2 Ancient Chinese Paintings on Humility and Integrity

The lessons scandals teach
September 17, 2019 Updated: September 19, 2019

Scandals allure and entice us. While scandalous events are feverishly debated today, the ancient Chinese used such incidents as subjects of art, often to teach moral lessons. These incidents became timeless through art and thereby offered insights into ancient Chinese thought and values that remain relevant to modern-day society.

During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), artists often depicted women as a common motif. Among these artists, Tang Yin (1470–1524) and Qiu Ying (1494–1552), who were two of the Four Great Ming Masters, featured court ladies and courtesans in their works and drew inspiration from past scandals for their themes.

With symbolism and allegories that went beyond mere depiction of the outward beauty of the ladies, Tang Yin and Qiu Ying provided the ancient Chinese with opportunities to reflect on their own characters and their paintings served as reminders to uphold integrity.

A Rendezvous With Humility

Tang Yin’s “Tao Gu Presents a Poem” depicts a seemingly innocent encounter between Tao Gu and a courtesan. The setting is when the Song Dynasty (960–1279) was first establishing itself as a central power, and the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (908–979) were disintegrating.

scroll of tao-gu-presenting-lyric
“Tao Gu Presents a Poem,” by Tang Yin. Hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk, 66 1/2 inches by 40 1/4 inches. National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan. (Public Domain)

Tao Gu (903–970) was an official from the Song court and served as a diplomat to the Southern Tang empire (937–975), which was one of the Ten Kingdoms. Coming from the Song court, Tao Gu always assumed an air of arrogance as he faced the Southern Tang ruler Li Houzhu.

Outraged by Tao Gu’s insolence, Li Houzhu contrived a scheme to expose Tao Gu’s impudent behavior. The ruler sent a famous courtesan, Qin Ruolan, to seduce Tao Gu while he was traveling to the Southern Tang.

Courtesans like Qin Ruolan were essentially female entertainers who were not bound by marriage. As professional hostesses, they were highly educated in areas such as music, dance, and calligraphy, and one of their main roles was to use their talents to alleviate tension between scholars and officials in business settings.

In the painting, both Tao Gu and Qin Ruolan are portrayed in the middle of a tryst in a garden. However, as the story of the event tells us, Tao Gu is unaware of her courtesan status, as Qin Ruolan is disguised as an officer’s daughter.

She wears an embroidered blouse and sits with her legs crossed as she elegantly plucks the strings of a pipa, which is a four-stringed, pear-shaped instrument traditionally associated with courtesans.

At first sight, their encounter is a seemingly decorous one, but a closer look reveals otherwise.

Tao intently gazes at her as he listens to her play, with a brush and some paper beside him.

The story reveals that he, enamored by her beauty and losing himself in the music, composes a poem as a gift for her. Since courtesans were stigmatized by society and did not occupy a high status, his behavior would have been seen as indiscreet and a breach of ancient Chinese etiquette.

Symbols in the Details

a child behind rocks to eavesdrop
A detail from “Tao Gu Presents a Poem,” by Tang Yin. Hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk, 66 1/2 inches by 40 1/4 inches. National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan. (Public Domain)

Tang Yin subtly portrays the intimacy of the meeting with hints and clues. Behind Qin Ruolan is a painted screen, which sequesters the couple in a secluded space. In the lower left, a child hides behind some garden rocks to eavesdrop on their conversation, indicating the unseemly nature of the situation. A burning candle in between the two further accentuates the secrecy of the rendezvous and suggests that it is nightfall.

In addition, meticulously painted garden motifs are incorporated into the scenery. The couple sits under the shade of a willow tree, the dangling foliage being a symbol for a woman’s hair. In the foreground, several plantains sprout from the ground, symbolizing her beauty.

Tang Yin also included some bamboo shoots in right periphery of the painting. While bamboo is associated with the value of integrity, here it is situated away from the main scene, signifying Tao Gu’s inappropriate behavior.

The story ends the next day when the Southern Tang ruler, Li Houzhu, hosts a banquet for Tao Gu after he arrives.  Again, Tao puts on a façade of condescension and conceit. Li Houzhu then asks Qin Ruolan to come forth and perform a song with lyrics from the poem that Tao had written for her.

Tao, now ridiculed in front of everyone by a courtesan, loses his dignity and feels humiliated. Soon after, his status as an official diminishes.

Thus, in this painting, the importance of the ancient Confucian value of humility is the theme hinted at. Tao Gu felt like he was above everyone in the Southern Tang Kingdom since he came from a more powerful empire. However, acting in a condescending way did not earn him respect, but rather made him appear foolish and led to his downfall in the end.

Confucius said, “Humility is the solid foundation of all virtues.” Indeed, the ancient Chinese believed that a Confucian leader should be unassuming, humble, and empathetic, and one who listens to people and is always sensitive to their needs. Only with these qualities could a leader be truly influential and inspirational.

