The Four Elders of Mount Shang and the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove


The Four Elders of Mount Shang and the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove

Paintings / Muromachi

Attributed to Kanō Motonobu (1477–1559)

Muromachi period, 16th century

Ink on paper


This left-and-right pair of folding screens depicts people enjoying themselves amid nature. Both screens are based on Chinese legends, namely the 'Four Sages on Mount Shang' on the right screen and the 'Seven Sages in the Bamboo Grove' on the left.

The Four Sages on Mount Shang recounts how four virtuous sages hid away on Mount Shang in China's Shaanxi province to escape the turbulence that followed the death of the first Qin emperor, who ruled from 259 BC to 210 BC. When the wars ended and the Han dynasty rose to power, the sages were asked to serve Gaozu, the first emperor of the new dynasty, but they turned down the invitation. At this time, Gaozu's concubine plotted to supplant the son of the emperor's legal wife and install her own child as the crown prince. The legal wife summoned the four sages from Mount Shang and they came to serve her child. On seeing this, Gaozu decided to appoint her son as his successor.

The Seven Sages in the Bamboo Grove on the left screen depicts seven sages who lived in the third century, during the turbulent transition between the Three Kingdoms period and the Jin dynasty. In this painting, they have gathering in a bamboo grove to drink alcohol together.

The central figure here is the renowned poet Ruan Ji.

It is said Ji used to stare at people he disliked with the whites of his eyes. To this day, the phrase 'to look with white eyes' still means 'to look disdainfully at someone' in Japan. Many tales of Ji's eccentric conduct have been passed down to us. There was the time he reacted to a marriage proposal by going on a 60-day drinking spree before breaking it off, for example, or the time he rode his horse-drawn carriage with abandon before lamenting bitterly and heading back when the road came to an end. The other six were also known for their free thinking and idiosyncratic behavior. Perhaps this kind of attitude helped them live through those tumultuous times.

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