The NPM Zoo: Animal Paintings in the Museum Collection

By National Palace Museum

Auspicious Beginning (AD 960-AD 1279) by Su Hanchen (fl. ca. 1130s-1160s)National Palace Museum

The NPM Zoo features ancient animal paintings from the National Palace Museum’s painting collection and is the first ever exhibition at the NPM designed expressly for elementary school students. 

The NPM also partnered with the Taipei Zoo, Hsinchu City Zoo, Kaohsiung Shoushan Zoo and Pingtung National Museum of Marine Biology in organizing this special exhibition. The exhibition is divided into three sections: Animals of the Chinese Zodiac, Fantastic Beasts, and Aquatic Creatures at Leisure. 

Sleeping Dog (AD 1644-AD 1911) by Jin Tingbiao (?-1767)National Palace Museum

Animals of the Chinese Zodiac

Legend has it that the Jade Emperor held a special contest for animals of the zodiac to help people remember the year of their birth. The animals were ranked in the order of their placement in the race and assigned to one of the twelve years in the cycle. 

Oxherder's Dream and Divining Plenty (AD 1279-AD 1368) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

The rat, cat, and ox were once good friends and agreed to attend the competition together. On the day of the race, the rat, unable to awaken the sleeping cat, chose the ox as its partner instead.    

Lotus Seeds and Three Rats (AD 960-AD 1279) by Qian Xuan (ca. 1235-1307)National Palace Museum

Just before crossing the finish line in the lead, the rat jumped off the ox’s back and came in first, much to the anger of the cat, who became its enemy.    

Kitten (AD 960-AD 1279) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

In this section, paintings of animals from the Chinese zodiac have been selected (including the adorable cat) in monochrome ink as well as colors.    

Auspicious Beginning (AD 960-AD 1279) by Su Hanchen (fl. ca. 1130s-1160s)National Palace Museum

Auspicious Beginnings

“Three Spirits of the Yang Commence Springtime”, symbolized by its homonym three goats (yang), is a motif commonly used for celebrations. On the 81st day after the winter solstice, the weather is warmer and nature begins to take on a new look. This painting was mostly likely done for the court to celebrate the arrival of spring. 

The three goats motif is also often used to convey good wishes for an auspicious new year. 

Eight Heavenly Steeds of Peace (AD 1644-AD 1911) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

Immediate Granting of a Peerage

The eight horses in this painting were a gift from Xinjiang to the Qing court during the reign of the Jiaqing Emperor. To commemorate this event, the emperor ordered his courtiers to paint all of the horses. 

Each horse’s posture and coat are unique. Which one do you like most?  

Sketches from Life (AD 960-AD 1279) by Huizong (1082-1135)National Palace Museum

Does this mother and child monkey hugging each other remind you of your mother? 

Sketches from LifeNational Palace Museum

The insect on the upper right corner was recorded as a dung bug in ancient texts, but it is actually a beetle!

Bamboo Root Carving of Monkey on Horse, Symbolizing Good Wishes for Immediate Granting of a Peerage (AD 1644-AD 1911) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

In Chinese, the saying “monkey on a horseback” signifies good wishes for immediate promotion in rank and office. It is based on the homonyms for horseback (ma shang) and immediate (ma shang), and peerage (hou) and monkey (hou). 

Chickens (AD 1368-AD 1644) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

The Rooster Family

Three little chicks follow their father and mother while beautiful orange daylilies bloom in the background. The painting brims with the simple joy of rustic life and familial harmony. The ancients were fond of chickens because they are pronounced similarly to "ji", the Chinese word for auspiciousness.

The orange daylily symbolizes the mother. 

Together, the hen, chicks and flowers are often used to express affection for one’s mother. 

Sleeping Dog (AD 1644-AD 1911) by Jin Tingbiao (?-1767)National Palace Museum

Sleeping Dog

Look at how soundly the puppy is sleeping. Using shades of light and dark ink to paint the coat, the artist brilliantly captures the adorable appearance of the sleeping dog. 

Sleeping Dog

Despite the simplicity of the painting, it fully illustrates the elements of ancient Chinese painting: poetry, calligraphy, painting, and seals. The Emperor Qianlong also signed the painting with his seals to show his admiration for it.

Beneficent Rain (AD 960-AD 1279) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

The Dragon Emperor and Artifact Doctor

Notice how mighty and powerful the dragon is as it coils among the dark clouds in the sky? In ancient times, the dragon was the god of rain and the sea, and was in charge of the weather. Because of its miraculous power, the ancient emperors would often refer to themselves as the "true dragon emperor".

Conservation of "Beneficent Rain" by National Palace MuseumNational Palace Museum

This painting can only be exhibited after being treated by the National Palace Museum’s conservation team. Can you tell the difference in the before-and-after comparison of the painting?  

Two Rabbits under Cassia and the Moon (AD 1911-) by Wang Zhen (1867-1938)National Palace Museum

Mid-Autumn Rabbit

You must have fond memories of watching the moon with family members during the Mid-Autumn Festival. 

Legend has it that a rabbit lives in the moon palace. Let’s enjoy views of the beautiful moon along with the painter.

