Persian and Indian Playing Cards

Card games are amongst the most popular games in the world. Tracing the history of playing cards however is difficult, due to their perishable nature and ephemeral quality. It is believed that playing cards originated in China, later spreading westward into Iran, India and Egypt. The early history of cards in Europe is related to contacts between Egypt and North Africa with Italy and Spain during the 13th-14th centuries.

Two of the most popular games in Iran were the ganjifa (or ganjafa/ganjafeh) and as (or as nas). The name ganjifa (‘playing cards’) comes from the Persian word ganj which literally means ‘treasure’. The Persian ganjifa was played with 96 cards consisting of eight suits. Unfortunately early Persian cards have not survived, but the game became popular in India from where we still have many extant examples.

Ganjifa was brought from Iran into India and popularised during the early Mughal period (early 16th century), although an earlier transmission via Turkmen princes in the Deccan during the 15th century is also possible. Indian cards are typically circular (although some rectangular decks have been produced), and they are usually kept in painted wooden boxes with a sliding lid. The standard Indian version of the ganjifa was the eight-suited Mughal ganjifa (Figure 1). Its suits are similar to the Persian ones, consisting of the crown (taj), silver coin (safed), sword (shamsher), servant (ghulam), harp (chang), gold coin (surkh), document (barat), and merchandise (qimash). Each suit contains ten numeral cards (1 to 10) and two court cards: the king (mir) who is usually depicted enthroned (Figure 2), and the minister (wazir) who is usually depicted on horseback.

Figure 1: The Mughal ganjifa, with cards from the taj suit in the foreground. Rajasthan, India, 19th century. Cards: Paper, painted and lacquered, diam. 3.8 cm; box: wood, painted, 5.5 x 12.8 x 5.2 cm. Presented by the Church Missionary Society, 1966. Ashmolean Museum (EA1966.69) © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Figure 2: The king (mir) of the harp (chang) suit in the Mughal ganjifa. Rajasthan, India, 19th century. Paper, painted and lacquered, diam. 3.8 cm. Presented by the Church Missionary Society, 1966. Ashmolean Museum (EA1966.69) © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The dasavatara version of the ganjifa is a Hindu variation introduced later, that has ten suits and 120 cards instead (Figure 3). Each suit represents one of the ten incarnations (avatars) of Vishnu, commonly Matsya (the Fish), Kurma (the Turtle), Varaha (the Boar), Narasimha (the Man-lion), Vamana (the Dwarf), Parashurama, Rama (hero of the Ramayana), Krishna, the Buddha, and Kalkin (the Horse, the future avatar). The structure and rules of the game are roughly the same as with the Mughal ganjifa. There are ten numeral cards and two court cards in each suit, with the king (raja) depicted enthroned while the minister (pradhan or mantri) is shown either on horseback or seated on a smaller throne.

Figure 3: Dasavatara ganjifa, Sawantwadi, India. c. 1900. Cards: paper, painted and lacquered, diam. 10 cm; box: wood, painted, 12.2 x 13.6 x 12 cm. Ashmolean Museum (EAX.2078) © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The Mughal Gallery of the Ashmolean Museum currently hosts a beautiful deck of dasavatara ganjifa from 19th-century Sawantwadi in Maharashtra, western India (Figure 3). The cards, measuring 10cm in diameter, are made of painted and lacquered paper. They are housed in a brightly painted wooden box. In Sawantwadi ganjifa sets, instead of being depicted enthroned, the king (raja) cards often show the avatars of Vishnu engaging in action. For instance, in the Ashmolean deck the king card of the Matsya suit depicts Vishnu emerging from the mouth of a fish, while grabbing the hair of a demon who was hiding in a conch shell (Figure 4).

Figure 4: The king (raja) card of the Matsya suit in the dasavatara ganjifa. Sawantwadi, India, c. 1900. Paper, painted and lacquered, diam. 10 cm. Ashmolean Museum (EAX.2078) © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The other card game is the poker-like as or as nas, popular in Iran between the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 20th century. It was played with five suits of five identical cards, each bearing creative motifs depicted under a lacquer finish: ace or lion (as), king (shah), queen (bibi), soldier (sarbaz) and courtesan (lakkat). The ace (as) cards often feature felines fighting a dragon, and sometimes the sun with a human face is added on the top of the card. An Ashmolean example from 19th-century Iran depicts the sun in the form of a mustachioed man, whose image recalls official portraits of the Qajar ruler Naser al-Din Shah (1831-96) (Figure 5).

Figure 5: The ace/lion (as) card in the as. Iran, 19th century. Paper, painted and lacquered, 6 x4 cm. Presented by Miss E. M. Buller, 1958. Ashmolean Museum (EA1958.282) © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Both ganjifa and as cards were hand-painted and covered with a heavy lacquer finish in order to protect them from damage due to constant handling.

Further reading:

• Diba, Layla, ‘Persian Playing Cards: A Courtly Art’, in eds, Colin Mackenzie and Irving Finkel, Asian Games: The Art of Contest (New York: Asia Society, 2004), pp. 232-9.

• Hopewell, Jeff, ‘Ganjifa: The Traditional Playing Cards of India’, in eds, Colin Mackenzie and Irving Finkel, Asian Games: The Art of Contest (New York: Asia Society, 2004), pp. 240-51.

• Hopewell, Jeff, ‘Ganjifa: India’s Contribution to the World of Playing Cards’, in ed., Andrew Topsfield, The Art of Play: Board and Card Games of India (Mumbai: Marg Publications, 2006), pp. 91-105.

