Painting symbol of faithfulness
Chinese people’s admiration of horses dates back thousands of years. They love horses for their symbolization of leadership, faithfulness and vigor in the nation’s civilization.
There are countless Chinese artworks with animal themes but few feature them bathing until one of the greatest painters and calligraphers of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322), created a handscroll called “Yuma Tu” — a painting of bathing horses.
He excelled in portraying horses, which appear in many other of his celebrated works, such as “Grooms and Horses,” collected by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and “Man Riding a Horse” in the collection of The Palace Museum.
Born in today’s Huzhou in Zhejiang Province, the polymath scholar was a descendant of the Song imperial family and therefore received a good education during his childhood. The Song Dynasty (960-1279) eventually collapsed in 1279 and was conquered by Mongol forces led by Kublai Khan (1215-94).
Introduced by the Censor-in-chief Cheng Jufu, Zhao had an audience with Kublai Khan in 1286. Admired by the founder of the Yuan Dynasty, Zhao was appointed to a post in the Ministry of War. In 1310, he served as a prominent official in the Imperial Academy.
The handscroll, 28.1 centimeters wide and 155.5 centimeters long, was commissioned by Külüg Khan (1281-1311), who is also known as Emperor Wuzong of Yuan.
Külüg Khan was the great-grandson of Kublai Khan. During his reign in the early 14th century, Külüg Khan asked Zhao to create a horse-bathing painting, through which viewers could get a glimpse of the country’s peace and prosperity.
To find inspiration, Zhao spent several days in the imperial horse ranch where thousands of fine horses were looked after by professional stablemen.
While the stablemen were busy cleaning the horses, Zhao picked up a tree branch and used it to practice drawing.
As a horse enthusiast, Zhao devoted himself to observing the animal. He was familiar with horse appearances, manners and behaviors. It is said that Zhao once shut himself in his room for several days in order to create a horse painting.
His wife Guan Daosheng (1262-1319), who was also an accomplished poet, painter and calligrapher, was worried about him. Opening his door quietly, Guan found that Zhao was crawling around the room impersonating a horse.
Zhao also locked himself in his room during the creation of the “Yuma Tu,” which features nine stablemen and 14 horses.
Viewed from right to left, the handscroll can be divided into three sections. In the first part five horses are leisurely walking into a pond, waiting to be cleaned. The water is so crystal clear that the lower limbs of horses under water are visible.
The second part is the highlight of the painting, which portrays four stablemen bathing three horses, a black, khaki and brown horse. Wearing white shorts, three of the four stablemen are half naked, which is rare in an ancient Chinese painting.
After bathing, stablemen lead the horses ashore. Sitting on the ground, on the left side of the painting, a stableman is putting on his pants and boots. His horse is tied to a tree, around which many garments are deposited.
The horses are of various colors and postures. Some have their heads lowered to drink from pond whilst others stare into the distance.
A brown horse on the upper right corner of the painting lies down to rest.
Emperor Wuzong adored Zhao’s bathing horses painting for his superb drawing technique and the peaceful tone of the painting. The harmonious handscroll, however, didn’t change the fate of the dynasty. In 1368, the regime was overthrown by the forces led by Zhu Yuanzhang (1328-98). Since then, Zhao’s masterpiece, which was carefully stored in the imperial warehouse in the Yuan Dynasty, wasn’t shown publicly until the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1711-99) of the Qing Dynasty.
Fascinated by the handscroll, Emperor Qianlong inscribed four Chinese characters “Qingxi Longyue,” literally a clear stream and dragon jump. He also composed a poem for the painting.
After the overthrow of the imperial court, Zhao’s “Yuma Tu” was smuggled out of the palace by Puyi (1906-67), the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty. In 1946, Zheng Dongguo, a commander of Kuomintang in Northeast China during the Chinese civil war, owned the treasure.
In 1948, Zheng surrendered to the troops of the Communist Party of China led by Mao Zedong (1893-1976). Instead of using his real name, he denoted Zhao’s “Yuma Tu” to the Palace Museum under an alias, Zheng Youmin, in 1964.