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


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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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Chinese New Year Prints – Good Fortune all year long!

Last month the Ashmolean Museum celebrated Chinese New Year with a range of colourful activities. The Eastern Art Department showed a selection from the reserve collection of Chinese New Prints at the Jameel Centre. This included prints from the late Qing dynasty to the mid-20th century.

Visitors viewing Chinese New Year Prints at the Jameel Centre during the China Festival.  © Ian Wallman

Chinese New Year prints, or as they are called in Chinese “nianhua” are an important part of traditional Chinese New Year rituals. They are called New Year prints as the sales for these colourful inexpensive mass-produced single-sheet woodblock images peaked around New Years’ time, even if they were actually in use all year-round. In order to prepare for the arrival of the New Year, the most important celebration in China, it was crucial to clear the house of misfortune and to invoke the blessings of the gods. To that end images often depicting terrifying guardians, gods (they are also referred to as “Paper Gods”) or auspicious motifs such as images depicting children were placed outside and inside the house. These images would be kept in place and worshipped during the whole year in order to protect the home from evil spirits and to bring good fortune to the family.

Yueying Zhong (born 1960), Figure riding a lion dog, 2012, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013. LI2022.266.c © The artist’s estate

The quality of New Year prints varies, some were intended only for ritual use and not for display at all. On New Year’s Day Paper Gods would be presented with offerings and each member of the family would pray to them, and later on the Gods would be burned. It was believed that by burning them the Paper Gods would be sent off to Heaven, where they would watch over the family and intercede on their behalf throughout the year. These types of prints were often bought in sets of several dozen gods representing the Chinese pantheon of deities.

Yueying Zhong (born 1960), Man and boy riding a qilin, 2012, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013. LI2022.266.d © The artist’s estate

The fact that they were objects used for worship and not considered as works of art explains why despite their mass production only few have survived, often in bad conditions. Foreign travellers would bring them back home as curiosities and this is how they often found their way into Museum collections. The exact dating of the prints is difficult as the same woodblocks would often have been used for printing over an extensive period of time.

Visitors viewing Chinese New Year Prints at the Jameel Centre during the China Festival. © Ian Wallman

Door Gods (Menshen)

The Door Gods are one of the most common subjects for New Year prints. Worshipping Door Gods dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD) when the two loyal and brave generals, Qin Qiong (also known as Qin Shubao) and Yuchi Gong (EA1970.85.a+b), were watching over Emperor Taizhong’s sleep, finally enabling him to rest without being disturbed by ghosts and demons. To honour and relieve them from their duty the emperor painted their portraits on his door. The two generals can usually be identified by their respective weapons and face colour, Yuchi Gong has a darker face holding a steel whip or batons while Qin Qiong has a pale face and carries swords.

Military Door God Qin Qiong, Presented by Mrs Dubs, in memory of Professor Homer Dubs, 1970. EA1970.85.a

In general images of Door Gods always come in pairs and are pasted facing each other. Placing them back to back is considered to bring bad luck. They are placed to face the visitor when entering the house. Back entrances would equally be watched over by fierce looking Guardian Gods such as the popular demon queller Zhong Kui.

Guan Gong with sword, 19th – 20th century, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013.

Another widespread Door God is the general Guan Yu (also called Guandi or Guan Gong) who lived during the era of the Three Kingdoms (3rd century AD). He played an important role in the establishment of a new dynasty under the warlord Liu Bei. His life has been fictionalised in one of the most famous Chinese historical novels, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, dating back to the 14th century. For his achievements as a general Guan Yu received the honorific title emperor – Di. Guan Yu is even today seen as an epitome of loyalty and righteousness. He is usually depicted wearing a green robe and often has a reddish face.

The deity Guan Gong, 19th – 20th century, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013. LI2022.282.a

Other military door gods (generally recognisable from their orange coloured faces and heavy weapons) are depicted together with five children. The children represent the five talented sons of the scholar Dou Yujun, who lived during the Five Dynasties period (907–960 A.D.). In one the Ashmolean prints (LI2022.282.k) the child in the middle wears a civil official robe and rides a Qilin. This suggests the wish that a successful scholar should be bestowed upon the family by the mythical animal.

