A massive Kou Family seven-generation northern Chinese ancestor portrait painted in colorful gouache on a hemp-like canvas


Depicting multiple generations of the family within a temple setting

91 x  84 3/4 inches

For a similar large size silk painting (though more slender in width dimension) of a multi-generational ancestor portrait, see Christie's, New York, 20 March 2014, Lot 1336 were it is noted that such paintings of large numbers of family members was unusual. 


See also Jan Stuart and Evelyn Rawski, Worshipping the Ancestors: Chinese Commemorative Portraits, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 2001, pp. 61-63 where the authors note that such paintings could include as many as hundreds of relatives (One hundred and fifty-eight in our example), and that such large groups were especially popular in northern China, particularly Shanxi province, and were often painted on cotton. The reference to Shanxi is an interesting one here, as the ink painting of Xiang Cheng depicted in the upper portion is in the neighboring province of Henan, heavily suggesting a northern provenance for this painting. Other hints listed below further conform this hypothesis.


The almost square canvas is here centered at the top by a horizontal blue-rectangular panel faintly inscribed in gilt Tai Wen Bai Shi, (the title for the painting) which can be translated as “Educated generations”, below this sits the “first generation” of three sons and three wives arranged symmetrically with males to the right and females to the left before screens and altar furniture, behind and between them is a vertical panel inscribed Kou Xi Men Shi Zu Wei Ping Zhi Shen Wei.


This is the first ancestor memorial tablet of Kou Xi-Men, name Ping; Shi Zu is First Generation and Wei Ping Zhi refers to the full Family name Kou Ping Zhi.


Further poetic inscriptions placed on four blue panels on columns which divide the upper portion of the major figures, extol the virtues of  a good education and the importance of handing down to later generations that A studious work ethic leads to stability and peace. Below the largest and (by extension) most important figures are the serried rows of each following generation, once again, sons depicted to the right and their wives to the left. Sadly there is no place for the depiction of the daughters within the family. There is also a diminution in size of each generation and interestingly the dress code begins to show increasing western influence as we move to the more recent generations depicted. Between these rows can be seen a woven blue wool carpet, an ink painting of typical vertical format depicting a temple and trees in a mountainous landscape with a waterfall, inscribed Xiang Cheng ---- ---- (?) . Xiang Cheng is a city in Henan Province and the obscured last two characters may refer to the misty mountains.


Further down the ancestor portrait, below a large green incense burner, another ink painting, slightly smaller in size, is depicted and it is perhaps, the singularly most interesting feature of the entire portrait from a Western perspective. It shows a clumsy but nevertheless clear rendition of a “Cadillac Wecker” on a road leading from a city landscape inscribed (Ling?) Yi Nan Guan. This can be partially translated as Southern Gate of -----(?) City. The inclusion of this car may be significant in relation to the family’s politics.


The lower portion of the painting depicts a walled garden with temple entrance adorned with two poetic couplets describing spring, orchids, sweet smelling cinnabar (gui) and gentle winds in pine and cypress either side of the door and below a vertical tablet with above the roof with an auspicious phrase Ji Xing Gao Zhao, for long life. Finally either side of the entrance are two stone stele with lengthy inscriptions, one which includes the date “made in the Spring date “22nd year of the Republic” (1933). The top of each stele inscribed Huang Qing which reads as ‘Emperor Qing Dynasty’.


Xiang Cheng in Henan Province, depicted and inscribed as such in the upper ink painting, was the birthplace of the second President of China Yuan Shikai. He also known by the name Yuan Xiangcheng after his birthplace. Perhaps there may have been a political reference afforded by this otherwise innocent landscape scene.


Yuan Shikai was an important general and politician famous for his influence during the late Qing Dynasty; his role in the events leading up to the abdication of the last Qing Emperor of China; his autocratic rule as the second President of the Republic of China (following Sun Yatsen) and his short-lived attempt to revive the Chinese monarchy, with himself as the “Great Emperor of China”.


Interestingly and perhaps significantly in relation to the second ink painting depicted on this portrait group, the last emperor Puyi ordered, and had delivered to China in the autumn of 1932, the year before our portrait was painted, a top-grade super luxurious 8-cylinder Cadillac Wecker from General Motors. It was indeed  be used in 1934 during his inauguration ceremony. 


Puyi also had the motor’s symbol designed as the Imperial armory for the puppet state of Manchukuo (Manchuria).


Puyi ruled from 1908 as the Xuantong Emperor until his abdication in 1912. Puyi's father, Prince Chun, served as a regent until 6 December 1911 when Empress Dowager Longyu took over in the face of the Xinhai Revolution. Empress Dowager Longyu endorsed the "Imperial Edict of the Abdication of the Qing Emperor" on 12 February 1912, following the Xinhai Revolution, under a deal brokered by Yuan Shikai (General of the Beiyang Army) with the imperial court in Beijing and the Republicans in southern China.


Signed with the new Republic of China, Puyi was to retain his imperial title and be treated by the government of the Republic with the protocol attached to a foreign monarch. Puyi and the imperial court were allowed to remain in the northern half of the Forbidden City (the Private Apartments) as well as in the Summer Palace.


In 1934 he was declared the Kangde Emperor of the puppet state of Manchukuo by the Empire of Japan and he ruled until the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1945).