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In the painting, “Zhang Guo’s audience with Emperor Minghuang”, the artist Ren Renfa chose to look back and depict a Tang dynasty story described in books from that  time period, and to paint it in the Tang style. 

He painted a visit made by immortal Zhang Guo to Emperor Minghuang’s palace in the 8th century where he demonstrated magical feats. The painting, measuring 41.5 cm high and 107.3 cm long, is in color on a silk scroll. It remains widely regarded as an accomplished and outstanding work of art.

As was common in Tang dynasty paintings, Ren Renfa arranged his figures against a plain background. On the right side of the painting – seated on an embroidered block – is the elderly Zhang Guo, a reclusive Daoist with supernatural abilities.  Both his palms are facing upwards and he has a cheerful countenance, as if he is explaining something joyous. In front of him, a crouching boy focuses on a miniature white donkey that is running towards the Emperor.  The Emperor, seated on a throne in the middle of the painting and leaning forward, is similarly drawn to the donkey.

Zhang Guo is well known for, and is frequently depicted in Chinese paintings and sculpture, riding a white donkey – often backwards since he believed, and wanted to remind people, that going forwards is actually going backwards. In one day, he would travel tens of thousands of miles on his donkey. When it came time to rest, he would fold up the donkey, just like folding a piece of paper, and put it away in a cloth box. Zhang Guo’s other possession, apart from the donkey, was a fish drum (not shown in Ren Renfa’s painting) which he would play while singing songs about Daoist philosophy.

Portrayals of the eight Daoist immortals, either singly or in a group, were popular and of general interest, especially in the late Yuan period.  Even today, they are a common feature in modern Chinese culture. Zhang Guo is said to have been born in the 7th century and to have lived on Zhongtiao mountain in Hengzhou.  The people of the time said that he had learned the secrets of longevity.  

Influence of the Tang dynasty

Noble Ladies in Tang Dynasty

Ren Renfa’s use of Tang dynasty (618-906) material as inspiration for his work is not unique.  Other artists from the Yuan period (1271-1368) were also influenced by stories from that time. The Tang dynasty, particularly during the Kaiyuan-Tianbao era when Emperor Minghuang ruled, was a period of progress and prosperity where the arts flourished.  It followed the turmoil and hardship in the previous dynasty and gave rise to a tolerant society that welcomed foreigners, international trade and religious freedom. At its peak, the Tang Dynasty was the richest and most powerful empire in the world.

It can be argued that Ren Renfa looked back to the Tang dynasty simply because of the richness of its arts.  However, during his lifetime, the Mongols conquered China and the Yuan dynasty began. At a time of uncertainty, it is possible that Ren Renfa was using Tang sources for his paintings to remind the Mongol rulers of Chinese cultural traditions and, in the case of “Zhang Guo’s audience with Emperor Minghuang”, which has a Daoist theme, its indigenous religion.  In fact, the Mongols were receptive to all religions and many, including Christianity, grew during the Yuan period.  Chinese culture also thrived in the Yuan dynasty, although court patronage of some arts, including painting, ceased.

About Ren Renfa

Ren Renfa was born in 1254 in Qinglong town, in Songjiang (now situated in Qingpu county in Shanghai).  He died in 1327. He was a painter, calligrapher and engineer who worked for the Mongol government in a number of official positions, mostly in the field of water management, from 1279 to 1326.   

Nothing is known about his training as an artist, although his paintings that exist today demonstrate his traditional technique, his skills in depicting detailed and realistic subjects, and his subtle use of color. The scholar Li Qixian once praised Ren Renfa saying: “His brush style is closing in on that of Longmian,” a reference to the well-known and talented Song dynasty painter Li Gonglin.

Ren Renfa is best known for his horse paintings which he sometimes used as a metaphor for good and bad.  One example is his painting “Two Horses” (located in the Palace Museum in Beijing) which shows a fat horse and a thin horse meant to represent the officials of the day.  However, while the casual observer might associate the fat horse with excess, in an inscription on the painting, Ren Renfa warned against making judgements on appearance alone.  Among his other paintings that still exist are: “Grooms out with horses” (Palace Museum), “Three horses and four grooms” (Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio) and “Nine Horses” (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri).