is included here in entirety and should be cited as
Hawks, Shelley Drake. (2014). “Han
Gan.” In Kerry Brown (Ed.), Berkshire dictionary of Chinese biography
(pp. 489-502). Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
706–c. 783 CE—Painter of horses
Han Gan was a unique painter who early on developed his own style.
His talent for painting was discovered by one of the most famous painter-poets
of the High Tang, Wang Wei, who was startled by the boy’s talent after he observed
Han Gan drawing figures in the sand with a stick. Han Gan was eventually summoned
by Emperor Xuanzong to paint images of prized horses—an exotic novelty acquired
from Central Asia—in order to proclaim imperial power and to memorialize these
defenders of the empire. Han Gan’s most famous painting, Night-Shining White,
is one of his few remaining paintings, and is the ultimate example of Tang horse
painting. A tradition of speaking indirectly through horse imagery persists
today in contemporary Chinese art.
A painter active at the court of Tang
*Emperor Xuánzōng 唐玄宗 (r. 712–
756), Han Gan rose to prominence during
what is generally considered China’s
golden age. Until the An Lushan Rebellion
of 755 shattered the dynasty’s stability,
Xuanzong presided over a unified
empire, receptive to foreign influence
and enriched by a flourishing commerce
along the Silk Route. The vibrant atmosphere
of the capital city of Chang’an 长安
(modern-day Xi’an), then the largest,
most sophisticated, and most cosmopolitan
city in the world, attracted scholarpainters
and scholar-poets from many
provinces. One of the preoccupations of
educated circles at this time was the
horse, especially the famed horses of
Central Asia, considered the epitome of
strength and grace. Typically acquired as
tribute or traded for silks and ceramics,
these imported horses were prized by
Chinese emperors. Not only was this
larger breed of horse crucial for defending
the empire against nomadic incursions,
but having them on display
projected the grandeur of imperial
power. Emperor Xuanzong acquired
many thousands of horses for his stables
and commissioned Han Kan to paint
portraits of his favorites.
Today, Han Gan is the most celebrated
of the various painters summoned
by Xuanzong to paint faithful
likenesses of his horses. The names of
other horse painters of the High Tang
era, such as Cáo Bà 曹霸 (also known as
Tsao Pa, eighth century), Wéi Yǎn 韦偃 (late seventh–early eighth
and Chén Hóng 陈 闳 (eighth century),
are known to us through literary
records, but their paintings have not
survived. Today, Han Gan seems to
stand alone as a painter of horses, but
records suggest that he had rivals during
his day. In fact, his contemporary,
the famous Tang poet, *Dù Fu 杜甫
(712–770 CE), described Cao Ba, Han Gan’s teacher, as superior to Han Gan.
In a dedicatory poem to Cao Ba, Du Fu
said of Han Gan: “His disciple Han Gan
early entered the sanctum; also competent
at painting horses, he fathomed
their special features. But Gan only
painted their flesh, and not their bones,
allowing the noble steeds’ vitality to
decline and be lost” (Bush and Shih 1985, 58).
Du Fu’s belittling remark about Han Gan “only painting the flesh” dramatized
his praise for Cao Ba expressed elsewhere in the poem. Another Tang source confi
rms that Han Gan’s contemporaries did not always rank him the highest. There
was a contest between Han Gan and the painter Zhōu Fǎng 周昉 (c. 730–ca.
800) to see who could paint a more lifelike portrait of a high-ranking official’s
son-in-law. The decisive voice in this painting contest was the son-in-law’s
wife who decided that Zhou Fang, rather than Han Gan, truly captured the facial
expression of her husband.
Han Gan’s Stature in Later Dynasties
Han Gan’s reputation rose considerably
in the eyes of subsequent generations. Commenting on Du Fu’s condescending remark
about Han Gan, Zhāng Yànyuān 张彦远, a ninth-century scholar,
commented: “I wonder how Du Fu could have been considered a connoisseur of painting.
