The story of Tian Heng and his five hundred followers comes from Records of the Grand Historian. Tian Heng (250-202 BCE) was a member of the royal house in the late Qin dynasty and state of Qi, succeeding Tian Dan as King of Qi. After Emperor Gaozu of Han unified the country, he laid siege to Tian Heng and five hundred of his comrades and followers on an isolated island.
The Emperor worried that Tian would be able to do him harm later, so he issued a decree: If Tian Heng surrendered, he would be made a prince or marquis, but if Tian did not surrender, the Emperor would send soldiers to wipe out the people on the island. In order to save the lives of his followers, Tian Heng left the island with two of his subordinates and set out for the emperor’s capital.
However, at a place thirty miles from the capital, Tian Heng killed himself. As he wished, his subordinates carried his head to see Emperor Gaozu of Han, showing that he would not accept the humiliation of surrender, but that he still wanted to save the lives of his five hundred followers on the island.
Emperor Gaozu of Han buried Tian as a prince and sent people to bring his five hundred followers back to civilization, but when they heard that Tian Heng had committed suicide, Tian's 500 followers jumped into the sea and committed mass suicide out of loyalty.
Xu Beihong chose as the subject of this painting the implicit plot point of “Tian Heng leaving the island,” which was not in the original text. Two-thirds of the background area is forest, with several sprigs of red autumnal leaves that reflect the bleakness of the situation.
Behind them lies the emerald sea and blue sky, and the thick, bulbous clouds cast gloom over the scene.
Tian Heng is the red-robed figure with the long sword on the right. He folds his hands and faces the group, as he stands straight with his head held high and a dignified expression on his face.
A group of figures cover two-thirds of the painting, extending from left to right, and the dense crowd conveys a sense of power.
There is a youth wearing yellow on the right end of the group, which looks just like the artist.
Next to him, an old woman and a younger woman holding a little girl look up at the man in the red robe, with faces full of sadness and grief.
Standing behind them are an old man with his head bowed and a little boy with jade ornaments around his waist wiping away tears.
These six people are well-dressed, in contrast to the shabbiness of the rest of the figures, making it likely that they are related to the royal family.
The group on the left side of the painting are the “five hundred followers.” Most of them are agitated, their faces and clothing reflecting their change in fortune after losing the battle.
A lame man on a walking stick moves toward Tian Heng, and a soldier on the left side is breaking his sword.
All of the figures have slightly different postures—some are hiding their tears and others are turning away with heads bowed—but all show their grief and sadness.
Even the white horse at the right side of the painting seems to have tears in its eyes.
All of this is what Xu Beihong imagined based on his reading of the classic text. Due to the colors applied by the artist, the figures in the painting already seem able to foresee their fates, which was never expressed in the text.
Tian Heng and His Five Hundred Followers (1928/1930) by Xu BeihongCAFA Art Museum