This large and marvelously detailed Chinese pantheon painting features a range of Buddhist, Daoist, Confucian, and popular Chinese deities. The religious traditions to which these gods belong have coexisted in China for well over one-thousand years. While the discrete religious and philosophical traditions maintained their integrity, over time deities, and sometimes even historical figures, were co-opted by popular religions, from which syncretic imagery of pantheon paintings and prints emerged.
Depictions of pantheons are traditionally displayed in Chinese homes on New Year’s Day when, popular belief holds, chief gods visit earth for an annual inspection at the close of the lunar year. Images of the deities were displayed in the courtyards of family homes together with offerings on altars in anticipation of the superhuman arrival. The gods included in these images have varied over the course of time, and even from town to town and family to family. This work dates to the latter part of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), from the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century, when pantheon images flourished in mainland China.
The importance of the time that has passed over the course of the year and the divine reckoning that follows is emphasized in this painting. Three of the Four Daoist Meritorious Officers who guard time by day, month, year, and season (sizhi gongcao) hold their reports in respectful offering to major deities. The Meritorious Officer who guards the seasons, for example, kneels before the Daoist Jade Emperor at the center of the heavens and offers his report, followed by his colleague, the Officer who guards the days, on horseback. At the bottom of the painting, the one who guards the months, on horseback, offers his report to the God who Rids Dwellers of Evil Spirits as he begins his rounds, and the fourth, the one who guards the year, gallops toward the City God with his account.
The three realms (sanjie) that are overseen by the Three Great Emperor-officials of Daoism who appear at the center right of the painting—Heaven, Earth, and Water—provide the settings for the assembly of gods. The deities appear in a complex, hierarchical bureaucracy consistent with a traditional Chinese world view. Major celestial deities appear at the top and center, and gods dealing with more earthly matters at the lower part of the composition. The artist rendered the landscape, figures, and architecture in the fine line or ink outline (baimiao) technique. He carefully defined the architecture with ruled lines (jiehua). Finally the artist, or the artist and his assistants, began to apply color, although it appears this process was never completed. Why a painting of this quality might have been left incomplete remains open to speculation.
This painting includes eighty-two labels identifying more than half the figures depicted. A selection of the identified deities are highlighted in this exhibition. Through this display and ongoing research into China’s rich and complex religious traditions, we are able to learn more about the relationship between art and belief, and how traditions are adapted and change within China’s diverse population.
This exhibition is part of Asia Society Museum’s ongoing In Focus series, which invites viewers to take an in-depth look at a single, significant work of art.
Details about the gods are below.
These details are about the gods in the painting.