• Leyden, Rudolf von, ‘Oriental Playing Cards’, Journal of the Playing Card Society 4, Supplement 4/1D (1976): pp. 1-37.

• Leyden, Rudolf von, Ganjifa: The Playing Cards of India, with contributions by Michael Dummett (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1982).

• Roschanzamir, Mahdi, ‘Card Games’, Encyclopædia Iranica, 1990, IV/7, pp. 802-3; available online at

• Roschanzamir, Mehdi, ‘Ās’, Encyclopædia Iranica, 2002 (last updated 2011); available online at


– Federica Duva and Farouk Yahya


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Diary of a Tea Ceremony Demonstration

Every month, except over Christmas and during the summer holidays, we hold a Japanese tea ceremony demonstration in the traditional Japanese tea house in the Museum’s Japanese galleries. The tea house was designed and built especially for the Ashmolean by a team of highly skilled Japanese craftsmen, led by the master carpenter Mr Eichirō Amakasu and the architect Mr Isao Komoda. We have always been very keen to make it an active tea house, rather than just another exhibit, and we are fortunate enough to have the support of a wonderful team of Japanese tea enthusiasts who are prepared to give their time and expertise so that we can run regular demonstrations.

To give you an idea of what happens in one of our demonstrations, here is a diary of a typical ‘Tea Demo Day’.

15 June 2017

Night before. Remember to get matcha powdered green tea out of the freezer. We stock up with really good matcha in London or – even better – in Japan, and it keeps surprisingly well in the freezer. Otherwise the startling green tea with its distinctive aroma oxidises to a slightly dingy khaki colour. I just have to remember to take it out well in advance so that it isn’t too cold and damp on the day.

8.30 am. I pop into the garden to see what flowers I can find to arrange in the display alcove of the tea house. One of the key ideas behind the Japanese tea ceremony is wabi, the notion of finding beauty in the humble, the simple and the imperfect. Everything used in a tea gathering is carefully selected to express this mood, even the flowers. So it’s important not to choose anything too flashy or scented. At this time of year Japanese anemones work well; perhaps cherry blossom in the spring, or delicate acer leaves in the autumn. I know that one of our volunteers, Masayo-san, will bring something in too – she has a garden full of lovely Japanese plants. I find some pretty white astrantia that should look good against the ochre-coloured walls of the tea house – fingers crossed it will survive the bike ride into the Ashmolean.

9.00 am. Before the museum opens to the public I give the tea house a quick clean. It’s remarkable how dusty it gets! I keep a set of special dusters and brushes and cloths that are used only for this purpose and a gentle dusting of the surfaces and wipe-down of the tatami floor with a damp cloth is all that’s needed. I like to feel there is something a little Zen-like about this task. It’s really very peaceful inside the tea house, with a faint smell of wood and tatami straw matting.

9.30 am. I get hold of the list of attendees from colleagues in the Education Department, which oversees the event. We limit numbers to make sure that all our guests can get a really good view of the tea house, and the demonstrations are almost always fully booked.

10.00 am. I set to work on creating handouts for the event, as we like to give visitors a brief record of our tea gathering to take away with them. Traditionally, tea hosts and guests in Japan would keep records of the tea gatherings they attended, carefully noting details of the event, such as the utensils selected, flowers arranged and guests invited. Through the careful selection of these different elements, a tea host can demonstrate his or her taste and create a particular mood, depending on the season, the time of day and the atmosphere they want to create. There is a lovely Zen phrase used in tea circles, ichigo ichie (一期一会), literally ‘one time, one meeting’, that expresses how each tea gathering is a unique occasion, a one-off, transient moment to be treasured. Our handouts are inspired by these tea diaries and list all the utensils we have selected for each demonstration. Like the historical tea masters, we make sure to update the list for each demonstration.

10.30 am. Our demonstrators start to arrive to get ready for the day. Every month I am impressed by their knowledge, dedication, kindness and adaptability. There are many challenges to making tea in a museum setting and the team members are unfailingly positive in the face of all of them. They are often joined by other fantastic helpers from the University Museum Volunteer Service, who provide invaluable assistance with setting up and serving tea, and generally making sure the day goes smoothly.

Masayo-san arrives first, with an armful of beautiful seasonal flowers from her garden. She disappears upstairs to arrange them in the hanging vase in the tea house. Tea flowers are very informally arranged, to look as if they have been simply ‘thrown into’ the vase.

11.00 am. Meanwhile, Satomi-san starts to rinse the metal kettle used to heat the water for the tea and boils mineral water (instead of hard Oxford tap water!) to fill thermos flasks ready to use later.

Midday. Miyuki-san arrives. Another key member of our team, she is our kimono expert. Putting on a kimono is a complex process and many Japanese women are not able to dress themselves completely alone. The tying of the obi sash is particularly tricky. For the next hour, my office becomes a changing room.

Mitsuko-san starts carrying tea bowls and other equipment up to the Japanese galleries, where front-of-house colleagues have set up a table and stools for us. A proper tea room would have its own preparation area, like a small kitchen, but we make a temporary preparation area in the gallery next to the tea house.

Meanwhile, someone sieves the tea to get rid of any lumps, then piles it carefully into the lacquer tea container. The tea is supposed to be piled up like an elegant mountain inside the container, and there is even a special word for how it looks – keshiki, or ‘landscape’. Someone else selects the sweets to be used; as the tea is quite bitter, a sweet is always eaten before the tea is drunk. The sweets are often designed to reflect the season, so might be moulded in the shape of autumn maple leaves, winter snowflakes or spring blossoms. Today’s sweets are in the shape of green leaves and rippling water.

