Paintings of Zhong Kuai and Demons in 11th to 14th Century China

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A Review of Imagining the Supernatural Grotesque: Paintings of Zhong Kui and Demons in the Late Southern Song (1127-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) Dynasties, by Chun-yi Joyce Tsai

Demons and exorcisms are unexpected themes in Chinese painting studies, although in her dissertation “Imagining the Supernatural Grotesque: Paintings of Zhong Kui and Demons in the Late Southern Song (1127-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) Dynasties,” Chun-yi Joyce Tsai carves out a legitimate place for them in the canon. She also brings the fields of demonology, folklore, theater and religion into unprecedentedly close contact with connoisseurship. An anecdote included in the conclusion of her richly informative dissertation reveals some lingering biases that still permeate the field of Song-Yuan painting scholarship. Tsai’s friends and family were concerned about her choice of demonic images as a focus of her research. In her words, they “urged me to seek protection from gods at local temples; others offered to include me in their prayers; still others advised me to participate in activities with more ‘positive energy’ 正能量 to counterbalance the negative influence of an inauspicious subject.” (p. 232) Perhaps their concern over her focus on this “inauspicious” subject is testimony to the enduring power of Zhong Kui images to stir up feelings of revulsion. These are precisely the types of reactions that Tsai describes these paintings invoking in their original Yuan-dynasty context.

Her focus is on the late Song through Yuan dynasties. Through detailed iconographic analysis, this dissertation provides a thorough introduction to demon images through the lens of China’s most iconic demon, Zhong Kui 鍾馗, the notorious “demon queller.” Parsing his visual manifestations and his various attributes as they evolve over several centuries, Tsai expands upon the current predominantly political interpretations of Zhong Kui to incorporate important religious, social and cultural factors. Many readers will be surprised to learn that the Zhong Kui with which we are most familiar, the disheveled, disgruntled scholar of the underworld, is a Ming and Qing dynasty interpretation. In this dissertation, she recovers and reconstructs his esoteric origins, ties these into folk customs and changing polities and presents a richly textured history of a god whose attributes and significances have become layered over time.

Tsai eschews historical and political interpretations of the iconic motif to present a more balanced reading of Zhong Kui paintings with roots in folk beliefs in the supernatural. Framing the major god with his entourage of naked and scruffy man-beasts, she expands her inquiry to include this cast of minor demons who accompany their “master.” She takes critical issues with the fact that although they often outnumber their masters in both religious and secular painting, such minor ghouls have long been considered of secondary importance to the scholarship. Through the simple innovation of paying equal attention to the supporting cast of minor demons and the main subject matter of Zhong Kui, she activates new interpretations for Zhong Kui paintings and develops the related iconology and thus the interpretive possibilities widely.

In Tang-Yuan literature, there is an extensive vocabulary for the netherworld and the strange. Tsai discusses her demons with a compound term that encompasses the extensive linguistic range for discussing these entities: the Supernatural Grotesque 鬼怪. Essential to her exegesis of the Zhong Kui paintings is a particular type of popular exorcism, the Da Nuo 儺, a ceremony that was associated with Zhong Kui cults, theatricality, public spectacle, and folk customs. She also sees the Zhong Kui paintings as a literati responses to foreign rule and as alluding to ethnic prejudices of the Song. The interpretive framework that she constructs also concludes that demon-themed paintings were a type of comic relief. This rich tapestry of interpretation succeeds in bringing more context to folk beliefs in the supernatural grotesque, in relating painting to the mundane human world, and shows how painting could be used to outline and frame the margins of social decorum and exemplary behavior.

At the core of Tsai’s dissertation are the oldest extant paintings of Zhong Kui, three handscrolls currently in American collections which she affirmatively dates from the early to late Yuan dynasty (1279-1369). The dissertation is structured around four chapters, each of which considers the group of three paintings collectively. Each handscroll painting depicts a Zhong Kui processional scene, and they are found in the collections of the Freer [F1938.4], the Cleveland Art Museum [61.206], and the Metropolitan [1990.134].

The bulk of painting scholarship from the Song and the Yuan has been shaped by an interest in literati activities and aesthetics, but this dissertation advances the field of Chinese painting studies by looking beyond the framework of literati taste. Tsai examines these images as records of folklore; the ugly, grotesque and bizarre are thus given new relevance in the presence of folk ritual. But Tsai also demonstrates how these images were of interest to the literati, and relates this demon imagery to the vivid and colorful Southern Song secular genre painting narratives.

