This particular image of Abheda can be traced to the portrait series of the sixteen luohan painted by the Tang dynasty painter-poet-monk, Guanxiu, in 891. In it, the artist depicted the enlightened disciples with grotesque bodies, hunched backs, bushy eyebrows, and pronounced foreheads, as they had allegedly appeared to him in a dream. He then labeled each portrait with the Sinicized name of the arhat, according to the pilgrim Xuanzang’s (596-664) translation of the Fahua jin (Annotated Record of Buddhism). These bizarre portraits captured the imaginations of devotees, and the series was preserved in the Shengyin Temple near Qiantang (now Hangzhou) until 1861.
In 1757, the Qianlong Emperor visited the Shengyin Temple during his Southern inspection tour to study the portraits as an act of religious devotion. There is some debate as to whether the emperor viewed the original paintings or later copies, but in any case, he recorded that he had seen the masterpieces by Guanxiu and was inspired to personally study their contents and have their images proliferated. As a serious practitioner of Buddhism, the emperor noticed that the names on each of the portraits did not conform to the Sanskrit, so he annotated the paintings with the corrected names and reordered them according to his own teacher’s interpretation of their sequence in the Tongwen yuntong (Unified Rhymes). The emperor then penned two colophons on each painting, respectively eulogizing and reidentifying the luohan depicted. On the painting of the sixteenth luohan, Abheda, he also added a lengthy colophon describing his process of studying and reattributing each image.
Subsequently, the Qianlong Emperor commanded the palace painting master, Ding Guanpeng (act. 1708-ca. 1771) to copy the paintings and the new inscriptions that he had applied to them. Ding’s copies are now in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, and published Gugong shuhua tulu / Illustrated Catalog of Chinese Painting in the National Palace Museum, vol. 13, Taipei, 1994, pp. 183-214. Over the decades, the emperor had the images reproduced in additional media, including textiles and jades.
In 1764, the abbot at Shengyin Temple, Master Mingshui, instructed local stone engravers to copy Guanxiu’s paintings and the emperor’s colophons and seals. The sixteen engraved stone panels were installed on the sixteen sides of the Miaoxiang Pagoda in Hangzhou. Rubbings of the engravings were made by adherents as acts of piety, allowing the images and the emperor’s comments to proliferate further. The rubbings taken from it, as well as stone copies of the stele, are also preserved in museums, libraries, and private collections to this day (fig. 1). The pagoda and its carvings have since been moved to the Hangzhou Stele Forest.
From the outset, the rubbings were widely admired. Knowing the emperor’s fondness for them, in 1778, the military governor of Shandong province, Guotai (d. ca. 1782), presented the Qianlong Emperor with a magnificent zitan folding screen set with black lacquer panels inlaid with white jade in imitation of the rubbings. The emperor was so impressed by the splendid gift that he had the Yunguanglou (Building of Luminous Clouds) of the Imperial Palace completely redesigned to accommodate and complement it. The illustrious screen remains part of the Qing Court Collection at the Palace Museum, Beijing, and was exhibited in the traveling exhibition The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, 2010, cat. no. 49.
The present boulder closely follows the design of Guanxiu’s portrait, as preserved in the stele and rubbings. In the rocky overhang above the luohan, the Qianlong Emperor’s identification of the subject is recorded beside his eulogy on the painting. The colophon describing the emperor’s study of the paintings is inscribed on the reverse side. This would presumably have been made as part of a set of sixteen pictorial boulders, with the present one perhaps ranking as the most important due to its inclusion of the lengthy third colophon describing the emperor’s contribution to the legacy of Guanxiu’s paintings.
A strikingly similar jade boulder depicting the second luohan, Kanakavasta, accompanied by the two imperial colophons and seals is in the collection of the Wou Lien-Pai Museum and published in Rose Kerr et al., Chinese Antiquities from the Wou Kiuan Collection, Surrey, 2011, pl. 177 (fig. 2). See also a celadon jade boulder featuring the third arhat, Vanavasa, which generally follows Guanxiu’s design and is inscribed with the two imperial colophons, plus a six-character reign mark sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 27th April 2003, lot 22; and a related white jade boulder also carved with the sixteenth luohan, Abheda, inscribed with an imperial eulogy and dated to 1758, from the Crystalite Collection sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 30th May 2016, lot 3021. A white jade ‘luohan’ boulder, also from the Florence and Herbert Irving Collection, but carved with a design not derived from Guanxiu’s series, sold at Christie’s New York, 20th March 2019, lot 823.
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