Qian Xuan (about 1235–1300) was a scholar-official from Wuxing, Zhejiang Province. After the Mongol conquest of China in 1279, he became a yimin (‘leftover subject’). Yimin were officials who preferred retirement from public life to serving the alien Yuan dynasty (1279–1368). Like many of his compatriots, he turned to artistic pursuits to support himself. A literati painter, Qian painted landscapes, historical figures and flowers.
Yimin painters revived past styles of painting to remind them of China’s glorious past (fugu—‘return to the past’). The nobleman’s costume is painted in the fine linear style reminiscent of Gu Kaizhi (about 345–406). The flat use of colour and bare background add to the sense of restraint and detachment typical of Yuan painting.
The accompanying poem was copied from a painting by Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322), the leading artistic and literary talent of the Yuan period. Zhao, who briefly served the Mongols, painted men and horses to reflect his ambivalence towards public service. The sad tone of the poem must have echoed Qian’s feelings:
‘Wuling is in the prime of youth, Energetic and restless, with white steed and golden saddle, He is in high spirits, Holding his bow he calls the oriole, but no oriole comes. Ancient catalpa and setting sun: what can be done about age?’
(translated by R. Whitfield)
© The Trustees of the British Museum
A. Farrer, The brush dances and the ink s (Hayward Gallery, London, 1990)
J. Rawson (ed.), The British Museum book of Chi (London, The British Museum Press, 1992)
K. Suzuki (ed.), Comprehensive illustrated cata (University of Tokyo Press, 1982)