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... of The San Diego Museum of Art

Treasures from the San Diego Museum of Art's Asian Collections

by Heather Simmerman, Ph.D., Docent

To see previous Asian Insights articles, click on the title of interest below:


July 2023 (001) Red Lacquer Box, China, 1951.12a-b

Red Lacquer Box

First printed for members in the AAC Newsletter, August 2020

Asian Insights, Red Lacquer Box from AAC Newsletter, August 2020
Box with cover),
15th c. China
Acc. No. 1951.12.a.b

This small (2 7/8 in. x 2 7/8 in. x 1 ½ in.) round cushion form is carved red-over-black lacquer on wood. It is decorated with a deeply carved motif of lychee fruit, leaves, and branches on a delicately carved background diaper of geometricized flowers. The rich vegetal and floral design carved in red lacquer is typical of the Ming period (1368-1644). Lacquer is derived from the resin (sap) of a tree native to southern China, which may be colored by addition of pigments such as carbon soot (black) or the mercury sulfide known as cinnabar (red) that gives rise to the common name for red lacquer-ware. The lacquer is applied in many coats, from 30 to as many as 200 layers, which are allowed to dry between applications to a hard, opaque and glossy finish before carving. Lychee are a sweet summer fruit with an auspicious red skin. In China, the lychee is often a symbol of romance and love because of its red color, which is the color for brides; indeed, a pair of lychee symbolizes fertility. However, the stem character “li” in the Chinese name for lychee, “li zhi”, can have meanings related to characteristics of strength, profit, or benefits, extending the symbolism of lychee to include these traits. Thus images of lychee are often found in Chinese corporate offices, as an omen of profitability. The small box shown here would have been a luxury item for the Ming elite, expensive due to its lengthy and skilled requirements to fashion, and may have been used for storage of incense or cosmetics.

Aug 2023 (002) Harvest Moon-viewing, Japan, 2002.16

Harvest Moon-viewing

First printed for members in the AAC Newsletter, September 2020

Asian Insights, Moon-viewing from AAC Newsletter, September 2020
Moon-viewing in Autumn,
early 20th c. Japan,
Acc. No. 2002.16

This ink and color on silk hanging scroll (55½ x 22½ in) is an example of the nihonga (“Japanese painting”) style of painting that arose in the Meiji era (1868-1912) and developed further in the early 20th century. The opening of Japan to Western influences, including rapid modernization and adoption of Western art techniques and styles, led to the nihonga counter-movement to moderate the ascendance of external aesthetics in favor of a more judicious incorporation of some Western stylistic elements, e.g. spatial perspective, while maintaining traditional Japanese themes, brush techniques, and materials. This scroll exemplifies the nihonga style as a work combining traditional ink outlines with color washes in muted palette, absence of shadows, and a Japanese historical subject matter based on the Tale of Genji, yet the work also incorporates some architectural realism and perspective lines to render a fresh, modern appeal. The artist’s signature in black ink and red seal is in the lower left of the scroll, but is not legible at the resolution of this image of the work.

Asian Insights, Hiroshige, from AAC Newsletter, September 2020
Hiroshige, 1852, Art Institute of Chicago
The composition illustrates Ch. 2 Hahakigi (“The Broom Tree”) from the Tale of Genji in which Genji visits the young and beautiful Utsusemi. The work appears modeled after the 1852 woodblock print Hahakigi, from the series “Fifty-four Chapters of the Tale of Genji” by Utagawa Hiroshige, and also after the ~1905 nihonga ink and color painting on silk by Watanabe Seitei (1851-1918), Murasaki Shikibu at Ishiyamadera.

Lady Murasaki is the author of the 11th century serial novel Tale of Genji, which it is believed she began to write while viewing the moon from the Ishiyama Temple on Lake Biwa. Thus representation of Lady Murasaki in the Moon-viewing Pavilion at Ishiyama is a traditional motif in Japanese painting and woodblock prints. It seems the artist of the Museum’s scroll has deftly combined the motifs and compositional organization of both these prior works to create an original design based on the Tale of Genji theme. The custom of moon-viewing in autumn, originating among the nobility such as Lady Murasaki during the Heian period (794-1185), continues today as a popular activity of the fall harvest moon or mid-autumn festival celebrated across Japan.

