Thanksgiving Challenge & Zhongkui
To me, Thanksgiving’s meaning is laid out plainly in the name: giving thanks. Thanks for the coming new year, and thanks for the triumphs and the strength to overcome the hardships of the past one, and most importantly, giving thanks for family. In my position at Oakridge, I have the privilege of connecting with a wide variety of Chinese artworks featuring an even wider variety of mythical birds, beasts, and figures, but I have a special soft spot for Zhong Kui. (Auction 30, lot 567) Zhong Kui is well known in Chinese mythology for both his fearsome, ugly appearance and his ferocious disposition. He is generally depicted as a terrifying figure with a wild beard, war-like demeanor, and accompanied by a diminutive ghost companion. (Auction 51, lot 406) He is frequently used in art to ward off evil spirits and ghosts, to the point where Zhong Kui is referred to as the “King of Ghosts,” conquering all evil before him.
Fig. 1: Shiwan Zhongkui Statue w/ Wood Stand, 19th C. Dimensions are: 11 1/8 inches tall X 9 inches wide.
However, Zhong Kui does have a softer side. He is also a protector of children, and can frequently be seen playing with them and even carrying them on his shoulders, symbolically shielding them and driving off forces that might have tried to harm them.
Fig. 2: Famille Rose Statue of Zhongkui by Wei Hongtai. Dimensions are: 11 3/4 inches tall X 4 3/4 inches wide.
But nowhere is this softer side more evident than in depictions of Zhong Kui with his little sister, Zhong Li. In a watercolor and ink painting on paper by Yuan Jin, (Auction 52, lot 346) the unkempt, nearly-grotesque Zhong Kui rides his customary donkey while Zhong Lin rides a majestic white horse dressed in finery. The idea that Zhong Kui spares no expense for his sister’s comfort while uncaring of his own is a touching one. This theme is expanded upon in a scene on a famille rose vase dating from the Republic period (auction 29, lot 390) depicting Zhong Li preparing for her wedding to Du Ping. Savage warrior Zhong Kui is depicting carefully and gently helping her with her hair, as his ghost companion has been conscripted to hold the mirror. The accompanying poem on the vase reflects this dichotomy in Zhong Kui’s character, contrasting his demeanor on the battlefield to that in the presence of his sister and implying that underneath his ugly exterior is a shining spirit.
Fig. 3: Chinese Painting of Zhongkui by Yuan Jin.
So this Thanksgiving, I will send out my fervent hope that Zhong Kui is spending this day with his beloved sister, just as I hope everyone is sharing this special day with family. Happy Thanksgiving from all of here at Oakridge!
About the Author
Jennifer Clary joined Oakridge Auction Gallery in 2016, after pursuing both a Bachelor of Arts and a Master’s degree in Art History. She has extensive experience working hands-on with East Asian art with a specialization in Chinese art and antiques. Ms. Clary is currently pursuing a second Master's degree in Arts Management at George Mason University.