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Lu Ji’s Birds in a winter landscape


The Birds in a winter landscape (fig. 1), acquired by the Felton Bequest in 1990, is among

the major works of Lu Ji (c. 1440–c. 1505), a court academy painter of China of the early

Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Lu Ji was famous for his ‘bird-and-flower’ paintings which

graced not only the imperial courts of China but also the halls of the daimios (feudal lords)

of Japan, where they exercised an important influence on the developments of the local

Kano schools of painting. The painting Birds in a winter landscape demonstrates this

influence in its similarities in style and subject-matter to the Japanese screens in the Asian

collection.

Birds in a winter landscape is signed ‘Lu Ji of Siming’ by the artist on the right

side of the painting, followed by two seals of his other name, ‘Tingzhen’. Lu Ji

(c. 1440–1505) was a native of Siming, located in the district of Ningbo in Zhejiang

province. Ningbo was a city-port on the eastern coast of China and a centre for the

commercial production of paintings. During the Song (960–1279) and Yuan

(1280–1368) dynasties, hundreds of Buddhist paintings were exported from Ningbo to

Japan, where they are still preserved in Buddhist temples. The region has been famous for

its bird-and-flower paintings since the 11th century. Lu Ji began his career as a

professional painter by following this local tradition. He then studied bird-and-flower

paintings by the ancient masters of the Tang (618–907) and Song dynasties which were in

the collection of his patron, a famous Ningbo physiognomist, Yuan Zhongche.1 James Cahil, Parting at the Shore: Chinese Painting of the Early and Middle Ming Dynasty, 1368–1580, John Weatherhill, New York & Tokyo, 1978, pp. 107–8; Howard Rogers & Sherman Lee, Masterworks of Ming and Qing Painting from the Forbidden City, International Arts Council, Lansdale, PA, 1988, pp. 37,116–17.

Probably during the Chenghua era (1465–87) of the Ming dynasty, Lu Ji was

recommended to serve as an artist at the Imperial court. Lu reached the height of his

career during the following Hongzhi era (1488–1505), when the reigning emperor,

Zhu Youtang, appreciated not only his art but also his character, which was described

as virtuous, upright and reverent. Lu was promoted to become a commander in the

Embroidered Uniform Guard.2 ibid.

In Birds in a winter landscape Lu Ji has captured the grandeur and monumentality of the landscape tradition of the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127). A pair of hawks is resting on a rocky cliff jutting against a dark sky and framed by a pine tree. Down below are two pairs of magpies perched on a twisting pine branch and plum blossom emerging from behind the cliff. The spatial relationships within the landscape are intricate and intriguing. Our eyes are first drawn towards the hawks. But as our viewpoint shifts from the hawks to the magpies below, we seem to be looking down from the positions of the hawks. It is as if we have actually entered the landscape and experienced its scenery from within. It is also interesting to note how snow is not described by the application of white pigment as in Tang dynasty paintings, but is evoked by the colour of the blank surface of the silk, accentuated by the sky that has been darkened with an ink wash. The impression of snow on the small branches is achieved with great sensitivity in the control of the ink wash. The blank circles at the centre of the clusters of pine needles convey the impression of snow resting gently on the needles. The hawks are very lifelike and alert in expression, with soft, fluffy feathers, sharp beaks and eyes shining like yellow lanterns. Also in the spirit of the Northern Song landscapes, this painting enables the viewer to escape in imagination to the wilderness of nature and feel really in the place depicted. By gazing at this snowy landscape, one can experience the quietude and melancholy of winter.

This painting can be appreciated for its traditional Chinese symbolic meanings. Since ancient times, the Chinese have used physical objects to express feelings and abstract ideas. By associating ideas, pictorial images were used as symbols of expression; for example the pine tree, which remains green in the bitter cold of winter, symbolises strength and endurance. Objects were also selected by virtue of how their names were pronounced, as these pronunciations were suggestive of certain abstract words in a poetic expression; for example a hawk, which is pronounced ‘ying’ in Chinese, expresses heroism, which is also pronounced as ‘ying’. In this way the hawk is used as a kind of visual pun for the word ‘hero’. (The monosyllabic nature of the Chinese language, in which the same sound can mean many different things, lends itself to such a play on words.) In addition to its own attributes, the hawk symbolises courage, power and strength.3 C. A. S. Williams, Outlines of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives, Dover Publications, New York, 1976, p. 175.The magpie, whose very name in Chinese means ‘bird of happiness’ (xique), is a most auspicious symbol and is regarded as a messenger of joy.4 ibid., pp. 262–3; Wolfram Eberhard, A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols: Hidden Symbols in Chinese Life and Thought, Routlege & Kegan Paul, London & New York, 1986, pp. 174–5. Similarly, the plum blossom, which is the first flower of the year to bloom – even before the snow has melted – is the harbinger of spring.5 Williams, pp. 330–2; Eberhard, pp. 239–40. There is a suggestion that the hardship of winter will soon be replaced by the joys of spring.

