Weighing Books, Guo Xu (Chinese, 1456–1532), Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk, China

明 郭詡 稱書圖 軸
Weighing Books

Guo Xu (Chinese, 1456–1532)
Ming dynasty (1368–1644)
early 16th century
Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk
Image: 48 3/8 x 28 in. (122.9 x 71.1 cm)
Overall with mounting: 103 x 34 1/8 in. (261.6 x 86.7 cm)
Overall with knobs: 103 x 38 3/8 in. (261.6 x 97.5 cm)
Credit Line:
Friends of Asian Art, Purchase, The B. Y. Lam Foundation Gift, 1997
Accession Number:
Not on view
This disconcerting image of a gentleman selling his books by weight presents a startlingly cynical commentary on the value of scholarship in the increasingly corrupt world of Ming dynasty politics. It may also reflect something of the life of the artist, Guo Xu, who abandoned preparations for an official career to become a painter.

The artist's intention remains enigmatic. Does the painting depict the fate of the growing number of well-educated men who, unsuccessful in the civil-service exams, were forced to support themselves as artists, tutors, or professional men of letters? Or is it a sardonic commentary on those members of the bourgeoisie who used their wealth to purchase examination degrees, official appointments, and other trappings of scholarship? Either way, it reflects a new development: the professional artist as social critic. The painting's virtuoso drawing reflects Guo Xu's reputation as a leading artist of his day. Landscape elements, faces, and drapery lines are executed in swift, powerful brushstrokes that still fulfill their descriptive function. The bold composition is likewise carefully crafted to intensify the drama, tightly framing the triangular formation of figures huddled around the scale.
Inscription: Artist’s inscription and signature (1 column in standard script)


Artist’s seals

[ Kaikodo LLC , New York, until 1997; sold to MMA]
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "A Millennium of Chinese Painting: Masterpieces from the Permanent Collection," September 8, 2001–January 13, 2002.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Cultivated Landscapes: Reflections of Nature in Chinese Painting with Selections from the Collection of Marie-Hélène and Guy Weill," September 10, 2002–February 9, 2003.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Secular and Sacred: Scholars, Deities, and Immortals in Chinese Art," September 10, 2005–January 8, 2006.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Arts of the Ming Dynasty: China's Age of Brilliance," January 23, 2009–September 13, 2009.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Chinese Gardens: Pavilions, Studios, Retreats," August 18, 2012–January 6, 2013.