Just because Gan’s horses are plump and large, [Du Fu] ridiculed them as paintings
of flesh.” (Bush and Shih 1985, 58). In fact, Du Fu himself was inconsistent
in his evaluation of Han Gan’s talent. In another poem, Du Fu celebrated a “dragon”
horse painted by Han Gan, praising its “white flesh rich like snow” and its
“movements without restraint” (Lee 1970, 450). The modern scholar Joseph Lee
argues that Du Fu’s negative view of “fleshy horses” does not mean a criticism
of Han Gan’s art. Lee points out that Du Fu often used the phrase to suggest
the life of decadence enjoyed by the rich and powerful. Du Fu’s apparent insult
to Han Gan may have been a broad reference to what Du Fu considered the overindulgent
lifestyle at court with which Han Gan was associated. In retrospect, Emperor
Xuanzong is blamed for leaving the dynasty vulnerable to the would-be usurper,
*An Lùshan 安禄山, when he became preoccupied with his favorite
courtesan, Yáng Guìfei 杨贵妃, and expensive horses.
During the Sòng 宋 dynasty (960–1279), the poet-official *Sū Shì
苏轼 (1037–1101) viewed paintings by Han Gan in the collection of his friend,
Li Gōnglín 李公麟 (c. 1041–1106), also a horse painter. Su Shi appreciated
the poetic quality of Han Gan’s painting, and commented on how alive his paintings
seemed. In a poem, Su Shi described Han Gan’s paintings as “unspoken poems,”
adding that “when Master Han Gan painted horses, they really were horses.” (Bush
and Shih 1985, 203). Indeed, looking at Han Gan’s paintings in Li Gonglin’s
collection and reading Du Fu’s poems composed in response to them (tí
题画诗, “poems on paintings”) must have contributed to Su Shi’s
emerging theory of scholar-painting (wénrén huà 文人画).
Su Shi saw equivalences between poetry, painting, and calligraphy, and sought
to excel in all three categories. According to Su Shi, “judging painting
was like judging horses” (Egan 1994, 283). An artisan painter concerned entirely
with formal technique was like an ordinary horse. A scholar-painter who conveyed
a true animating spirit (huó 活) in his animal subjects achieves a superior
kind of lifelikeness, infusing the painted image with his own moral character.
Today, most of the ten to twenty Han Gan paintings in museum collections
are later copies. Northern Song (960–1127 ce) records indicate that there were
fifty two Han Gan horse paintings extant then, but most have subsequently been
lost. One painting generally accepted by scholars to be an original Tang painting
by Han Gan is the famous Night-Shining White (Zhào yè bái
mǎ tú juàn 照夜白马图卷), named for one of the emperor’s favorite
chargers. This painting is considered the supreme example of a Tang horse painting.
The horse’s head is its most admired feature. According to Chu-tsing Li, Night-Shining
White exemplifies the characteristic features of a Tang painting: “profile
depiction, the schematic arrangement, the strong sense of volume, the interest
in physical presence, and the emphasis on movement and action” (Li 1968, 300).
Night-Shining White. Painting by Han Gan. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Besides the image of the horse tethered to a pole, this six-meter-longhand
scroll features more than twenty inscriptions, including one bearing a royal
cipher mark from the Southern Tang Emperor Lǐ
Yù 李煜 (r. 961–975). LiYu’s inscription sets forth the painting’s title:
“Han Gan’s painting of Night-Shining White.” An adjacent inscription
by Wú Yuè 吴说, (twelfth century) reads: “Most works
bearing the cipher of the Southern Tang are genuine” (Hearn 2008, 7). Other
collectors’ seals include that of the Qing *Emperor Qiánlóng
清帝乾隆 (1711–1799; r. 1736–1795) and Pu Rú 溥儒 (1896–1963),
the cousin of the last emperor of China. Following the collapse of the Qing
dynasty in 1912, when some artwork in the imperial collection was sold off,
private collectors tors purchased Night-Shining White.
