The Four Sages of Shang Shan (商山四皓), artist anonymous, date of painting unknown, ink and light colours on paper, 22 x 36 cm for the above portion shown, private collection.


The Four Sages of Shang Shan (商山四皓) were four elderly highly educated scholars who served the Qin Dynasty (秦朝) as high government administrators but they left their posts and chose a life of seclusion in a mountain called Shang Shan (商山). They were well-known for their high moral standard.


The names of the four sages or recluses were Dōng Yuángōng (Táng Bǐng) 東園公 (唐秉), Lù Lǐ (Zhōu Shù) 甪里 (周術), Qǐ Lǐ Jì (Wú Shíhé) 綺里季 (實和), Xià Huánggōng (Cuī Guǎng) 夏黃公 (崔廣).


First Emperor of Qin, Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇) was a powerful emperor but he was very cruel and arrogant. He banned and burned many books and executed scholars. This was the reason that the four scholars stopped serving the Qin dynasty.


Despite its military strength, the Qin Dynasty did not last long. When the first emperor died in 210 BC, a different son was placed on the throne by two of the previous emperor’s advisors, in an attempt to influence and control the administration of the entire dynasty. These advisors squabbled among themselves, however, resulting in their deaths as well as that of the second Qin emperor. Popular revolt broke out and the weakened empire soon fell to Liu Bang (劉邦) who founded the Han Dynasty (漢朝). Liu Bang known as Emperor Gaozu (高祖) (reigned 202–195 B.C) originated from the peasant class. He was also arrogant and did not respect scholars. Gaozu asked the Four Sages to serve the government and they refused.


Later on the emperor Gaozu decided to disinherit his son Liú Yíng (劉盈), the heir apparent, in favour of another son. Liu Ying was the son of Empress Lǚ Zhì (呂雉). He was a kind and generous young man with high moral standard. Empress Lǚ and Zhāngliáng (張良), the emperor’s trusted counsellor devised a plan to convince the emperor not to change the imperial succession. According to the plan, the Four Sages were persuaded to leave their mountain hideaway to assist Prince Ying. The Sages agreed as they trusted that Prince Ying would be a good emperor. Gaozu believed that Four sages could gave good support to Ying and Ying was restored to be the rightful heir.


Gaozu died and Prince Ying became the  Emperor Xiaohui (孝惠帝)(210–188 BC), the second emperor of the Han Dynasty. Xiaohui (孝惠) means ‘filial and benevolent’. Despite Emperor Xiaohui  was a kind and generous person, he is generally remembered as a weak character dominated by his mother, Empress Dowager Lü. Xiaohui was not able to escape the impact of her viciousness. He tried to protect Ruyi (劉如意) his younger half-brother, from being murdered by Empress Dowager Lü, but failed. After that he indulged himself in drinking and sex. The Four Sages tried to put Emperor Xiaohui back to the right path but in vain. They left him and returned to the mountain. Emperor Xiaohui died at a relatively young age.


The above painting has been in the collector’s family in Hong Kong for more than a hundred years. The figures were very well drawn with delicate and vivid brush strokes, showing lively facial expressions.