to be “re-educated” by the local peasantry. The title of the print is taken from the final line of a poem by Chairman Mao, entitled, Dao Shaoshan 到韶山 (To Shaoshan) (1959) – one of many poems written by Mao Zedong – composed on a visit to his hometown after an absence of 32 years.

Zhang Chaoyang 張朝陽, “There are Heroes Everywhere” Biandi yingxiong 遍地英雄 (1970) EA2007.90  © the artist

In 1976, with the death of Mao, which brought the Cultural Revolution to a close, the educated youth slowly began to return to their hometowns. A scenario closely related to this can be seen in the 1977 print prominently shown in the exhibition “Returning after Graduation” Biye guilai 毕业归来 by Li Xiu李秀 (b.1943), an impressive, large multi-block woodcut print using oil-based inks (EA2007.43).

From just a few clues in the detail of this print it can be deduced that the three young people in the picture have returned to their hometown in southwestern China following their graduation in Beijing (note the copy of Beijing Daily in the pocket of the young man). They had certainly been roughing it on their journey, as the number on the side of the train reveals the information that they had been travelling in a “hard seat” carriage, on a long distance sleeper, with no air conditioning; a journey, from the Chinese capital to Kunming in Yunnan, of almost 2,000 miles.

Li Xiu李秀, “Returning after Graduation” Biye guilai 毕业归来 (1977), multi-block woodcut printed with oil-based inks, EA2007.43  © the artist

The young lady and the man to her left are dressed in the costume of the Yi, a minority people found in the provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, and Guangxi. The other figures in the print are wearing the uniform of the People’s Liberation Army. This conveys an atmosphere of new found hope and freedom, having been made in the year immediately following the end of the Cultural Revolution. Following its appearance, this print quickly became one of the most published in China. It is often regarded as a depiction of the artist’s own experience, Li Xiu herself being a member of the Yi minority. The smiling faces, beaming with unbridled delight, show traces of the distinctive style that was often seen in the art of that period, for example, with the figurine of the girl with a mop and in the faces on the poster depicting the figures from the Model Operas. On another poster in the Ashmolean collection such delighted expressions can be seen again. Here the caption reads: “Long Live the Great People’s Republic of China”

Poster – “Long Live the Great People’s Republic of China”, based on an original painting by Jiao Huanzhi (1928-1982) and Sun Quan (active 1974), EA2006.267 © People’s Fine Arts Publishing House

The Ashmolean Museum is currently offering a travelling exhibition on the theme of the Cultural Revolution to venues round the country. See leaflet here.

Events linked to the “A Century of Women in Chinese Art” exhibition:

16 June 2018 Women in Chinese Art Symposium

11 July 2018 Guided tour of the exhibition with Dr Paul Bevan


Dr Paul Bevan, Christensen Fellow in Chinese Painting, Ashmolean Museum

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The Tale of Prince Vessantara

Exhibition dates: 27 March to 9 September 2018

Gallery 29 | Admission Free

The current display in the Eastern Art Paintings Gallery (Gallery 29) highlights the Vessantara Jataka, the most popular story in the Buddhist world. It explores how the story was represented in Burmese and Sri Lankan art during the 19th century, using examples drawn from the Ashmolean’s own collection.

The Tale of Prince Vessantara, exhibition view © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The Vessantara Jataka is the last and most popular of the jataka tales, or stories of the past lives of the Buddha. Numbering around 550, the jatakas (‘birth stories’) are among the most ancient and largest collection of tales in the world. In these stories the Buddha was born in many different forms, not only as other human beings but also often as animals. The tales typically contain a moral and they play an important role in conveying Buddhist teachings and values.

Vessantara gives away his magic rain-bringing elephant to brahmins, from the Vessantara Jataka. Sri Lanka (Ceylon), 19th century. Paint (probably gum-bound) and gesso on wood, 43.5 x 61.4 x 3 cm. EAX.174 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

In the Vessantara Jataka the Buddha was born as Prince Vessantara, a very generous man who gave away everything to help others. His actions exemplify the virtue of generosity (dana), which in Buddhism is one of the ‘perfections’ (paramita / parami) required to achieve enlightenment.

The story is as follows: After giving away his magic rain-bringing white elephant, Vessantara was exiled from his kingdom. He leaves with his wife, Maddi, and their two young children, Jali and Kanhajina. A greedy brahmin named Jujaka needed slaves for his wife and asked Vessantara for his children. Vessantara gave them away to Jujaka, and later also gave away his wife to the king of the gods, Sakka. However in the end the whole family was reunited, while Jujaka died from overeating due to his greediness.

