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Amazing Graze

A masterpiece created nearly a millennium ago holds the distinction of being the inaugural piece to undergo expert appraisal following the reestablishment of the Chinese Ancient Art Appraisal Group

By Song Yimin Updated Feb.1

A portion of the painting Grazing by the River by Qi Xu, Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) (Photo by VCG)

On August 31, 2023, the Chinese Ancient Art Appraisal Group achieved a significant milestone by celebrating the 40th anniversary since it was reestablished. The group, composed of seven distinguished experts from diverse disciplines, began its journey in 1983.  

In the eight years from 1983 to 1991, the Group traversed thousands of miles to evaluate more than 80,000 ancient Chinese paintings and calligraphy pieces. Their dedicated efforts culminated in the creation of the Catalog of Ancient Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy, a comprehensive compilation that now serves as a valuable resource on the multitude of ancient Chinese artworks within the Chinese mainland.  

In 1983, the National Cultural Heritage Administration reinstated the work of the Group, which had been interrupted for over a decade, mainly due to the Cultural Revolution (1966- 1976). This interim saw many archaeological discoveries, as well as significant donations and acquisitions, enrich museum collections across the country. However, the lack of a unified consensus regarding the authenticity, dating and appraisal of ancient paintings and calligraphy posed challenges.  

Their first task was to appraise a painting from the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) titled Jiangshan Fangmu Tu, or Grazing by the River.  

Landscape Masterpiece 
The painting, created by Qi Xu, portrays a picturesque waterside scene showing 16 plowing buffalos. The artwork captures a range of activities: some buffalos carry herders as they approach the shore and drink by the water’s edge, while others bathe or engage in playful fights as calves chase their mothers. The depictions are diverse, vivid and captivating.  

The herders have their own variety and charm, with some singing and others playing the flute. In the distance, farmers are engrossed in work while others take a break with a game of chess. 

On the left side of the painting, there is a small bridge and thatched cottages surrounded by lush trees. On the right, the lake water is clear, trees flourish, and the mountains rise. The composition of the image is bright, orderly, lively and well-arranged. In the upper right corner, an inscription by Emperor Zhangzong of the Jin (1115-1234, a regime of the Jurchen people), Wanyan Jing, reads: “Qi Xu’s Grazing by the River.” This inscription serves as the basis for identifying the work.  

This painting employs a distant composition heavily influenced by Northern Song artist Guo Xi, and masterfully combines elements of genre painting, which depicts everyday life through ordinary people engaged in common activities, and small landscape art.  

During the Song Dynasty (960- 1279), renowned painting critic Guo Ruoxu praised Qi Xu in his work Tuhua Jianwen Lu, or Records of Observations on Paintings, stating that “he excelled in water buffalos and bull paintings, particularly in fine paintings of flowers, bamboo and birds.  

His ingenious compositions occasionally exhibit the residual style of Dai Song.” Dai Song, a Tang Dynasty (618-907) painter, was well-known for his depictions of buffalos. In the Song Dynasty, three prominent artists specialized in painting buffalos. Qi Xu was one of them.  

Buffalos hold significant symbolic meaning in the agricultural civilization in the Central Plains, a major cradle of Chinese civilization centered around today’s Henan Province, and the affluent areas south of the Yangtze River collectively known as Jiangnan.  

Qi Xu excelled in painting buffalos and cats, where his mastery of depicting animal fur is evident.  

Considering inscriptions and colophons, when their transmission is well-documented, they can generally be identified as genuine. In this painting, the buffalos are depicted drinking with lowered heads, raising their heads to gaze, twisting their bodies, and walking sideways – indications of exquisite brushwork and precise modeling.  

The painting was authenticated in 1983 by experts from the appraisal group based on its artistic technique, level of execution, and its historical transmission. It is the sole surviving treasure attributed to Qi Xu.  

Changing Ownership 
Most of China’s ancient paintings were stored in the Forbidden City (now the Palace Museum). During the Republic of China era (1911-1949), the last Qing emperor Pu Yi resided in the palace for over a decade and had the right to use its contents, including paintings and calligraphy. 
However, he did not have ownership of them, nor did the government provide timely support for the preservation of cultural artifacts in the Forbidden City.  

Pu Yi’s advisors devised a plan to bestow these precious cultural artifacts to his younger brother, Pu Jie. Paintings and calligraphy were chosen as they were valuable, easily portable, and inconspicuous compared to other items like gold, silver and jewelry. Over 1,000 paintings and calligraphy pieces were removed from the palace, though records vary as to the exact number. 

Removing the artifacts had its advantages. The palace was prone to theft and fire, often perpetuated by its resident eunuchs, resulting in the loss of many calligraphy pieces and paintings. Those taken out by Pu Yi were fortunate to have survived.  

After leaving the Forbidden City, Pu Yi moved to Tianjin and later became the puppet emperor of the Japanese-controlled Manchukuo in Changchun, Northeast China’s Jilin Province. He relied on these artworks to maintain his dignity and lifestyle.  

In 1945, at the end of World War II, Pu Yi left most of the artworks in his regime’s palace, known as the Xiaobailou (Small White Building), and escaped with only a small portion. Today, it is known as the Palace Museum of the Manchurian Regime in Changchun.  

The most valuable part of these artworks, numbering over 260 pieces, were said to have been carried out by Pu Yi himself. He intended to take them to Shenyang, Liaoning Province and escape to Japan by plane.  

However, Soviet Red Army troops occupied Shenyang airport just as the plane was about to take off. Pu Yi and his associates were arrested, and the artworks were confiscated. They remained in China and were eventually handed over to the Northeast Museum, known today as the Liaoning Provincial Museum.  

As a result, ancient calligraphy and paintings from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) can be found in three main collections: the Palace Museum in Beijing, the Palace Museum in Taipei (transferred by the Nationalist government to Taiwan), and the Liaoning Provincial Museum in Shenyang. Some paintings and calligraphy that initially were in the Liaoning Provincial Museum have since been transferred to the Palace Museum in Beijing, including the famous Northern Song painting Qingming Shanghe Tu, or Along the River During the Qingming Festival, by Zhang Zeduan.  

The artworks that Pu Yi took to Shenyang were few compared to those left in Changchun. In the rush, dozens of crates containing calligraphy and paintings were abandoned in the palace of the Manchurian Regime. Pu Yi’s guards seized some of them, and many were later sold in markets in northeast China and Beijing. Some ended up in the hands of Nationalist Party officials.  

Qi Xu’s Grazing by the River was among the works that remained in Changchun. It was acquired by Zhou Juemin, commander of the Nationalist 25th Army Group. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Zhou’s name was included on the list of war criminals.  

In 1983, Zhou’s wife, Li Qianyu, donated the painting to the Palace Museum in Beijing – ultimately returning it to where it came from.  

Her donation coincided with the resumption of work by the Chinese Ancient Art Appraisal Group, making Grazing by the River the first painting among the 80,000 artworks the Group examined. 

Grazing by the River was unanimously recognized as the only surviving treasure of Qi Xu. According to the Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings, a treatise on painting written during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), Qi Xu produced 44 works.  

For more than a century this artwork witnessed the turbulent changes in the nation’s history. It is now considered among China’s national treasures and is prohibited from leaving the country. On display to the public, its brilliant radiance shines once again. 

Wuniu Tu or Five Oxen by Tang Dynasty (618-907) painter Han Huang (Photo by VCG)