Gods, Guardians and Immortals

8 February – 5 August 2007

Room 91

Admission free

Painting is a highly regarded art form in China, second only to calligraphy. This exhibition, the second in a series of five planned displays of Chinese painting, focuses on depictions of deities, virtuous humans and visions of paradise from China’s major religions. There has always been a pragmatic view of religions and philosophies in China and people have happily accepted a mixture of Buddhist, Daoist and Confucian popular images. This exhibition presents examples from the British Museum’s extensive collection and is a unique opportunity to see these paintings which are extremely fragile and can only be displayed for short periods of time.

The first section of the exhibition will examine Buddhism, explaining its key tenets and the meaning of the symbols in Buddhist paintings. Paintings of the Buddha usually show him accompanied by Bodhisattvas (enlightened beings who have chosen to remain on earth to help others attain enlightenment), monks or guardian figures. They often depict stories from his life on earth. Examples on display include Maitreya's Paradise from the Tang or 5 Dynasties (9-10th century from Dunhuang on the Silk Road) and the exquisite Portrait of a Priest, Qing Dynasty from the 17th century.

Daoist beliefs and the eight Daoist immortals will be explained using paintings such as Qian Gu’s Portrait of Laozi with calligraphy of the Daodejing, 1534, or Yuan Jiang’s 1723 painting of Penglai, the legendary abode of the Immortals. Landscape painting is a very important aspect of Daoism, as mountains were seen as places where vital energy was strongest. Through a display of ceramic material, this section will also investigate how Daoism and other religions have been combined to produce a whole series of popular gods for use in everyday life.

The famous Admonitions scroll will be used to illustrate the depiction of Confucian philosophy. The scroll is thought to be a sixth-century copy of the earliest and finest painting attributed to Gu Kaizhi (about 345-496). The Admonitions Scroll illustrates a typical Confucian poem about virtue and correct behaviour for women. The author, Zhang Hua (AD 232–300), cleverly used it to criticise the behaviour of the Empress Jia, who dominated her young husband Emperor Huidi (reigned AD 290–306).

The next exhibition in this series on Chinese Painting, ragile Nature, will open in spring 2008

For further information or images please contact Hannah Boulton on 020 7323 8522 or hboulton@thebritishmuseum.ac.uk