Vessantara gives away his children to Jujaka, from the Vessantara Jataka. Japan and Myanmar (Burma), c. 1880s. Watercolour, gouache and gold on paper and bamboo, 32.4 x 44.5 cm. Presented by Mrs K. L. Ferrar, 1970, EA1970.141.ii © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Versions of the Vessantara tale can be found among most of the major languages of the Buddhist world, including Pali, Sanskrit, Sinhalese, Burmese, Thai, Chinese, Sogdian and Tibetan. It is also often depicted in art. The earliest known depiction of the tale is on the stupa of Bharhut (second century BC), and further examples can be found in the major Buddhist sites of Sanchi, Ajanta, Dunhuang, Pagan and Angkor. Today the story still continues to play an important role in the rituals, literature, art and performance of Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Sri Lanka (Ceylon).

Vessantara gives away his chariot and horses to brahmins, from the Vessantara Jataka. Wall painting in Wat Chaiyamangalaram, a Thai temple in Penang, Malaysia. Photo: Farouk Yahya

Events in the Vessantara story played a very important role in the Buddha’s final life as Siddhartha Gautama. As he was meditating under the bodhi tree, the demon Mara tried to distract him from achieving enlightenment. Siddhartha touched the earth to witness his generosity during his life as Prince Vessantara. The earth testified to this and Mara was thus defeated, enabling Siddhartha to reach enlightenment and become the Buddha. Images of the Buddha in this earth-touching gesture, as well as the forces of Mara, can be seen in Gallery 32 (India 600-1900).

The Buddha in the earth-touching gesture. Arakan, Myanmar (Burma), 13th – 14th century. Sandstone, 58 x 39 x 11 cm max. Purchased with the assistance of funds bequeathed by Fleurette Pelly, in memory of Colonel Hutcheson Raymond Pelly (last British Commissioner of Tenasserim Division, Burma, 1942), 2008, EA2008.70 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

For general information on The Tale of Prince Vessantara and related events, click here


Further reading:

Naomi Appleton, Sarah Shaw and Toshiya Unebe, Illuminating the Life of the Buddha: An Illustrated Chanting Book from Eighteenth-century Siam, Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2013.

Richard F. Gombrich and Margaret Cone, The Perfect Generosity of Prince Vessantara: A Buddhist Epic, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977. Reprinted by the Pali Text Society, 2011.


Farouk Yahya


Posted in Collection research, Curator Blog Post, Exhibitions, Temporary display | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Qu Leilei: A Chinese Artist in Britain at the Ashmolean

Exhibition dates:  7 November 2017 – 15 April 2018

Gallery 11 | Admission Free

Qu Leilei: A Chinese Artist in Britain is a retrospective of the contemporary artist Qu Leilei on display at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford until the 15th of April 2018. The exhibition curated by the former Christensen Fellow in Chinese Painting Dr Yan Liu includes works from the early 1980s up to recent works from 2016 demonstrating different artistic techniques such as calligraphic collage or an exploration of new ink language blending lively brushwork with western technique.

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Stunning greater than life-size ink paintings of female nudes and hands are one of the highlights of the show demonstrating Qu Leilei’s mastering of traditional Western subjects and Chinese media. Several nude studies and sketchbooks from the last 30 years reveal his in-depth research of human anatomy. Other elements are more closely linked to Chinese history and culture such as philosophical inscriptions quoted on his collage works, or his ink paintings from the series A Thousand Years of Empire, started in 2011. Ink and watercolour drawings depicting motifs from his travels in Britain and abroad complete the exhibition and allow viewers to appreciate different facets of Leilei’s artistic production.

Qu Leilei in his Devonshire studio, August 2017  © Riad Nassar

Qu Leilei was born in 1951 in Northeast of China into an intellectual family; his father Qu Bo (1923–2002) was a famous writer. From an early age he was trained in Chinese calligraphy and traditional painting by friends of the family. During the Cultural Revolution Leilei painted propaganda material and worked as a barefoot doctor in the countryside. In the 1970s he moved to Beijing where he became a founding member of the Avant-Garde Group Stars and participated in their first show in 1989.

