The eight luohan on the present screen, depicted with distinctive exaggerated features, originated with the famous late Tang to Five Dynasties painter Guanxiu (823-912), whose hugely influential rendition of each arhat’s iconography is seen on a number of Qing dynasty works of art. In the 22nd year of his reign (corresponding to 1757), the Qianlong Emperor embarked upon a tour of southern China and visited Hangzhou where he resided near Shengyin Si, the monastery that owned the original paintings of the sixteen luohan by Guanxiu. The Emperor believed the paintings to be the same set that had been recorded in the Xuanhe Huapu [The Xuande catalogue of paintings], the inventory of the Song dynasty emperor Huizong. Upon examining the paintings, the Emperor wrote a eulogy to each luohan image, renumbering them and providing a translation of their names in Chinese (Qing Gaozong yuzhi shiwen quanji [Anthology of imperial Qianlong poems and text], Yuzhi wen chu ji [Imperial text, vol. 1], juan 29: zan, pp. 1-3; Nick Pearce, ‘Images of Guanxiu’s Sixteen Luohan in Eighteenth-Century China’, Apollo, February 2003, pp. 25-31; fig. 1). The first part of the text can be translated as follows:
The 1st Arhat Angaja
Wearing a hundred-patch robe and leaning on a proper bamboo staff, his Vedic ritual texts in a book case, he stares at his akshamalika straight across his chest. What he has remembered is not nothing, although there are no words for it.
The 2nd Arhat Ajita
Grasping his knees he sits alone, utterly oblivious, seemingly free from troubles of the mind. But his mind is that of a bodhisattva, while his appearance is that of a king of hungry ghosts. With his left hand he applies sandalwood fragrance, and with his right he cuts with a sharp sword. But what hatred, what mercy does he ever feel, since he is equally free of both!
The 3rd Arhat Vanavasin
Eyes closed amidst the crags, he grasps non-arising and so attains perfect patience. Phenomena and principle all vanish as if they were flowing water or scudding clouds, and moment by moment he just takes things as they come – thoughts happen and there they are. So even this good kalpa with its buddhas with awe-inspiring voice is for him gone in the blink of an eye.
The 4th Arhat Kalika
Shaking the rock, he leans his knee on it and there takes his rest. It is only this superior being, neither speaking nor silent, that has such eyebrows that trail to the ground. As he pulls them up by hand, does he not seem to be sorting through clouds, and this shows how very fine they are.
The 5th Arhat Vajraputra
Visage with high forehead and prominent nose, in his person a haunted look, yet friendliness is somehow in it—who knows how! He has taken the sutras and thrown them to the ground, for his task of practicing and studying is finished. Though Buddhahood still abides not in him, how much the less is non-Buddhahood there!
The 6th Arhat Bhadra
Head consecrated with water, he has a big square jaw and wears a monk’s robe. When he chanted gathas about the seven past buddhas, everyone could hear him. Eyes aware to the emptiness of phenomenal appearance, he let sandpiper and clam perish in deadlock. Now he sits in lotus position, his task as itinerant monk finished.
The 7th Arhat Kanakavatsa
In a former life he was Drinker of Light and in a later life he was Huili. From Vulture Peak in India he knew to fly here. Though he has several pairs of straw boots and a single bamboo staff, these he may put aside and forever dwell at the Source of Holiness.
The 8th Arhat Kanakabharadvaja
For the five aggregates and six consciousnesses, actuality and illusion, similarities and differences, he just raises a single finger, though he’s not that fellow Tianlong. He dwells amidst trees and rocks, and hair sprouts from his hands and feet. Why not trim them? But who would trim a wild boar or deer?
In the 29th year of Qianlong’s reign (corresponding to 1764), the head abbot at the Shengyin Si monastery, Master Mingshui, instructed local stone engravers to copy the sixteen portraits, incising Guanxiu’s lines as well as the Emperor’s calligraphy and seals onto sixteen large flat stones that were embedded into the sixteen sides of the marble Miaoxiang Pagoda, now preserved in Temple of Confucius in Hangzhou. In the 42nd year (corresponding to 1777), the Shandong military governor Guotai presented to the Qianlong Emperor a screen of sixteen panels, each depicting a luohan based on the Miaoxiang marble stele version of Guanxiu’s paintings, complemented by the same imperial inscription inlaid with jade (fig. 2). According to the Qing court archives, the screen was installed in Yunguanglou (Building of Luminous Clouds) in the Qianlong Garden and is now in the Palace Museum, Beijing, exhibited in The Lofty Retreat from the Red Dust: The Secret Garden of Emperor Qianlong, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 2012, cat. no. 53. The Yunguanglou screen has an inscription on the tenth panel – believed to be a copy of Guanxiu’s colophon recording the making of the luohan paintings between 880 and 895 AD – in addition to a longer postscript on the last panel written by the Qianlong Emperor (ibid., pp. 216-232). For a detailed discussion on this screen, see Luo Wenhua, ‘Screen Paintings of Guanxiu’s Sixteen Arhats in the Collection of the Palace Museum’, Orientations, vol. 4, no. 6, September 2010, pp. 104-110.
See also a jade book in the Chester Beatty library, Dublin, portraying sixteen luohan with accompanying inscriptions, illustrated in William Watson, Chinese Jade Books in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, 1963, pls 6-7 (object no. C1007). A pair of carved polychrome panels, each depicting eight luohan with their attributes and the corresponding imperial text, was sold at Sotheby’s, one in London on 4th November 2009, lot 123, from the collection of Lieutenant colonel Arthur Bowdich Cottell and the other in Hong Kong, 3rd April 2018, lot 3626. Despite the difference in materials and compositions, the iconography of the respective luohan on the above examples is closely related to that of the present screen.
The set of paintings reputed to be by Guanxiu, was unfortunately lost during the turbulent years of the late Qing dynasty. The copies made by the court painter Ding Guanpeng (fl. 1737-68), now preserved in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, could perhaps shed some light on the appearance of Guanxiu’s originals. Ding’s set of luohan paintings are published in Gugong shuhua tulu/Illustrated Catalog of Chinese Painting in the National Palace Museum, vol. 13, Taipei, 1994, pp. 183-214, two of them later included the museum exhibition The All Complete Qianlong: The Aesthetic Tastes of the Qing Emperor Gaozong, Taipei, 2013, cat. nos III-1.18 (the 11th Arhat) and III-1.19 (the 16th Arhat), together with a related jade boulder with the 11th Arhat, cat. no. III-1.16.
For table screens similarly decorated with an imperial inscription and inlaid with jichimu and ivory, see an example depicting five hundred arhats, preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing and published in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Bamboo, Wood, Ivory and Rhinoceros Horn Carvings, Hong Kong, 2002, no. 196, and another with jade, ivory and jichimu inlays on a blue lacquered background, no. 192.
Several three-panel screens from the Qing court collection are still preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing, but are quite different from our present screen in terms of form and technique. A zitan and jichimu example from the Qianlong period is included in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Furniture of the Ming and Qing Dynasties (II), Shanghai, 2002, no. 201, together with another carved cinnabar lacquer screen, also from the Qianlong period and similarly pencilled in gilt with bats on the reverse, no. 202, and a polychrome carved lacquer three-panel screen, illustrated in situ behind a throne in Chongjingdian (Hall of Great Reverence), no. 257.
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