1.00 pm. The guests assemble at the tea house and we head off to one of the Eastern Art Department study rooms so that I can give a brief introductory talk: about the history of tea drinking in Japan, the notion of wabi that informs the tea ceremony, and what happens in a real tea gathering. We also handle some tea wares from the Ashmolean’s collection.

We head back to the gallery, where stools have been set up in front of the tea house. We ask one visitor to volunteer to be a guest inside the tea house (somebody who is happy to kneel for a while). Other visitors sit on the stools to watch the demonstration, but everyone receives a bowl of tea – if not made inside the teahouse then in the nearby preparation area.

At its core, the tea gathering is an act of hospitality, a way of leaving the stresses and chaos of everyday life behind for a while to enjoy a delicious bowl of tea in good company in the tranquil surroundings of the tea house. A full tea gathering can last several hours and includes a meal and two different types of tea. We can’t attempt to recreate a ‘proper’ tea ceremony at the Ashmolean, but we can certainly offer hospitality to our visitors through carefully prepared bowls of tea.

There is no chatting during a tea ceremony, with just a few set phrases exchanged between guest and host. The focus is entirely on the preparation and drinking of the tea within the tea house, so chitchat isn’t encouraged. Yet there is by no means complete silence; instead there is a kind of gentle background music made by the water bubbling in the kettle and being poured from the ladle, the tapping of the tea scoop on the side of the bowl, and the whisking of the tea. I always keep my fingers crossed that that there is not too much noise in the surrounding galleries to drown out these subtle sounds.

© Mr and Mrs H Shikanai

The name Ningendō was given to the teahouse by the gallery’s sponsors, Mr and Mrs Hiroaki Shikanai, who kindly introduced us to the craftsmen who made the teahouse. The character nin 仁 means humanity or benevolence; gen 玄 means mystery and 堂 means house or hall. The phrase, which is taken from the writings of the ninth century Buddhist Monk Kūkai, is hard to translate, but can be interpreted to describe the way that within the teahouse human existence, in all its insignificance, is united with the vastness of the universe. Mr Shikanai did the calligraphy for the plaque, choosing the archaic form of calligraphy known as tensho, or Chinese seal script. This was then intricately carved onto a beautiful wooden panel chosen for its distinctive woodgrain with the appearance of rippling water.

After the demonstration, we try to answer any questions our visitors may have. Every group responds slightly differently to the demonstrations and I am struck by how each tea gathering really is a unique experience. We invite anyone who is interested to step inside the tea house. Ningendō, at just under 2m2 with one and three quarter tatami floor mats, is the smallest standard-size tea house. Although it looks tiny from the outside, it feels surprisingly spacious when you’re sitting inside. It’s made entirely from traditional Japanese materials – cedar, cryptomeria, pine, and bamboo – with roughly plastered walls and paper lattice windows that allow light to filter softly into the room. The timber framework was first constructed at master carpenter Amakasu-san’s workshop near Tokyo, then taken apart and shipped to England, where it was painstakingly reconstructed inside the Japanese gallery by a team of specialist craftsmen. Amakasu-san and his assistant carpenter were joined by a master plasterer who used plaster made from special river and mountain sand to achieve an undulating surface of bright ochre colour. And a master paperer pasted hand-made Japanese paper onto the walls – white for the host and deep blue for the guests.

Each area within the tea house has a particular function. There is an area for the display of a scroll and flowers, an arched doorway at the back for the host, and a small door at the side for guests. This guest door (nijiriguchi) is traditionally built very low, so that all guests, whatever their social standing, are forced to bow down to enter the room. There is also a hearth for the kettle that heats the water for the tea. This would normally be laid with a charcoal fire, but for obvious reasons we use an electric heater instead. A real tea house would be located within a tea garden that allows guests physically to separate themselves from the outside world as they enter the world of tea. Of course we can’t provide a garden, but the teahouse is separated from the gallery by a tiny strip of beaten earth, and entered by stepping up onto a large stone sourced from North Wales. And it really does feel like a different world inside.

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Collecting the Past: Scholars’ Taste in Chinese Art

Exhibition dates: 21 Mar to 22 Oct 2017

Gallery 11 | Admission Free

Collecting the Past, Scholars’ taste in Chinese Art, on view at the Ashmolean Museum of Art & Archaeology, Gallery 11, March 21st through October 22nd, 2017, explores literati aesthetic taste and the tradition of collecting the past in Chinese art.

Fu Baoshi (1904–1965), The scholar artist in his studio after Wu Meicun, ink and slight colour on paper, 29.5 x 34.4, Sullivan Bequest © Fu Baoshi estate, EA2015.140.

The literati aesthetic, integrating poetry, calligraphy and painting into a single work of art, has governed Chinese art for over a thousand years. No later than the 10th century, Chinese painting developed two different traditions: the longstanding tradition of the professional, and the literati tradition. The professional painters, who had been summoned to serve the court in the past, often selected subject matter and adopted styles and techniques to satisfy their royal patrons, while the literati painters, who were amateurs, painted as a means of self-expression, in much the same way as they wrote poetry. The literati tradition of Chinese painting reached its maturity in the Song period (960-1279), and major breakthroughs followed in the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). In the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), literati painting became increasingly popular and was promoted by the influential scholar artists Shen Zhou (1427-1509), Wen Zhengming  (1470-1559) and Dong Qichang (1555-1636), who refined the expressionistic brush-oriented manner of the Yuan dynasty masters.  Literati painting, a major genre of Chinese painting, enjoyed its last golden age from the late seventeenth century to the early twentieth century.

