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Vimalakīrti Preaching Buddhist Doctrine

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Period: Song dynasty (960–1279)
Medium: ink on paper
Format: handscroll

Artist(s): Attributed to Li Gonglin (1049–1106)

Dimensions: height: 34.6 cm; length: 207.5 cm

A native of Shucheng County in present-day Anhui Province, Li Gonglin was a prominent painter of the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127). Known by his courtesy name Boshi, he also went by the style name Longmian Jushi (lit. “Lay Buddhist of the Sleeping Dragon” inspired from Mount Longmian in his home region). He earned his presented scholar (jinshi) degree during the Xining reign (1068–1077) of Emperor Shenzong (r. 1068–1085). He was later promoted to the status of Gentleman for Court Service (chaofeng lang). An erudite antiquarian, Li delighted in collecting ancient bronzes, paintings, and calligraphy. He is particularly renowned for equestrian paintings, figures, and works of Buddhist and Daoist themes. His monochrome brush paintings were considered unrivalled among his contemporaries.

The scroll illustrates a scene from a story in the Buddhist classic Vimalakīrti Sūtra (Chinese Weimajie jing) in which the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī (Wenshu pusa), heeding the order of the Buddha (i.e., Śākyamuni), visits Vimalakīrti (Weimajie), who stayed at home under the pretext of illness. Vimalakīrti then preaches Mahāyāna doctrines in the presence of the bodhisattva. The painting aims to present his eloquence and profound knowledge of Buddhist doctrine. Vimalakīrti teaches with vigor as he sits upon a luxurious wooden couch. Immediately opposite to him, the bodhisattva sits with feet resting upon a magnificent lotus and with hands together in the anjali mudra (i.e., gesture of reverence, Chinese heshi) in respect for his teaching. The middle of the painting portrays an apsara (tiannü) expressly scattering blossoms towards Śāriputra (Shelifu), who hurriedly tries to shake the blossoms adhering to his garment but to little avail. Seeing the interaction, Vimalakīrti reminds his audience of the Buddhist teaching that the nature of all things is emptiness (wanwu jie kong).

Buddhism was established by Siddhārtha Gautama in India around the fifth century BCE and was transmitted to China during the time of Emperor Ming (58–75 CE) during the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220). In an effort to spread the influence of the religion in China, artists often Sinicized figures and stories and portrayed them in vivid ways to better suit Chinese aesthetics. As seen in the works of the painter Gu Kaizhi (348–409) of the Eastern Jin dynasty (317–420) or the murals of the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang created during the Sui (581–618) and Tang (618–907) dynasties, Vimalakīrti is depicted as a man with “a bristling beard and eyes like burning torches”. However, in this painting, he is portrayed as a Buddhist disciple completely assimilated to Chinese culture. Meanwhile, the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī is shown as an elegant aristocrat with a poised manner. Though respectful, the heavenly maidens appear to be relaxed and vivacious, without the usual religious piety. This embellishment of secular literati thinking in religious painting lends a cordial atmosphere, rendering the image appealing and approachable. A combination of winding and highly expressive brush lines that resemble iron wire (tiexian miao) and others like floating silk threads (yousi miao) are used in place of coloration. The vivid configuration of various figures through the orderly application of ink complements the spirit of the Buddhist doctrine “Emptiness is form, and form is emptiness.”

The painter left no signature or seal impression on the scroll. Consequently, historical authenticators have presented three main views concerning the identity of the artist. Ming-dynasty (1368–1644) connoisseurs such as Shen Du (1357–1434), Wang Zhideng (1535–1612), and Dong Qichang (1555–1636) all claimed in their colophons that it was painted by Li Gonglin, whereas contemporary scholars like Jin Weinuo (1924–2018) believed it was painted by Jin-dynasty (1115–1234) painter Ma Yunqing. Yet others prefer to attribute the painting to an anonymous Song-dynasty painter. The argument for Ma Yunqing is based primarily on evidence from the Yuan-dynasty (1272–1368) painter Wang Zhenpeng’s (act. ca. 1275–1330) Vimalakirti and the Doctrine of Nonduality (Lin Ma Yunqing hua Weima buer tu caoben) in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Wang Zhenpeng’s inscription on the work records how he reproduced Ma Yunqing’s work by order of Buyantu Khan (Emperor Renzong, r. 1311–1320) during the first year (1308) of the Zhida reign (1308–1311, of Külüg Khan or Emperor Wuzong) in the West Lotus Leaf Hall (Xiheye dian) in the garden of the Palace of Flourishing Blessings (Longfu gong). Wang Zhenpeng’s copy is markedly similar to this featured work’s artistic style and compositional layout with merely slight changes in certain designs. Regardless of which if any of these three views on the painter’s identity is correct, the scroll is without question one of the finest examples of early plain-line (baimiao) figure paintings.

After the painting Shen Du inscribed The Heart Sutra (Xin jing) and a colophon in the bingxu year (1406) of the Yongle reign (1403–1424). In addition to the colophons by Wang Zhideng and Dong Qichang, the scroll is affixed with fifty-seven collectors’ seals, including “Jingzhong of the Ke Family” (Keshi Jingzhong) by the Yuan-dynasty painter and calligrapher Ke Jiusi (1290–1343), “Precious Collection of Paintings and Books by Suo of Changbai [Mountain]” (Changbai Suoshi zhencang tushu yin) by the Qing-dynasty (1644-1911) official Songgotu (1636–1703), and “Xuantong Personally Appreciated” (Xuantong yulan zhi bao) by Puyi (or Emperor Xuantong (r. 1909–1911), the last emperor of the Qing dynasty.

The painting was listed among other works of art in Catalogue of Whiling Away the Summer by Jiangcun (Jiangcun xiaoxia lu) by Gao Shiqi (1645–1704), Classified Record of Calligraphy and Painting in Shigu Hall (Shigu tang shuhua huikao) by Bian Yongyu (1645–1712), and the first compilation of Pearl Forest of the Secret Hall (Midian zhulin chubian) by the Qing Imperial Household Department.

Chinese entry by Li Shi
Translated and edited by Adam J. Ensign, Zhuang Ying, et al.

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