Skip to main content

Past exhibition

Permanent Exhibition
Our Beloved Treasures: Masterpieces in the National Palace Museum Collection
Lohan, or arhat in Sanskrit, is a term originating in India. In early Buddhism, lohan referred to a monk who emphasized personal practice. Later, owing to the influence of Mahayana Buddhist traditions, in which bodhisattvas vow to liberate others from suffering, the lohan took on the qualities of protector of Dharma and benefactor of sentient beings. In Buddhism, the lohan’s status is inferior to that of buddhas and bodhisattvas, but all are important themes in Buddhist art, and they have circulated widely in East Asian iconographies, particularly in the form of paintings and sculpture.
The earliest representations of lohans in China can be traced back to the works of Southern dynasty painter Zhang Sengyou (479–?). During the Sui and Tang dynasties, lohans were still portrayed as attendants of the Buddha and they tended to be depicted as somber and stiff. By the late Five Dynasties period, the lohan faith had spread, and artists also started to depict them as a distinct subject. Lohan portraits reached their peak in the Song dynasty, when the iconography was no longer bound by the usual solemnity of religious paintings. Instead, lohans were portrayed with a variety of facial expressions and emotions and in various comfortable poses against landscape backgrounds, giving the paintings an ethereal atmosphere. Since the Song dynasty, elements of Zen Buddhism and literature have been integrated into lohan paintings, and the introduction of realist techniques made these figures look more approachable. Later on, artists even combined lohan paintings with legends and novels such as Journey to the West, which contributed further to the popularity of the lohan motif.
This exhibition centers around the lohan figure and presents a selection of national treasures, including paintings and sculptures, which put flesh on the stories of how the lohans achieved enlightenment, bringing to life a variety of lohan images. How many lohans in the exhibition do you recognize?
Exhibition Information
  • Event Date Permanent Exhibition
  • Location 3F S302
Song dynasty(960-1279)
Liu Songnian: Lohan
Liu Songnian (active c. 1174–1224) was a court painter in the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279). This painting depicts a lohan sitting in front of a screen. In the corner is an attendant holding a scripture towards the lohan and asking questions. The faces of both figures are rendered realistically with a thin brush and slightly washed with color, bringing to life the lohan’s contemplative absorption and the attendant’s eagerness to learn. The crisp drapery lines are exceptionally fluid and even, indicating the painter’s mastery of brushwork. The exacting reproduction of the lohan’s cassock beautifully captures color and patterning. The painting’s attention to detail and refinement make it a masterpiece among the elegant and meticulous Southern Song court paintings.
Yuan dynasty(1271-1368)
Pair of lohan paintings
Lohans (“worthy ones”) are people who deserve offering and veneration. This pair of paintings feature a total of 18 lohans, each holding a different object, including a scripture, a whisk, a feather fan, a ruyi scepter, a pagoda, a lotus, an incense burner, and a lion. Every lohan is depicted in distinct detail: some are older, others youthful; some have dark skin and exotic facial features, while others are fair and have thin eyebrows and small eyes. Facial expressions are also portrayed in a naturalistic and vivid manner, with some smiling with their eyes, and others quiet and solemn. Both paintings show refinement in their production; the color scheme, attention to detail, and the life-like facial expressions indicate that they were made in continuation of the style of Southern Song painter Liu Songnian’s lohan paintings.
Early Qing dynasty
Bamboo carving of tiger-taming lohan
A masterpiece of bamboo figure sculpture, this work teems with dramatic tension. The smiling lohan is depicted seated on a ferocious tiger with his fingers interlaced and his left leg on the beast, effortlessly subduing the tiger. The artist was not only skilled at portraying facial expressions and the physicality of the figures; even more exceptional are his mastery and skillful application of human visual perception. By ingeniously combining the Zen spirit of a self-assured lohan standing above a fierce tiger, the artist has created a veritable masterpiece.
Qing dynasty(1644-1911)
Wood sculpture of a lohan
The extremely emaciated form of this lohan and his tattered clothes present an image of the ascetic in quest of enlightenment.
In addition to the outstanding carving techniques, the artist’s exceptional compositional skills have created a strong aesthetic: the line from the forehead to the left foot is the main axis of the composition, which is deliberately tilted to the left, and the resulting visual tension is taken up by the upright wooden staff on the far left. The lohan’s piercing gaze is directed to the right, towards the fruit in his hand. In this way, the center of gravity is slightly shifted to the right, thus creating a delicate balance between left and right and achieving a dynamic beauty.
Qing dynasty(1644-1911)
Jade carvings of Bodhidharma in a grotto
Both these works portray the story of Bodhidharma spending nine years staring at a cave wall in meditation. While differing in their artistic expression, they share some common elements.
In terms of contouring, both sculptures have a trapezoidal form with a narrow top and wide bottom, which generates a top-down visual pull. Bodhidharma is an isosceles triangle, which creates a light but stable visual sense. The overall effect is a calm and serene aesthetic that befits the peaceful meditation scene.
The smaller work is carved on a white and russet jade pebble. The artist has made ingenious use of the variegated colors by making the small russet patch the grotto wall and the large surface at the back the rolling mountains. The bigger work, carved on a large piece of mountain jade, has enough space to create an image of isolation, with the layered mountains and ancient trees. The back is inscribed with a poem by the Qianlong Emperor.
While one work is more abstract and the other more realist, both artists attempted to capture Bodhidharma’s intense concentration, his abandonment of delusion and return to truth, and his constant abiding of the mind-nature without distinction.
Qing dynasty(1644-1911)
Jade figure of a lohan
This lohan stands tall and calm and appears even more serene and refined than the lion cub nestling at his side.
The overall shape of the figurine forms a right-angled triangle, which gives it a solid base and generates a visual impression of uplifted strength, echoing the lohan’s stable temperament. The viewer follows the lion cub’s upward gaze, in parallel to the triangle’s sloping edge, thus enhancing the lightness of the work. These upward visual forces are fused with the downward force of the lohan’s eyes, finally converging in the fruit held in his left hand, a tangible metaphor for the lohan’s practice in pursuit of enlightenment.
Qing dynasty (1644-1911)
Jadeite Cabbage
The Jadeite Cabbage, one of the most beloved artifacts at the National Palace Museum, is in fact made from a material that was itself far from perfect. The ingenuity of its creator transformed the jadeite’s naturally green parts into leaves and the mottled white parts into stalks, while the stone’s cracks and blemishes give the cabbage its unique texture. The lifelike locust and katydid carved at the leaf tips create a sense of vitality, almost as if one can hear them buzz. This piece is an exquisite example of exceptional craftsmanship, displaying the artisan’s skill in transforming flaws into true beauty.
The legendary Jadeite Cabbage is believed to have been a part of the dowry of Emperor Guangxu’s consort, Lady Jin, and was originally displayed in her residence, the Yonghe Palace. The whiteness of the cabbage is thought to represent the bride’s chastity, while the locust and katydid at the leaf tips symbolize fertility.
In the Forbidden City, the Jadeite Cabbage was displayed upright in an enamel basin as part of a bonsai landscape. Later, it was displayed in a tilted position. How do you find the different visual aesthetics?