Most artists prefer to draw horses as horses symbolise speed, agility and elegance. Han preferred drawing oxen instead as they are symbols of diligence, perseverance and endurance. Oxen are not easily affected by the surroundings and stick to their habits and natural abilities.
In the painting, Han lined up the five oxen horizontally without any background. The five animals are vividly rendered in different postures. The first ox on the right is grazing, the second ox is looking upwards, the third ox one is in full frontal facing the audience, the fourth ox is looking back and the fifth ox is looking forward.
Drawing the five oxen with different postures and temperament shows the high skills of the painter. Han used the traditional Chinese ink line drawing technique to portray the powerful skeletal structure and muscles of the oxen in an accurate anatomical perspective. The lines are firm, smooth and bold to show the heavy weight of the oxen. Above all, the eyes of the oxen are so meticulously painted that they bring the animals to life.
The colours applied in the painting are light and elegant, with beautiful shades.
The painting was owned by many people including Emperor Huizong of Song (宋徽宗), and artists like Zhao Mengfu (趙孟頫). It was stolen from Zhao’s home and Zhao surprisingly found this painting in the palace of Yuan Dynasty in the studio of the prince (太子書房). The prince gave the painting away. During the Qing Dynasty, the painting was presented to Emperor Qianlong (乾隆皇帝) for his birthday in 1752. The painting was stored in the Old Summer Palace in Beijing. In 1860, the Old Summer Palace was sacked, looted and burned down during the invasion of the Anglo-French expeditionary forces (火燒圓明園). The painting then fell into the hands of private collectors. In 1950s the painting reappeared in an auction house in Hong Kong. Under the mediation of the then Prime Minister, Zhou Enlai (周恩來), the painting was purchased at the bidding price of HK$60,000 and returned to China. Unfortunately there are a lot of damages and small holes on the painting. It is now kept in the Palace Museum, Beijing.
The life of Han Huang (韓滉)
Han Huang (韓滉) (723 –787[), courtesy name Taichong (太沖), was an important official of the Tang Dynasty. He served in four generations of Emperors, Emperor Xuanzong (玄宗)(712-756), Emperor Suzong (肅宗)(756-762), Daizong (代宗)(762-779) and Dezong (德宗)(779-805). Han Huang’s father Han Xiu (韓休) was also an important official and briefly served as chancellor in Xuanzong’s reign. Despite the family being rich, Han Huang lived a very simple and frugal life. During his long career in the government, Han served in a number of offices, such as imperial censor, defence, rites, civil service affairs, executive bureau of government as well as the prefect and governor in various parts of the country. He was loyal to the Emperors, worked extremely hard and stamped out corruption in his administration. He was criticized for being too harsh and cruel in his governance.
In 783, due to Zhu Ci’s (朱泚) rebellion, the Tang Empire was thrown into confusion. Emperor Dezong fled from the capital Chang’an (長安) to Feng Tian (奉天). At that time Han Huang was the military governor (Jiedeshi節度使) of Zhenhai (鎮海). His well-trained soldiers participated in the rescue Emperor Dezong who finally returned to Chang’an. Unfortunately some wicked officials spoke ill of Han Huang and told the Emperor that Han Huang was so powerful that he might rebel and overthrow the Dynasty. The chancellor Li Mi (李泌) convinced Dezong that Han was loyal and faithful. According to some art historians, this Five Oxen painting was done at the time to show the Emperor that he was loyal and faithful like an ox serving the farmer.
In 784 the Chang’an region was stricken by a serious famine. Han Huang sent a large supply of rice to Chang’an. Emperor Dezong was very happy and gave him the honorary chancellor designation and put him in charge of the Yangtze-Huai River supply system. Han was later created the Duke of Zheng. He died in the spring of 787 and was buried with great honours, formally honoured as Duke Zhongsu of Jin (晉忠肅公).
Today people remember Han more as a great artist and calligrapher besides his political success and personal integrity.
In painting, Han was originally a follower of several great Chinese painters including Gu Kaizhi (顧愷之)(c 345-406). In calligraphy, he learned from ingenious calligraphers such as Zhang Xu (張旭)(c 675-750), known as the Sage of Cursive script (草聖). Later, Han himself became distinguished at painting figures and livestock such as oxen, goats and donkeys.
