The Daoist Immortal Han Xiangzi

Liu Jun Chinese

Not on view

This painting by the Ming court artist Liu Jun depicts the Daoist immortal Han Xiangzi miraculously treading the surface of a turbulent sea. Unperturbed by the roiling waves beneath his feet or the wind that pulls at his garments, Han casually puts a bamboo flute to his lips to play a tune. His eccentrically rustic clothes mark him as a transcendent being: he wears a rustic cape of sawtoothed leaves and curly vegetal tendrils. Over his pants hangs a skirt of reeds. Over his shoulder hangs a satchel lined with animal fur, and his belt holds two dried gourds—the traditional vessel of magical Daoist elixirs.

The waves at the immortal’s feet are described with a striking geometric pattern of modulated lines interspersed with corresponding sections of reserved silk. Bold patches of blank silk have been left in reserve across the painting’s middle to indicate numinous mist that accompanies the immortal on his magical journey. Along the painting’s top edge are quickly drawn lines of monochrome ink and a large patch of ink wash, a terse indication of a towering mountain landscape that lies beyond the seething ocean.

Liu Jun employed a range of different brush modes in depicting Han Xiangzi, showcasing the technical virtuosity that was expected of a Ming court artist. The immortal’s face is depicted through a combination of gently graded washes of pigment with confidently drawn lines of ink and cinnabar. The hair and beard consist of two different weights of lines combined with a wash to impart a sense of hairy tactility. The large relative scale of the figure, combined with the delicate brushwork of the sensitively rendered face, creates a naturalistic effect similar to portraiture. By contrast, the bravura brushwork of the robes is self-consciously performative, meant to be read as a display of the painter’s daring technical virtuosity. The bold painterly quality of the robes’ contours is intended to contrast with the naturalism of the face, heightening the illusion of the likeness.

Little is known about the life of Liu Jun, but his surviving paintings, along with fragmentary textual evidence, demonstrate that he was a gifted painter of figures, landscapes, and architecture who served the Ming court in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Daoist immortals most commonly appear in Chinese mythology as a group of eight—a ragtag band of merry, numinous eccentrics, each featuring his own special attribute—and this painting almost certainly originally belonged to a set of eight that was meant to be displayed together.

The Daoist Immortal Han Xiangzi, Liu Jun (Chinese, active ca. 1475–ca. 1505), Framed hanging scroll; ink and color on silk, China

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