Memory of a Golden Age: "Emperor Minghuang’s Journey to Shu"

Emperor Minghuang’s Journey to Shu (AD 618-AD 907) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

This ancient painting, actually made in the Song dynasty, is ranked as a National Treasure and only on display for around forty days at a time. As such, it is a rare opportunity to see it on exhibit. But now, it is online for people across the world to appreciate at any time.

The theme of this painting is a renowned legend about nostalgia and loss. This scroll illustrates the great Tang Emperor Xuanzong (r.712-756 CE) fleeing to Shu from the capital during the An Lushan rebellion.

The blue-and-green style of this painting, which appears beautiful and luxurious, was often specially chosen to depict subjects of Daoist paradise, imperial parks, and past golden ages such as the Han (202 BCE-220 CE) and the Tang dynasties (618-907 CE).    

This work reveals many features of early narrative paintings in landscape settings from the Tang dynasty. The steep mountain forms are complex in structure, their surfaces filled with heavy washes of azurite, malachite, and ochre.       

White clouds encircle the mountains for a dramatic effect, while numerous peaks and hills are capped by lines of trees.

Even in the middle and foreground, which are clearly delineated, landscape forms are also embellished with vegetation and flowering trees. 

But perhaps the most conspicuous aspect of this gorgeous landscape is the line of figures and horses making their way along the mountain path. 

In fact, the line of travelers begins at the towering peaks on the right, while the team of horses and even camels appear and disappear into the winding mountain road in the middle ground.

A group of people unload their luggage and rest in the foreground, while the rest of the team continue to the left, climbing up the mountain and walking along the path built on the steep rocks, heading toward Sichuan.

The most obvious figure among them is the person wearing red and on horseback in the lower right. 

He is most likely the main character of the narrative, Emperor Xuanzong, also known as Minghuang. Even the horse he rides is different from the others, its mane braided in a beautiful manner.   

Emperor Minghuang was forced to flee the capital on account of the Rebellion, and took his court ladies and officials across treacherous mountains to Shu.   

Among the consorts depicted accompanying him, perhaps one of them is the famous beauty and the emperor’s favorite consort Yang Guifei. 

The makeup of these palace ladies conforms to Tang standards, and some are consistent with archaeological discoveries of Tang figurines, making this work an accurate reflection of women at the time.    

Although the figures and transport animals making their way across the steep mountains suggests a difficult journey, the painting has an unusually beautiful color scheme and an abundance of engaging details. 

The viewer can follow the group through pretty mountains and even enjoy the scenery while getting an idea of the perilous journey to Shu. It thus appears to present a pleasurable royal excursion rather than a tragic event.

This kind of landscape painting, emphasizing blue-and-green coloring with simplified mountain forms, has been associated with Tang dynasty art. The blue-and-green of the mountains and the precipitous forms of the peaks are indeed derived from those in Tang dynasty works.

However, the refined and opulent application of washes and the precise use of lines are features that instead suggest this is a copy, perhaps created in the 11th or 12th century.       

Many copies survive to the present day, and this one in particular represents the Northern Song dynasty’s continuation of classical traditions. It is considered a masterpiece of early blue-and-green landscape painting. 

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