In the mid-1980s Leilei took the difficult decision to leave his home country to seek a life with more freedom in the UK. In London he studied at the Central College of Art under Cecil Collins (1908 – 1989), a painter of visionary subjects and in the early 1990s, met his wife Caroline Dean, a British painter. His art works from the late 1980s and 1990s are imbued with self-questioning about the future and with negotiating Chinese and British cultural influences.

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In 2005, the Ashmolean displayed a series from his work cycle Everyone’s Life is an Epic showing portraits of people from different backgrounds ranging from close friends to complete strangers. The Ashmolean collection holds several portraits by the artist including those of the art historian Michael Sullivan (1916-2013) and of his wife Khoan (1919-2003). The artist and the pioneering Chinese art researcher were longstanding friends as illustrated in the painting Friendship from 2012, depicting Michael Sullivan holding Leilei’s wife’s hands. It is a great honour that Qu Leilei has decided to present the work along with others paintings included in the current exhibition to the Ashmolean.

Friendship, Ink on paper, 90 x 186 cm, 2012, collection of the artist © the artist

In March 2018 Qu Leilei demonstrated his collage and paintings techniques at the Museum. His collages on display, such as The Creator of Civilization from 1994, distinguish themselves through the insertion of self-written poems or philosophical texts and the seamless transition between the different layers of papers. The flatness he achieves by using traditional Chinese mounting techniques clearly differentiates his collages from early 20th century European explorations with the medium by artists such as George Braque or Pablo Picasso. In order to better understand the technique and material Qu Leilei uses, he gave a full step by step demonstration of his collage mounting process.

The Creator of Civilization, ink and colour on paper, 117 x 99 cm, 1994, collection of the artist © the artist

Qu Leilei’s first step in the process is the selection of the paper and the creation of smaller pieces to reassemble. Leilei usually uses xuan or maobian paper which he colours or inscribes before tearing it into pieces. He then lays out the pieces of paper and adjusts them until he has achieved a visually satisfying new composition which he makes sure to document with a photo. Next, he damps each of the pieces of paper lightly with water before arranging them upside down in mirrored order on a waterproof surface.

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Using a soft-bristled hand brush Leilei then applies the gluten free flour paste on the back of the paper which he has prepared beforehand. With expert hand movements Leilei ensures that the flour paste is evenly spread before he aligns the backing paper on top of the smaller pieces. He usually uses two layers of the quite strong mulberry bark paper to ensure it does not break when still wet. With a stiff-bristled hand brush he presses the pieces of the collage work against the backing paper trying as much as possible to avoid air bubbles and creases. Then he applies another layer of flour paste around the edges of the paper without covering the back of the image allowing to stretch the painting well.

The finished collage left on a board to dry. © the artist

He then gently lifts the work away from the surface using the help of a knife and places it on a vertically propped board. One last time Leilei brushes the edges to ensure the paste is fixed, making sure to blow a bit of air before closing the final corner ensuring that the actual collage will not stick to the board. The collage is then left on the board to stretch and dry for several days before it will be cut away.

Qu Leilei’s sketchbook with a nude study, 2009.

Qu Leilei’s techniques are based on mastering traditional techniques and on constant practice as he proved through demonstrating different types of calligraphic scripts and a colourful flower painting at the Ashmolean.  His ink nude paintings however require a different additional skillset as he uses subtle shadow and light effects to slowly sculpt real-life looking bodies. The thin paper does not allow for any mistakes and he has to carefully layer each colour patiently waiting for it to dry to be able to continue.

Reclining Nude, ink on paper, 92 x 170cm, 2016, collection of the artist © the artist

As he states: “When rendering with shadows one after the other, it requires more confident and skilful brush handling, as rice paper is very fragile and prone to tearing after multiple ink washes. To produce a good painting, we need to balance the relationship between simplicity and complexity, light and shadow, void and substance, softness and hardness.”[1] Achieving the right balance is key to Qu Leilei’s craftsmanship together with his curiosity pushing him to keep on exploring new subjects.

The Soldier, ink on paper, 170 x 90 cm, 2013, collection of the artist © the artist

Felicitas von Droste zu Hülshoff, Chinese Paintings Programme


Further reading:

Liu, Yan. Qu Leilei: A Chinese Artist in Britain. Oxford, 2017.

Qu, Leilei. The Simple Art of Chinese Brush Painting. London, 2004.

[1] Entry from Qu Leilei’s 2011 sketchbook translated by Yan Liu in the exhibition catalogue p. 25.

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