The 'Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies' (The Admonitions Scroll), Gu Kaizhi (around 344–406).
This handscroll illustrates a political parody that was originally written by poet Zhang Hua (around AD 232–300). The parody takes a critical tone, attacking the excessive behaviour of an empress. The protagonist (hero) is the court instructress who guides the ladies of the imperial family on correct behaviour.
The handscroll has a complex, horizontal arrangement. Nine scenes illustrate the text, beginning from the right. There may have been three additional scenes and texts at the beginning of the scroll, which are now missing. It was re-mounted during the reign of the Qianlong emperor (r. 1736–95) as he greatly admired it. It was mounted in its current format at the British Museum in 1914, to preserve it more safely.
None of Gu Kaizhi's original works have survived, but he has still acquired a legendary status, both as a painter and as a writer on Chinese painting. Gu Kaizhi's reputation was probably aided by anecdotes about his eccentricity. He was said to have been perfect in 'painting, literary composition and foolishness'.
This painting has been executed in a fine linear style that is typical of fourth-century figure painting. Similar pictorial motifs have been discovered in contemporary tombs. Texts have suggested that Gu Kaizhi also painted in this manner.
Before its arrival at the British Museum in 1903, the scroll passed through many hands. The social history of the painting is revealed through the seals and inscriptions.
The painting was subsequently in the collections of well-known connoisseurs who added their own seals and inscriptions, before ending up in the imperial collection during the reign of the Qianlong emperor.