During the mid-twentieth century, the painting belonged to the Sir Percival
David collection, at the British Museum in London. Since 1977, Night-Shining
White has been housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. A 1990
catalog published in Shanghai lists Han Gan’s Night-Shining White as among
China’s National Treasures, even though the painting resides in a foreign museum’s
Han Gan’s Background
Accounts differ on Han Gan’s place of birth. Some say he was a native of Dàliáng
大梁 (modern-day Kaifeng, Henan Province); others claim he hailed from Lántián
蓝田 (in modern-day Shaanxi Province). At the
peak of his career, from 742–755, Han Gan lived in Chang’an
(modern-day Xi’an). Two midninth-century texts, Zhang Yanyuan’s Record of
Famous Painters through the Ages (Lìdài mínghuà jì 历代名画记) and Zhu
Jingxuan's (朱景玄) Celebrated
Painters of the T’ang Dynasty (Táng cháo mínghuà
lù 唐朝名画录) offer compelling details of Han Gan’s early life. As a boy,
Han Gan worked in the shop of a wine merchant. His talent for painting was discovered
by one of the most famous painter-poets of the High Tang, *Wáng Wéi
王维 (701– 761 CE), after the wine merchant sent the boy to collect an old account
from the scholar-official. Wang Wei was startled by the boy’s talent, after
he observed Han Gan drawing figures in the sand with a stick. Thereafter, Wang
Wei supplied Han Gan with paint brushes and gave him a yearly allowance. He
directed his studies in painting for over ten years. Under Wang Wei’s tutelage,
Han Gan’s talent became recognized. Han Gan was summoned to court in 742. He
was awarded the honorary title of Assistant in the Court of the Imperial Treasury.
Although he was good at painting human figures, including Buddhist monks, Buddha icons, demons and divinities, and court officials, Han
Gan was most skilled
at painting horses. Han Gan studied under Cao Ba, who also specialized in horse
painting. In time, Han Gan developed a personal style all his own.
Departing from the conventional practice of imitating the paintings of a
great master, Han Gan developed his own style based on observing the horses
themselves in the imperial stables. Han Gan’s independent-mindedness surprised
the emperor, who noticed that Han Gan did not paint in the style of Chen Hong,
the prevailing model for painting horses. When questioned by the emperor about
his departure from Chen Hong’s methods, Han Gan replied: “I have my own teacher.
All the horses in Your Majesty’s stables are my teachers”
(Acker 1974, 262). Indeed, Han Gan’s positioning of the horse’s
legs in the painting Night Shining White attests to his sensitivity to the
way in which horses actually move. According to Maxwell Hearn of the Metropolitan
Museum of New York, such an accurate depiction of equine movement was not achieved
in Western art, until Edgar Degas absorbed the insights revealed by Eadweard
Muybridge’s still photographs of running horses in the nineteenth century (Hearn
Folklore about Han Gan
Han Gan’s reputation for making paintings lifelike inspired vivid folklore.
According to one Tang text, a beautiful horse was taken to a veterinarian to
cure his lame foot. Recollecting that he had seen the horse in one of Han Gan’s
paintings, the veterinarian contacted the painter. Han Gan looked through
his sketches and discovered a painting that clearly portrayed the horse in question.
The artist realized that he had never completed the painting. The
horse in the picture lacked a leg, and this was why the horse
at the veterinarian’s place was now lame. From Han Gan’s painting,
a real horse had come to life. According to another story, Han Gan was sitting
alone with nothing to do after the An Lushan Rebellion disrupted court life.
All the magnificent horses of the imperial stables had been stolen or deployed
in battle. Someone claiming to be a “Demon messenger” came to Han Gan’s gate
and asked him for a horse. Han Gan “made him a painting of a horse
and then burned it. Days later, the Demon messenger
was seen riding on a horse coming to thank him” (Acker 1974, 262).
Horse with Rider. Painting by Han Gan. National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan.