The Door God with five children, 19th – 20th century, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013. LI2022.282.k

New Year prints would often depict a selection of gods from the vast pantheon of deities Chinese people believed in. This enabled families to obtain the favours of as many gods as possible at the same time. The supreme deity of Heaven, the Jade Emperor, generally occupies the most important position in the centre of the picture. He governs the enormous heavenly bureaucracy of gods often behaving in very human ways. The strict hierarchic organisation of the gods is influenced by Daoist and Confucian beliefs and includes influences from traditional folkloric religions.

Gods on an altar, 19th – 20th century, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013. LI2022.282.i

The Star Gods (Sanxing)

Fu, Lu, and Shou are the gods of the three stars symbolising the three attributes of a good life: Prosperity (Fu), Status (Lu), and Longevity (Shou). The first depictions of the three Star Gods in human form are said to date back to the Ming dynasty. Each Star God can easily be recognised through an individual set of symbols. The God of Prosperity or good fortune holds a baby boy in his arms as male heirs were seen as a great blessing in Confucian culture. The God of Status stands tallest with his official cap, scholars robe and a ceremonial sceptre (ruyi) in his hands.

Three Star Gods: Fu, Lu, Shou (Prosperity, Status and Longevity) with children, 19th – 20th century, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013. LI2022.282.h

The God of Longevity takes the form of an elderly immortal with an extended forehead and long white beard holding in one hand a staff and in the other hand a peach. The mythical peach is said to come from a fabulous tree which blossoms only once every three thousand years in Heaven. Eating the fruit is reserved for the gods as it brings immortality. The clothes of the God of Longevity are often decorated with the Chinese character Shou meaning longevity. Sometimes only one of the gods is represented in human form while the others would be symbolised by animals. The crane, because of its longlife expectancy, is a symbol of longevity. The bat (fu) is a homophone for good luck and the deer (lu) stands for status. The deer often carries in its mouth the mushroom of immortality (lingzhi) as it is renowned for finding the rare magical plant.

Yueying Zhong (b. 1960), The God of Longevity, 2012, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013. LI2022.266.a © The artist’s estate

The Stove God

Stove God with five children, early 20th century, EA1975.15

Traditionally the preparations for the New Year would start with sending off the Stove God to Heaven on the 23rd day of the last month. It was believed that in Heaven he would report to the Jade Emperor on the behaviour of the family he observed in the kitchen from his place above the oven during the past year. Based on this report the supreme deity would then decide on how much prosperity he will give to the family in the coming year. In order to make sure the Stove God would deliver a positive report the family would bribe him with sweet treats before burning his image. Seven days after the old Stove God has been burned, a new image would be installed above the stove. Even if officially he is a lower rank god, the Stove God was one of the most popular gods which even poorer families would invest in buying.


Images of Children

Displaying pictures of chubby baby boys is believed to bring male offspring and abundance. The babies are often depicted holding the peach of immortality, surrounded by magpies and mandarin ducks, both symbols for joy and happiness. Often portrayed with pink cheeks and chubby torsos, this healthy-looking youth would symbolise a rosy future. The images of children in Chinese New Year prints were intended in particular for those who wished to accomplish the chief Confucian virtue of raising a large family.

Yueying Zhong (born 1960), Boy with a bird, 2012, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013. LI2022.266.b © The artist’s estate

The immortals He and He

The image of the immortals He and He exemplifies the practice of depicting objects that are homophones of the desired result. This motif of the two immortals derives from the Daoist pantheon. One of the “He” is the immortal of harmony and the other “He” is the immortal of union. They are generally associated with a happy marriage. These prints symbolise double happiness or happy children and would be pasted on or near the bedroom door.