A Portrait of Integrity

Qiu Ying’s “Spring Morning in the Han Palace” is a long handscroll depicting court ladies in the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220) palace. The handscroll opens on the left with the Han palace gates and takes us through opulent architecture and courtyards, with trees and garden rocks interspersed between the buildings. The first few scenes give us a glimpse of palatial life as elegant court ladies engage in various leisurely activities.

At the outskirts of the palace, one lady leans over the rails with her children to watch the fish in the lake. Two peacocks anxiously await their meal as a lady tosses food at them.

The first section of the handscroll Spring Morning in the Han Palace
The first section of the handscroll “Spring Morning in the Han Palace” by Qiu Ying. National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan. (Public Domain)

Here, court ladies are gathering to form an ensemble and play musical instruments such as the lute and pipa. One lady adjusts and tunes the strings of a zither while a second lady unwraps another zither and is about to join in. To the right, two ladies have some snacks while others appear to be dancing to the music.

Court ladies enjoying leisure activities
Court ladies enjoying leisure activities in “Spring Morning in the Han Palace” by Qiu Ying. National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan. (Public Domain)

The status of the ladies can be differentiated by their hair adornments; the higher-ranking court ladies had fancier coiffures with jade and gold hairpins, while the maids had plainer hairstyles.

Moving further along the handscroll, we see a court lady walk up the stairs while carrying a sheng, which is a Chinese reed instrument made of numerous pipes. Her posture and the manner in which she stumbles up signify the traditional practice of foot binding. To the left, several ladies arrange flowers, while two ladies at the upper left enjoy a novel.

flower arranging and reading in ancient China
Ladies enjoy flower arranging and reading fiction in “Spring Morning in the Han Palace” by Qiu Ying. National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan. (Public Domain)

In another scene, the court ladies play a game of weiqi, which is an ancient Chinese board game. To the left, some are preparing a roll of newly woven silk, while directly above, some are weaving an intricate tapestry. Beside them is a mother playing with her two children.

Court ladies play a game
Court ladies prepare silk and others play a board game in “Spring Morning in the Han Palace” by Qiu Ying. National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan. (Public Domain)

A Swindle

So far, these depictions present the harmonious side of court life. But the next scene shows the more competitive aspect of court life. Qiu Ying has actually painted a narrative depicting the concubines of Emperor Yuan of the Han Dynasty.

It was an ancient Chinese custom for the emperor to be presented with portraits of the women at his court before meeting with them so that he could decide whom to choose as a consort.

The scandal depicted involved one particular court lady.

In order to attract the emperor’s attention, the court ladies often bribed court artist Mao Yanshou to paint them more beautiful than they actually were. One court lady, Wang Zhaojun, out of her righteous heart, refused to bribe the artist.  As revenge, Mao Yanshou depicted her as ugly, with moles on her face.

Court artist Mao Yanshou paints the lady Wang Zhaojun
Court artist Mao Yanshou paints the lady Wang Zhaojun in “Spring Morning in the Han Palace” by Qiu Ying. National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan. (Public Domain)

In the painting, Wang Zhaojun sits in front of a screen as the artist paints her portrait. The other concubines on the side bicker and gossip among themselves as they watch the painting progress.

One lady jealously peeks around the back of the screen to spy on the scene. Two eunuchs in the foreground converse with each other with smirks on their faces, as they are aware of the bribes and of Mao Yanshou’s fraudulence. Eunuchs were castrated men who guarded court women to ensure that they weren’t impregnated by anyone but the emperor.

The story goes that upon seeing Mao Yanshou’s distorted portrait, Emperor Yuan never visited Wang Zhaojun, and she remained a lady-in-waiting of low status.

One day, the ruler of the Xiongnu empire from the north came to the Han court to seek a friendly relationship through marriage. The emperor, who saw the smaller empire as full of barbarians, chose Wang Zhaojun as the bride, believing that she was the least attractive of his ladies. However, only when she was summoned did Emperor Yuan realize that she was actually the most beautiful woman at court. But it was too late; the offer had been made. Enraged by Mao Yanshou’s deceit, the emperor ordered the artist to be executed.

This scene in the painting warns against the sins of bribery and emphasizes the significance of the Confucian values of justice and righteousness. By willingly accepting bribes and harming Wang Zhaojun’s chances at court, the artist determined his own fate.

Confucius said, “The superior man is aware of righteousness; the inferior man is aware of advantage.” Confucian thought emphasizes having the moral acumen to make decisions based on the responsibility to do good rather than being swayed by gain and profit. Only with a virtuous heart can there be beauty in the character.

Mike Cai is a graduate of the New York Fei Tian Academy of the Arts and the University of California–Berkeley.