A Look at the Hangzhou Portraits of Confucius and Seventy-two Disciples (Sheng xian tu)
Confucius, or Master Kong Fuzi, has to be one of the most influential men in China; his ethics and teachings are still widely used in China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam today. Living during the Warring States Period in the Zhou Dynasty, he wandered from State to State attempting to implement his ideas on ethics and morals to these rulers.
Unfortunately, he was not successful and it was not until after his death that a cult formed around his beliefs in the Eastern Han Dynasty. After this, depictions of the great sage were commissioned and used widely.
The Portraits of Confucius and Seventy-two Disciples belong to a long and “enduring tradition of didactic figural representation in Chinese art, in which portrait-like figures are depicted on a blank ground”. This was a style implemented during the Han Dynasty to depict Confucian scholars, especially in murals. Portraits of Confucius and his disciples are shown emphasising the praiseworthy character, deeds, and conduct associated with their subjects.
“The Portraits of Confucius and Seventy-two Disciples represent two categories, the sage-teacher and the dedicated student, and the series fits readily into the Han-Tang tradition of didactic portraiture. Nonetheless, a closer examination suggests that the artist who designed the set was not rigidly constrained by the conventions just outlined. Avoiding the potentially stultifying effect of so many figures in similar poses, he supplemented the standard three-quarter pose with many other kinds, even an occasional full-face and back presentation. In addition, few of the disciples strike the motionless and dignified pose of reverential attendance on their master that their role would seem to warrant. Instead, the artist took pains to introduce a sense of life and movement into the figures. The disciples variously gesticulate, look upward, bend down, and so forth. Many of the figures hold significant objects, not only sceptres and scrolls, but even weapons and fish”.
Confucius’s prestige and importance is emphasised in the fact that he is the only figure sitting. He sits on the far right facing his disciples holding a sceptre in his left hand; with his right hand he makes the finger to thumb gesture which, in both the East and the West, signifies a long speech. Although he would need no identification unlike his disciples, the artist gives him a label to recognise him.
The Sheng xian tu were most likely to have been placed in a part of an imperial university where students would come into daily contact with them, emphasising the unassailable authority of the Confucian tradition.
Murray, Julia K. (1992) The Hangzhou Portraits of Confucius and Seventy-two Disciples (Sheng xian tu): Art in the Service of Politics, The Art Bulletin, College Art Association.