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HONGWU - Accurate Essays



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The history of China boasts of numerous artists who created different forms of works. One particular area where artists excelled significantly is painting. The ancient Chinese painting and calligraphy emerged as one of the most essential aspects of Chinese art. It is believed that some paintings and calligraphy developed as early as 206-220 BCE during the time of Han dynasty. Painters varied in their skills and competence, which led them to focus on different aspects and develop works that match their competence. Whereas some artists focused on court painting, others focused on other areas. The study is an illustration of the court and outside court paintings by Hongwu. The artist started with court painting because he hailed from the emperor’s household and the people he interacted with impacted on his perception towards artistic expressions. Even though Hongwu started with court painting and focused on this area, he could also be termed as an artist-in-residence, off-hours court artist, and painting tutor because he engaged in outside the court painting that he also did professionally. Much is not known about Hongwu though his work depicts an artist who has brilliant ideas concerning his job as a painter. Hongwu’s court paintings receive favor before the emperor’s eyes who approved of them and supported the artist. His outside of court painting earned his further fame and through them he developed works that touch on various aspects of the society. Hongwu was a competent court and outside court painter who managed to establish his name in the field of painting through his bold initiatives and striking works that appealed to the audience.

Background Information

During the beginning of the 1770s, incidences at both sides of Eurasia significantly altered the conditions for the sharing of information among the two regions (Europe and Asia). In the European context, the initiatives to silent the Society of Jesus, accomplished in 1773, brought to a stall an institution that had directed and managed nearly all significant studies by the Chinese in the West for almost two hundred years.[1] In China, internal wrangles, culminating with the uprising against the Wang Lun in 1774, convinced Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) that religious dominance was the major obstacle to the stability of the Qing dynasty. The happenings escalated upon each other. Disgruntlement between missionaries after the suppression of the Society of Jesus increased the emperor’s suspicion, resulting in further limitations on their operations. Consequently, the last twenty years of the Qianlong leadership saw an increased number of French missionaries in Beijing, who are now regular priests, though still refer to themselves ex-jesuites – draw from public life. Onwards, their chief support did not come from the Qing or Church, but from the French government. It is not bizarre, therefore, that for this period of time there is scarcely any trace of contact between local people and missionaries. Historians are well conversant with exchange of ideas in Beijing and the larger China from the times Matteo Ricci had significant influence in developing Jesuit China missions prior to his death in 1610 through the emergence of the suppression initiatives, but have very scanty information regarding what transpired after the beginning of 1770s.[2] It appears that meaningful interaction between local people and remaining missionaries decreased significantly.

Lack of clear and adequate information concerning the relationship between locals and missionaries starting from the mid-1700s is the reason why very few scholars have acknowledged the presence and works of the amiable prince whom the French referred to as Hong wu ye and not many historians so far have attempted to focus on him. Two main factors contribute to lack of much clarity about Hongwu (1743-1811).[3] One of the reasons is that Hongwu’s name does not appear in many of the hand-written letters that were generated and preserved during the time. Most of these productions did not reach the press, and the few that made their way, some parts were largely edited leaving out a lot of information. The other reason is that the missionaries who wrote the letters never generated Chinese characters for Hongwu’s name. Even though he was the grandson of Emperor Kangxi, the fact that the leader had many children and grandchildren made it difficult to pay special attention to Hongwu.[4] He did not enjoy a high rank like some of his step brothers but continued to live with his family in the Imperial City. He actually spent his early years at the core of the Qing court, when French missionaries were still present and influential.

It was apparent from young age that Hongwu had strong inclinations towards artistic expressions. He painted the waterworks placed at the imperial palace when he was barely twenty years. It is believed that Castiglione, a Jesuit artist, played fundamental roles in encouraging young Hongwu to embrace and appreciate painting. Hongwu desire and love for artistic expressions also thrived following his meeting with Benoist, a French missionary, who was at the time in charge of designing and maintaining the emperor’s palace using European technology. It is believed that Benoist with his mastery of his work and the extensive knowledge he has about different concepts asked the grandson of the Kangxi Empire how to find through calculations eclipses. Statman agree that well-connected and brilliant missionaries like Castiglione and Benoist could have substantial impact on a curious young person.[5] As a young person, Hongwu achieved certain ranks though of minor distinction, but he did not take proud in these achievements. He was honored as second-rank general at the first quarter of 1760s when he reached twenty years and later in 1774 achieved the rank of banner prince. However, his political career and ambitions came to an abrupt end after his blood brother accused his of conspiracy and corrupt dealings. The claimes hurt the emperor who ordered that Hongwu be stripped of his powers and titles. The prince’s political career did not pick up though he maintained his relations with the emperor’s family. However, he was secluded when it comes to matters of the government.

It is during this time that Hongwu opted to focus on artistic production and letter writing. He perceived his freedom as a suitable chance to paint watercolors, gather books, create poems, write calligraphy, and engage in other activities that he deemed appropriate for him. He became acknowledged as a man who single-handedly developed his library that comprised of thousands of published works. He turned out to be one of the highly revered artists in the entire Manchu court, glorified particularly for his paintings and calligraphy. He even gained favor again before the emperor, who directed that many of Hongwu’s works be hanged at different places in the palace.[6] The imperial catalogue comprised of at least thirty-seven of the prince’s works, and more than a hundred pieces are still held at the Beijing Palace Museum until today.

