China, 6th-8th century AD
The Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies is an eighth-century copy of the earliest and finest painting attributed to Gu Kaizhi (about 345-406).
It illustrates a political parody written by Zhang Hua (about AD 232-300). The parody takes a moralizing tone, attacking the excessive behaviour of an empress. The protagonist is the court instructress who guides the ladies of the imperial harem on correct behaviour.
In total, nine scenes were depicted on this scroll, but it is now incomplete; the first two scenes are missing, as well as the text to the first scene.
None of Gu Kaizhi's original works has survived, but he has still acquired a legendary status, both as a painter and as a writer on Chinese painting. He was given extensive coverage in the dynastic histories and the seminal text on painting, Li-dai ming-hua ji written by Zhang Yanyuan (about AD 847).
Gu Kaizhi's reputation was probably helped by anecdotes about his eccentricity; he was said to have been perfect in 'painting, literary composition and foolishness'.
This painting has been executed in a fine linear style that is typical of fourth-century figure painting. Similar pictorial motifs have been discovered in contemporary tombs. Texts describe Gu Kaizhi as having painted in this manner. The inscriptions and seals on this scroll date back to the eighth century, when this copy of Gu's original was probably painted.
Before its arrival at the British Museum in 1903, the scroll passed through many hands. The history of the painting can be ascertained through the seals and inscriptions, beginning with the eighth-century seal of the Hongwen guan, a division of the Han-lin Academy.
The painting was subsequently in the collections of well-known connoisseurs who added their own seals and inscriptions, before ending up in the imperial collection during the reign of the Qianlong emperor (1736-96).