Among Lu Ji’s existing works, one of the closest parallels to the style of Birds in a

winter landscape is the winter landscape (fig. 2) from the famous set of four seasons now

in the Tokyo National Museum, a set registered as an Important Cultural Property.6 Tokyo National Museum, Chinese Paintings, Illustrated Catalogues of Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo, 1979, pp. 38–41. Both

paintings are impressive for their powerful visual impact and the strength of their brushwork. The paintings are strong and well structured in design and composition; the treatment of space is intricate. Ideas which are emerging in the Tokyo painting seem to have become more developed and simplified in the Gallery’s painting. The motif of a pair of birds perching on an overhanging rock has become the most prominent element in the Gallery’s landscape by Lu Ji. Similarly, the pictorial device of creating spatial depth by overlapping planes is more subtle in the Gallery’s landscape, for example in the way the plum blossoms are seen behind the lower pine branches as if viewed through a window. In both paintings the old, craggy tree branches are similar in their tortuous movements. The rocks also bear a close resemblance to each other in their shapes and strong outlines. In both paintings, rocks are depicted by the so-called ‘axe-cut texture strokes’ (fupicun) – broad, sweeping brushstrokes creating a rocky surface resembling a block of wood hewn with an axe. This technique was first used by Ma Yuan and Xia Gui, court academy

painters of the Southern Song (1127–1279). It is not surprising that Lu Ji adopted this

technique as it describes accurately the rocks in the Zhejiang region, Lu Ji’s home province.

It was a common technique adopted by the painters of this region – the Zhe (short for

Zhejiang) school of painting. The two landscapes are also similar in such small details as

the tree knots and dangling vines.

The Tokyo winter landscape is, however, more decorative and cheerful, imbued

with the excitement of spring. It is enlivened with a profusion of plum blossoms, hibiscus, bamboos, pheasants and swallows and snows melting in the roaring stream. The

Melbourne winter landscape is more sombre and contemplative, as it is still the depth of

winter, with only a glimpse of spring. The enduring pines and heroic hawks are the

predominant motifs. While subtle colours of pink and green characterise the Melbourne

painting, bright colours are used in the Tokyo landscape. In the Tokyo landscape, snow is

represented by a white pigment rather than evoked by the colour of the silk as in the

Melbourne landscape. It is interesting to note that in the Gallery’s painting, our vision is

directed downwards from the hawks on the rocky cliff towards the valley below, the

magpies and the plum blossoms, the messengers of spring, as if to suggest the ascendency

of spring, whereas in the Tokyo landscape our eyes are directed upwards in receding space,

in the opposite direction to the movement of the stream, as if to express the surging life

force of spring.

Lu Ji’s Birds in a winter landscape was probably in Japan for centuries before modern times,7 It was most recently in the collection of Mr Ch’eng Ch’i; two of his collector’s seals are on the painting proper. It is also recorded in his collection catalogue: Hsuan-hui-t’ang Shu-hua Lu, Hong Kong, 1972, vol. 2, p. 63a. It was originally acquired by Mr Ch’eng in Japan and remounted eight years ago by Mr Meguro, who worked for the National Museum in Tokyo. Such paintings as Birds in a winter landscape by Lu Ji tend to be found even today in old daimio collections, or in public collections related to those still powerful families. I am indebted to Professor Howard Rogers of Sophia University, Tokyo, for the above information. and Lu Ji’s influence on Japanese paintings is illustrated in the Japanese screens in the Gallery’s collection: Birds in a landscape, dated 1575, a pair of six-fold screens by Hagetsu Tosatsu (1516–85) (fig. 3a, b),8 Screens published in Yusuzoo Yamano, ‘Movable Screens: Flowers and Birds Work by Hagetsu Tosatsu’, Kokka, 787th issue, vol. 66, no. 10, October 1957, pp. 321–3. and a pair of six-fold screens by Tamura Chokuo (active 1688–1704).