Collecting the Past: Scholars’ Taste in Chinese Art, exhibition view

This exhibition features a variety of paintings created by scholar-artists who were also calligraphers, poets and seal-carvers. The paintings all (dated to the 19th–20th centuries) from the Ashmolean Collection, represent lyrical themes: wandering in nature, strolling in mountains, visiting friends and writing poems. Some prominent scholar-artists were also art connoisseurs and collectors who looked for inspiration from the ancient. Also included in this display are objects of refinement and antiquarian taste used in scholar’s studios where the literati enjoyed art, literature and music.

Scholar – painters in the 20th century

The display begins with the painting The scholar artist in his studio by the renowned scholar painter and art historian Fu Baoshi  (1904 – 1965). Fu was not born into a scholarly or artistic family , but he painted in literati style. He was trained in the College of Education in Nanchang. Later on he went to Tokyo to study Western and Japanese art between 1933 and 1935 where he developed his own style based on a fusion of Western realism and traditional brushwork. This figure painting can be interpreted as a self-portrait of Fu Baoshi. Fu Baoshi inscribed the painting with a poem by the Ming Dynasty author Wu Meicun (1609-1671), writing about his friend, Shao Mi (c.1592- after 1642), the ‘eccentric painter’. Fu adds at the end of the inscription the comment ‘Meicun has portrayed me.’ As is typical for Chinese literati painters, Fu Baoshi’s works express his personal taste for subjects drawn from Chinese poets of the past. In his landscape painting, depicting a group of scholars ascending a mountain ridge to view the waterfall, also on display, he freely applied light washes for an impressionistic treatment.

Fu Baoshi, Waterfall landscape, 1961, ink and colour on paper, 135.89 x 19.05 cm © the Artist’s Estate, EA1963.71

Literati painters would generally not paint for commercial purposes but as a personal form of enjoyment. Scholar artists often exchanged paintings and poems among themselves as gifts, as acknowledgement of appreciation–symbols of their friendships. They would also share the result of their efforts with a group of friends and connoisseurs. One of the recurrent themes in Chinese art and literature is the moment of farewell between friends. Saying Farewell by the Shanghai School master Ren Yi (1840 – 1895) is an example of this subject executed in his later, freer style influenced by the works of Xu Wei  (1521-1593) and Zhu Da  (1626-1705). Especially striking is the liveliness of the horse.

Collecting the Past: Scholars’ Taste in Chinese Art, exhibition view

Lyrical landscapes by scholar artists

Between 1932 and 1934, scholar-artist Huang Binhong (1865-1955), widely regarded as one of the greatest Chinese landscape painters of the 20th century, travelled to Sichuan where he painted Waiting for the Ferry in the Shade of Pine Trees. This landscape is mainly depicted in layers of dots produced with the brush tip and calligraphic brushstrokes. Distant mountains, half wrapped in the mist, appear tranquil. Like many of his contemporaries born in the late 19th century Huang received a traditional education in art and literature. The learning engendered creative expression in the form of painting, calligraphy and seal carving and scholarly expression in the form of art historical research and collecting.

Huang Binhong, Waiting for the Ferry in Shade of Pine Trees, ink and colour on paper, 35 x 26.3 cm, Sullivan Bequest © The Artist’s Estate, EA2015.140.

His earlier work also on display includes six album leaves representing the rich, dense landscape of the lower Yangzi delta region in China. In these paintings, Huang Binhong used traditional brushwork in defining the forms, as well as quite fluid washes. To model the mountains, Huang Binhong used long hemp-fibre texture strokes and thick texture dots. Huang came from a well-educated scholar-gentry family, who had assembled an important collection of books and paintings. The family collection included paintings by prominent artists, such as Dong Yuan (900-962), Wang Meng (1308-1385) and Shitao (1642-1707). The exposure to these artists’ works has influenced Huang’s manner to paint. In his old age, from the age of 75 to his death, his landscapes became even darker, denser and fuller.

Collecting the Past: Scholars’ Taste in Chinese Art, exhibition view of Huang Binhong’s album leafs, Sullivan Bequest © the Artist’s Estate, EA2015.134-EA2015.139.

Delightful examples such as Chen Hengke’s (1876 – 1923) Buildings amidst streams and mountains or Zhao Xi’s (1867-1948) Landscape are included in the display. The style of these two paintings is however extremely different as Chen, who studied in Japan, uses assertive brushstrokes influenced by the Ming and Qing masters such as Shen Zhou (1427-1509) and Shitao (1642-1707), while the high-ranking official Zhao Xi focuses on creating an elegant composition bringing the “three perfections” — poetry, calligraphy, and paintings — subtly together. Zhao Xi’s painting expresses a longing for an ideal place of retreat for a scholar-recluse. The auspicious Daoist imagery of the crane and the archaic simplicity of the figures evoke a dreamlike vision of paradise.

