An Assembly of Gods
ASIA SOCIETY | SEPTEMBER 25, 2017 – MARCH 25, 2018
Anonymous, Chinese New Year Pantheon (detail), Qing dynasty (1644–1911). Ink and colors on paper. 84 1/4 x 44 1/8 inches. Private Collection. Photo: John Bigelow Taylor 2017. Courtesy the Asia Society.
An Assembly of Gods is part of the Asia Society Museum’s In Focus series, which introduces viewers to one significant work of art for an in-depth look. Timed to coincide with the Chinese New Year that begins on February 16, 2018, An Assembly of Gods consists of one painting and explanatory panels, which give close-ups of the painting to identify the dizzying number of over 80 gods that populate it. Originating sometime during the late 18th to early 19th century from the prosperous Jiang Nan region, home to present-day megalopolises Shanghai and Hangzhou, this Qing Dynasty work on paper, over seven feet long and almost four feet wide, shows the complex syncretism of traditional Chinese culture that since the Tang dynasty blended Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian beliefs. The gods on hand divide roughly into these three belief systems, although there are also folkloric elements that speak to a vibrant popular culture with a life of its own. In sum, the painting reads as a “divine bureaucracy,” as the Asia Society puts it, where each deity commands his or her department, with layers of responsibility going up and down the chain of command. As such, it is a marvelous reflection of Qing dynasty China at the height of its power, a flourishing multi-ethnic society where the elaborate administration of the imperial system, ministries, examinations and all, found its last and fullest expression before withering under the pressures of the industrial age.
The painting was intended for domestic use by the wealthy family that commissioned it, to be displayed just before or after the start of the Lunar New Year. The idea was that the gods that would come to take stock of the household at the beginning of the New Year, and the painting, accompanied with ceremonial offerings, would honor each and every one to make sure this household made the grade. The painting’s quality was certainly proof of their devotion, as it is exceptionally well painted, and colored, combining a number of traditional techniques, including delicately outlined figures, carefully plotted architectural elements, and detailed “bird and flower” renderings of plants and animals. Evidently the patrons left little to chance, as the artist or one of his assistants, wrote out the characters of all 82 gods next to their images, which makes this particular painting so useful for scholarship. Oddly, the painting was never fully colored, indicating something had likely changed for the worse for either the artist or the family commissioning the artwork.
Mirroring the imperial system that distinguished between rulers and ministers, and between high-ranking officials and local ones, the most important deities occupy the top and center of the composition. These are among the most splendid, and do not concern themselves with everyday matters. The Buddhist gods dominate this celestial realm. At the very top, tucked away in the right corner, sits Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Mercy, and a favorite deity of popular Buddhism. She is the Chinese version of the originally male bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, a Tibetan favorite, whose Sanskrit name, appropriately enough, means “he who looks down on the world.” Next to Guanyin sits a whimsical-looking sea critter, associating her with the South China Seas, one of her traditional domains. Dominating the central axis is the Shakyamuni Buddha, the original figure from history whose transition from prince to ascetic to savior marks the founding narrative of Buddhism. The figures flanking his right and left, and directly below him, are all key figures in the Chinese Mahayana. As the figure in the yellow Gelug (the sect of the Dalai Lama) monk’s hat sitting to the lower left of Shakyamuni shows, Tibetan beliefs were also a big influence in Chinese Buddhism.
Anonymous, Chinese New Year Pantheon , Qing dynasty (1644–1911). Ink and colors on paper. 84 1/4 x 44 1/8 inches. Private Collection. Photo: John Bigelow Taylor 2017. Courtesy the Asia Society.
Directly below the knot of Buddhas and Bodhisatttvas sits a regal-looking fellow on a throne dressed as a Han Dynasty ruler. This would be the Jade Emperor, the highest-ranking deity in the Daoist tradition. Surrounding him are the personifications of the four cardinal points and seasons known as the “Four Symbols”: the Vermillion Bird of the South/Summer, the Blue/Green Dragon of the East/Spring, the Black Tortoise of the North/Winter, and the White Tiger of the West/Autumn—mythological creatures widely known across East Asia who govern processes of transformation. We are slowly tipping at this point from the celestial realm to the worldly realm. Daoism has traditionally had a more practical bent than Buddhism, whose goal, after all, is to get off the cycle of being and becoming entirely. For an exorcism, or a shot at longevity, one had best consult a Daoist priest.
Just below the Jade Emperor, and slightly to the right of the central axis, we see Confucius, dressed in a traditional mortarboard headdress fringed with pearls, and voluminous robes to give a sense of his importance. The fact that Confucius does not occupy the central axis shows his role in this celestial governing body as councilor rather than ruler. In the imperial system that gelled during the Han Dynasty, a synthesis of Confucian principles and Qin Dynasty Legalism, ministers to the emperor could suggest policy, but could only execute it at the emperor’s pleasure. Confucius is depicted in the painting surrounded by his disciples who helped to spread his philosophy.
Moving down the painting about half way we come to a gap, partially filled in with billowing waves of water. Below this gap we are definitely in the sublunary realm. Whereas the celestial gods were perched on clouds or lotuses, the gods in this section are all earth-bound. On the very left of the painting, standing on the porch of an elegant pavilion, we have the Child Bestowing Nanny, a fertility goddess with an elegant coiffure and accessories to match. Standing with her is Old Grandfather Zhao, clutching a pair of babies to his chest. On the far right we have the Five Commissioners of Pestilence, associated with the God of Pestilence, dressed as Chinese officials holding their audience tablets, as required by court protocol when addressing the emperor. Each has the head of a different animal: tiger, ox, rooster, horse, and goat. Next to the Commissioners of Pestilence, we see another fanciful character, the Elderly God of the Year, who has arms sprouting of his eyes.
The true pleasure in journeying through this divine landscape really lies in the homely depictions of the gods, especially in this lower section, as they reveal so much about Chinese life as it was lived in the Qing. For example, the painting portrays the Duke of the Local Land, an earth god who protects specific towns and villages, and his wife, Earth Goddess, who fulfills a similar function, as an elderly couple, relaxing together and having a little chat. This is art history from the bottom up, and anyone who has been frustrated in their museum going with the preponderance of heroes and sovereigns would do well to come by and spend a little time with this remarkable artwork.
HOVEY BROCK is an artist and has an MFA from the School of Visual Arts Art Practice program. He is a frequent contributor to Artseen.