Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies @ the British Museum

At the back of the British Museum and up three flights of stairs you get to rooms 90, 90a, 91 and 91a, calm quiet rooms which specialise in temporary exhibitions drawn from the museum’s vast collections of prints and drawings. The rotating exhibitions in these rooms are always FREE.

At the moment rooms 90 and 90a are hosting a fabulous exhibition of prints and drawings by the great Käthe Kollwitz, and a wide-ranging selection of drawing by contemporary artists from the 1970s to the present.

Beyond them lie rooms 91 and 91a which are currently hosting a fascinating and surprisingly dense exhibition about the collection made by the imperialist Stamford Raffles of artifacts from Java and Malaysia in the early nineteenth century.

And beyond these is a room so small it doesn’t appear to have a number. And it is in this darkened, hushed and reverend room that the museum is displaying the extremely old and fragile masterpiece of early Chinese figure painting known as Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies.

The instructress writing the scroll

Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies

The Admonitions’ proper title is Nüshi zhen 女史箴 (Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies).

It is a handscroll painting three and a half metres long and about a foot tall. The Admonitions is one of the earliest Chinese paintings on silk in existence and one of the earliest and most important Chinese paintings to survive anywhere.

The poetic text was composed by writer, poet and politician, Zhang Hua (c. AD 232 – 300) and should be read from right to left.

The Admonitions depicts nine scenes (there were originally 12) each of which shows a situation encountered at the imperial court or from legend, giving palace ladies advice on how to behave according to Confucian principles or examples of ladylike heroism or devotion.

Palace ladies beautifying themselves

The first three scenes were lost before the scroll came to the museum. Scenes four to 12 depict:

  1. Lady Feng and the bear – Lady Feng was the consort of Emperor Yuan of Han, who ruled 48 to 33 BC and she is shown with two palace guards placing themselves in front of the emperor to protect him from a bear
  2. Lady Ban refuses to ride – Lady Ban was the consort of Emperor Cheng of Han, who ruled 33 to 7 BC, and she refused to ride in the imperial palanquin with her husband, saying emperors should only ride with their ministers
  3. The mountain and the archer – in the outside scene an archer takes aim at a faraway mountain teeming with life and the text draws the moral about the impermanence of fame and glory
  4. Attending to appearance – palace ladies attend to their appearance but the text warns that tending to the inner self is just as important
  5. The bedchamber scene – when your words are evil even your bedfellow will mistrust you
  6. The family scene – the emperor is show with his wives and children
  7. The rejection scene – the emperor turns away from a consort; she had become accustomed to thinking herself the most important but ends up being spurned
  8. A lady reflects on her conduct – and the Confucian virtues of humanity, righteousness, loyalty and respect for parents, husband and emperor
  9. The court instructress writes down instructions on how to behave

Lady Feng along with two guards defending the Emperor Yuan of Han from a (rather small and unthreatening) bear

Painted in the fifth to the seventh century AD, the Admonitions was once part of the collection of the Qianlong emperor who ruled from 1736 to 1795. The emperor himself was one among several hands who added further inscriptions to the scroll.

It was under him that the scroll was remounted, and a new wrapper was added. This was made from a piece of 18th century brocade, woven in a geometric and floral pattern. In fact the same piece of fabric was used to wrap other important handscroll paintings in the emperor’s collection.

For conservation reasons the scroll can only be displayed for six weeks a year, which explains the seriously darkened room it is being shown in, and means this is a rare opportunity to see it. To be honest I found it more a thing of interest than of beauty. The paintings are distinctively Chinese but not necessarily that impressive.

Other exhibits

The historic scroll is the centrepiece of this one-room display, but around the walls are hung some additional works to give it context. These include:

  • Zou Yigui’s (1686 – 1766) Pine, Bamboo, Rock and Spring which was once mounted with the Admonitions Scroll
  • Wen Zhengming’s (1470–1559) Wintry Trees
  • a 14th century painting Reading in the Reflection of the Snow, signed Sheng Mou (active 1310 – 1360) which has recently been restored and remounted by the museum

In their way I preferred these paintings to the scroll itself. Or to put it another way, they give very different experiences.

Quite obviously the scroll is a didactic work, with designs on its readers to improve their thinking and behaviour, whereas these later paintings are much lighter in touch and feel.

Reading in the Reflection of the Snow in particular, depicts that classic Chinese painted landscape, tall tiered mountains in the background, beautifully rendered trees in the foreground. It’s only when you bend down to look closer that you can make out the figure of a bearded man walking over a bamboo bridge at the bottom, and slowly realise that he is heading towards a house hidden among the trees. In the house you can just about make out the protagonist of the painting, the scholar Su Kang, of the Jin period (265-420), who was so poor that, the story goes, he couldn’t afford a candle and so, at night time, could only read when the moonlight was reflected in the winter snow – hence the title.

Reading in the Reflection of the Snow by Sheng Mou (14th century)

It’s a relatively small room, but full of beautiful visual and intellectual experiences 🙂


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

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