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

Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900 @ V&A

A stunning exhibition of 70 banners, scrolls, fans and ink paintings covering well over 1,000 years of Chinese art, at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The audiobook is voiced by Juliet Stephenson and is over 2 hours long. This is a big and densely detailed exhibition.

For me Chinese art is a completely new world with almost no bearings or fixed points. I know nothing of Chinese history and recognise none of the artists’ names and know nothing about the aesthetics of Chinese art, the conventions and rules or the schools and movements. The exhibition displays the work by chronological theme, but I’ve stuck to the dates of the dynasties which define Chinese history, giving me at least one framework to cling on to.

Tang Dynasty 618-907

The first room concentrates on silk banners showing Buddhist deities. The earliest banner dates from 729 (contemporary with the Venerable Bede in England and just before the Battle of Poitiers in which the Franks stopped the advance of Islamic armies into France). Buddhism, boddhisatvas, banners and offerings. There is a fascinating film of how silk was prepared and treated with alum and gum before painting, as well as an ancient painting showing the process being carried out

Itinerant monk accompanied by a tiger (9th century)

Itinerant monk accompanied by a tiger (9th century)

Song Dynasty 960-1279

Buddhism faded, secular subjects, the visible world and landscapes became more popular. Visual explorations of changing weather and the shifting qualities of natural light. The Emperor ruled over 100 million people! Art merged decorative and subtle landscapes with philosophical ideas. Paintings began to be autographed in contrast with the anonymous Tang banners.

The Summer Palace of Ming Huang

The Summer Palace of Ming Huang

There are three Chinese philosophies: Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. The Taoist ideas of Yin and Yang were developed and incorporated into theories of art: the active Yang is represented by hills and rocks; by contrast, the passive, feminine Yin is embodied in rivers and lakes.

The Nine dragons scroll was painted about 1244 and shows nine shapes or incarnations or activities of the dragons beloved of Chinese legend. Like many of these artworks, it is not a painting to be hung on a wall but a scroll, meant to be kept in a safe storebox and occasionally taken out, unsfurled and appreciated. From right to left.

Nine Dragons scroll. Detail of a dragon

Most if not all of the images incorporate texts and poetry. The calligraphy of the Chinese characters is just as important as the image itself and the style of both can be highly individual and distinctive. Images and poems were produced by a self-consciously artistic scholar-gentry class.

Thus the text of the poem by the northern Song emperor Huizong describing the flight of the ‘auspicious cranes’ is given just as much space as the image itself.

Auspicious cranes poem and painting by the Emperor Huizong (1112)

Auspicious cranes poem and painting by the Emperor Huizong (1112)

Yuan Dynasty 1271-1368 (pronounced ‘un’)

Kublai Khan and his Mongols conquered China and proclaimed a new dynasty in 1271. The scholar-gentry class was dismissed from power and influence. The era is one of solitary, isolated scholars and artists creating wistful, nostalgic poems and images full of nostalgia. Ghostly brushwork in pale ink is typical of the ‘apparition’ painting of the time.

Wu Zhen, Hermit Fisherman on Lake Dongting 14th century (Wikimedia Commons)

Wu Zhen, Hermit Fisherman on Lake Dongting 14th century

Ming Dynasty 1368-1644

After Mongol domination, the Ming represented a return to rule by ethnic Han Chinese, leading to a long period of prosperity and stability. Silk and expensive pigments reappeared. The capital moved from Bei-jing (‘jing’ meaning capital and ‘bei’ north) to Nanjing (‘jing’ meaning capital, ‘nan’ meaning ‘south’.)

There is a lovely scroll of Court Ladies in the Inner Palace, playing Chinese forms of golf (!) and football (!). There was renewed scholarly interest in past art and techniques and history.

Du Jin (active 1465–1509), Court Ladies in the Inner Palace

Du Jin (active 1465–1509), Court Ladies in the Inner Palace

There are many more portraits of real people and places – for example, Tang Yin whose civil service career was ended by wrongful accusations of bribery made a painting called ‘Pure Dream Beneath a Paulownia Tree’, with accompanying poem:

For this lifetime he is divorced from the thought of rank and fame
This pure sleep is no longer filled with the dreams of grandeur.

Wen Zhengming created an album of views of The Garden of The Inept Administrator, 1551.

Garden of the Inept Administrator, Wen Zhengming

Garden of the Inept Administrator, Wen Zhengming

These serene, philosophical and mature images were created soon after England suffered the bonfire of vandalism of the Henrician Reformation, followed by the burnings-at-the-stake of Bloody Mary and the further artistic destruction of Edward VI. Hard not to compare our brutal philistinism with the depth and civilisation of these images. Paintings with names like:

  • Spring Clouds in the Linggu Mountains
  • Deity with Phoenix
  • Pomegranates, Autumn Mallows, Chrysanthemums, Blue Magpies
Pomegranates, Autumn Mallows, Chrysanthemums, Blue Magpies

Pomegranates, Autumn Mallows, Chrysanthemums, Blue Magpies

Qing Dynasty 1644-1911 (pronounced ching)

The rise of Traditionalism, the urge to copy what were now seen as the Old Masters of the Chinese tradition, in subject matter, brushstroke, style and calligraphy.

Bamboo and Rocks by Zheng Xie, c 1762

Bamboo and Rocks by Zheng Xie, c 1762

The end

The story of classical Chinese painting ended in the early 20th century, amid the influx of western influences – perspective, realism, the horizon – and the social upheavals accompanying the end of the Chinese empire in 1911. What a tradition! What wonderful awesome works of art!

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