Xu began painting this large work in 1928 and completed it before 1930, while he was employed at National Central University.
Tian Heng and His Five Hundred Followers depicts a story from Records of the Grand Historian. After Liu Bang proclaimed himself Emperor of Han Dynasty(206 BC–220 AD), he offered amnesty to Tian Heng. If Tian did not accept, Liu would kill him. In order to save the lives of five hundred of his people, Tian Heng bid them farewell and set out for the capital. During his journey, he killed himself to preserve his dignity. Hearing his death, Tian's followers committed mass suicide out of loyalty.
At the time, Chiang Kai-shek had betrayed the revolution, so the fate of the nation was very uncertain. Like many other intellectuals, Xu Beihong keenly felt this sense of loss. Thus, Xu, an artist with a deep attachment to his people and his nation, made Tian Heng and His Five Hundred Followers.
“The Central Art Society Painting Exhibition” opened in Nanjing on 1 January 1930. Tian Heng and His Five Hundred Followers and Behind Me were shown at this exhibition, and they were called “the first voice of the artistic revival.”
-Wang Zhen, The Extended Chronicle of Xu Beihong