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June 28, 2020

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Ming emperor’s redemption art

THE Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) is largely recognized as a period of art restoration. Reflecting the prosperity and harmony of society, themes such as figural narratives, flower-and-bird compositions and landscapes were favored at that time.

Nevertheless, there exists a series of Ming paintings contrasting those nature-themed exhibits that are violent, bloody and horrific.

Some 140 paintings were commissioned by Zhu Qizhen (1427-64), who was the sixth and eighth emperor of the Ming Dynasty. In 1449, the emperor, who reigned under the title of Zhengtong, led forces into battle against the Mongols, lost and was taken prisoner by rebel soldiers. To calm the crisis, his younger brother Emperor Zhu Qiyu (1428-57) ascended the throne and was installed as Emperor Jingtai.

Released one year later, Emperor Zhengtong was put under house arrest by his brother. But in 1457, he deposed his brother Jingtai and ruled once more as Emperor Tianshun.

Although Emperor Tianshun regained the throne, he was caught in the shadow of the past. The experience of being captured made him feel ashamed while worshipping his ancestors. After the ceremony he returned to the palace and cancelled all ritual activities in the future, which surprised officials. The emperor then invited several court painters to the palace while prohibiting others from entering, which was odd at the time.

According to tradition, there were strict etiquette rules for painting portraits of an emperor. For example, divination is required before painting if it is to be a portrait, which did not take place. This made officials suspicious.

The mystery was resolved a few days later when more than 100 ink-and-color silk scrolls appeared, around 120 centimeters long by 60 centimeters wide, and exhibited in the emperor’s palace. Most of them were figure paintings, which featured deities, bodhisattvas and ordinary people.

The paintings were so grotesque one maid screamed when she first saw them. In one painting a dead man hangs from an old tree. He is surrounded by the unhinged of society. Among them, a man commits suicide by cutting his throat. A decapitated torso of another man carries his head on a wooden stick and runs amok in the busy streets in another sketch, while several other ghouls carry their heads and grapple with officials.

Another horrific painting portrays the scene of an executioner inflicting punishment and several heads lie by his feet. Criminals who wait for punishment look grave while onlookers talk cheerfully. People on the second floor of a nearby building drink alcohol while observing the proceedings as beheaded ghosts float in the air.

There is also a monstrous painting about a flood. Some people try desperately to escape the flood. However, people on the shore are calm and impassive. It seems as if they are watching a drama. Not far away from that scene several bodies are buried in the ground.

Instead of being scared by the paintings, Emperor Tianshun was pleased with them. He asked courtiers to send the bizarre paintings to the Baoning Temple in Shanxi Province, which was built in 1460. One year later, the emperor came to the temple to attend a Buddha rite called shuilu fahui, or water and land ceremony. During the rite the paintings were hung in the temple.

Traced back to the Northern and Southern dynasties (AD 420-589), the annual event is conducted for the salvation of “all souls of the dead on land and sea.” The ritual remains today.

The experience of being captured was embedded in the mind of the emperor. He knew that the war had killed countless soldiers and civilians and displaced a lot of people. He hoped that the rite would allow their souls to rest in peace and ensure his state’s fortunes.

Since the location of Baoning Temple was near the Mongol’s sphere of influence, the emperor chose it to hold the ritual with a special purpose in mind — as a deterrent.

Even after the collapse of the Ming Dynasty in 1644 the paintings were hung in the temple during the annual ritual.

The historic temple was invaded by the Japanese army before the founding of People’s Republic of China in 1949. They intended to steal the paintings but failed. The furious Japanese soldiers destroyed Buddha statues and torched many buildings in and around the temple.

Before the Japanese invasion, the Baoning Temple monks, with locals’ help, moved the treasures to a safe place. The paintings were eventually collected by the Shanxi Museum.


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