Daoist Master Fei Zhangfang with a Dragon

Sesson Shūkei Japanese

On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 229

A figure in loose Daoist robes is seated on top of a cliff with his arms outspread. He stares in astonishment as a dragon rises from amid the surging waves. The composition is a tour-de-force of ink painting techniques. The ink outlines of the Chinese sage’s robe were painted with calligraphic brushstrokes of varying thickness and density. His hat and robe, and the edges of his sleeves and belt were highlighted with light ink washes. The sense of the figure’s surprise at what he sees is conveyed by delicate lines describing his furrowed eyebrows, startled eyes, and gaping mouth—highlighted by his bristling whiskers! Light ink washes were then applied to give volume to his beard and hair. The rock cliff he sits upon was handled with ink washes in a “boneless” manner, contrasting with grasses that are rendered in short, abbreviated dabs of ink.

The Daoist master’s left hand opens slightly from a fist, and his eyes stare to his lower left, suggesting he has just thrown something. Though barely discernable at first glance, directly beneath his hand is a bamboo staff that he has hurled into the frothy waves, which arerendered in reserve. Even though this area of the painting is heavily abraded, one can make out the sharp claws and long whiskers of a dragon rising upward just from where the bamboo staff has entered the water. This miraculous scenario explains the figure’s dramatic pose and facial expression. An arching waterfall pours from the valley above the figure and falls behind the dragon on the lower right of the image. The waterfall is also rendered in reserve, with surrounding ink wash giving it shape. Curly and continuous lines are drawn along the waterfall, suggesting fluidity and motion. The waterfall compositionally complements the figure and leads the viewer’s attention to the dragon, reinforcing the mythical beast’s role as the deity of water.

The bamboo staff plunging into the lake and the dragon emerging from the waves identify the figure as the Daoist master Fei Zhangfang 費長房 (Japanese: Hi Chōbō) of the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220). According to the Biographies of Deities and Immortals (Shenxianzhuan; Japanese: Shinsenden), Fei was a low-ranking official managing a market in Runan county (located in present-day Henan and Anhui provinces). He encountered the immortal Hugong 壺公 (Japanese: Kokō), selling magical medicine that cured all illnesses at the market. Fei witnessed Hugong jumping into a gourd after the market closed and decided to become Hugong's apprentice. Hugong gave Fei a bamboo staff that would transform into his corpse to fake his death to his family while receiving training in the mountains. Fei succeeded in completing the assigned challenges, yet he refused to eat the feces Hugong instructed him to eat. Hugong determined that Fei was incapable of becoming immortal, but he bestowed him the powers to be a Master on Earth 地上主, allowing him to live hundreds of years. Hugong also gave Fei a talisman to command the spirits and ghosts and a bamboo staff on which he could ride back home. Fei slept and arrived home immediately after riding on the bamboo staff, which terrified his family, who thought he had died long before. Fei opened the coffin his family buried and only found the bamboo staff he left before leaving to study with Hugong, which convinced his family about his adventure. Fei threw the bamboo staff he rode back home on into Lake Gebei 葛陂 (Japanese: Kappa), located in present-day Henan province), whereupon it transformed itself into a blue dragon—the moment depicted in Sesson’s painting. Later, Fei is said to have established his reputation as an exorcist who cured people and brought rain. Another version of Fei's miraculous story appears in the History of the Later Han (Houhanshu 後漢書). That account is similar to the one in the Biographies of Immortals, but it concludes by observing that Fei's magical power were not cultivated, but were granted by Hugong. Thus, when Fei discarded Hugong’s staff, he was murdered by ghosts.

Daoist Master Fei Zhangfang with a Dragon, Sesson Shūkei (ca. 1504–ca. 1589), Hanging scroll; ink on paper, Japan

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