Chen Hengke, Buildings Amidst Streams and Mountains, ink and slight colour on paper, 120 x 60.5 cm, Reyes Gift © the Artist’s Estate, EA1995.169

Other landscape paintings on view include seven album leaves by the scholar-official Weng Tonghe (1830-1904), a distinguished statesman, and a discerning collector of painting and calligraphy. He had a successful political career, and became the tutor of Qing dynasty emperors Tongzhi (r. 1861-1875) and Guangxu (r. 1875-1908). Weng was also known as one of the leading reformers of late 19th century China, who brought together the radical reformer Kang Youwei (1858-1927) with emperor Guangxu. In 1898 he was forced to retire from court life and seek refuge in Yushan (Mount Yu), a village northwest of Changshu, Jiangsu province.

Weng Tonghe, after Hui Wang, Snow on the Desk Terrace, 1902, ink and colour on paper, 27.4 x 34.3 cm  © Ashmolean Museum, EA1966.2.a

The beautiful scenery and peaceful surroundings inspired this album depicting Mount Yu in different seasons. The lyrical landscape expresses the painter’s contentment in the life of a recluse. These seven leaves are rare examples of Weng’s landscape painting as he was best known for his calligraphy. Weng Tonghe carefully modulated his brushstroke and used the calligraphic effects of dry and wet ink to render landscapes in the styles of earlier masters such as Wang Hui  (1632 -1717).  The Weng family collection was passed down through six generations, beginning with his father Weng Xincun (1791-1862), finally coming to his great-great-grandson, Wan-go H.C. Weng (b.1918), who brought it to the United States in 1948.

Weng Tonghe, after Hui Wang, Peach Blossom Stream in Spring, 1902, ink and colour on paper © Ashmolean Museum, EA1966.2.g

Yan Liu, Christensen Fellow in Chinese Painting.

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Collecting the Past: Scholars’ Taste in Chinese Art – part II

Exhibition dates: 21 Mar to 22 Oct 2017

Gallery 11 | Admission Free

Collecting the Past, Scholars’ taste in Chinese Art, on view at the Ashmolean Museum of Art & Archaeology, Gallery 11, March 21st through October 22nd, 2017, explores literati aesthetic taste and the tradition of collecting the past in Chinese art.

Wu Hufan, Calligraphy from Seeing Mr Lu Returning to Wu, ink and colour on paper, 39.9 x 62.6 cm, Reyes Gift 1995 © the Artist’s Estate, EA1995.290

Scholar artists as collectors

This exhibition also features calligraphy and paintings by some prominent scholar artists who were also celebrated collectors and art connoisseurs in the early 20th century. Wu Hufan (1894-1968)  was a painter, calligrapher and connoisseur. He was the grandson of Wu Dacheng (1835-1902), a leading official at the Qing court and an amateur literati artist, who was also well-known as a celebrated collector of ancient bronzes, jades and rubbings. Wu Hufan inherited family collections of artworks, and began his artistic practice by copying old masters. The landscape album on display was painted in Wu’s studio, named Plum Vista Studio, which was the main art center for appreciating and exchanging ancient paintings and calligraphy in the Jiangnan area. Benefiting from his family collection and contact with other collectors, Wu Hufan was able to study and collect works by earlier masters. Wu epitomizes the Chinese scholarly tradition of combining collecting with creativity, acquiring works of art as a way of learning from the past. The landscape album and fan calligraphy give Wu Hufan the opportunity to display his many talents—as connoisseur, painter and calligrapher.

Wu Hufan, Magnificent View of Landscape, 1930 – 1968, ink and colour on paper, 23.5 x 29 cm, Reyes Gift 1995 © the Artist’s Estate, EA1995.254.a

The landscape album by the Guangdong painter Wu Hao (b.1930) is a direct copy of Shitao’s album of poetry and painting which was owned by Wu Hao’s friend, the collector Huang Yongyu (date of birth unknown), the Master of Heavenly Sound Pavilion. His grandfather and father are collectors and connoisseurs. Influenced by family, Wu Hao is a well-trained calligrapher, landscape painter, seal carver and poet. On the last page, the artist recorded the collecting history of Shitao’s album of poetry and painting. It used to belong to Kong Guangtao of the Snowy Mountain Pavilion (or Yuexuelou, the studio of Kong Guangtao) in the late Qing period. On each album leaf there is a connoisseur’s seal by Shao Tang. Also, Kong has invited Cantonese poets to compose poems for each leaf, showing how much he treasured this album. In winter 1933, when Zhang Yuan (Chang Dai-chien) came from Neijiang (in Sichuan province) to Guangzhou Huang Yongyu showed this album to him. Zhang highly praised this album, saying that the album features so many styles. In Zhang’s preface he wrote: ‘I have ten albums of Qingxiang (Shitao) in my own collection, and I have seen no less than 20 – 30 albums of his when I travelled North and South in this country, but none of those is as fantastic as this one.’ Zhang also signed the preface as ‘Daqian with extreme joy’.

Collecting the Past: Scholars’ Taste in Chinese Art, exhibition view of the albums by Wu Hufan (left) and Wu Hao (right)

Objects in the Scholar’s Studio

A well-equipped scholar’s studio was filled with fine furniture and tasteful objects, and artefacts of all sorts from archaeological objects to copies of antiques. The studio was a place of artistic expression and experimentation, and it was also a place of social gathering for literati elites, such as Wu Hufan’s Plum Vista Studio.  For instance, the image of a group of objects in a scholar’s study portrays a typical day in a scholar’s studio:  he opened all the windows, cleared his desk, burned incense, washed his hands and cleansed his ink-stone, and by doing so his spirit was calmed and his thoughts composed. This playful finger painting was created by the Sichuan artist Liu Xiling  (1848 – 1923). His painting style and subject matter were inspired by Gao Qipei  (1660-1734), a literati painter who was particularly well-known for his finger painting.