Hagetsu Tosatsu was the son of a samurai (warrior class of Japan) and was considered a follower of Sesshu (1428–1506), especially of his bird-and-flower (kochoga) paintings.9 Laurance P. Roberts, A Dictionary of Japanese Artists, Painting, Sculpture, Ceramics, Prints, Lacquer, Weatherhill, Tokyo & New York, 1976, p. 183. Sesshu was a Zen Buddhist monk and is regarded as the greatest ink painter of the Muromachi period (1336–1568) in Japan. From 1481 to 1484 Sesshu studied the Zen (meditative) sect of Buddhism as well as Chinese paintings in China, and brought back the painting techniques of the Song and Ming dynasties.10 ibid., p. 143. Sesshu’s visit to China coincided with Lu Ji’s active period, and his bird-and-flower paintings are similar to those by Lu Ji. It is possible that Tosatsu was influenced by Sesshu’s version of Chinese bird-and-flower paintings of the early Ming as well as original paintings of that period.

On the surface, Tosatsu’s paintings very closely resemble a Chinese bird-and-

flower painting of the early Ming period, especially works by Lu Ji. Both artists deal with

the theme of nature and the four seasons. There are also stylistic similarities. The rocks

are depicted by the ‘axe-cut texture strokes’ although to a Chinese critic Tosatsu’s

brushwork may appear lacking in inherent strength. There is also a similar use of colour

in Tosatsu’s screens and Lu Ji’s set of Four Seasons in the Tokyo Museum. In the treatment

of forms, Tosatsu shows a greater interest in creating abstract patterns, for example the

feathers of the hawks.

There are, however, stylistic differences on a deeper level. There is no doubt that

the dominant theme in both paintings is the power of the hawks. But Tosatsu’s screens

show an interest in drama and story-telling. The beginning or right screen (fig. 3a) depicts

a dramatic scene in which a ferocious hawk swoops down from mid-air, attacking the

terrified herons fleeing towards the bamboo and lotus. The bamboo, seemingly startled,

is blowing in the wind. Another hawk, holding a hare in its talons, is a stern witness to the

action. In response to the drama on the right screen, a hawk is gliding menacingly

towards a disturbed pheasant in the left screen. (The Japanese preference for odd numbers

is in contrast to the Chinese preference for pairs, and even numbers are shown in Lu Ji’s

paintings.)

In Birds in a winter landscape by Lu Ji, the power and strength of the hawks is

stated not so much by action as by the hawks’ presence and their commanding position in

the landscape. They are perched on a prominent rocky cliff overlooking the rest of the

landscape. The pine branches serve almost as a royal canopy and the jutting cliff as their

throne, from which they can look down on the other birds or subjects.

Tamura Chokuo’s paintings, Hawks in a landscape, a pair of six-fold screens (fig.

4a, b),11 Screens are published in Kobijutsu, no. 29, March 1970, pp. 101–2. show a startling resemblance to Lu Ji’s Birds in a winter landscape in subject-

matter. The right screen depicts a hawk perched on a pine tree, while on the left screen,

hawks are shown in a landscape dominated by an old tree of plum blossoms.

Tamura Chokuo was known as a pupil of Soga Chokuan (active 1596–1610), who

was a founder of the Soga school, specialising in the painting of hawks and falcons in

accord with the military taste of the time.12 Roberts, p. 16. The paintings of Tamura Chokuo are

stylistically quite different from Lu Ji’s Birds in a winter landscape. They are bold and

ornamental. The Japanese screen is read like a handscroll as the landscape continues from

the right screen to the left screen: monumental trees – pine and plum blossoms – stretch

across the landscape, facing each other almost like mirror images. Like paper cut-outs, the

hawks and trees are silhouetted against a rich, gold background representing clouds and

mist concealing the green hills and deep blue ponds and waterfalls in an idyllic landscape.

