Tale of how a secret religious sect inspired a group of ancient artists

Zhu Ying
A number of ancient painters once depicted the White Lotus Society-theme, which expressed their pursuit of an idyllic life. One of the painters was Zhang Ji.
Zhu Ying
Tale of how a secret religious sect inspired a group of ancient artists

Detail of the painting “White Lotus Society” by Zhang Ji of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127)

In ancient China there was a secret religious group called the White Lotus Society. Based on Buddhist tradition, the society had its roots in the Pure Land School of Buddhism.

It is said that the society was founded by Master Huiyuan (AD 334-416) in AD 402.

The Chinese Buddhist teacher gathered 123 monks at the Donglin Temple on Lushan Mountain in Jiangxi Province and announced the establishment of the religious organization.

The floral name of the society represents purity in Buddhism and serves as a symbol of the Buddhist Nirvana.

The name also originates from a big lotus pond at the Donglin Temple, which was also built by Master Huiyuan to promote his teachings.

A number of ancient painters once depicted the White Lotus Society-theme, which expressed their pursuit of an idyllic life. One of the painters was Zhang Ji, who was the nephew of Li Gonglin (1049-1106), a renowned painter during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127).

Zhang was known by his courtesy name Touzi. He was deeply affected by his uncle’s artistry.

Stretching over 8 meters in length, Zhang’s handscroll features 31 people: 19 members of the White Lotus Society and 12 of their servants.

Viewed from right to left, the handscroll can be divided into seven sections. The first section portrays Master Huiyuan, who welcomes his old friend Lu Xiujing, a Taoist scholar, near the Huxi Bridge. They shake hands and chat cheerfully.

Holding canes, Master Tanshun and Zong Bing, who was a Chinese painter and a member of White Lotus Society, walk and talk with each other in the second section.

In the third section, the notable Buddhist scholar of the Six Dynasties (AD 222-589) Zhu Daosheng delivers a sermon to four eminent monks.

Sitting around and hearing, a young servant scratches his head and looks puzzled. Through the image, the painter vividly depicts how obscure Zhu’s philosophy is.

The next two sections feature three members of the White Lotus Society kneeling on the ground, paying respect to Manjushri, and two eminent monks who debate on sutra. Mounted on a lion, Manjushri is a bodhisattva associated with insight.

The sixth section is one of the highlights of the handscroll.

It portrays a sitting group of monks and scholars proofreading sutra. One of them uses a long bamboo stick to point at the text while others listen carefully.

In the last section, a scholar exposing his chest, belly and legs admires a view of the waterfall while washing his feet in the lake. An attendant holding a towel stands beside him. The bold and unrestrained characters were typical among literati of the Wei and Jin period (AD 220-420). The section also features a lotus pond.

Influenced by his uncle Li, Zhang adopted the monochrome ink line drawing style in painting figures. He also used the Chinese painting technique called cun in portraying rocks, which were given texture through brushstrokes or dabs.

The treasure was secretly moved from the Forbidden City by Puyi (1906-67), the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

After Japan announced its surrender in 1945, the puppet emperor attempted to escape. On his way to Japan, Puyi and his accomplices were captured by the Soviet troops.

Meanwhile, a large number of national treasures, including the “White Lotus Society” painting, were saved.

Zhang’s similar painting style to Li’s led to a previous misunderstanding of the painter. For a long time, the handscroll was mistakenly considered as Li’s work.

Not until the work was collected by the Liaoning Provincial Museum after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 did the connoisseur Yang Renkai doubt its authorship.

He read 12 postscripts of the handscroll carefully. One of them was written by Zhang himself, which said that he was very happy to own his uncle’s painting and copied it in order to prove his painting skills.

People might feel confused as another postscript written by Li Desu, who was the younger cousin of Li Gonlin and uncle of Zhang, who indicated the painting was created by Li Gonglin.

Li Gonglin indeed drew a painting with the same theme, although it is lost, and his cousin’s comment was left behind after Li’s work.

However, according to Yang’s findings, the content of Li Desu’s postscript was not consistent with Zhang’s painting, and it seemed that a skilled craftsman “grafted” Li’s postscript on to Zhang’s work.

The handscroll is probably the only survived work of Zhang.

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