This story of Han Gan’s horse painting coming to life has been imaginatively
retold and illustrated by a contemporary Chinese painter based in France, Chen
Jiang Hong (b. 1963) in his 2007 children’s book entitled The Magic Horse of
Han Gan. According to Chen Jiang Hong’s epilogue, his inspiration for the children’s
book came when he saw a painting attributed to Han Gan entitled Horses and Grooms
in the Cernuschi Museum, Paris. Magnificent though it is, this painting acquired
by the Cernuschi Museum in the 1950s is reputed to be a fake painted in the
style of Han Gan by the talented copy artist Zhāng Dàqiān
张大千 (1899–1983), according to several sources.
Appreciating Night-Shining White
Night-Shining White is believed to be an authentic Tang painting, not merely
because of its collector’s seals, but also because of the quality of the image.
Here’s how art historian Wen Fong, advises us to look at Night-Shining White:
Focusing on the horse’s head, the viewers find themselves suddenly submerged
in the awesome power of the artist’s simple, plain brush line, discovering in
it shapes and inflections that flow like phrases of music. New details and images
reveal themselves, as the “heavenly” horse (or “dragon” horse) magically prepares
to ascend and fly away. This power of brushwork, which is presentation more
than it is representation, is what brings viewers back into the presence of
the physical “brush trace” (biji 笔迹) of its maker. (Fong 2008, 14)
Wen Fong emphasizes the capacity of Han Gan’s painting for conveying energy,
movement, and the presence of the artist himself by following the traces of
his brush. In Chinese painting, the line is primary. The painter “writes” (xie
写) a painting in a manner analogous to calligraphy; and the connoisseur “reads”
(dú 䇏) the painting as if it were a kind of text. The poetic inscriptions
and collector ’s seals added later give the
hand scroll an illustrious pedigree and offer evidence of its transmission
Using a minimal amount of shading, Han Gan’s brushwork has endowed the horse’s
body with a convincing sense of solidity. The round arc of the horse’s rump,
its muscular chest, pricked ears, and thick mane, support Han Gan’s reputation
for making his painted horses appear real. And yet, as Wen Fong suggests,
Han Gan’s likeness transcends realism. We are persuaded that this horse is no
ordinary horse, but a singular horse of superior ability.
The Dragon-Nature of Heavenly Horses
Night-Shining White depicts both an actual charger belonging
to Xuanzong and a horse of the imagination, a “heavenly horse”
(tiān xià ma 天下马) of Chinese
legend. These mythical horses were benign creatures, powerful enough to run
for 1,000 li (qiān lı ma 千里马) (roughly 500 kilometers), and eager to serve
imperial authority. They had a fiery temperament and were thought to be related
to dragons (lóng 龙). According to Chinese myth, magnifi cent steeds
were born of river water and could ascend to the heavens to assist rulers in
During China’s early history, the sighting of a mythical horse confi rmed
a dynasty’s mandate to rule. Han dynasty *Emperor Wu 武 (r. 140–87 bce) heard
news of incredible horses in distant lands and hoped to acquire some to add
luster to his reputation. He sent his envoy Zhāng Qiān 张谦 (fl
. circa 125 BCE) on a series of military missions to Ferghana (modern Uzbekistan)
to bring back the “blood-sweating” horses rumored to dwell in that region. The
missions were costly, but the wonder horses were retrieved. (This breed of horse
sweats blood in response to a parasite under their skin.) Historical writings
and legends about Emperor Wu’s Heavenly Horses fi red the imagination of later
emperors who wished for the same. Throughout Chinese history, the presentation
of an extraordinary horse by nomadic peoples to the imperial court was an event
of great auspiciousness. It meant that the “barbarian” people revered the Chinese
emperor and signaled that the dynasty was secure and well governed.
