The lives of ancient court ladies

“Admonitions of the Court Instructress” is one of the earliest Chinese handscroll paintings still in existence and is considered one of the country’s greatest masterpieces.

The painting “Admonitions of the Court Instructress” is one of the earliest Chinese handscroll paintings still in existence and is considered one of the country’s greatest artistic masterpieces.

The BBC Radio 4 program “A History of the World in 100 Objects” once hailed it as one of the most important paintings in the world.

The scroll was painted by Gu Kaizhi (circa AD 345-406). He was the first known professional painter and is widely deemed the father of classical Chinese figure painting. 

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The Admonitions painting was an illustration of a political satire written by a poet-official to criticize Empress Jia (AD 257–300), a surly and flagitious woman in the eyes of many court officials. The text also advised all women in the imperial court on proper behavior. The Tang Dynasty copy of “Admonitions of the Court Instructress” has nine scenes out of the original 12. The section with the first three has long been lost. 

Born in Wuxi in today’s Jiangsu Province in eastern China, Gu was an exceptionally gifted artist. He was particularly good at painting Buddha images, figures, landscapes, animals and birds. He once served as a royal officer in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (AD 317-420).

His Admonitions painting was an illustration of a political satire written by a poet-official to criticize Empress Jia (AD 257–300), a surly and flagitious woman in the eyes of many court officials. The text also advised all women in the imperial court on proper behavior.

The handscroll, an ink-color painting on silk, features 12 scenes. 

It begins with an introductory scene before moving to four scenes of good-reputed court ladies through history. Then there is a landscape scene as a transition followed by five scenes depicting the life of a court lady. The final scene depicts the Court Instructress writing down admonitions.

Gu employed the so-called yousi miao or “silk thread drawing” technique to portray all figures in the scroll. This technique emphasized the drawing of thin, smooth and flowing lines that appear very elegant.

The master artist once said that in figure paintings the appearances, clothes, colors and lines are not very important as only the eyes can reflect a person’s personality and spirit. However, in Admonitions the well-proportioned bodies, vivid facial expressions, beautiful gowns, belts and ribbons that are drawn with fluid “silk thread” lines are the most impressive feature. The eyes of each figure don’t attract much attention, likely because of their relatively small size.

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Each scene has a caption. For example, the text beside the hair brushing scene says that everyone knows how to ornament their appearance, but no one knows how to ornament their nature.

Many art historians believe the Admonitions scroll we see today isn’t the original, which has been lost, but a copy produced during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). Over the years, the many owners of the copy, and some admirers, too, added seals and comments on it or at either end of the scroll.

The copy had been kept in the Forbidden City for most of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), but Empress Cixi moved the scroll to the Summer Palace in the northwest of Beijing.

In 1900, the Eight-Nation Alliance, including Britain, France, Germany and the United States, invaded Beijing. During a looting spree following the invasion, the priceless handscroll fell into the hands of Clarence A. K. Johnson (1870–1937), a British army captain.

Johnson brought the painting back to London in 1902. Though he didn’t understand the true value of it, he took it to the British Museum to have its jade toggles appraised.

Two staff members there immediately realized the significance of the painting and the British Museum eventually bought it from Johnson for 25 pounds.

The painting remains a part of the British Museum’s collection.

However, the Tang Dynasty copy, now 348.2 centimeters wide and 24.8 centimeters tall, has only nine scenes out of the original 12. The first three scenes have long been lost.

There is also a monochrome copy of Admonitions with all 12 scenes. It’s in the collection of the Palace Museum in Beijing today. While this Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279) copy has its merits, it’s no match to the one in the British Museum in terms of aesthetic value.

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The Song Dynasty monochrome copy is complete with all 12 scenes. Here are the first two. As the caption for the second scene was written between the two figures of the first scene, some people consider the first two scenes as one. Yet researchers pointed out that the captions were written before painting, and limited space forced the painter to mix the second caption with the first scene. 

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The third scene of the Song Dynasty monochrome copy.

女史箴图 (Nǚshǐ Zhēn Tú)

Artist: Gu Kaizhi (AD 345-406)

Year: Eastern Jin Dynasty (AD 317-420)

Type: Ink and color on silk

Dimensions: 24.8cm × 348.2cm

Location: British Museum

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