In the late Wei Dynasty (AD 220-266), which was one of the three major states that competed for supremacy over China in the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-280), there were seven famous Chinese scholars, poets and musicians — Ji Kang, Liu Ling, Ruan Ji, Ruan Xian, Xiang Xiu, Wang Rong and Shan Tao — known as the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove.
They regularly banded together to drink wine, write poems and sing songs in the bamboo forest, intending to escape from the hypocrisy of the political world and pursue rustic life.
Advocating freedom of individual expression, the seven literary moguls were pure and lofty, free and easy.
After almost 2,000 years, art and history lovers can get a glimpse of their unrestrained manners through a painting called “Gaoyi Tu,” which was created by Sun Wei of the late Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). The painting is believed to be the earliest one among the works with the same theme and the only known surviving scroll of Sun.
Sun served as an imperial painter during the reign of Emperor Xizong of the Tang Dynasty. Sun was skilled in drawing figures, landscape, bamboo, stones and Buddhist paintings.
Due to the unbearable burden of excessive taxes, the miserable farmers launch an uprising against the court in 880. In December of that year, the uprising approached Chang’an in today’s Xi’an, which was the capital of China at that time.
The upheaval made the court a scene of chaos. Emperor Xizong asked servants to pack up immediately. Without ministers’ company, the emperor asked only Sun and his imperial concubines to go along with him. They escaped to Sichuan Province.
Although Sun was thought highly of by the emperor, the painter felt depressed as the dynasty was about to fall apart. He always stayed in his room and drank wine alone.
One day, he went into a bamboo forest, which reminded him of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove.
Sharing the same adverse circumstances with his seven ancestors, Sun also wanted to be far from the madding crowd and escape the corruption and stifling atmosphere of the political circle, so he painted a handscroll portraying his predecessors.
Sun started with the figure of Shan, the oldest one in the group of seven people. Loosening his long robe and leaning on a delicate cushion, Shan is relaxed and unconstrained in the picture. A child servant holding a guqin (a plucked seven-string Chinese instrument) stands behind Shan.
A set of exquisite wine vessels are placed beside Shan. However, the wine lover doesn’t seem to be attracted by it. It is said that Shan had a sense of propriety in drinking alcohol. Drinking slowly and knowing when to stop, he had never been drunk in his lifetime.
After drawing the figure of Shan, Sun felt confused as he found it difficult to make each of the seven sages distinguishing.
To have a better understanding of them, Sun read their books day and night.
According to historical documents, Wang, an official and scholar of the Jin Dynasty (AD 265-420), was able to stare at the sun without blinking during his childhood. With the piercing eyes, Wang had astute observation skills.
In Sun’s handscroll, Wang, sitting next to Shan, calmly looks at others with a ruyi, which is a symbolic scepter of good fortune, in his right hand. His attendant holds several handscrolls.
The 168.7-centimeter-long hand scroll is viewed starting from the right end. The third figure is Liu who was famous for his crazy love of wine.
A folk tale notes that Liu was always followed by a servant bearing a bottle of wine and a shovel, which would be used to bury him if he fell over dead.
Based on Liu’s characteristics, Sun created his image, holding a wine cup in both of his hands while turning around and gargling. A big wine vessel is placed in front of him. A child attendant kneels down before Liu.
The fourth person is Ruan who was a poet and musician living in the late Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220) and Three Kingdoms’ period. With a smile on his face, Ruan holds a whisk made of a deer’s tail. The object is a spiritual tool for purifying a space and removing evil influences in Taoism.
Over the centuries, the painting got damaged, and only part of it survives with just four of the seven figures remaining. The images of righteous Ji, talented Xiang and unrestrained Ruan disappeared.
The painting bears no inscription of Sun but the title given by Emperor Huizong of the Song Dynasty (960-1279).
The emperor wrote five Chinese characters in his unique calligraphy style named “Slender Gold,” explaining that the painting is Sun Wei’s “Gaoyi Tu.”
The national treasure is exhibited at Shanghai Museum and is one of the highlights in the museum collection.