Pride in One's Own Reflection (AD 1911-) by Hu Zaobin (1897-1942)National Palace Museum

New Tenants: the Tiger and Pig

A tiger is hiding in the grass, looking ahead with its sharp eyes. What is she looking at?

Hogs (AD 1644-AD 1911) by Wang Su (1794-1877)National Palace Museum

In the distance, three little pigs are crossing the river.

These paintings are actually new residents at the NPM. They are new additions to the museum’s collection. As long as collectors are willing to donate, sell or entrust their collections to the NPM, the more the museum's collection grows.    

Auspicious Omens (AD 1368-AD 1644) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

Fantastic Beasts

In ancient times, transportation was not as convenient as it is now, and it was difficult to know which animals lived in faraway lands. Therefore, many animals were often associated with mythical creatures. For example, the giraffe, which everyone is familiar with today, was considered an auspicious animal 600 years ago.    

The Lion (AD 1644-AD 1911) by Liu Jiude (fl. ca. late 17th c.)National Palace Museum

The King of Beasts

This animal with giant ears is very special. They were once called "suanni", the ancient name for the lion in Chinese. Since people in ancient times rarely had the chance to view a lion, artists would use their imagination to paint legendary beasts like this one.

White Gyrfalcon (AD 1644-AD 1911) by Giuseppe CastiglioneNational Palace Museum

The White General

Is the white bird of prey perched on the pine branch an eagle? Judging from the shape of its beak and dark eyes, it should be a falcon. Pure white falcons were extremely rare and therefore presented to the Qing court as tribute.

Ring-tailed Lemur from Cochin China (AD 1644-AD 1911) by Giuseppe CastiglioneNational Palace Museum

Ring-tailed Lemur

Take a closer look! Doesn’t it look like a ring-tailed lemur from Madagascar? This is actually their ancestor who lived 250 years ago. This realistic painting was done by the Western painter Giuseppe Castiglione during the Qianlong reign of the Qing Dynasty. The giant peach in the painting is a symbol of longevity.

Tiger of the Inner Court (AD 1368-AD 1644) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

The Benevolent Beast

This animal resembles a white tiger. Though it looks fierce, it is actually the benevolent mythical beast "zouyu". According to legend, it has a gentle personality and does not eat living creatures.

Liu Hai and the Toad (AD 1368-AD 1644) by Wu Wei (1459-1508)National Palace Museum

The Three-legged Toad

Do you have a figurine of a three-legged toad with a coin in its mouth at home? It is said to bring you wealth and fortune. This saying comes from the legend of the deity Liu Haichan sporting a toad. 

The toad in the painting was not at all pleased by this treatment. His vexed expression is vivid and humorously portrayed. 

Fish and Water Plants, Anonymous, Qing dynasty (1644-1911) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

Aquatic Creatures at Leisure

In ancient times, people did not have cameras. Instead, they used the brush to record images of the aquatic creatures they saw. Some of these illustrations are extremely realistic, some exaggerated, and some altered their original features. Take a closer look at how the ancients painted these aquatic creatures.

Crabs and Stalks (AD 1911-) by Hu Ko-min (1909-1991)National Palace Museum

Mogu (Boneless) Crabs

There are rice stalks and crabs in this painting. Why do crabs climb onto the rice stalks? 

“Rice grains” (pronounced “he”) are a homonym of “peace”, while the pronunciation of “crab” is close to “harmony.” When combined, they mean "harmonious," therefore, the painting is titled "Crabs and Stalks".

Cluster of Shrimp (AD 1911-) by Qi Baishi (1864-1957)National Palace Museum

Rising to Success

This group of shrimps seems to be hunting for something as they rush downward, while some are clustered together, creating an extremely lifelike scene. Shrimps symbolize auspiciousness and wealth and are a common subject in traditional Chinese painting.

Fish and Water Plants, Anonymous, Qing dynasty (1644-1911) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

Dragon-eye Butterfly-tail

Do these goldfish look familiar? That's right, with protruding eyes and a wing-like tail fin, they are the so-called "dragon-eye butterfly-tail" goldfish. Qing court painters knew that the emperor liked goldfish, so they painted them with great precision, hoping that the emperor would like it.

Fish and Water Plants, Anonymous, Qing dynasty (1644-1911) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

On a closer inspection, the goldfish is painted on a fan. There are several ways to mount traditional Chinese paintings and the "round fan" is one of them.

Illustrated Album of Sea Miscellany (Shellfish) (AD 1644-AD 1911) by Nie Huang (fl. ca. late 17th c.)National Palace Museum

Phoenix Tail Snails

Pheasant snails are also called phoenix tail snails. The snails are edible and have beautiful shells. They are said to be imported from Ryukyu to China. After seeing and playing with them, the artist painted this picture and left a written record.

故宮x壽山動物園, From the collection of: National Palace Museum
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故宮x台北市立動物園, From the collection of: National Palace Museum
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故宮x海洋生物博物館, From the collection of: National Palace Museum
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故宮x新竹動物園, From the collection of: National Palace Museum
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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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