Asian Insights, Hiroshige, from AAC Newsletter, September 2020
Watanabe, ~1905,
Minneapolis Institute of Art

Sep 2023 (003) Paintings on Bodhi Leaves, China, 1975.49.1-10

Paintings on Bodhi Leaves

First printed for members in the AAC Newsletter, October 2020

Asian Insights, Bodhi leaf painting from AAC Newsletter, Octosber 2020
Painting on Bodhi leaf, Acc. No. 1975.49.8

Folio from Album of Ten Paintings, 18th c. China, Acc. No. 1975.49.1-10 Shown here is one of a set of ten paintings mounted within brocade covers. Each painting is ink and color on a bodhi leaf attached to a blue paper sheet measuring 11 x 7 in. (28 x 18 cm) and depicts one or more luohans, or followers of Buddha who have achieved enlightenment. Painting images of luohans on bodhi leaves was fashionable during the Qing dynasty, particularly after the emperor Qianlong (r. 1735 to 1796) wrote a eulogy for each luohan in the latter half of the 18th c., when this album was probably created. The bodhi tree is important in the Buddhist religion because Siddhartha Gautama, the historical personage of Buddha, attained enlightenment while meditating beneath a bodhi tree in northern India circa 500 BCE. Painting on bodhi leaves thus became a form of Chinese Buddhist art. A bodhi leaf is first soaked in water for up to a month to decompose and eliminate the green leaf tissues, leaving only the veins. The remaining leaf vasculature is then pasted onto a cut piece of brown paper conforming to the leaf shape. After painting, the leaf is mounted on a colored paper frame. Such paintings were sold to Buddhist pilgrims as souvenirs. The fragile organic nature of such works means that few examples survive, so extant pieces are principally from the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1912).

Asian Insights, Bodhi Leaf Painting Detail from AAC Newsletter, October 2020
Detail showing closeup of leaf veins
In the folio shown, the so-called “deer riding luohan” Pindola is depicted, accompanied by his former employer, an Indian king holding his imperial ruyi scepter, whom Pindola convinced to abdicate and follow him to become a monk. Qianlong’s eulogy for Pindola reads: “Sitting dignified on a deer, As if in deep thought. With perfect composure, Contented with being above worldly pursuits.”

Oct 2023 (004) Kano School of Painting, Japan, 1978.60 

Kano School of Painting

First printed for members in the AAC Newsletter, November 2020


Asian Insights, Kano School painting from AAC Newsletter, November 2020
Bird on a Pine Tree,
late 17th - early 18th c. Japan,
Acc. No. 1978.60

The subject matter of this hanging scroll (69 9/32 in. x 20 7/8 in.) is delicately rendered in ink on silk. The artist’s signature in black ink and seal in red ink at the lower left of the scroll (enlarged above) identifies him as Kano Chikanobu (1660-1728), the third-generation head of the Kobikicho branch of the extensive Kano school of painting, the preeminent artistic influence for Japanese painting over four centuries from 1600-1900.

The Kano school rose to prominence after its progenitor Kano Masanobu (1434-1530) was appointed the first secular (non-Buddhist clergy) official painter to the shogun in the 1480s. Originally following a patrilineal succession, demand for the esteemed works of the Kano artists blossomed during the Tokugawa shogunate Edo period (1600-1868), leading to expansion of the school into an academy of four branches led by extended family members. In 1678, Kano Chikanobu began working with his father at Edo Castle in service of the shogunate and in 1713 succeeded his father as head of the Kobikicho branch of the Kano school. Stylistically, the Kano school is best known for its larger scale paintings on sliding doors and screens covered by dramatic designs boldly colored on gold leaf background and for its smaller pieces, typically hanging scrolls, characterized by delicate Chinese-influenced washed ink or splashed ink (hatsuboku) depictions of nature scenes.

