‘Luohan and Incense Wood’ (Song Dynasty)
Ink on silk
Two collector’s seals: Xishi Zhi Bao; Junsheng Xinshang
The painting is part of a larger hand-scroll. It depicts a luohan seated on a mat of animal skin in royal ease with his left leg raised and right leg resting on the floor. His left arm is holding a plate of fruit and his right arm is held in pran mudra, the mudra of increased vitality. His wispy hair is gathered behind a diadem, and he is wearing a loose robe above his foreign attire, with fitted sleeves and heeled shoes. His face is gently shaded to suggest shadow and light. Curiously, in front of him is a circular drum-shaped vessel with a domed base, in which a large piece of dried wood is standing.
The painting is in archaic style, recalling that of Tang period figural paintings, especially with its use of shading on the facial features, such as that seen on the hand-scroll painting Six Hermits in the Palace Museum, Beijing, attributed to Lu Yao of the Tang dynasty. However, whereas in wall paintings of the Tang period the shading is applied as a wash, here the shading is done with very fine lines.
The drum-shaped vessel in the painting is of Song style, very similar to the drum-shaped censer dated to Southern Song period excavated in Canton (fig. 19). Similarly, the vessel in the his hand is similar in proportion to the ceramics of the Northern Song.
It is likely that this is a Song version of an earlier painting, where the figures have been faithfully copied, while the accompanying elements are given a contemporary flavour, as is often the case in later copies of earlier paintings. Another painting in the Palace Museum, attributed to Lu Lengjia of the Tang dynasty, shows a foreigner carrying a piece of rock-like object to offer to a luohan
(fig. 18). Traditionally this object has been called a qishi, or ‘fantastic rock’, but with the Buddhist theme of the painting, it seems equally likely to be a piece of incense wood, as is represented in the current painting.
The use of chenxiangmu as not only incense but something to appreciate visually is recorded in literature from as early as the Northern Song period. Su Shi, for example, gave a chenxiang mountain to his brother Su Che as a birthday present, accompanied by a composition An Ode to a Chenxiang Mountain to console him, who was in exile in Leizhou at the time (in modern day Guangdong province). Su Shi himself was in exile in Danzhou (on modern day Hainan Island), which in the Song dynasty was one of the places that produced chenxiang. He wrote in the prose:
…this little swell of a mountain, like an island so pleasant,
Like Qinling and Huashan touching the sky
It resembles the Lone Peak piercing the clouds.
Sent to celebrate your birthday,
It carries my stubborn sincerity.
You might feel the days are wasting away;
But see it as retiring home to a rice paddy.
I hope you place this on your desk,
And steep your kerchiefs with its scent.
Maybe not always so strong and forceful,
Its lingering smell lasts evermore!
The subtle yet everlasting scent of the ‘chenxiang’ mountain, its solidity and unyielding natural form, were for Su Shi qualities that were worthy of praise. At the low ebb of his brother’s life and career, he hoped the incense would bolster Su Che’s morale, and encourage him to be unwavering and retain his integrity. In the same way jade was bestowed with five virtues in the Confucian tradition, Su Shi not only enjoyed the scent of chenxiang, but delighted in the visual and allegorical connotations it provided.