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明 仇英 《朱君買驢圖》 卷

A Donkey for Mister Zhu


A poor but noted poet, book lover, and connoisseur of painting and calligraphy, Zhu Cunli 朱存理 (1444–1513) watches apprehensively as a groom wrangles the headstrong donkey Zhu has just purchased. The story behind this dynamic, lightly humorous scene is told in a section of calligraphy created some fifty years before Qiu Ying (ca. 1494–1552) created his painting.


Although Qiu Ying came from a humble background, his talent as a painter earned him great success in his lifetime, and later generations recognized him as one of the Four Great Artists of the Ming Dynasty. He began his artistic training as a lacquer artisan and later began decorating wooden eaves in private homes. Qiu’s remarkable abilities came to the attention of Wen Zhengming (1470–1559) and Tang Yin (1470–1524). With the artists’ recommendations, Qiu was accepted into the atelier of the professional master Zhou Chen (ca. 1450–ca. 1535), who had been Tang’s teacher.

Thanks to his personal associations, Qiu also gained entry to the many sophisticated scholars and collectors of the period, who shared their collections of ancient masterpieces with him. Qiu became famous for his meticulous copies of these early works, from which he also drew inspiration for his own compositions. Qiu revived and promoted two distinct antique styles: the colorful and ever popular blue-and-green landscape style, which had its roots in seventh- and eighth-century Tang dynasty China, and the plain-outline style seen here, which is credited to the greatest figure painter of the Northern Song dynasty, Li Gonglin 李公麟 (1049–1106). Trained solely as a painter, Qiu often turned to literati calligraphers to obtain appropriate written additions to his paintings.

This short handscroll is the finest surviving example of Qiu Ying’s works in the baimiao 白描 (plain outline) style of painting. The elegant, descriptive power of his brushwork and the brilliant characterization of figures captured at a dynamic moment set a new standard for Ming dynasty portraiture.

[left, calligraphy sheet] 明 徐禎卿等 《爲朱君募買驢疏》 卷 Letter Soliciting Funds for Mister Zhu to Buy a Donkey

Xu Zhenqing (1479–1511) and others
China, Ming dynasty, 1500

Attached to the painting is the somewhat tongue-in-cheek “Letter Soliciting Funds for Mister Zhu to Buy a Donkey,” (爲朱君募買驢疏) written in January 1500 by the brilliant young poet Xu Zhenqing (1479–1511). Accompanying the text are pledges of money from ten Suzhou friends, including several individuals in Wen Zhengming’s social circle.

Xu Zhenqing’s short letter begins:

To unhitch a trace horse and give it to a friend, in antiquity one heard of such things; but to own a horse and lend it to a friend, nowadays that just isn’t done. Master Zhu Xingfu is an impoverished white-haired scholar, who likes to loiter in the woods and to wander around at will. At his ease and casual in dress, he would love to ride a donkey.

Xu goes on to cite various historical precedents relating to donkeys and helping a friend in need. The letter ends by asking readers to “not disdain my humble words” and to donate money to buy Mister Zhu his donkey. Ten contributors took up the challenge and signed the paper with their pledges.

Among those pledging funds were Qian Tongai 錢同愛 (1475–1549), who offered six silver coins; Zhu Yunming 祝允明 (1461–1527), who gave five coins; and Xing Can 邢參 (ca. 1450–1521), who pledged three coins. Tang Yin donated “an old woodblock edition of the Shishiza [Miscellany of Times and Seasons], ten volumes in total, worth one ounce and five coins of silver.” It is difficult to assess the total value of the contributions—or to estimate the contemporary cost of a donkey—but presumably, they were sufficient to make the purchase.

Additional Inscriptions

Probably in the early seventeenth century, a Ming artist named Zhu Zhifan 朱之蕃 (1556–1624) from Nanjing added a frontispiece, mounted at right, which consists of four large characters. In 1624, the famous painting and calligraphy connoisseur Chen Jiru 陳繼儒 (1558–1639) added a colophon at left.

Four additional colophons provide important information on the scroll’s ownership history at the beginning and end of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912):

  • Yan Junyan 顏俊彥 (active 1627–1666), dated 1652
  • Shen Hongdu 沈弘度 (early to mid-17th century), dated 1652
  • Yang Shoujing 楊守敬 (1839–1915), dated 1907
  • Li Baoxun 李葆恂 (1859–1915), dated 1907

明 仇英 《朱君買驢圖》 卷
A Donkey for Mister Zhu

Painting: Qiu Ying (ca. 1494–1552)
China, Ming dynasty, ca. 1550
Handscroll; ink on paper
Gift of Arthur M. Sackler
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery S1987.213

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