Chinese Art: Art at Court

The current exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, entitled “The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City”, reveals one individual’s very personal stamp on their environment. The retreat, designed and built by the Qianlong Emperor in a corner of the Forbidden City, demonstrates luxury, appreciation for beauty, decided ideas about beauty, and devotion to a philosophical ideal. This kind of private indulgence is rare, but not unknown elsewhere[1].

Among the 90 or so objects and artifacts included in the exhibit, the Screen of Sixteen Double-Sided Panels, represents much of what is interesting about the royal owner, is preferences, and the intimate space from which the objects were taken.

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The screen in particular demonstrates how the interest and appreciation by one powerful person could affect iconography and fashions in decoration for many years after their lifetime

The Qianlong Emperor built his Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service in the 18th Century, with the intention of using it for relaxation, entertainment[2], meditation, and reflection. The Emperor planned to enjoy it when he retired from active management of the Middle Kingdom.

It is compactly built on a roughly two-acre plot in one corner of the palace grounds. He was able to choose whatever he liked in terms of design and decoration, and display gifts from his subjects as well. They are rare, one-of-a-kind, and expensive. Thus, the furnishing of the Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service reflects his own taste, rather than anything handed down from previous rulers.

The screen, from the pavilion named The Building of Luminous Clouds, has a colorful and romantic story. It was a gift from a provincial governor. The Emperor liked the surface of it that featured human figures, and it was therefore displayed with that part facing outwards into the room. As a result, the other side was not seen or even known about for several hundred years. The reverse side has decorations that are just as lovely.

The paintings on the surface that is best known are copies of works by an artist from the 9th century named Guanxiu. This Guanxiu was a monk in Hangzhou Province. He was inspired by a dream to paint images of the disciples of the Buddha, known as Arhats.

These figures are known in Chinese as Luohans. They are described as beings that have attained some degree of enlightenment. They “protect the faithful Buddhist”[3], until the whole human race achieves some sort of enlightenment themselves

The veneration of Arhats was at its height at exactly the time that the artist Guanxiu made his depictions[4]. There was no documentation of their actual appearance, and since Gautama Buddha was from India, not China, there were no local reports about them. However, Guanxiu claimed that he had been visited with a vision in a dream[5].

He created 15 of the images based on the dream but may have used himself as the model for the 16th.

The Emperor saw the paintings while visiting the region in 1757, and liked them. He ordered his staff to make copies of them[6]. He also wrote eulogies, or brief, haiku-like descriptions of each Luohans’ personality and spiritual characteristics.

Accounts differ as to how the copying of the images proceeded, but sets were sent to all of the 18 provinces for display. There are stone relief copies of them remaining in situ today in several provinces of China[7]. The abbot of the temple in 1757 must have been delighted at this opportunity for publicizing the monastery and preserving its 800-plus year old treasure!

With the paintings copied in stone, the images could be duplicated many times through stone rubbings. This seems like a remarkably innovative idea, but it apparently may have pre-dated printing in China. Stone rubbings had been used to preserve and disseminate all sorts of information and images, including Buddhist scriptures[8].

In the case of Guanxiu’s Luohans, it seems reasonable to infer that the Emperor and the abbot wanted to ensure the exact duplication of each image. This was especially true since it was believed to have been divinely inspired. In general, since art played an important moral role in China, correct copying was important[9].

These stone rubbings were copied back into painting form by the previously mentioned provincial governor. The Luohans were drawn in white on black, which is the way they would have appeared in a rubbing. This also gives them an almost cartoon-like effect. The eulogy written by the Emperor Qianlong appears in the upper right-hand corner.

The images on the reverse are painted in gold. They look like jewelry hung on the screen. The forms of some of the plants depicted are variously contorted to fit into the space. This contortion also evokes for this viewer the action of nature and time on all living things. Others, like the bamboo in the first panel, are so realistic that they look as though one might touch them and find them living.

