Ink on Paper: Zhao Mengfu’s Sheep and Goat
Literati paintings aim for free expression of ideas, feelings, and emotions rather than the truthful portrayal of the world. Cultivation of the mind was given more importance than perfection of structure in literati art. They are created by intellectual representatives and academics who incorporate their knowledge of poetry and other arts into their paintings.
This paper will discuss Sheep and Goat – a literati art created by one of the most influential artists in the entire history of Chinese painting, Zhao Mengfu. Aside from symbolism, the paper will also discuss a brief history of the period when the painting was produced. It will also look at the artist himself and what drove him to come up with this artwork. Other issues which are related to the theme of the artwork will also be discussed.
Sheep and Goat: The Artwork
On the left side of the painting is a sketch of a rather proud-looking sheep and right beside it is a goat with its head bowed down. On the painting’s leftmost and upper right sections are Chinese calligraphy inscribed in black ink. Scattered all over the painting are Chinese prints in red ink.
The painting is an allegory which centers on the issue of dynastic loyalty. The sheep and the goat represent Su Wu and Li Ling, two Han dynasty generals, who were both captured by traveling Hsiung-nu tribes who were at war with the Han. During their captivity, they were both offered a choice to serve the Hsiung-nu tribe. Su Wu remained loyal to the Han and refused to compromise. As a result of this, they forced him to remain in the desert and herd sheep for almost twenty years. Li Ling, on the other hand, gave in to the Hsiung-nu tribe. Though he was released, his return to the Han became an evidence of his disloyalty to his empire.
The sheep’s body was given a mottled effect by using watery ink which was applied in blobs and puddles. The goat, on the other hand, is painted in a drier manner by using brush strokes applied briskly over the surface of the paper. The sheep is illustrated in a noble, arrogant manner to represent Su Wu’s strong spirit. The goat, however, appears embarrassed to look directly into his friend’s eyes.
Zhao Mengfu’s declaration of creating art the literati way was reinforced by the vigorous style of the calligraphy matching the ink values of the painting. The inscription on the left, however, has no symbolic significance to the subject of Sheep and Goat. Then again, it hints of some relevance to his personal experiences. It reads:
“I have often painted horses but have never before painted sheep or goats. So when Cliung-lisin asked for a painting, I did this playfully from life. Although it may not approach the old masters, it does capture something of the way they were (and I am).”
Zhao Mengfu was sometimes called by traditional Chinese writers the last of the Eight Princes of Calligraphy for his powerful influence on the historical development of calligraphy styles. Zhao appears to many as one of the exuberant talents of Chinese high culture and a man of all-around genius. He was also one of the most valued and highly influential literati disciples of his age, with a collection of greatly competent literary samples in varied genres. Aside from this, he also had a reputable career as a civil official. He met all the criteria for distinction in the minds of the scholar elite – all except one. He was a distant relative of the Song royal house. When he was in his twenties, the region fell to the invading Yuan armies. For a decade, he hid from the world apparently observing the ideal of the scholar under one dynasty who will not serve the succeeding dynasty. In his mid-thirties, he came back and gave in to the strong urgings of eminent Chinese of that time and agreed to serve as an official of the Mongol Yuan dynasty. This blemish of disloyalty brought him scornful rejections by many relatives and early associates.
Zhao himself was uneasy about his position. This was depicted in a poem he wrote about a painting depicting T’ao Yuan-ming’s return to his recluse home after resigning his official position. He acknowledged correctness of Tao’s motives and admires his noble character as seen in his withdrawal and his uncomplaining acceptance of the humble life imposed on him. Yet Zhao suggested that this is a matter in which each person must make his own decision, according to his own time.
Nevertheless, Zhao’s admirers hoped to draw attention away from his failure to remain loyal to the Song dynasty. In fact, in his paintings, he broke through limits of convention. The techniques he used and concepts drawn from calligraphy, transformed painting into a new art form.
In 1210, the Mongols invaded northern China from Central Asia, opening a new chapter in the history and art of that ancient land. Under the dynamic leadership of Gengis Khan, the Mongol armies made an extraordinarily swift advance into China. By 1215, the Mongols had destroyed the Jin dynasty’s capital at Beijing and had taken control of northern China. Two decades later, they attacked the Song dynasty in southern China. It was not until 1279, however, that the last Song emperor fell in the hands of Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan. Kublai proclaimed himself the new emperor of China and founded the Yuan dynasty.
The Song Dynasty, despite its cultural magnificence, is regarded by historians as an age of weakness in the Chinese state. It was during this time that there was a vast frugality in area and influence, experiences of degrading military powerlessness, and a mood of nostalgia bordering on escapism. The conquest of China by the Mongols put China completely under foreign rule for the first time. Even though the Mongols implemented their political policies, it did not have a widespread interruption to the arts in China. Apparently, it was the Mongol ruling elite who adopted Chinese customs and habits. Painters liked to depict scenes of the ruling elite’s life of horse racing and hunting. Portrayals of horses had served for centuries as pictorial metaphors for the character and special concerns of the Chinese literati and scholar-officials and could carry a variety of auspicious wishes and other messages.
It was during this dynasty that the artists illustrated their spirits and souls in their works. The artistic academics became the primary figures in painting, and they demonstrated the dramatic characters inherent in brush and ink as a means of portraying personality, thought, and emotion, as with Sheep and Goat. These paintings reveal simplicity, transcendence, and elegance. Court patronage of art was mainly limited to the Mongolian traditional arts such as textiles, jewelry, metalwork, and the like. Outside the court, cultural creativity in several of the arts, including calligraphy and painting, missed the customary court patronage and set the stage for rise of literati to the center of the painting world. The Mongols promoted a revival of Buddhist art as an effort to fortify their authority over the Chinese.
The artists of this time sought a return in their art to what they viewed as more ideal times. Artists such as Zhao Mengfu, firmly fixed the ideal of literati painting which gave importance to intellect and individual expression above elegant surface or mere representation.
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Kleiner, M. (2008). International Student Edition: Gardner’s Art Through Ages: Global History. United Kingdom: Cengage Learning EMEA.
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Philadelphia Museum of Art. (2009). Learning from Asian Art: China, Retrieved on May 18, 2009 from http://www.philamuseum.org/booklets/3_19_34_1.html
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Wright, A.F., Cahill, J. (1960). The Confucian Persuasion. California: Stanford University Press.
 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (2009). Learning from Asian Art: China, Retrieved on May 18, 2009 from http://www.philamuseum.org/booklets/3_19_34_1.html
 Rudenko, S.I. (1969). Die Kultur der Hsiung-nu und die Hugelgraber von Noin Ula, trans. Helmut Pollems. Bonn.
 Grabar, O. (1988). Muqarnas: An Annual on Islamic Art and Architecture. BRILL.
 Mote, F.W. (2003). Imperial China 900-1800. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
 Wright, A.F., Cahill, J. (1960). The Confucian Persuasion. California: Stanford University Press.
 T’ao Yuan-ming or Tao Qian, a Chinese poet chiefly remembered as a man forced into the recluse life by loyalty to a fallen dynasty. See Davis, A.R. (1983). Tao Yuan-ming, A.D. 365-427, His Works and Their Meaning. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.
 Kleiner, M. (2008). International Student Edition: Gardner’s Art Through Ages: Global History. United Kingdom: Cengage Learning EMEA.
 Huang, M.W. (1995). Literati and self-representation: autobiographical sensibility in the eighteenth-century Chinese novel. California: Stanford University Press