The Horse in Early Chinese History
According to the sinologist Victor Mair, the Chinese have “a strained attachment
to the horse” (Hessler 2006, 331). On one hand, Chinese emperors understood
the fundamental importance of the horse to the maintenance of power. They put
horses on a pedestal. On the other hand, the horse was seen as something foreign,
that is, as an exotic novelty acquired from Central Asia. China was principally
an agricultural civilization. Chinese farmers did not want to give up land for
pasture, so horses were shipped off to be pastured in border regions. Compared
to their nomadic neighbors, the Chinese were relative latecomers to horseback
riding. In Chinese art, foreign grooms of Arab or Central Asian heritage typically
The rarity of large horses in China conferred high status on those who owned
them, typically, members of the ruling house or a great general. In excavated
tombs, Han and Tang burial sculpture often took the form of horses, exquisitely
crafted in either bronze or ceramic. According to Chinese beliefs, a deceased
family member ’s high status could be transferred to the afterlife, if the corpse
were buried with spirit objects marking what sort of
person he or she was in life. Craftsmen devoted significant attention to creating
lifelike sculptures of horses or horse-drawn chariots to accompany the burial
of a high-ranking dignitary. For example, a burial site dating to the late second
century CE yielded a fantastic “Flying Horse” tomb figure. Soon after it was
excavated in Gansu Province in 1969, the bronze horse sculpture became the star
attraction in an exhibition of Chinese art that traveled around the world. The
horse is shown galloping, with one hoof stepping on a swallow’s wings, to cleverly
suggest that it is actually a “Heavenly Horse,” in the midst of flight. The
elegance of its form demonstrates China’s aesthetic accomplishment, even
six centuries before Han Gan painted his spectacular horse paintings. Indeed,
sculpture and painting in China are closely related. Carved reliefs were painted,
combining the two media. The lifelike paintings of Tang masters seem “sculpted”
and Chinese Buddhist sculpture “included a profound attention to outlines”
(Li Song 2006, 4). Despite his insistence that he painted based on observing
real horses, Han Gan’s genius surely drew upon the sophisticated sculptural
tradition developed in preceding centuries.
Appreciation for Horses During the Tang Dynasty
The Tang emperors’ identification with horses was particularly strong. The
ruling family hailed from a Northern clan that
had intermarried with nomadic peoples over many generations. Proud of having
unified the empire on horseback, the early Tang Emperor Tàizōng 太宗
(c. 599–649 CE; r. 626–649) commissioned relief carvings
in stone of the warhorses that had accompanied him in battle. The famous painter
Yán Lìben 阎立本 (c. 600–673) was commissioned to create the design
for the carvings. Once complete, the Six Chargers of Emperor Taizong was placed
outside the emperor ’s tomb. The care with which each individual horse was lionized
in those carvings suggests a fascination with horses that culminated during
Xuanzong’s time. During the first dozen years of his reign, Xuanzong increased
the number of state-owned horses from 240,000 to 430,000. The most spectacular
horses were matched with outstanding trainers and prepared to become the emperor
’s personal steeds. According to Zhang Yanyuan, these horses were called “the
horse sages of the stable manger.” They could “catch the wind and the color
of their hair shone on the ground. Their bodies were relaxed and their gait
serene, as if they were actually resting in bed” (Lee 1970, 451).
Puzzling over Night-Shining White’s Meaning
“Night-Shining White” was one of the Xuanzong’s favorite chargers, named
by the emperor for its luminous white coat. Considering its high status, one
would presume that the horse would be afforded superior treatment. Why, then,
is the horse bridled so tightly in Han Gan’s painting? The intensity of the
horse’s expression, especially its wideeyed gaze, moves us to sympathy. The
horse’s rearing back against the pole suggests that it is trapped. In the Confucian, Daoist (Taoist), and Buddhist philosophical traditions prevailing at
the time, there were strong prescriptions against mistreating horses. The Tang
legal code enforced harsh penalties against anyone who harmed government horses.
We wonder whether Han Gan has pictured here an abused horse, or simply a fine
specimen displaying a feisty spirit.