Court Painting

Hongwu attached himself with a courtly group of aspiring scholars and artists. Hongwu mostly ventured in court painting, which referred to offering painting services for the emperor and other highly placed officials. A court artist sometimes offered their services on a fixes remuneration and on an exclusive contract where the artists was not required to perform other duties.[7] Court painters were the most hired, but it was also not uncommon to find court sculptors.[8]  Most of Hongwu’s court paintings were in the form of scrolls. One particular example is the “Calligraphic Couplet in Seal Script” (1787), which is in the form of a pair of hanging scrolls with the medium being ink on paper. Each scroll measures an estimate size of 129 X 31 centimeters.[9] Three seals of Hongwu are attached to the artwork. It is believed that Hongwu dedicated the work to Hanpu, who was the leader of Jurchen Wanyan people, during the early 10th century.[10] The message is relevant to its setting (the emperor’s palace) because through it the person in power can relate it to the deeds of Hanpu to whom the poem is dedicated.

Outside Court Painting

However, whereas it emerges that Hongwu largely focused on court painting, he also engaged in painting outside the court. Painting outside the court was perceived as an urban concept focused on cities but was also applied in contexts that were essentially extensions of urban developments. For instance, an artist could paint when traveling from one destination to the other, or a person might while returning from the city to the countryside after retirement.[11] Similarly, a monk can engage in outside the court painting when they are stationed at an interior station. The urban network in this case should not be perceived as collection of modern settings but as an interconnected feature stretching deep into the country. One factor that promoted outside the court painting, and which encouraged many artists to venture into the area professionally is that the Qing leadership provided support to all artists who ventured into this area. The outside court painting profession was largely differentiated, and the most suitable way to perceive the differentiation is with regard to diverse but overlapping professional roles and profiles that painters took at one time or another of their profession.[12] Not all painters could access all profiles, but all painters had numerous profiles available to them, and almost no artist held one profile during the lifetime of their career. While considering the professional profiles, it is essential to consider that painters during the time did not spend their entire career being painters. Many spared much time of their lives serving as business people, state officials, tutors, and editors among other fields. Overall, artists engaging in outside the court painting were categorized as semi-professionals, artists-in-residence, off-hours court artists, painting tutors, substitute brushes, secretariat artists, itinerant artists, workshop masters, city-based literati professionals, and those living off symbolic capital who differentiated their style from city-based artists.

Hongwu could be termed as an artist-in-residence who accepted the invitations of long-term clients who hired them as artists in their residences. Many other court painters during Hongwu’s time also embraced the approach. Other than Hongwu who was hosted by various noble people while offering his outside the court painting services, other painters were invited in a similar manner, which suggests that the practice was rampant during the time. For example, Jin Nong, a renowned the artist-in-residence painter was hosted by Jiang Chun and Fang Shishu was hosted by Wang Tingzhang.[13] Many other artists were hosted in the similar manner as Hongwu. Jin Deyu (1750-1800) who resided in the north of Hangzhou and had served as an officer of the government hosted Fang Xun. A well-known spendthrift, Jin had lost all his money by the time old age was knocking, but from the onset of the 1750s, he became Xun’s patron. In addition to being an artist-in-residence, Hongwu could be termed as an off-hours court artist.[14] An artist in this category could either be a full-time artist or serving for the government in different capacities. As an off-hours court artist, Hongwu could find other clients within the capital and in other areas, either in a semi-professional or fully professional capacity. Often the works Hongwu did with outside clients were more experimental than the services they offered at the court. Finally, Hongwu would be termed as a painting tutor, though this role was occasional. His experience and mastery of the field compelled many rich parents to send their children to take lessons with the renowned painter. However, other artists also made an income using the approach. Whereas men had dominated other areas, women artists were at an advantage to earn a living as a painting tutor. Some of the women who excelled in this area, include Wang Zheng from Xinghua and Li Shan who reportedly got lessons from Zheng.

Hongwu’s various outside court painting reflects his mastery in the field where he gained much prominence and attention. One particular example that earned him much fame is “Landscape Fans” (1806). The art, which is in the form of ink on paper is has a poem by Hongwu and is signed by him.[15] Xiao Junxian who co-creates the artwork with Hongwu also signs the work and appends two seals compared to Hongwu’s four seals. Chinese landscape painting was perceived as the highest form of painting and still impacts significantly in modern productions.[16] Hongwu while engaging in outside court painting acknowledged the fact that in the Chinese society, people have acknowledged and appreciated natural beauty for so long. Earlier paintings before Hongwu depicted themes related to agricultural practices and everyday practices related to animals and crops. Artists were fond of painting mountains because their highness reflected human greatness.[17] Furthermore, the artists created presentations of mountains because they believed that their stability and permanent nature signifies the power the imperial family holds. Moreover, many artists including Hongwu emphasized on landscape painting, especially the presentation of mountains because the difficulty one encounters while climbing represent the hardships people encounter in their lives. In “Landscape Fans” Hongwu and Xiao paint a landscape showing trees and some hills on the background. The artists incorporate the key elements of a painting in their work, including effective use of lines, shape, texture, space, tone and color. For example, using various lines such as curved lines, diagonal lines, and horizontal lines helps to develop the various forms that appear in the painting.