Two of the three Zhong Kui paintings examined were made in “professional” studios, which her analysis details. This distinction between literati painters and professional studios is an important one that relates to the iconography, composition, and circulation of these images. Her textually-informed analysis borrows from a range of materials, such as the Records of seasonal customs and festivals of the Qiandao and Chunxi periods  乾淳歲時記, which she weaves into her readings. Tsai also mines the painting colophons for detailed information, presenting these for the first time in full translation in the appendices. Finally, bolstered by their social context of the unprecedented social movement and changing ethnic landscape of the Southern Song-Mongol transition, she proposes new readings for each of the Zhong Kui handscrolls.

Chapter 1 describes the scrolls and traces a genealogy of their location in space and time, it also outlines the content and the potential uses of the colophons. Here, readers will find useful guided observations of the compositions, iconography, medium and formats of the three paintings in question. The relationship between the three hand-scrolls is clarified; we learn that the the Met and Cleveland scrolls are more closely related, presumably the products of professional studios. They share similar compositions and the artists––who share an uncommon surname––were possibly related. The third scroll, the Freer scroll, has a comparatively more original and deliberate composition, this she places closer to the work of scholar amateurs and the literati. While the cast of minor demons is relatable in all three, the Freer scroll displays much more artistic inventiveness in articulating the demons, and is not as formulaic as the professional painters.

Chapter 2 provides a rich genealogy of demon iconology drawn from both textual and visual sources. She also outlines sources from which painters may have garnered the inspiration for visual representations of demon. In detailing a panoply of demon physiognomy, Tsai sets about answering the question: Why do these minor demons look the way they do? She finds the answer partly in the supposition that demons were believed to be the agents of misfortune and disease. Outlining here the history of the Da Nuo exorcism, intended to drive out evil spirits that caused disease, she notes the decline in its practice during the Yuan dynasty. Tsai then uses expounds on the similarities between the processions depicted in these paintings and these performative folk rituals.

A full array of visual cues detailed in this chapter draw the viewer into the moral and inner psychological worlds projected onto these beasts. The result is a romp through medieval China’s undesirable lower social classes, through which she expounds on details about prejudices about skin color and non-Han status, ultimately comparing these minor demons to “comic actors”丑. Depicting these negative social constituents makes them into cautionary characters, but they are also supporting cast for Zhong Kui, who was––in fact––a hero. Their open mouths correspond with literary descriptions of demons wailing and moaning; hair loss, disease, large nose and other features were visual cues for social and physical maladies, a fact she supports with contemporary physiognomy manuals, such as the Yu Guan Zhao Shen Ju 玉管照神局 and the Shenxiang Quanbian 神相全遍. Other attributes can be related to non-Han peoples, the Khitan and Mongols, especially the hair styles and headwear of the Fan 番, Man 蠻, Hu 胡. Lastly, the naked bodies of these monsters was a distinct reference to the undesirable status as “other,” as the Han had no interest in nude figure portrayals. Whereas clothing connoted learned people and high social class, the naked body was associated with barbarism militarism and coarse beastliness. These paintings gave viewers inverse examples of proper decorum, belonging or moral uprightness.

Chapter 3 details the attributes of the protagonist Zhong Kui in a manner similar to the demon attributes of Chapter 2, and here Tsai also proposes a new theory of how Zhong Kui came to be considered the iconic representation of the frustrated scholar-official失意文人. As she fleshes out the developments of his character attributes, she isolates episodes in the transformation of Zhong Kui from the Five Dynasties through the Yuan. Through this transformation from depiction in ritualized activities to secular activities, as early as the Five Dynasties, she notes how his identity gains a scholarly polish. Again later, during the Song, this scruffy bearded fellow––once a fearsome demon slayer––becomes a down-and out comic character akin to theater actors. This development is detailed through the use of textual evidence describing paintings that are no longer extant.

