Xu You and Qao Fu, a 2-fold screen painting


British Museum

British Museum

According to a Chinese legend, when the emperor Gyo heard about the virtues of a simple hermit, named Xu You (Japanese: Kyoyū), he decided to abdicate the throne and offer it to him. Xu You was appalled to be offered such a position, and went to wash his ears free of this insult in the Ying River. Another hermit, Qao Fu (Sō Ho), had intended to water his ox in the same river, but turned away from the contaminated waters. This is the scene depicted here.

The story was popular among Japanese warriors, illustrating the irony that those who scorn power are those most suited to rule. Although the theme was usually rendered in the conventional monochrome format of Chinese paintings, here we see it in the polychrome and gold-leaf style of the Kanō school. A pair of ink paintings of the same subject exists by Kanō Eitoku (1543-90), one of the most famous Kanō painters, but he is also thought to have done a gold and polychrome version for Oda Nabunaga's Azuchi Castle near Lake Biwa. The castle and all its contents were destroyed in 1582. There are some stylistic similarities in the screen here with the work of Kanō Takanobu (1571-1618), but it more probably dates from some time after his death, that is, in the Kan'ei era (1624-44).

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  • Title: Xu You and Qao Fu, a 2-fold screen painting
  • Date Created: 1624/1644
  • Physical Dimensions: Height: 156.50cm; Width: 175.10cm
  • External Link: British Museum collection online
  • Technique: painted
  • Subject: myth/legend
  • Registration number: 1920,1020,0.2
  • Production place: Painted in Japan
  • Producer: Attributed to a Follower of Takanobu, Kano
  • Period/culture: Kan'ei Era
  • Material: paper
  • Copyright: Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum
  • Acquisition: Purchased from Yamanaka & Co