These individual works of art were all installed together in a beautiful folding screen. It was lavishly crafted of “Purple sandalwood (zitan), lacquer, jade, and gold paint” [10]. This luxurious and flexible setting of the paintings would have allowed the Emperor to gaze at any combination of the images at once.

The trees and shrubs on the reverse probably have symbolic meaning. Given the deep religious significance of the Luohans, this would be reasonable to infer. Information on their symbolism is not readily available, perhaps because their discovery is recent. However, there were traditional associations of plants noted elsewhere in the exhibit. Some sort of similar symbolism may be reflected in the screen paintings. For example, the ‘three friends of winter’, depicted in the Emperor’s heavily decorated window, are described as pine, bamboo, and blossoming plum[11].

It must be noted that within Chinese Buddhism, there were Luohan cults associated with a group of eighteen, and five hundred, as well as the sixteen. These, unlike the cult of the sixteen, are described as “not canonical”[12]. This means that they lacked the backing of scripture or religious authority.

Thus, the Emperor, by commissioning the copying of the sixteen Luohans, writing eulogies for each one, and choosing to display the gift screen in a specially constructed niche, was giving his personal support to the sixteen-Arhat cult. This is very much like Michelle Obama dressing her daughters in J. Crew for the Presidential inaugural events, or Madonna wearing Kabbalistic symbols.

That fashion, or that religious practice, becomes more popular with the population as a whole, as a result of the adoption by an opinion leader. In this way, the Emperor had the power to affect artistic and decorative choices all over the country.

Indeed, Guanxiu’s images are said to have been reproduced all over China[13]. Was this entirely the result of the Emperor’s interest? This is certainly the view of some Chinese commentators. Sets of these images were reproduced in jade, and other materials and given as highly desirable gifts[14].

The Emperor’s interest certainly did not discourage the spread of these depictions. In fact, these depictions seem to continue to be reproduced in mass-marketed images today, if a visit to a Chinatown souvenir shop is any measure.

The copies of Guanxiu’s images on the Screen of Sixteen Double-Sided Panels are very un-Chinese in their prominent features, and they have been described as wild and eccentric[15]. They are depicted as old and they look downright ugly to 21st century eyes. A modern commentator described them as “grotesque, enlightened, wrinkled old coots”[16]. Since Buddha was from India, they may have reflected popularly held conceptions of the appearance of non-Chinese people.

One of the images, shown below, seems to be the Luohan (or Lohan) named Asita, and nicknamed Long Eyebrow Lohan (for obvious reasons). This immortal is described as, “Compassionate elder, A monk who has attained enlightenment. Perceptive of the infinite universe, with tacit understanding.” His name in pinyin is rendered as Changmei Luohan[17].

This consistent lack of prettiness has been assumed to convey an important message. The message may have been that a person’s spiritual strength or beauty was not related to their physical beauty[18] This is also characteristic of the Chan school of painting in that part of China in the 9th century, which sought to show spontaneity, like the process of creation.

This school of painting also sought to shock and surprise the viewer[19]. In addition, art in China, particularly art that depicted people, was meant to convey a moral message rather than depict the accurate details of a person’s appearance[20].

Each Luohan is traditionally associated with one or more objects, animals, plants, or accessories. These are not readily visible in all of the screen paintings.

Every item in the exhibit is similarly rare and significant. For example, a mandala, or aid to meditation, usually drawn in two dimensions, is depicted as a sculpture in three dimensions. The standing screens and window frames that included glass are an obvious expression of the Emperor’s interest in, and approval of technology and artistic techniques from other countries.

Glass was an expensive European import at the time[21]. Imported Japanese decorative arts are represented by cabinets with gold painting on black lacquer[22] . By selecting these items, he could have been signaling that it was ok to own items of foreign manufacture. The oddly shaped root wood furniture was symbolic of a Buddhist ideal.

The seeker after nirvana was supposed to display a rustic disregard for comfort or the niceties of life. However, the root wood furniture was actually made of very expensive wood with careful artisanship [23]. It was thus a style or fashion enjoyed by the Emperor rather than a real abandonment of comfort and culture.