In this chapter, Tsai begins isolating shared elements of Zhong Kui’s appearance in these three, earliest extant paintings that form the core of her dissertation. These include his beard, disheveled appearance, drunkenness, ugliness and violence, finally Zhong Kui’s humanized depiction. She concludes that the Met and the Cleveland scrolls depict a distinct moment in the evolution of his character when Zhong Kui is transformed from a warrior to a scholar official, perhaps he is even meant ot represent a non-Han scholar official, who were becoming more of a sight in the Song-Yuan transition. She determines that the image of a drunken Zhong Kui emerges no later than the Southern Song dynasty, noting the strength of the wine from the Hebei region he hailed from––another easy association of drunkenness with non-Chinese.

Chapter 4 is composed of three parts which identify specific issues for each of the three scrolls addressed in the study and ultimately propose new interpretations of their narratives. Tsai works within the framework of interpretive scholarship, but at a level of unprecedented depth for this motif. She outlines various details and plays them into her interpretation of the Freer scroll and the rich pastiche of meanings that she teases out in her research, such as the depiction of the Nine-tailed fox, a trope associated with exorcism and visible in Zhong Kui’s entourage. In Tsai’s reading, the fox plays a crucial role as a visual metaphor and pun on “barbarians,” or Huren 胡人 and fox huli 狐狸.  Readers will likely find her interpretation of the Freer scroll most rewarding, as it lays out a fascinating and complex combination of folk customs, allegory, historical romanticism, and political critique. The painter, Gong Kai 龚开, a Song loyalist who lived in the early Yuan, is a fascinating character with unique motivations for painting the theme.

According to its Ming and Qing colophons, this scroll’s life as a historical artifact was just as lively as the action depicted within it. One intimation to the painting’s apotropaic function is that the colophons inform us that this scroll was viewed often around the New Year’s Spring Festival. The auspicious moment of viewing during the New Year reenforces the apotropaic origins of Zhong Kui’s persona, but interestingly was not seen to contradict his newly acquired scholar-official persona.

This type of multivalent reading is made evident throughout the dissertation. We have another example in the depiction of women in Zhong Kui’s entourage. Their black-painted faces, although related to the costume of an exorcist, were a clear reversal of beauty in Song dynasty China, where women’s faces were painted white, in the same pattern. These benefits of Tsai’s close looking are again felt clearly when she discusses details of the women’s clothing, into whose fabric are woven the images of the “five pests” 五毒, caterpillars, toads and snakes, minor details that intuit the rich interpretive possibilities for these paintings, enforcing the association with exorcist rituals and and the multiple co-existing interpretations that she provides. In these Zhong Kui scrolls, Tsai outlines an important characteristic shared by many of todays significant paintings as historical artifacts: the potential for coexisting meanings over time, many which are still being identified today.

The scope of Tsai’s discussion on the supernatural is far-reaching. Researchers of religion, folklore, Han studies, even historical anthropology will be interested in her careful indexing of the many types of demons and sub-class demons detailed here. Useful for all researchers in the humanities, she provides close, descriptive readings of the iconography and cross-references her observations with a wide variety of textual sources. Her art historian’s attention to detail enlivens these paintings of Zhong Kui, making them more accessible to humanities scholars, hopefully enabling them to utilize these powerful visual documents as more than mere illustrations.

The interdisciplinary potential of Tsai’s research is clear, but it likewise provides opportunities for more trans-area studies in the mostly geographically segregated field of art history. By providing thorough translations of all her key sources, Tsai paves the way for future comparative studies of demonic images, folk customs and religions in Central Asia, the middle east, or the Islamic worlds.

Lee Ambrozy
Ph.D Candidate
Institute of Fine Arts
New York University
Lee.ambrozy@nyu.edu

Primary Sources
Guo Ruoxu 郭若虚 (ca.1070-ca.1090) An Overview of Painting  图画见闻志 (1041-93)
Shen Kuo 沈括 (1031-1095) Dream Pool Essays 梦溪笔谈 (1089-93)
Imperial Painting Catalogue of the Xuanhe Era  宣和画谱 (1120)
Statutes of the Yuan Dynasty 元典章 (1322)
Guide Through the Forest of Affairs 事林广记 (1330s)

Dissertation Information: Columbia University, New York. 2015. Primary Advisor: Robert Harrist.

Image: An ink painting of Zhong Kui by the Shunzhi Emperor (r. 1643–1661) of the Qing dynasty, kept at the Palace Museum in Beijing. Wikimedia Commons.

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