Liu Xiling, An inkstone, incense, and flowers, ink and colour on paper, finger painted, 31.4 x 36.5 cm © Ashmolean Museum, EAX.5345.d

For a scholar and painter, ink and paint palettes were utilitarian items which were needed to hold excess ink and colour. The four basic pieces of equipment they used are called “the Four Treasures of the Scholar’s Studio”: paper, brush, ink and ink stone. On display are a group of ink sticks made in the Hu Kaiwen ink workshop which was established in Huizhou (East of China) in the 18th century, and supplied special ink sticks for the imperial Qing family. Chinese ink is produced in stick form rather than liquid, allowing it to last for generations without drying out. To use the ink, the stick is ground against the surface of the ink stone and water is gradually dropped from a water dropper.  Freshly mixed ink is used with a Chinese brush to produce the whole variety of textures seen in Chinese painting and calligraphy.

Collecting the Past: Scholars’ Taste in Chinese Art, exhibition view of vitrine case with water pot, jar, ink sticks, Ten Bamboo Manual and wrist rest.

A set of brush washers from the 18th century mimics the glaze of Song Dynasty (960-1279) Guan ware. In later periods, particularly in the Qing dynasty, collectors and scholar elites greatly admired these simple wares for their antiquity as well as their subtle colours. The two ceramic incense burners shown from the same period are modelled after ancient ritual bronze gui-tureen vessel.

Brush pot with figures in a landscape, China, 1720 – 1770, jade, 16.5 cm x 17.7 cm (d), Fraser gift 1967 © Ashmolean Museum, EA1967.139

As a stone of beauty and eternity, jade has always been highly prized in China, and embodied the noble spiritual world beyond physical beauty, which is associated with the qualities of an ideal gentleman: pure, constant and incorruptible. A fine example of craftsmanship is the big dark green jade brush pot carved with a scene of two scholars in a garden. The archaic jade water dropper shaped in the form of a winged beast and delicately carved is another delightful object which would sit on a scholar’s desk and contribute to creating an atmosphere of cultural refinement.

Collecting the Past: Scholars’ Taste in Chinese Art, exhibition view of vitrine case with incense burner, jade brush pot, brush washer and water dropper.

Pursuing the past in painting and calligraphy

No later than the Song Dynasty (960-1279), archaic bronzes and their inscriptions, the result of hundreds of years of epigraphic and stylistic study by literary scholars and artists, became inseparable. In addition to their connection with the past, rubbings were valued for their association with personal possession. Collectors and scholar elites created works of painting, calligraphy, and of composite rubbings as a means of displaying their wealth and status. Wu Yunzheng’s fan calligraphy written in archaic script is an excellent example of antiquarian taste. This calligraphy was originally mounted as one side of fan. It copies the rubbings of a variety of ancient ritual bronze vessels, including the bronze bell of Zhu Gonghua (c.5th century BC), the yi-vessel of Lady Geng (undated), and the gui-tureen vessel of Zhongjufu (c.8th century BC).

Wu Yunzheng, Calligraphy after inscription on three bronze vessels, 1835, ink on silver paper, 23.5 x 52.3 cm © Ashmolean Museum, EA1965.243

Wu Changshuo (1844 – 1927), a student of Ren Yi, was known as one of the major figures in the Shanghai School of artists. He received traditional education in poetry, calligraphy, and seal carving at an early age. The scroll Peonies in a bronze vessel was painted in 1903. The bronze vessel in this painting is a ding tripod ritual vessel of the mid-Zhou dynasty (c. 1050-256 BC), depicted together with its inscription. Bronzes were first collected in the Song dynasty (960-1279), mainly for the historical importance of their inscriptions. The practice was revived in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), and a new way of representing the vessels was developed. Chrysanthemum and plum blossoms were favorite subjects of Wu, particularly the latter. More than once, he called himself “plum’s confidant.” This type of painting is characterized as Bogu huahui (Antiques and Flowers) and became very popular in 19th century Shanghai among the scholar elite because of a fusion of auspicious symbols and the depiction of ancient Chinese artefacts.

Wu Changshuo, Peonies in a bronze vessel, 1903, ink and colour with ink and rubbing on paper, 133 x 66 cm, Impey Bequest © Ashmolean Museum, EA2007.103

Bird and Flower

Over the centuries, cymbidium orchids were favoured by scholar artists, who often painted the leaves and blossoms calligraphically. The cymbidium orchid, along with the bamboo, the chrysanthemum and the plum blossom are called The Four Gentlemen in Chinese art. The handscroll Epidendrum, bamboo, and rocks by late Qing painter Gai Qi (1774 – 1829) begins in springtime, with clumps of orchids sprouting from rocky outcroppings. The brushwork highlights the profusion of leaves and blossoms. The fragile beauty of the cymbidium orchids is graceful in form. Such characteristics made it a natural symbol of refinement, elegance, virtue and moral excellence. (EA1962.225)

Collecting the Past: Scholars’ Taste in Chinese Art, exhibition view of Gai Qi, Epidendrum, bamboo, and rocks, 1818 (painting), 1877 (colophon), ink on paper, 30.48 x 351.79 cm © Ashmolean Museum, EA1962.225

Among the Four Noble Plants, bamboo was particularly favoured by literati elites. In one of his poems, the Song dynasty scholar Su Shi (1037-1101) wrote: “I can go without meat in my meal, yet I can’t live in a place without bamboo.” Li Kuchan’s (1898 – 1983) painting Birds and bamboo especially emphasis the flexibility and strength of the bamboo stalk representing for literati painters the human values of cultivation and integrity.