Xuanzong’s Dancing Horses
According to Tang-dynasty specialist
Suzanne Cahill, Han Gan’s Night-Shining White may not be in distress, but rather
performing a dance routine. She suggests “that
the look of controlled force that Han Gan has seized
so adroitly characterizes the horse as he follows a precise and
restrictive dance routine” (Cahill 1986, 93). Cahill is referring
to the famous dance troupe of horses that performed
at the annual festival honoring Xuanzong’s birthday, called the “Thousand-Autumn Holiday” (qiān qiū
), a wish for his longevity. A mid-ninth-century chronicler provides
the following account of what these dancing horses
looked like and their sad fate after the An-Lushan Rebellion of 755. According to Zhèng Chuhuì 郑处诲 in his Mínghuáng
Hsuan Tsung once decreed that four hundred hooves be trained to dance. They
were divided into companies of the Left and of the Right, and styled “So-and-so
Favorite” or “Such-and-Such Pride of the Household.” Occasionally there were
also included excellent steeds that had been sent as tribute from beyond the
border. His Highness had them taught and trained, and there was none but did
not devote himself utterly to this wonderwork. Thence, it was decreed that
the horses be caparisoned with patterned embroidery, haltered with gold and
silver, and their manes and forelocks dressed out with assorted pearls and jades.
Their tune which was called “Music for the Upturned Cup” had several tens of
choruses, to which they shook their heads and drummed their tails, moving this
way and that, in response to the rhythm. Then wood-plank platforms of three
tiers were displayed. The horses were driven to the top of these, where they
turned and twirled round as if in flight. Sometimes it was ordered that a doughty
fellow lift one of the scaffolds, and the horse would [continue to] dance atop
it. There were a number of musicians who stood to the left and right, before
and behind; all were clothed
in tunics of pale yellow, with patterned-jade belts, and all must be youths
chosen for their handsome appearance and refined bearing. At every
Thousand-Autumn Festival, beneath the Loft of Zealous Administration
[the horses] danced by decree.
Subsequently, when His Highness graced Shu (modern Sichuan) with his presence,
the dancing horses were for their part dispersed to the human world. [An]
Lushan, having often witnessed their dancing, coveted them at heart; because
of this he had several sold [to him] in Fanyuang [modern Hebei]. Subsequently,
they were in turn acquired by Tian Chengzi [704–778]. He was ignorant of them
[i.e., of their special talent]. Confusing them with steeds of battle, he installed
them in the outer stables. Unexpectedly one day, when the soldiers of this army
were enjoying a sacrificial feast and music was struck up, the horses, unable
to stop themselves, began to dance. The servants and lackeys considered them
bewitched and took brooms in hand to strike them. The horses thought that their
dancing was out of step with the rhythm and, stooping and rearing, nodding and
straining, they yet [tried to] realize their former choreography. The stablemaster hurried to report this grotesquerie, and Chengzi ordered that the
horses be flayed. The more fiercely this was done, the
more precise became the horses’ dancing. But the whipping and flogging ever
increased, till finally they fell dead in their stalls. On this occasion there
were in fact some persons who knew these were the [emperor
’s] dancing horses but, fearful of [Chengzi’s] wrath, they never
ventured to speak. (Kroll 1981, 244–246)
In Han Gan’s painting, “Night-Shining White” is not ornately costumed,
as the horse would be if it were performing dance steps, or
preparing to perform, in a pageant before the emperor. Rather, the horse
is barebacked and bridled, seemingly in its stalls. If the topics of Han Gan’s
paintings were typically assigned by the emperor, what could this perplexing
portrayal have meant? While the animal appears wellfed and well-groomed, the
horse’s expression is far from tranquil. Is it wide-eyed because the artist
wishes to present the horse as “dragon-like,” and thus, unusually vigorous?
Or, is the horse showing distress at being bound so tightly to the pole? In
light of what is known historically about the dancing horses’ sad fate as a
consequence of the An Lushan Rebellion, perhaps Han Gan’s painting portrays
the emperor ’s horse under the dominion of unappreciative taskmasters, futilely
performing the old dance steps to no avail. If so, Han Gan’s painting may be
a lament for the glory days of his imperial patron prior to the rebellion, when
a welltrained steed (and an esteemed horse painter) could be properly appreciated.
