Monk in a Red Robe

Monk in a Red Robe, has long been cherished by Chinese scholars as a rare gem in traditional Chinese painting.
Monk in a Red Robe

The painting “Monk in a Red Robe,” by Zhao Mengfu realistically depicts a preaching monk who has attained nirvana. Zhao is deemed one of the most important representatives of Chinese literati painters. His wife Guan Daosheng and son Zhao Yong were also renowned painters in Chinese history.

Hongyi Luohan Tu, or Monk in a Red Robe, has long been cherished by Chinese scholars as a rare gem in traditional Chinese painting.

It was painted more than 700 years ago by Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322), a great calligrapher, painter and poet, who has been hailed by some art historians as the “principal architect” of the renaissance of Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).

Born in today’s Huzhou in east China’s Zhejiang Province, Zhao was a descendant of the first emperor of Song Dynasty (960-1279), which collapsed under the invasion of the Mongol troops led by Kublai Khan (1215-1294).

Zhao’s adult life was literally torn between his desire to remain loyal to the fallen Song Dynasty and his ambition to “help shape policies” by serving at the new imperial court.

So, he picked the so-called road of reclusion at court, which meant that, while working as a government official, he shied away from political intrigues as much as possible and tried his best to maintain his integrity.

But such conflict of intentions was rather depressing and Zhao frequently resorted to his artistic pursuits, especially calligraphy and painting, as his vehicles for self-expression.

As one of the top four master calligraphers in China’s history of Regular Script, the most easily and widely recognized Chinese writing style, Zhao disdained the prevalent gentle brushwork of his time and pursued the so-called guyi or “spirit of antiquity” in the bolder and simpler style of older times such as the Jin Dynasty (AD 265-420) and the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907).

The same is true with his paintings. In 1320, Zhao wrote an inscription on his painting, Monk in a Red Robe, saying: “This scroll, which I painted 17 years ago, roughly conveys a 'spirit of antiquity, but I am not sure what viewers will make of it.”

The scroll, 26 x 52 centimeters, ink and color on paper, depicts rather realistically a preaching monk, or, to be more precise, an arhat, a Buddhist who has attained nirvana. A halo in the painting denotes his saintly status.

Dressed in a red robe, this monk with sunken eyes, big nose, thick beard and hairy chest is apparently not Chinese but likely hails from India or central Asia. This is because during Zhao’s time, it was not uncommon to see monks from these areas preaching Buddhism in China, especially in its north and northwest regions and the Yuan capital, today’s Beijing, as well.

As a government official, Zhao certainly had many opportunities to encounter those foreign monks on various occasions.

In the painting, except for his face and an extended left hand, most parts of the monk are covered by a simply rendered red robe. He sits on a green rock covered by a small-sized square textile. With a tree and some more rocks standing in the background, the whole painting looks like a simple stage set.

The blue-green color of the rocks here is very likely to remind viewers of the archaic style of the Green and Blue Landscape painting, a genre extremely popular during the Tang Dynasty. Together with a simple composition and schematic brushwork, it probably embodies the “spirit of antiquity” mentioned in the painter’s inscription.

Monk in a Red Robe

Zhao Mengfu’s “Twin Pines with Level Distance” conveys the idea of “likeness-in-spirit” with few brushes, ink color only and a great amount of white space. On the left of the scroll, the artist, who was also a great calligrapher, wrote a simple composition of when and why he did the painting, an integral part of his artworks.

Many of Zhao’s other paintings, such as Man and Horse, Elegant Rocks and Sparse Trees, Bathing Horses and Twin Pines with Level Distance, convey the painter’s idea of integrating calligraphy with painting.

Zhao once said that “calligraphy and painting are basically the same,” underscoring the tradition of Chinese literati painters, who were in favor of shensi, or “likeness-in-spirit” over xingsi, or “likeness-in-form.”

In their artworks, not only the painting itself should be largely rendered with calligraphic skills and appeal, but the indispensable inscriptions here are deemed a direct demonstration of the art of lettering. Also, the inscriptions are always treated as an integral part of the composition.

Zhao’s artworks are now housed in various museums around the world including Japan, the United States as well as the Chinese mainland and Taiwan.

His masterpiece painting, Monk in a Red Robe, now is in the collection of the Liaoning Provincial Museum in Northeast China.

Monk in a Red Robe

Artist: Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322)

Year: Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368)

Type: Ink and color on paper

Dimensions: 26 cm × 52 cm

Location: Liaoning Provincial Museum

Special Reports