Li Kuchan, Birds and bamboo, 1898 – 1965, ink and colour on paper, 96.52 x 45.72 cm © the Artist, EA1965.249

Chen Hengke’s (1876 – 1923) The Pine and the Chrysanthemum Endure focuses on the image of the pine and chrysanthemum and their ability to thrive even in the harshness of winter. They embody steadfastness, perseverance and resilience. Representing the ideal characteristics of a scholar-gentleman, these symbols of virtue became a popular theme in Chinese literati painting, poetry, and calligraphy throughout the ages.

Chen Hengke, The Pine and the Chrysanthemum Endure, 1901 – 1925, ink and slight colour on paper, 101.6 x 38.1 cm    © Ashmolean Museum, EA1969.63

In Buddhism the lotus is known to be associated with purity and rebirth, it is also a favourite subject in Chinese ink paintings.  Zhu Da (c.1626 – 1705), also known as Bada Shanren, was a descendant of the prince of Yiyang of the Ming imperial family. The use of the name “Bada Shanren” in 1684 marked a profound shift in his career from Buddhist monk to artist, and his painting style becomes more mature and expressive. Lotus dominated his visual vocabulary throughout his life.

ollecting the Past: Scholars’ Taste in Chinese Art, exhibition view with scrolls by Su Liupeng (EA2007.207) and Zhu Da (EA1965.66), Fu Baoshi (EA1963.71) and Li Kuchan (EA1965.249).

Gao Fenghan (1683-1749) was born in Jiaozhou, Shandong province, and spent his career as an official in the Jiangnan region, where he associated with the Yangzhou painters known later on as the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou for rejecting orthodox painting tradition. He painted this lotus scroll with very playful brushwork using his left hand when suffered from rheumatism in his right.

Gao Fenghan, Lotus, 1737 – 1741, ink and colour on paper, 154.94 x 45.72 cm © Ashmolean Museum, EA1965.253

Yan Liu, Christensen Fellow in Chinese Painting.

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The Emily Georgiana Kemp Collection

Every intelligent person that I have met whose good fairy has led him to the Celestial Empire has fallen under the spell of that marvellous people and marvellous land. I am fired with the ambition to cast that spell even on those who have never been there, by showing them as accurately and vividly as can, with pen and brush, what the face of China actually is.

   Emily.G. Kemp, The Face of China(1909) 

Watercolours, Emily Kemp Archive,
© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The Kemp Collection is one of the most extraordinary archives in the Eastern Art Department at the Ashmolean. It was created neither by an Eastern artist nor in an Eastern style. It even has a longer history than the Eastern Art Department. Offered by the British female explorer Emily Georgiana Kemp (1860-1939) in 1938, collections of watercolour paintings made by the artist herself, together with other objects illustrating Chinese life and art, were bequeathed to the Indian Institute, which is the precursor of the Eastern Art Department. This collection arrived during the re-organisation of the Museum of Asian Art and the artistic and historical value of the bequest fits perfectly with the purpose of limiting the display to objects of real artistic or historical importance. “(Kemp’s bequest) would enhance the educational value of our Museum,” The registrar of the University stressed in the letter, “and they would wish to help the university … obtain a collection of good enough quality to form the nucleus of a Chinese collection.”

Portrait Head of Miss Emily Georgiana Kemp, Chalk, 1892, Alphonse Legros (WA1940.5.5)
© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Apart from the quality and subject of the collections, the artist’s beliefs and achievement enhanced the paintings to something more than a snapshot of a scene. After graduating as one of the first students of Somerville College, Oxford, Kemp started to travel around and developed a lifelong passion for East and Central Asia. As an artist, writer and explorer, Kemp published six books that covered all her well-known journeys and expressed her extensive vision about religions. She was awarded the Grande Médaille de Vermeil by the French Geographical Society because of her work in 1921, Chinese Mettle, which was an honour never granted to a woman before. In 1935, Kemp founded the Chapel of the Somerville College to provide a place where members of all religions could pray. Along with her own work, the Lancashire-born adventurer had also bequeathed a number of artworks from other artists, such as Alphonse Legros (1837-1911)’s etchings and drawings, which filled a gap in the museum collection, and are currently housed in the Western Art Department.

The archive includes over a hundred published and unpublished watercolour sketches, 19 photographs, 10 textile pieces and more than 200 lantern slides. China was one of the most mentioned areas among Kemp’s works since her younger sister and brother-in-law were  missionaries in China. She visited China several times during late nineteenth to early twentieth century. While visiting the British missionaries based in China, Kemp travelled through thirteen provinces (including Beijing, Hunan, Sichuan, Yunnan, and Shanghai). The slow passage along road and rivers allowed Kemp time to write, paint and watch China slip slowly by.  As a meticulous observer, she captured everything that caught her eye: the architecture, the landscape, or a glance of local daily life. Most of the watercolours and sketches that illustrated in her books are stored in Eastern Art archives, along with many unpublished ones. All of the artworks in the collection are in very good condition and are still as vivid as when they were made.