Whether Night-Shining White was painted before or after the rebellion is unknown.
Perhaps the horse is dancing; but it is best to remain agnostic, because
the painting that we see today is missing key parts (not the least, the horse’s
tail!), and its rear hooves and halter show evidence of retouching. According
to Robert Harrist, a professor of Chinese art history, it may have been a preparatory study for a more complex work that is now lost. The artist’s rationale
for portraying the horse in just this manner probably cannot be known. Puzzling
over what the horse may mean, and considering alternatives, however, enlivens
our thinking about Han Gan, the painter, and the ways in which he was a product
of a unique era in Chinese history. For example, horseback riding during the
Tang era carried very high status. Court ladies at the Tang court delighted
in playing polo, an aristocratic pastime imported from Persia. Horseback riding
was a privilege reserved for aristocrats. Law prohibited artisans and merchants
from riding horses. During the Song dynasty, however, Chinese enthusiasm for horsemanship waned. Riding became associated with
the “barbarian” practice of mounted warfare. Confucian scholar-officials disdained
martial prowess and lost interest in horsemanship. They preferred
traveling by carriage, sedan chair, or donkey, rather than by horseback.
Fat and Lean Horses in Symbolic Expression
Han Gan lived during a golden age for horse painting under imperial patronage. His name became synonymous with the highest standard for painting horses.
Representing horses in art continued during later dynasties, because the idea
of the horse had become an important part of the Chinese scholar ’s symbolic
language. The condition of the horse in a painting or a poem was often meant
to refer to the life of the scholar-official who created it or to whom it was
dedicated. A calm, well-fed horse suggested that the scholar-official felt well
treated and that the dynasty was well governed. A touchstone for this theme
was the story of the ancient sage, Bó Lè 伯乐,
a master at horse judging, whose keen knowledge of horse physiognomy
allowed him to scout out the best horses. Bo Le was so discerning that
he could detect talent that ordinary men could not see.
According to Confucian teaching, an emperor should be like Bo Le, capable of
ferreting out deserving scholars and putting them into service, so that their
talents are not squandered. During the Yuan dynasty, the painter Gong Kai
龚开 (1222–1307) expressed his disapproval of his Mongol rulers by painting a
severely emaciated horse. The neglected horse was shown without a master, an
indication of the painter ’s refusal to serve the alien conquerors and exposing
his impoverishment since the fall of the previous dynasty. Gong Kai’s inscription
on the painting insists that the emaciated horse is still a superior steed,
only it has failed to find an appropriate master.
Conclusion: Han Gan’s Heirs
One of the most important painters of later times to be directly influenced
by Han Gan’s horse painting was *Zhào Mèngfu 赵孟頫 (1254–1322).
Zhao participated in the Mongol administration at a time when
Chinese scholars, like Gong Kai, totally rejected
government service. Zhao painted a hand scroll entitled Horse and Groom
(rén ma tú 人马图) in 1296, informed by his study of both Han Gan
and Li Gonglin, the horse painter who befriended Su Shi and who was also influenced
by Han Gan. Zhao’s horses are shown in profile with the rounded bodies for which
Han Gan was famous. The repeated motif of a contented and well-fed horse offered
in tribute by a foreign groom has been interpreted by Jonathan Hay as an expression
of Zhao Mengfu’s allegiance to serving in the Mongol government. Zhao was not
at all a literal copyist of Han Gan’s style. His paintings are representative
of the Chinese scholar-painters who made use of Han Gan’s painting for its symbolic
associations. He invoked Han Gan’s style of painting horses to trigger historical
associations that could then be interpreted by viewers of the painting as oblique
references to the political affairs of his day. This tradition of speaking indirectly
through horse imagery persists today in contemporary China.