Asian Insights, Kano Painting Detail from AAC Newsletter, November 2020
Detail artist’s
signature in black ink
and seal in red ink
This hanging scroll by Chikanobu is representative of the latter hatsuboku tradition, blending the loose impressionistic brushstrokes of the pine tree branches and leaves with the more realistic details of the bird boldly rendered in greater focus with darker ink. Whereas the pine tree most often symbolizes longevity, the bird in this scroll appears to be a wagtail, common in Japan and depicted in other Japanese paintings and prints, but which does not appear to have a specific symbolic meaning. A painted scroll such as this one would typically be displayed, along with a flower arrangement, incense burner, ceramic or other art work, within an alcove known as a tokonoma in each room of elite residences, for the personal viewing pleasure of the owner.

Nov 2023 (005) The Eight Wise Men, China, 17th-18th c.

The Eight Wise Men of the East Quarter of Heaven, 17th-18th c. China

First printed for members in the AAC Newsletter, January 2021


Asian Insights, Kano School painting from AAC Newsletter, November 2020
The Eight Wise Men of the East Quarter of Heaven,
17th-18th c. China,
Acc. No. 1934.23

Eight elaborately garbed male figures float mysteriously in formation across this hanging silk scroll painting (56 3/4 in x 27 in), with mouths open as if singing or chanting. They are shown in three-quarter frontal view all facing to the right, in three registers with little overlap of the figures, perhaps signifying their equal importance. Each figure is dressed in the vestments of a Dao priest. Attire and accessories for Dao clergy reflected the Ming (1368-1644) imperial court styles and were governed by Ming laws established in 1382. The bright colored robes are in the square style of jiangyi or Robe of Descent, and are rendered in mineral pigments; such strong coloration is a characteristic of Ming court painting. The different colors of the robes may denote relative rank of the priests or reflect the colors associated with specific roles or symbolic identities. The lozenge-shaped medallions on the robes appear similar for all the figures and may have cosmological significance. The robes provide the priests with symbolic connection with the cosmos and mystical ability to bridge the earthly and heavenly realms.

Each priest wears a hat in the ancient style of mianguan, a mortarboard with hanging tassels front and back strung with jade beads. A mianguan with 12 tassels could only be worn by the emperor, while 9 tassels denotes royalty, and 7 or 5 tassels indicates a high or middle rank court official. The mianguan of the priests in this scroll appear to have 9 tassels, signifying their high-level royal status. In Dao practice, the mianguan is only worn for the most important rituals, e.g. those involving sacrifices to Heaven. Each priest is holding the ritual carved ivory tablets used in Daoist ceremonies; these are modeled after the tablets of rank displayed by court officials during imperial ceremonies, but would bear Daoist images and symbols. Behind each of their heads is a nimbus signifying that these are not human beings, but among the pantheon of Daoist celestial beings. The uniform background of tan ruyi clouds further indicates that this assemblage is in the heavenly realm. Thus these figures represent high-ranking Daoist divinities. There are multitudes of Daoist deities, organized in a hierarchical structure similar to the official government bureaucracy. A portion of the complexity of rank and numbers of Daoist celestial beings is illustrated in the 27-foot-long scroll The Ordination Scroll of Empress Zhang, Acc. No. 1961.94, one of the most important extant works documenting the relationship between Taoism and the Ming imperial family.

Perhaps surprisingly, this hanging scroll featuring Daoist celestial beings is an example of a genre known as Water and Land paintings that would have been used in a Buddhist ritual. Chinese spiritual beliefs and traditions are rooted in a syncretic combination of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, with strong mutual influences especially between Daoist and Buddhist thought and practices. The Buddhist Liberation Rite of Water and Land (shuilu zhai), also called the Water and Land Deliverance Ritual, probably came into practice in the tenth century but may possibly trace to Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty (464–549). The rite includes features of both Buddhism and Daoism in which celestial beings in higher realms of existence are petitioned to relieve beings (both living and dead) in the lower realms from their suffering and to ensure their salvation from hell. Fasting (zhai) rituals were most commonly commissioned on behalf of an ill person, to petition for their recovery, or for a recently deceased person, to solicit their admittance to heaven. Hanging scrolls such as this one would be hung in one of several ritual altar rooms as a focal point for the ceremony.