In Chinese culture, ‘five’ is widely used in auspicious sayings. Han Huang had at least five elder and three younger brothers, including Han Hao (韓浩), Han Qia (韓洽), Han Hong (韓洪), Han Huan (韓澣), Han Hong (韓汯),Han Hun (韓渾) and Han Hui (韓洄). They were also government officials. A few of them were killed in wars. Some art historians think that the five oxen represent Han and his brothers. This may not be true.
Painted on paper
A painting was painted 1,250 years ago on flax or hemp paper (麻紙). It has been widely recognized as the earliest extant paper painting in China. At that period, paper was much more rare and expensive than silk. Chengdu (成都) flax paper was the most famous. Nowadays silk is more expensive than paper.
Emperor Qianlong’s poem
Emperor Qianlong (乾隆皇帝) (1711-1799) wrote a poem on the painting ‘一牛絡首四牛閒，弘景高情想像間；舐齕詎唯夸曲肖，要因問喘識民艱。’
The poem talked about the ox wearing a bridle with four other idle oxen. Qianlong read into the painting that they were about the lofty sentiment of Tao Hongjing (陶弘景) and the wise counsel of Bing Ji (丙吉).
Tao Hongjing (陶弘景)(456-536) was a great scholar and a hermit in the mountains. Emperor Wu of Liang (502-549) (梁武帝), personal name Xiao Yan (蕭衍), asked Tao to come out of the mountains to take up a government post. Tao drew a picture of two oxen, one living a free life and the other with a bridle tied on its head and controlled by a keeper. Emperor Wu got the message that Tai wished to stay free and did not wish to be burdened with an official position. Tao cared for the people and still assisted the Emperor through correspondence. The Emperor occasionally went to the mountains to consult Tao about important matters of the state, and gave him the title of Shanzhong zaixiang (山中宰相) or Grand Councillor of the Mountains.
Bing Ji (丙吉)(?-55 BCE), was a Cheng xiang (丞相, prime minister) in Western Han (西漢) Dynasty (202 BCE to 8 CE). One day Bing Ji passed by some people fighting fiercely and he did not bother to stop the fighting. When he later saw some oxen panting and looked exhausted, he stopped and asked the peasants for the reason. People asked Bing Ji why he cared more for the animals. Bing explained that there were other officials looking about peasant affairs. The welfare of oxen was crucially important for farming. If the oxen were not well, food production would be affected and people would suffer. That was why he cared for the animals. His action led to an ancient saying of ‘丙吉問牛’ meaning caring for the people and dedicated to the country. Emperor Qianlong appreciated the stories behind Han Huang’s Five Oxen and described them in his poem. His poem showed that he thought highly of both Tao Hongjing and Bing Ji.
Seals of Emperor Huizong of Song (宋徽宗) and Emperor Gaozong of Song (宋高宗)
The big seal ‘Ruisi Dongge’ 睿思東閤 (閣) belongs to Emperor Huizong of Song (宋徽宗) Zhao Ji (趙佶) (1082-1135).
The small seal (on the left of the big seal) ‘Shaoxing’ 紹興 may belong to Emperor Gaozong of Song (宗高宗) Zhao Gou (趙構) (1107-1187). Shaoxing (紹興) (1131-1162) was his last ruling era.
Some of the seals of Emperor Qianlong (乾隆皇帝)
Emperor Qianlong’s (乾隆皇帝) stamped more than 15 seals on the scroll to show his ownership of the painting and also how much he appreciated it. The following are a few of them.
Han Huang’s (韓滉) Five Oxen (五牛圖) is one of the best ancient paintings of animals. It is also the earliest paper painting that has survived today. Painting animals is similar to painting people and it is laden with emotions and feelings. A fine painting can portray many stories. This is one of the reasons that Five Oxen is regarded as one of the top 10 masterpieces in Chinese art history.
馬菁菁 (2016) 山山水水聊聊畫畫 – 魏晋兩宋 上海人民出版社 ISBN 978-7-208-13975-6
Wang Yunliang & Wang Rong (2012) Classics Appreciation of Chinese Visual Arts – Painting. The Yellow River Publishing & Media Group Co. Ltd. ISBN 978-7-227-05116-9