By Ka Bo Tsang, Assistant Curator, Chinese Paintings & Textiles
This large painting done in a hanging-scroll format is from a royal hand, that of Cixi, the Empress Dowager (1835-1908). Directly or indirectly, this most powerful woman in China in the latter half of the 19th century was in full control of the Qing empire until the very end of her life.
Apart from her busy administrative schedule, Cixi managed to find time for light-hearted pursuits, such as overseeing gardening and the raising of pedigree dogs, enjoying operatic performances, and taking pleasure excursions to scenic spots within the Forbidden City. In addition, she took pains to acquire some of the accoutrements befitting a Chinese intellectual (which she fashioned herself to be). For example, she worked at mastering the skills of painting and calligraphy, two highly esteemed art forms among the intellectual class.
Several women painters were employed to help Cixi achieve her self-improvement goals. Their duties entailed not only giving instructions in painting techniques and penmanship to their imperial patron, but also producing works on her behalf. Well over seven hundred works bearing Cixi’s name exist today: many actually were ghost-painted by these women painters. Miao Jiahui, her favourite, was the best known.
Inscribed above this painting are four bold words, hongchou xishou, meaning “big achievements and longevity.” They were written by Cixi, with the aid of faint outlines of each word first drawn in by a competent calligrapher for guidance. The wish for longevity is also expressed in the painting. The selected motifs – the pine and lingzhi (fungus of immortality) – are standard emblems of long life. These two compositional elements, however, are presented in an unconventional way. Instead of being depicted as plants growing in a naturalistic manner, they have been intermingled and arranged to resemble the configuration of a simplified and stylized form of the word shou (long life). This whimsical design further strengthens the symbolic connotation of the motifs.
Cixi, however, cannot be credited as the originator of this unusual design, for images of pine trees forming the word shou or fu (good fortune) were already in use for decorating blue-and-white porcelains during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). So, how do we know that this was a work by her and not by one of her tutors? The amateurish construction of the design and its feeble execution are strong telltale signs.
This work is on view in Small Skills, Special Effects: Unusual Chinese Works of Art (July 28, 2012 – March 10, 2013).