Kemp resided for a year in Taiyuan (capital of Shanxi province) with her missionary family members. She was deeply interested in the various local religions and the ways of practising them in a different yet harmonious manner, largely due to the fact that Shanxi has a long and prosperous history of Buddhism and Taoism. “The subject, however, was so charming that I could not waste the one chance I had of sketching.” Kemp described. She visited several monasteries and captured the beauty of the architecture from every angle. Most of the scenes still exist today.

Omi tofu, Drawing, Emily Kemp Archive
“We were interested to meet quite a new god in this region. He has three faces, and wears a large stone hat. He is carved in stone and stands by the roadside like a little milestone at intervals all along the way but frequently there are no signs of worship about him. He is called by the Buddhist formula “O mi to fu”, and is worshipped by labours to prevent their getting sore feet, so they frequently burn sandals before him, and incense sticks may be seen in front of his image” -Kemp, E. (1909). The Face of China © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

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Kemp made a remarkable group of watercolours of the faces she met during her trip. Instead of systematically studying local ways of dressing, Kemp’s work is more impressive as a commentary on the physique and behaviour of various local characters. During her time residing in China (although short), Kemp was able to make use of her and her sister’s insider knowledge to represent China from different angles. Kemp’s writing shows more freedom and diversity than the missionary writing, which was tied to a particular mission. From the westernised noble court official to the young illiterate labourer, Kemp’s pen and brush depicted a country in transformation through its people. The ardour toward people from different backgrounds was presented in her artworks with equivalent attention to detail, which she believed to represent their style of life, or, what’s more, their state of mind.  Kemp’s friendly approach towards local people always won her a delighted response. “Often the women came round and smilingly interrogated us. Then we went through an amusing dumb conversation of the most friendly sort. The subject is usually the same – feet- and they never fail to admire our English boots, if not our feet. We, on our side, express much admiration of the exquisite embroidery of their shoes, though we do not admire their feet.” All of these elements produced a unique and accurate depiction of the local culture.


Kemp also visited Miao tribes in Guizhou, which were rarely explored by tourists at that time. The Miao lived in a village which was located in the deep valleys of the province, and was described by Kemp as “Almost inaccessible to the outside world and are only penetrated by missionaries”. Kemp used a chapter to describe the Miao in her book Chinese Mettle, which generally covers the different Miao tribes living around the province and their embroideries, languages and religions.  Apart from watercolours and photos, the Kemp Archive also houses a pair of Miao sandals. 

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Hua Miao, Photograpy, Emily Kemp Archive,
“The Wha Miao (Hua Miao, flowery Miao) are so called because of the colour of their dress, which is dyed blue and red by an ingenious method of stenciling the cloth, using beeswax to make the design….The women, when married, wear their hair erected into a horn, which sticks out from the side of the head; but as soon as they have children the horn is erected straight up from the top.” -Kemp, E. (1921). Chinese Mettle
© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Kemp also spared no effort to speak highly of the spread of women’s education and welfare in China under the influence of English missionaries. She celebrated the policies issued by warlord Yan Xishan, the governor of Shanxi Provice, who encouraged girls to enrol into colleges. The Kemp collection includes some very precious photos and a sketch of the opening of the Edward’s Memorial Institute at Taiyuan (EMIT), which was to commemorate the work of Kemp’s sister, Edwards’s wife S. Florence Edwards (Known as ‘living Buddha’ to the local for her generous, loving personality).  The Institute housed about 200 students, including governor Yan Xishan’s wives. Kemp was also a friend of Zeng Baosun (曾寶蓀), a Chinese pioneer feminist, historian and Christian educator, and was invited to visit the first Christian University for women in China founded by her, the I-Fang Girls’ Collegiate School.

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Zeng Baosun,
Slide, Emily Kemp Archive
Zeng Baosun (曾寶蓀), the great-granddaughter of Zeng Guofan. After received teaching training at Oxford and Cambridge, Zeng returned to China and founded I-Fang Girls’ Collegiate School in 1918, Changsha (Hunan), where anti-Christian and anti-foreign riots erupted constantly during the late 1980’s. Zeng’s work was very highly regarded by Kemp: “When I reflect on the state of unrest which existed during the birth of this school and the masterly way in which Miss Tseng(Zeng) has overcome all the difficulties of the situation, I find no words adequate to express my admiration. ”
-Kemp, E. (1921). Chinese Mettle
© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The Kemp Collection is a varied collection which provides remarkable resources for different subjects. Her involvement and awareness of the culture and people allowed for a new complex image of China to emerge. All items in the collection are available in The Jameel Centre for the Study of Eastern Art for viewings by appointment. Click HERE from more information.

Bright, R. M. (2008). China as I see it: The resident writing of British women in China, 1890–1940. Temple University.
Kaiser, A. T. (2016). The Rushing on of the Purposes of God: Christian Missions in Shanxi since 1876. Wipf and Stock Publishers.
Kemp, E. (1909). The face of China : Travels in east, north, central and western China. London: Chatto & Windus.
Kemp, E. (1919). Reminiscences of a sister, S. Florence Edwards, of Taiyuanfu. London: Carey press.
Kemp, E. (1921). Chinese mettle. London ; New York [etc.: Hodder and Stoughton.
Somerville College Chapel Blog. (2017). Emily Georgiana Kemp. [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 May. 2017].
Williamson, H. R. (1957). British baptists in China, 1845-1952. Carey Kingsgate Press.


Yi Wu is an archive assistant and a local history student with a background in paper conservation. She currently volunteers for the Eastern Art Department, Ashmolean Museum and works at the Bodleian K B Chen China Centre Library.

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