Asian Insights, #5 Eight Wise Men Cartouche detail from AAC Newsletter, January 2021

The eight figures in this scroll are collectively identified by the inscription in the cartouche in the upper right-hand corner of the scroll. The characters appear to be: 南方八天帝主, which may be translated as 南方 = south, 八天 = eight (八) celestial beings, tian (天), 帝主 = emperor, or alternatively the latter characters may be read as eight (八) God Lords 天帝主. Thus the cartouche could be translated as either The Eight Celestial Beings of the Southern Emperor (or flexibly, the Southern Realm) or The Eight Southern Emperor Deities. The character for east, 東, does not appear present in the cartouche, calling into question the assigned listing of the work as relating to the East. Interestingly, the Daoist Celestial Emperor of the Southern Pole (star) or Realm, Nanji tian dijun, also called The Old Immortal of the South Pole, Nanji xianweng, is known as the God of Longevity and therefore is the god that determines the length of human life. This suggests a speculative interpretation of this scroll could be that it shows the retinue of highest (royal) level of celestial attendants to the southern god of longevity, to whom supplications were made during a Rite of Land and Water asking for their intercession with the god of longevity to cure and prolong the life of an ill person.

Feb 2024 (006)               Landscapes of Liu Guosong, Taiwan, 20th c.

Landscapes of Liu Guosong, 20th c., Taiwan

First printed for members in the AAC Newsletter, February 2021


Asian Insights, Liu Guosong, AAC Newsletter, February 2021
Landscape, Liu Guosong, 20th C. Taiwan,
Acc. No. 2013.29

A precedent example of modern Chinese ink painting, this work on fibrous paper with silk border (33½ in. x 22 in.) is typical of the semi-abstract landscapes from the early 1960s that launched the career of Liu Guosong, acclaimed as the “father of modern Chinese ink painting”. This work blends traditional Chinese literati ink painting elements of landscape subject matter, monochrome tonality, and inclusion of empty space with the abstract and expressionist characteristics advanced by Western artists in the 1950s. Other works of Liu from the 1960s include bold brushstrokes inspired by Tang era cursive calligraphy known as kuang cao (狂草, lit. “mad draft”) to delineate landscape features, as shown in this work, also from the SDMA collection:

Asian Insights, Liu Guosong, AAC Newsletter, February 2021
Untitled abstract landscape, 1967,
Acc. No. 1970.50

Liu (b. 1932) emigrated as a youth from China to Taiwan in 1949, and there studied Chinese ink painting and calligraphy. However, he endeavored to evolve the discipline of ink painting, whose tenets and techniques were established in the Tang era, with modern artistic innovations to infuse new vitality and a modern historical context to the otherwise venerable genre.

Encouraged by exposure to Western art developments and Taiwanese direction to distance its new nationalistic culture from mainland influence, Liu experimented with different papers for his paintings and discovered that a paper for lanterns containing embedded fibers allowed him to create new textured surface effects and subtractive white lines by removing selected fibers after ink application. He was soon custom-ordering his preferred blend of long-fibered paper, subsequently named “Liu Guosong paper”, from a cotton mill in Taipei.

Liu expanded the traditional landscape subject matter of ink paintings to include non-terrestrial motifs in his so-called “Space series” that he began after the 1969 Apollo 11 space mission. These space-scapes include bold-colored moons amidst compositions influenced by the graphic art and pop art techniques of airbrushing, collage, and flat space and geometric shapes prominent in Western art of the 1970s. His later innovations in ink painting include developing the shui tuo, or "water rubbing" technique, in which ink is floated on the surface of water and absorbed into a sheet of paper placed on top, and the zi mo, or "steeped ink" technique (a variation of monoprint), in which two adjacent sheets of paper are wetted and then ink is splashed or poured on them to diffuse in. Liu used the incidental ink patterns formed by these processes as the basis for his artistic vision for the work-in-progress.

By technical experimentation and innovation, and infusing his work with modernist visual styles, Liu Guosong has invigorated Chinese ink painting to reflect the contemporary context of Chinese culture.