Children for conjugal blessing, 19th – 20th century, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013. LI2022.282.c

Taohuawu Printing Workshops

The picture of a young round shaped boy is associated with the Taohuawu woodblock printing workshops in Suzhou. The roundness of the boy implies completion, perfection and harmony. The boy is wearing a lock, a common protective accessory worn by children to keep them away from harm. In this example from the Ashmolean print collection the boy is holding a banner stating that the embodiment of harmony brings good luck.

Chinese wooblock print , early 20th century, Presented by Mrs Dubs, in memory of Professor Homer Dubs in 1970, EA1970.84.b.

The production of New Year prints in China was particularly thriving in the late 19th and early 20th century and specialised workshops often with their own distinct style could be found all across China. Taohuawu is one of China’s most famous and oldest New Year Print production centres. It was already printing and distributing woodblock New Year Prints as early as the Ming dynasty. During its most productive period the annual production of Taohuawu New Year woodblock prints reached more than a million pieces which were distributed across the country. It enjoyed popularity equal to the Yangliuqing New Year Printing workshops in Tianjin. The two workshops were famous and often referred to in one breath: “Taohuawu in the South and Yangliuqing in the North of China”.

Within the printing workshops work was divided: the designer drew the motif; then the carver transferred that drawing to the woodblock; next the printer printed the black outlines and sometimes areas of colour as well. In some workshops stencils were used to colour the prints and additional details were painted on by hand.

New Nianhua

With the appearance of the more effective modern lithography studio technologies in the late 1920s many traditional workshops went out of business. However the technique was reviewed when the Chinese Communist Party, in an attempt to find a language to communicate its ideology to a wider population, identified New Year prints (nianhua) and other forms of folk art as a central component of its new arts and culture policy at the Yan’an forum in 1942. Consequently, the function and use of New Year Prints changed; they became effective vehicles of communist political messages and ideals. Their designs and technique became much more elaborate, often illustrating model behaviour. Their aim was to “emphasize labouring people’s new, happy and hard-fought lives and their appearance of health and heroism.” The new directives issued in 1949 by the Ministry of Culture stated that ostentation was to be avoided and costs should be kept down so that people could afford the pictures. Regarding the print circulations the old New Year print distribution networks such as incense shops, small book stands, or itinerant peddlers were to be used.

Ming Chu, artist, Weichen Shen, block cutter, Yanli Shen, block cutter, A Woman Transformed Into a New Person by Being in the Countryside, 1964, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013. LI2022.466.a © The artist’s estate

Taohuawu Workshop, publisher
Changing the Appearance of Mountains and Rivers,  Suzhou, before 1965, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013. LI2022.466.b © Taohuawu Workshop

The two prints entitled Changing the Appearance of Mountains and Rivers and A Woman Transformed Into a New Person by Being in the Countryside dating from the early 1960s demonstrate that the colourful images were meant to inspire behavioural change and praise the great achievements of the Communist Party visibly introducing modernity, such as electricity poles, into the landscapes.

Another major change was that prints were no longer the result of an anonymous production line, but they were carefully designed according to official propaganda by professional state artists. In 2006 the Ashmolean purchased a group of 12 colour woodblock New Year prints. This group was compiled by the National Art Workers Association of China in Beijing and distributed by Xin Hua Bookstore in1950.  The group of works includes prints by Jin Lang (1914 – 1998), Shi Zhan (1912 – 1993) or Zhang Ding (1917 – 2010), depicting scenes linked to the Chinese New Year such as in A Village Delegation Presents Comforts to the Troops on New Year’s Day or Greeting the New Year.

Jin Lang (1914 – 1998), artist Huabei University Art Workshop (active 1948 – 1949), printer New Rongbaozhai (established 1949), publisher International Bookstore (established 1949), retailer Greeting the New Year, EA2006.272  © The artist’s estate

Shi Zhan (1912 – 1993), New Rongbaozhai (established 1949), publisher International Bookstore (established 1949), retailer, A Village Delegation Presents Comforts to the Troops on New Year’s Day, EA2006.273 © The artist’s estate

Learn more about the Ashmolean Museum Chinese print collection on Eastern Art Online.

Felicitas von Droste zu Hülshoff, Chinese Paintings Programme

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