Another outside court painting by Hongwu that gained much fame and accolades is “Landscape after Huand Gongwang” (1796). The image shows some vegetation and appear like mountains in the background.[18] The painting that is dedicated to Gongwang (1269-1354) who was a glorified poet, writer, and painter in China further reiterates the value the Chinese assign to landscape painting, particularly the presentation of mountainous features. The shading in the painting make all elements conspicuous and help to emphasize some of the key elements.

“Landscape after Huand Gongwang” (1796)[19]


The study examines the artistic works by Hongwu as a court and outside the court painter. The artist started as a court painter because of his environment as a young person and artist. He spent most of his time in the palace and interacted with many noble people who impacted on his artistic perceptions and ideas. As a court painter, Hongwu generated works such as “Calligraphic Couplet in Seal Script” (1787), which was in the form of calligraphy. In addition to court painting, Hongwu ventured significantly into outside court painting where he individually and collaboratively generated works on different themes. One particular area where Hongwu paid much attention was landscape painting because the Chinese have always glorified this area because of the significance it has on the society. “Landscape after Huand Gongwang” (1796) is another outside painting by Hongwu that showed his interest in landscape painting. In the painting he depicts vegetation and mountains that were and still remain the primary elements of landscape painting. Overall, the study suggests that Hongwu did not only excel in court painting that he learned as a young boy, but also did well in outside court painting.


Chen, Maoliu. “Reflections on the Changes of Court Painting and Painting Mounting of Song and Yuan Dynasties.” Conference: 4th International Conference on Culture, Education and Economic Development of Modern Society (ICCESE 2020), 2020, doi:10.2991/assehr.k.200316.045

Geng, Ran. “Study on Giuseppe Castiglione, a Court Painter in the Qing Dynasty.” Open Journal of Social Sciences, vol. 9, no. 9, 2021, pp. 193-203. 

“Hong Wu (1743-1811): Calligraphic Couplet in Seal Script.” Christie’s, 2021, . [Accessed November 30, 2021]

“Hong Wu (1743-1811) and Xiao Junxian (1865-1949): Landscape Fans.” Christie’s, 2021, . [Accessed November 30, 2021]

“Landscape After Huang Gongwang.” Artfox, 2021, [Accessed November 30, 2021]

“Landscape After Huang Gongwang.” Sotheby’s, 2021, [Accessed November 30, 2021]

Law, Sophia. “Being in Traditional Chinese Landscape Painting.” Journal of Intercultural Studies, vol. 32, no. 4, 2011, pp. 369-382.

Statman, Alexander. “A Forgotten Friendship: How a French Missionary and a Manchu Prince Studied Electricity and Ballooning in Late Eighteenth Century Beijing.” EASTM, vol. 46, 2017, pp. 89-118.

Week 8. “In the City: The Urban Painting Profession.”

[1] Alexander Statman. “A Forgotten Friendship: How a French Missionary and a Manchu Prince Studied Electricity and Ballooning in Late Eighteenth Century Beijing”(EASTM, vol. 46, 2017) pp. 90

[2] Statman. “A Forgotten Friendship”, p. 90

[3] Ibid 93

[4] Ibid 93

[5] Ibid 94

[6] Statman. “A Forgotten Friendship”, p. 95

[7] Ran Geng. “Study on Giuseppe Castiglione, a Court Painter in the Qing Dynasty (Open Journal of Social Sciences, vol. 9, no. 9, 2021) pp. 196. 

[8] Maoliu Chen. “Reflections on the Changes of Court Painting and Painting Mounting of Song and Yuan Dynasties.” Conference: 4th International Conference on Culture, Education and Economic Development of Modern Society (ICCESE 2020), 2020, doi:10.2991/assehr.k.200316.045

[9] “Hong Wu (1743-1811): Calligraphic Couplet in Seal Script.” Christie’s, 2021, [Accessed November 30, 2021]

[10] Ibid

[11] Week 8. “In the City: The Urban Painting Profession.”

[12] Week 8. “In the City: The Urban Painting Profession.”

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid

[15] “Hong Wu (1743-1811) and Xiao Junxian (1865-1949): Landscape Fans.” Christie’s, 2021, [Accessed November 30, 2021]

[16] Sophia Law. “Being in Traditional Chinese Landscape Painting” (Journal of Intercultural Studies, vol. 32, no. 4, 2011) pp. 372

[17] Ibid, 373

[18] “Landscape After Huang Gongwang.” Artfox, 2021, [Accessed November 30, 2021]

[19] “Landscape After Huang Gongwang.” Sotheby’s, 2021, [Accessed November 30, 2021]

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