The exhibit makes a very convincing statement about the Emperor’s taste, and his effect on the taste of his fellow citizens and women. Unlimited by money or labor, he collected the best of everything that he liked. His choices reflect a person deeply committed to his religion and curious about the world around him.

The Screen of Sixteen Double-Sided Panels discussed above is a very dramatic example of this. It conveys a spiritual message, and is a reproduction of something very significant to the Emperor. As such, it seems to have been copied and re-copied all over the country, for decades and even centuries. This sound very much like the way a viral video is copied and transmitted today.

The spread of the style and image of the Guanxiu Luohans was clearly boosted by the Emperor’s personal interest and affection.


Cook, Greg. “An Emperor’s Heaven on Earth.” The Providence Phoenix. September 22, 2010. (accessed March 31, 2011).

East Asian Library, University of California, Berkeley. “What is a Rubbing?” East Asian Library, University of California, Berkeley. 2004. (accessed March 2011).

Joo, Bong Seok. “The Arhat Cult in China from the Seventh to the Fourteenth Centuries: Narrative Art. Space, and Ritual.” September 2007. (accessed March 31, 2011).

Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Pair of Screens.” Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2011. (accessed March 31, 2011).

— “Pair of Screens.” Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2011. (accessed March 31, 2011).

— “Rootwood Chair.” Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2011. Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Rootwood Chair”. 2011. Accessed March 31, 2011. (accessed March 31, 2011).

— “Screen of Sixteen Double-Sided Panels.” Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2011. (accessed March 31, 2011).

— “The Emperor’s Private Paradise.” Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2011. (accessed March 31, 2011).

— “Window.” Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2011. (accessed March 31, 2011). “China art: new Chinese arts and craftss silk painting..” 2011. (accessed March` 31, 2011).

Kuiper, Katherine, ed. “The Culture of China.” Brittanica Publishing. 2011. (accessed March 31, 2011).

Watanabe, Masako. “Guanxiu and Exotic Imagery in Rakan Paintings.” 2011. (accessed March 31, 2011).

Examples might include Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home, and that of Frederick Church, called Olana, both designed in every detail by their owner.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2011. “The Emperor’s Private Paradise”. Accessed March 31, 2011.{28E96F8C-C8DE-42EC-BD4E-359940576D0C}.
Joo, Bong Seok. 2007. “The Arhat Cult in China from the Seventh through thirteen centuries: Narrative, art, space, and ritual”. Accessed March 31, 2011.
Much like the founder of the Shaker movement, creating religiously symbolic images from a dream
This is much like gravestone rubbings that history buffs make today in old cemeteries. China Art”. 2011. Accessed March 31, 2011.
East Asian Library, University of California, Berkeley. 2004. “What is a Stone Rubbing?. ” Accessed March 31, 2011.
Kuiper, Katherine. Culture in China, 2010. Brittanica Educational Publishing. Archived by at Accessed March 31, 2011.
Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2011. “The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City”. Accessed March 31, 2011.
Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2011. “The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City”. Accessed March 31, 2011.
Watanabe. Masako. “Guanxiu and Exotic Imagery in Rakan Paintings”. 2010. Accessed March 31, 2011. “China Art”.
Watanabe, Masako
Cook, Greg. “An Emperor’s Heaven on Earth”. The Providence Phoenix. September 22, 2010. Accessed March 31, 2011.
Wikipedia. “Eighteen Lohans”. 2011. Accessed March 31, 2011. Although Wikipedia is not usually considered a scholarly source, it was the most comprehensible description of the Luohan iconography readily available that could be cross-referenced against the images on the screen itself.
Metropolitan Museum of Art. “”Screen of Sixteen Double-Sided Panels”. 2011. Accessed March 31, 2011.
Kuiper, Katherine. The Culture of China.
Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Pair of Screens”. 2011. Accessed March 31, 2011.
Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Pair of Cabinets”. 2011. Accessed March 31, 2011.
Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Root wood Chair”. 2011. Accessed March 31, 2011.


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