The painting portrays the story of two highly patriotic brothers Boyi (伯夷) and Shuqi (叔齊) who protested about the fall of the Shang dynasty in around 1046 BC and starved themselves to death.
The figures were vividly depicted with simple, bold and confident lines. The light-coloured clothes of the figures against the dark background and the solemnity on their faces depict the noble nature of Shuqi and Boyi.
Boyi (伯夷) and his brother Shuqi (叔齊) lived at the time of transition between Shang dynasty (商朝) (c1600 BC – c1046 BC) and Zhou dynasty (周朝) (c1046 BC to 256 BC). Boyi and Shuqi were the sons of Yawei (亞微), the Ruling Lord of Guzhu State (孤竹園) which was a vassal state (諸侯國) of Zhang dynasty. Traditionally the succession to the ruler-ship would have gone to the elder son Boyi but Yawei would like to pass the ruler-ship to Shuqi instead. Shuqi did not want to take the ruler-ship from his brother. As both brothers had high moral virtue and were highly courteous to each other, they did not want to engage themselves in a conflict and disharmonious relationship. They left their homeland and fled to Zhou (周), another vassel state of Zhang.
Zhou was ruled by Ji Chang (姬昌) later known as King Wen of Zhōu (周文王)(1152 BC – 1056 BC). Ji Chang was a righteous and highly knowledgeable leader and he looked after his people well.
On the other hand, Shang ruler Di Xin (帝辛), later known as King Zhòu (紂王)(different from Zhōu 周) became extremely obsessed with his consort Daji (妲已) who was a charming but wicked and cruel woman. Di Xin neglected state affairs to keep Daji’s company. Di Xin gathered three thousand guests at a party to indulge in his ‘pond of wine’ and ‘forest of meat (酒池肉林). His country was misruled, with high taxes, mass hunger and extreme cruelty. The Zhang dynasty was in a great turmoil.
King Wen of Zhou died and was succeeded by Ji Fa (姬發), later known as King Wu of Zhou (周武王). Ji Fa immediately marshalled his army and fought against Di Xin of Shang. The two brothers Boyi and Shuqi attempted to stop the army of Ji Fa. They pulled on the chariot reins of Ji Fa remonstrating with Ji Fa for his lack of filial piety (孝道). Ji Fa should mourn longer (eg for three years) for his recently deceased father. He should not go off to war and rebel against Di Xin, the ruler of Shang. Ji Fa ignored the two brothers and his army continued on its way to eventual victory over Shang dynasty in the extremely violent slaughter known as the Battle of Muye (牧野之戰). Di Xin killed himself and Daji was executed. Sheng dynasty was overthrown and Ji Fa started the Zhou Dynasty as the first King in around 1046 BC.
Boyi and Shuqi protested by retreating to the wilderness in Shouyang Mountain (首陽山). They thought that Ji Fa should not use violence against violence (以暴易暴). They refused to eat the produce of Zhou (‘five grains’). They just lived on osmund (薇): wild fiddlehead ferns (Osmunda japonica) until they were reminded that these plants too now belonged to the Zhou dynasty. Then they starved themselves to death.
The story of Boyi and Shuqi was recorded by Sima Qian (司馬遷)(c145 or 135 BC to 90 BC), the father of Chinese historiography for his Records of the Grand Historian (太史公書), now known as Shǐjì (史記). The story of Boyi and Shuqi have been used as artistic references in painting, poetry and literature. The painting of Li Tang is one of the best examples. Qi Jian (屈原) (c340 BC- c278 BC) referenced Boyi and Shuqi with extravagant praise. Du Fu (杜甫) (712 – 770) also wrote poems about them. During the Song dynasty in 1102, Boyi and Shuqi were both posthumously awarded the rank of Marquis of Pure Wisdom and Marquis of Benevolent Wisdom respectively.
Many people think that Boyi and Shuyi were stubborn and stupid. Di Xin was a wicked and cruel ruler and Ji Fa did a great job to overthrow the Zhang dynasty, stopping more suffering for the people. Boyi and Shuyi should rejoice instead of starving themselves to death. The filial piety to Di Xin was misplaced.
Many people blamed Confucius (孔子)(551 BC – 479 BC) for teaching people about filial piety and loyalty to the kings. The two brothers were born about 500 years before Confucius. It is unfair to lay the blame on Confucius. Filial piety has been in the Chinese culture for a long long time.
The painter Li Tang (1066-1150) was a contemporary of Huizong (宋徽宗)(1082-1135) and Emperor Gaozong (宋高宗) (1107-1187). As the painting was undated we do not know whether the painting was done before or after Jingkang Incident (靖康事變), the loss of Northern Song to Jīn Dynasty (金朝) in 1127. Around that period the dynasty was unstable or even in turmoil. Huizong elevated the two brothers into the pantheon of worthies and sent the message that the court valued and would reward loyalty. Most scholars think that the painting was done after 1127 in Southern Song period.
Li Tang (李唐)(c1066-c1130) was a Song dynasty landscape painter. He perfected the technique of ‘axe-cut’ brush-strokes (斧劈皴). Li Tang was also famous for figure painting.
Li Tang worked for Emperor Huizong (宋徽宗) and he earned the highest rank in the Painting Academy at the court in Bianjing (汴京). He survived the invasion by the Jurchen Jin dynasty (金朝) 1127 and he moved to Lin’an (臨安). He continued to serve as painter in the court under Emperor Gaozong (宋高宗) and died around 1130.
A good painting is not only for ornamental purposes and usually has a deeper story behind, inspiring the readers.
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
Murck, Alfreda (2000) Poetry and Painting in Song China: The Subtle Art of Dissent. Harvard University Asia Center. ISBN 978-0-674-00782-6
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