There is little feeling of air or space compared with Lu Ji’s winter landscape. The three

hawks which dominate this vast landscape on the screens are gorgeous and appear as if

dressed in sumptuous costume or armour. They look fierce, with menacing eyes and

aggressive talons. The hawk perched on the plum tree is screaming with his beak open,

revealing his tongue, as if ready to attack. In comparison, Lu Ji’s hawks with their soft

feathers look almost friendly; they are animated, commanding but not menacing. In

Chokuo’s painting, spiky young branches with delicate blossoms are shooting with

regenerative power from the withered trunk of the plum tree like swords or daggers. (Even

when apparently dead, the prunus is known to have the vitality to put forth new shoots

and flowers each year.)

Screens depicting hawks and pines with such opulence held great appeal for the

samurai. In Japan, the hawk and the evergreen pine symbolise the martial spirit of the

samurai, as well as fortitude and strength. The aggressive hawks in the two pairs of

Japanese screens certainly illustrate some kind of military power. It is known that in

reception halls such paintings in the form of screens were used to demonstrate the political

and military power of the shogun (military ruler) over his daimio subordinates, who, not

related by kinship, were considered potential rivals or enemies.13 I am indebted to Gary Hickey for bringing this point to my attention and also the article by Umehara Takeshi, ‘The Structure of the Aesthetic Sense of the Tokugawa Samurai’, The East, vol. XX, no. 6, November 1984, pp. 53–63, in which similar issues are discussed. It is possible that Lu Ji’s

Birds in a winter landscape was also used for such a purpose, although power and

authority are implied rather than expressed explicitly and its original meaning is

philosophical – the survival of the individual in a harsh environment.

Lu Ji’s Birds in a winter landscape has not only enhanced the Asian collection as a

major painting by a significant Chinese artist, but establishes meaningful connections with

other objects already in the collection. In our exploration in this essay, we have discovered

the deeper meanings behind a painting of the genre of birds-and-flowers – human emotions

and relationships – as well as the cultural and stylistic similarities and differences between

Chinese and Japanese art.

Mae Anna Pang, Senior Curator of Asian Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1990).

Notes

1          James Cahil, Parting at the Shore: Chinese Painting of the Early and Middle Ming Dynasty, 1368–1580, John Weatherhill, New York & Tokyo, 1978, pp. 107–8; Howard Rogers & Sherman Lee, Masterworks of Ming and Qing Painting from the Forbidden City, International Arts Council, Lansdale, PA, 1988, pp. 37,116–17.

2          ibid.

3          C. A. S. Williams, Outlines of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives, Dover Publications, New York, 1976, p. 175.

4          ibid., pp. 262–3; Wolfram Eberhard, A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols: Hidden Symbols in Chinese Life and Thought, Routlege & Kegan Paul, London & New York, 1986, pp. 174–5.

5          Williams, pp. 330–2; Eberhard, pp. 239–40.

6          Tokyo National Museum, Chinese Paintings, Illustrated Catalogues of Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo, 1979, pp. 38–41.

7          It was most recently in the collection of Mr Ch’eng Ch’i; two of his collector’s seals are on the painting proper. It is also recorded in his collection catalogue: Hsuan-hui-t’ang Shu-hua Lu, Hong Kong, 1972, vol. 2, p. 63a. It was originally acquired by Mr Ch’eng in Japan and remounted eight years ago by Mr Meguro, who worked for the National Museum in Tokyo. Such paintings as Birds in a winter landscape by Lu Ji tend to be found even today in old daimio collections, or in public collections related to those still powerful families. I am indebted to Professor Howard Rogers of Sophia University, Tokyo, for the above information. 

8          Screens published in Yusuzoo Yamano, ‘Movable Screens: Flowers and Birds Work by Hagetsu Tosatsu’, Kokka, 787th issue, vol. 66, no. 10, October 1957, pp. 321–3.

9          Laurance P. Roberts, A Dictionary of Japanese Artists, Painting, Sculpture, Ceramics, Prints, Lacquer, Weatherhill, Tokyo & New York, 1976, p. 183.

10        ibid., p. 143.

11        Screens are published in Kobijutsu, no. 29, March 1970, pp. 101–2.

12        Roberts, p. 16.

13        I am indebted to Gary Hickey for bringing this point to my attention and also the article by Umehara Takeshi, ‘The Structure of the Aesthetic Sense of the Tokugawa Samurai’, The East, vol. XX, no. 6, November 1984, pp. 53–63, in which similar issues are discussed.