Shelley Drake HAWKS
University of Massachusetts, Boston
Acker, William R. B. (Trans.). (1974). Some T’ang and pre-T’ang Texts on
Chinese painting (Vol. 2, part 1.). Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.
Bush, Susan. (1971). The Chinese literati on painting: Su Shih (1037–1011)
to Tung Ch’i-ch’ang (1555–1636). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bush, Susan, & Hsio-yen Shih (Eds). (1985). Early Chinese texts on painting.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Cahill, Suzanne. (1986). Night-Shining White: Traces of a T’ang dynasty horse
in two media. T’ang Studies, 4, 91–94.
Creel, H. G. (1965). The role of the horse in Chinese history. American Historical
Review, 70(3), 647–672.
Egan, Ronald C. (1994). Calligraphy and painting. In Word, image, and deed
in the life of Su Shi (pp. 261–309). Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University
Fong, Wen C. (2008). Prologue: Chinese calligraphy as presenting the self.
In Ouyang Zhongshi and Wen C. Fong et. al. (Eds.)
(Wang Youfen, Transs and Ed.), Chinese calligraphy, (pp. 1–32). New Haven,
CT, and London: Yale University Press/Beijing: Foreign
Fong, Wen C., & Hearn, Maxwell K. (1981–1982). Silent poetry. Chinese
paintings in the Douglas Dillon Galleries. New York: Metropolitan Museum of
Harrist, Robert E. Jr., & Bower, Virginia. (1997). Power and virtue.
The horse in Chinese art. New York: China Institute Gallery, China Institute.
Hay, Jonathan. (1989). Khubilai’s groom. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics,
Hearn, Maxwell K. (2008). How to read Chinese paintings. New York: The Metropolitan
Museum of Art/New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Hessler, Peter. (2006). The horse. In Oracle bones. A Journey between China’s
past and present (pp. 325–333). New York: HarperCollins.
Kroll, Paul W. (1981). The dancing horses of T’ang. T’oung Pao, 67(3/5),
Lee, Joseph T. (1970). Tu Fu’s art criticism and Han Kan’s horse painting.
Journal of the American Oriental Society, 90(3), 449–461.
Li, Chu-tsing. (1968). The freer “Sheep and Goat” and Chao Meng-fu’s horse
paintings. Artibus Asiae, 30(4), 279–332; 337–346.
Li Song. (2006). Introduction. In Angela Falco Howard; Li Song; Wu Hung;
& Yang Hong (Eds.), Chinese Sculpture (pp. 1–6). New Haven, CT, and London:
Yale University Press/Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.
Schafer, Edward H. (1963). The golden peaches of Samarkand. A study
of T’ang exotics. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Silbergeld, Jerome. (1985). In praise of government: Chao Yung’s painting,
“Noble Steeds,” and late Yuan politics. Artibus Asiae, 46(3), 159–202.
Siren, Osvald. (1956). Chinese painting. Leading masters and principles (Part
1, Vol. 1). London: Lund Humprhries/New York: The Ronald Press.
Soper, Alexander C. (1958). T’ang Ch’ao Ming
Hua Lu. Celebrated painters of the T’ang dynasty by Chu Ching-hsuan
of T’ang. Artibus Asiae, 21(3/4), 204–230.
Thorp, Robert L., & Vinograd, Richard Ellis. (2006). A new imperial state:
Sui and Tang. In Chinese Art & Culture, 185–223. Upper Saddle River, NJ:
Pearson Prentice Hall.
Wu Hung. (1997). The origins of Chinese painting. In Yang Xin, et al. (Eds.).
Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting, (pp. 15–86). New Haven, CT, and London:
Yale University Press/Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.
Zhou Jiyin 周积寅, & Wang Fengzhu 王风珠. (1990). Han Gan Zhao ye bai tujuan
韩干照夜白图 [Han Gan’s Night-Shining White hand scroll]. In Liang Baiquan (Ed.).
Guobao daguan 国宝大观 [Spectacular National Treasures] (pp. 464–465). Shanghai: