Known by the name he adopted in his late thirties, Zheng Sixiao painted *Ink Orchid* to evoke his sentiments at a tumultuous time in Chinese history.
Zheng was born in Fujian province in 1241, which was then part of the Southern Song empire (1127 – 1279). The capital of the Southern Song empire was Lin’an (present-day Hangzhou).
Zheng was a student of the Imperial Academy of the Southern Song. He was considered one of the literati, or the educated elite. In 1279, the Mongolian armies conquered the Southern Song empire. Zheng, a patriot, went to Suzhou (just north of Lin’an) where he lived the life of a hermit. The fall of the Southern Song prompted Zheng to rename himself. Indeed it was a common practice for literati to bestow on themselves several names. Zheng renamed himself Zheng Sixiao. *Sixiao* implied “remember the Zhao.” Zhao was the family name of the Song imperial family. The character for *xiao* 肖 was the same as the right side of the Chinese character for the word *zhao* 趙.
Zheng’s patriotism was also demonstrated in his choice of another name for himself. He signed this painting *Suo-nan-weng*, which means southern facing old man. He was so patriotic that he never lay or sat facing to the north—where the Mongolian capital was located. Zheng was also given the courtesy name of *Yiweng,* meaning old man who reminisced about the fallen dynasty.
The only surviving painting reliably attributed to Zheng is the short horizontal scroll *Ink Orchid*, a balanced, tranquil, symbolic monochrome painting.
The subject matter
The orchid, the blossoming plum, the bamboo and the chrysanthemum each embodied traditional Chinese virtues. Known as the “Four Gentlemen,” the four plants were depicted by literati in different dynasties. The orchid with a faint, delicate fragrance grew in hidden and secluded places. Thus, the orchid can embody the characteristics of self-containment, reservation, simplicity, solitude and unpretentiousness. The description could also be used to describe how Zheng depicted himself. In Zheng’s *Ink Orchid*, there are no eye-catching colors or meticulous details. Precise calligraphic strokes rendered the simple and balanced composition. Zheng’s strokes depicted a few leaves and two orchid flowers. The deft use of brush and ink brings perspective, vitality and movement to the leaves and flowers. Unlike many western still life flower paintings, the ink orchid has no vase or basket.
There is also no depiction of roots. The orchid seems to float in the air. When people enquired as to why Zheng depicted it so, he was reported to have replied, “Don’t you know that the soil was stolen by the barbarians?” The rootlessness of the orchid added to the symbolism, for it connoted that Zheng was also without a home with the collapse of the Southern Song. Zheng became a yimin, a leftover subject. The rootless orchid was a personal statement of his refusal to serve the Yuan Mongolian court—a court ruled by the foreigners.
The inscriptions and seals
Zheng wrote a poem to the right of the orchid (fig. a), which expressed his bitterness at the fall of the Song. He compared himself to the orchid, emphasizing its faint, everlasting fragrance. He signed the poem with his pseudonym “South-facing Old Man” ( (fig. b). When he put the year and date, he denied the legitimacy of the Yuan dynasty by not noting its reign period (fig. c).
Zheng stamped two of his seals on the painting. One seal was his pseudonym matched with his signature (fig. d) while another was a longer text with four vertical lines starting from the right (fig. e). The latter hinted that he would not paint for the Yuan officials even if they asked. It was almost thirty years after the Song collapsed that Zheng painted the piece, yet all of these components signaled his remembrance of and unyielding loyalty to the Song and his enduring resistance to the Yuan.
Voids in the painting
When the painting was first created, it consisted merely of the orchid, the poem inscription at the right, the year and date indicated at the left and two of the seals at the lower left. In other words, the ink orchid exists in a void. The other inscriptions and seals were added by later literati and connoisseurs.
Leaving the background empty added great strength to the artwork. In the painting, the substance and the void complement each other. The void is not nothingness, but a space for imagination. Without details in the background, it also allows us to focus on the subject matter and inscription.
The rootless orchid lends insights into Zheng’s artistic skills and philosophy as well as aspects of his life. While conveying a strong statement by Zheng, the painting did not arouse anger or hatred but a sense of quietness. It elegantly embodied the modesty and integrity of this reclusive literati. Many subsequent literati appreciated and respected Zheng’s temperament and his depiction of the rootless orchid.
A story of survival
Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains is a legendary shanshui (landscape) painting created by the Yuan dynasty painter, Huang Gongwang. This handscroll, which is over 22 feet long, has a fascinating history. There are many stories associated with it—there are even stories about the inscriptions that have been added to the scroll over the years.
As the story goes, the handscroll escaped destruction because a nephew disobeyed his uncle’s dying wish. In the late Ming dynasty, a collector named Wu Hongyu was so fond of this handscroll that he put it next to him while sleeping and eating, even carrying it when he fled in bare feet during the Manchu conquest. On his deathbed in 1650, Wu instructed his nephew to burn the handscroll so that it could accompany him into the afterlife. The handscroll started to burn. Fortunately, Wu’s quick-thinking nephew saved it by substituting another painting, unbeknownst to the near-death Wu.
What is a Chinese handscroll painting?
Due to their horizontal format, you cannot view the entire handscroll all at once. Although museums often display handscrolls completely unrolled, from beginning to end, this is not the way artists intended for them to be experienced. Rather, they can be described as a slowly evolving journey of discovery that unfolds with intimate physical movement.
The format of the handscroll allows for multiple perspectives in the same painting, embracing the landscape’s breadth and depth along the river and mountains as a continuous journey progressing through time and space.
Who was Huang Gongwang?
Huang came from a poor family. His original surname was Lu. When he was around eight years old, he encountered Huang Le who was in his nineties and had always wanted to have a son. Following the custom of the day, Lu was adopted and changed his surname to Huang. After much study Huang became an official-scholar, but he later was embroiled in a dispute and imprisoned. After his imprisonment, he abandoned the thought of reaching a higher official rank and returned to his hometown in Changshu, Jiangsu province, where he lived as Daoist and traveled to nearby sites. In 1347, in his late seventies, Huang travelled to the Fuchun region accompanied by his Daoist friend, Zheng Wuyong. He began painting this handscroll at that time, and finally finished it in his eighties. What is Daoism?
Methods and techniques
A place in Chinese art history
The Forbidden City is a large precinct of red walls and yellow glazed roof tiles located in the heart of China’s capital, Beijing. As its name suggests, the precinct is a micro-city in its own right. Measuring 961 meters in length and 753 meters in width, the Forbidden City is composed of more than 90 palace compounds including 98 buildings and surrounded by a moat as wide as 52 meters.
The Forbidden City was the political and ritual center of China for over 500 years. After its completion in 1420, the Forbidden City was home to 24 emperors, their families and servants during the Ming (1368–1644) and the Qing (1644–1911) dynasties. The last occupant (who was also the last emperor of imperial China), Puyi (1906–67), was expelled in 1925 when the precinct was transformed into the Palace Museum. Although it is no longer an imperial precinct, it remains one of the most important cultural heritage sites and the most visited museum in the People’s Republic of China, with an average of eighty thousand visitors every day.
Construction and layout
The construction of the Forbidden City was the result of a scandalous coup d’état plotted by Zhu Di, the fourth son of the Ming dynasty’s founder Zhu Yuanzhang, that made him the Chengzu emperor (his official title) in 1402. In order to solidify his power, the Chengzu emperor moved the capital, as well as his own army, from Nanjing in southeastern China to Beijing and began building a new heart of the empire, the Forbidden City.
The establishment of the Qing dynasty in 1644 did not lessen the Forbidden City’s pivotal status, as the Manchu imperial family continued to live and rule there. While no major change has been made since its completion, the precinct has undergone various renovations and minor constructions well into the twentieth-first century. Since the Forbidden City is a ceremonial, ritual and living space, the architects who designed its layout followed the ideal cosmic order in Confucian ideology that had held Chinese social structure together for centuries. This layout ensured that all activities within this micro-city were conducted in the manner appropriate to the participants’ social and familial roles. All activities, such as imperial court ceremonies or life-cycle rituals, would take place in sophisticated palaces depending on the events’ characteristics. Similarly, the court determined the occupants of the Forbidden City strictly according to their positions in the imperial family.
The architectural style also reflects a sense of hierarchy. Each structure was designed in accordance with the Treatise on Architectural Methods or State Building Standards (Yingzao fashi), an eleventh-century manual that specified particular designs for buildings of different ranks in Chinese social structure.
Public and private life
Public and domestic spheres are clearly divided in the Forbidden City. The southern half, or the outer court, contains spectacular palace compounds of supra-human scale. This outer court belonged to the realm of state affairs, and only men had access to its spaces. It included the emperor’s formal reception halls, places for religious rituals and state ceremonies, and also the Meridian Gate (Wumen) located at the south end of the central axis that served as the main entrance.
Upon passing the Meridian Gate, one immediately enters an immense courtyard paved with white marble stones in front of the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihedian). Since the Ming dynasty, officials gathered in front of the Meridian Gate before 3 a.m., waiting for the emperor’s reception to start at 5 a.m.
While the outer court is reserved for men, the inner court is the domestic space, dedicated to the imperial family. The inner court includes the palaces in the northern part of the Forbidden City. Here, three of the most important palaces align with the city’s central axis: the emperor’s residence known as the Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqinggong) is located to the south while the empress’s residence, the Palace of Earthly Tranquility (Kunninggong), is to the north. The Hall of Celestial and Terrestrial Union (Jiaotaidian), a smaller square building for imperial weddings and familial ceremonies, is sandwiched in between.
Although the Palace of Heavenly Purity was a grand palace building symbolizing the emperor’s supreme status, it was too large for conducting private activities comfortably. Therefore, after the early 18th century Qing emperor, Yongzheng, moved his residence to the smaller Hall of Mental Cultivation (Yangxindian) to the west of the main axis, the Palace of Heavenly Purity became a space for ceremonial use and all subsequent emperors resided in the Hall of Mental Cultivation.
The residences of the emperor’s consorts flank the three major palaces in the inner court. Each side contains six identical, walled palace compounds, forming the shape of K’un “☷,” one of the eight trigrams of ancient Chinese philosophy. It is the symbol of mother and earth, and thus is a metaphor for the proper feminine roles the occupants of these palaces should play. Such architectural and philosophical symmetry, however, fundamentally changed when the empress dowager Cixi (1835-1908) renovated the Palace of Eternal Spring (Changchungong) and the Palace of Gathered Elegance (Chuxiugong) in the west part of the inner court for her fortieth and fiftieth birthday in 1874 and 1884, respectively. The renovation transformed the original layout of six palace compounds into four, thereby breaking the shape of the symbolic trigram and implying the loosened control of Chinese patriarchal authority at the time.
The eastern and western sides of the inner court were reserved for the retired emperor and empress dowager. The emperor Qianlong (r. 1735–96) built his post-retirement palace, the Hall of Pleasant Longevity (Leshoutang), in the northeast corner of the Forbidden City. It was the last major construction in the imperial precinct. In addition to these palace compounds for the older generation, there are also structures for the imperial family’s religious activities in the east and west sides of the inner court, such as Buddhist and Daoist temples built during the Ming dynasty. The Manchus preserved most of these structures but also added spaces for their own shamanic beliefs.
The Forbidden City now
Today, the Forbidden City is still changing. As a modern museum and an historical site, the museum strikes a balance by maintaining the structures and restoring the interiors of the palace compounds, and in certain instances transforming minor palace buildings and hallways into exhibition galleries for the exquisite artwork of the imperial collections. For many, the Forbidden City is a time capsule for China’s past and an educational institute for the public to learn and appreciate the history and beauty of this ancient culture.
Essay by Dr. Ying-chen Peng