Paintings with Political Agendas




Many of the paintings made at court served political purposes.  Emperors liked to see paintings that testified to the effectiveness of their rule, signs that the people were prosperous and happy, or that Heaven had responded to their virtue by sending auspicious omens.   Another favored topic was stories of noble or exemplary individuals, especially ones that had messages for rulers.  Emperors also commissioned illustrations of the classics, which confirmed their support of learning. All of these uses of painting were especially prominent during the reign of the first emperor of the Southern Song, Gaozong, who had to convince the literati that even though they had not been able to push back the Jurchen and retake the ancient homeland of China, they were the legitimate government, the protector of ancient traditions.  

The scene below is the central section of a large hanging scroll illustrating the story of a loyal minister of the Han dynasty.  At a court audience Zhu Yun inappropriately asked for the emperor's sword.  Outraged, the emperor sentenced Zhu to death, but when his guards tried to drag Zhu away, he protested vehemently, grabbing onto the balustrade, and insisting that he be put to death immediately. One minister did not object, but  another intervened to defend Qu's character and admonish the emperor.  

Can you pick out the honest minister in this picture?


Why would an emperor like Gaozong have wanted a painting like this to be produced at his court?




Anonymous Song (12th c.) artist, Breaking the Balustrade, detail

SOURCE:  Anonymous Song (12th c.), Breaking the Balustrade, in Wen C. Fong and James C.Y. Watt, Possessing the Past: Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1996), pl. 82, p. 176.  Detail of hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk, 173.9 x 101.8 cm.
MORE:  Already in Han times there was a tradition of placing paintings with public messages in audience halls, where they were seen by officials.  Current officials would then be reminded of past meritorious officials who had become moral exemplars.  In addition, paintings with political themes were sometimes presented to ministers on occasions of promotion and retirement

It is thought that Breaking the Balustrade may well have been done during Gaozong's first two decades on the throne when he was trying to lure scholars to serve his court.  The tree, rockery and use of white  is typical of the Southern Song.  Note also the skillful dramatization of the story; narrative elements have been compressed through staging.

The artist of this painting, Ma Hezhi, was a court painter under Gaozong who illustrated many classical texts.  Here is one scene from his illustrations to the Classic of Filial Piety.

Note the landscape painted on the screen.

Who do you think each of the people in this scene represent?

Why aren't the older couple sitting on chairs?

Ma Hezhi, "Illustrations of the Classic of Filial Piety,"  detail
SOURCE:  Songdai shuhua ceye mingpin techan (Taibei: Guoli Gogong bowu guan, 1995), pl. 44a.  Collection of the National Palace Museum, Taibei.
ANSWER:  The couple would be the parents of the younger man kneeling before them.  His wife, their daughter-in-law, would be one of the two women standing in attendance, waiting for orders.

Although by Song times people regularly sat on chairs or stools, Ma Hezhi was attempting to portray life at the time of Confucius and Mencius, the period of the Classic of Filial Piety.  Although Ma Hezhi could not help introduce anachronisms, such as the landscape painting on the screen or the clothing of all those present, his goal was to produce a picture evoking the classical age.

Depictions of peace and prosperity also served the political needs of the court.  Paintings like Zhang Zeduan's The Spring Festival Along the River or Li Song's Knickknack Peddlar could be read by emperors as evidence of the success or their governments.  So too could depictions of busily engaged farmers, like the one below.  

Anonymous Song artist, Tilling and Harvesting 

SOURCE:  Fu Sinian, ed., Zhongguo meishu quanji, huihua bian 4: Liang Song huihua, xia (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1988), pl. 14, p. 16. Collection of the National Palace Museum, Beijing.  Album leaf, ink and colors on silk, 24.8 x 25.7 cm.
The Yuan court did not commission as many narrative paintings as the Southern Song court had, but the painting below may have appealed to the Mongol rulers not just for its story, but also for its depiction of animal combat.

Anonymous Yuan artist, Clearing the Mountains

SOURCE:  Fu Xinian, ed., Zhongguo meishu quanji huihua bian 5: Yuandai huihua (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1989), pl 72, p. 105. Collection of the National Palace Museum, Beijing.  Detail of handscroll, ink and colors on silk, 53.4 x 533.4 cm.
For a closer look at the central scene:


Move on to Scholars' Painting