Gigapixel: Painted Phoenix and Dragon Coffin

Art of the Chu People

By Hubei Provincial Museum

Hubei Provincial Museum

The Dragon and Phoenix Coffin The Dragon and Phoenix Coffin - Longer sideHubei Provincial Museum

From the late Shang dynasty to the Spring and Autumn and Warring States period, the Chu state ruled the middle reaches of the Yangtze River. At its height, Chu controlled most of southern China.

The phoenix was a sacred bird worshiped by the Chu people, who believes that, after death, the soul can transform into a bird and ascend to heaven. Therefore, we often find ornamental phoenix motifs on Chu artifacts.

The Chu thought themselves to be the descendants of the fire god Zhurong and consequently used the color red and dynamic flame-like curves in their art, gradually forming an expressive and striking artistic style.

The Chu were extremely successful in painted lacquerware products. The lacquer tree is well-suited to the warm and humid climate along the middle reaches of the Yangtze and, as early as the Spring and Autumn period, the Chu state began the large-scale cultivation of these trees. The milk-white sap cut from the tree is called raw lacquer. After it is dried in the sun or heated over a charcoal fire, it takes on a darker color. Paints of red, yellow, and other colors can be made from mixtures of lacquer, mineral pigments, and oils.

The occupant of this lacquer coffin was a descendant of King Zhao of Chu: the Zuoyin Shao Tuo. Zuoyin was the title of the third-highest official position of the Chu sate, second only to the king and prime minister and with powers equivalent to a minister of justice. Shao Tuo was buried in two nested outer coffins, containing a third inner coffin, shown here.

Two dual copper rings and mounts are installed on the coffin lid and were still tied knotted to ropes when the coffin was unearthed. The two side panels each have one single copper ring and mount.

The Dragon and Phoenix Coffin The Dragon and Phoenix Coffin - Shorter sideHubei Provincial Museum

The east and west panels each have one single copper ring and mount in the center. All of the cooper rings and mounts were gilt with gold.

The square panels are decorated with highly abstract dragon and phoenix designs governed by a rigorous geometric pattern.

The Dragon and Phoenix Coffin The Dragon and Phoenix Coffin - Longer sideHubei Provincial Museum

This lacquer coffin shows us a beautiful maze of coiled dragons and winged phoenixes. Its color palette is mainly black, red, and yellow, augmented by a different yellow, ocher, brown, white, grey, and other tones. In addition, a large amount of gold and silver power was used to detail and ornament the delicate dragon and phoenix patterns.

The lid and two sides are divided into nine units, showing either four dragons meeting and four phoenixes playing around them, or four phoenixes meeting and four dragons turning their backs.

Each dragon has one head and two black bodies, covered in golden scales and coiled into rectangular shapes.

The phoenixes are painted in black and red, with wings outstretched and long tails curled. They seem to move rapidly and joyfully.

The phoenix pattern dominates the composition, with the dragon pattern subordinate and underneath. This shows the high place held by the phoenix among the Chu.

The entire piece displays gorgeous color and delicate line, showing the Chu people's mastery of lacquer painting and imaginative and expressivist artistic sense.

Credits: Story

Hubei Provincial Museum

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