Index of Selected Artists in the Collection

Copy after Chôun Reihô ( Japanese, Active mid-14th century)
Orchid, Bramble, Bamboo, and Rock
Muromachi period, 15th-16th century
Hanging scroll, ink on paper
12 3/4 x 18 1/4 in. (32.4 x 46.4 cm)
R. T. Miller, Jr. Fund, 1957
AMAM 1957.12

Originally acquired by the Allen Memorial Art Museum as a work by the fourteenth-century Chinese monk-painter Xuechuang Puming, this painting has subsequently been shown to be a copy of a painting by Chôun Reihô, a Japanese follower of Puming. Nevertheless, it reveals the importance of transmitted tradition in Chinese and Japanese Zen Buddhist art, and illuminates the way styles were passed down from generation to generation of monks in both countries. This painting was originally attributed to Puming on the basis of the inscription in the upper left, which translates:1

"Clear waves billow in the waters of the Yuan,
Fragrant orchids flourish in the grasses of the Li.
I recite poetry and sing now and then.
Why don't I go home? As I linger time moves on.

Spring of the year wuzi of the Zhizheng era (1348). I attach this to Xuechuang's ink masterpiece to be sent far away to my old master and senior colleague in the Buddhist Law, Zhongbao, for his pure enjoyment. Staying at Beishan in Middle Wu, your humble friend, Reihô."

One of five sacred Buddhist mountains in China, Beishan was a common destination for Japanese monks making pilgrimages to China in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Chôun Reihô was such a monk, who is known to have visited China in the mid fourteenth century, and to have been a disciple of Xuechuang Puming. Therefore, on the evidence of the inscription alone, this painting could plausibly have been painted by Puming, given to Reihô, and then sent as a memento by Reihô to a friend in some distant monastery.

On stylistic grounds, however, the attribution to Puming is problematic, as Li Chu-tsing discusses in his very thorough article about this painting.2 Although the subject is what we would expect in a work by Puming, the style is considerably heavier and less fluid than other accepted works in his oeuvre, while the composition is flatter and does not convey the same sense of space or organic growth. Moreover, the size of the painting, and the way it is cropped on the right side, would also have beeen extremely unusual for a Puming painting. Li concludes that despite the inscription, the painting was not by Puming, but by a follower, probably one of the Japanese monks who imitated his style in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

A nearly identical painting from a Japanese collection provides additional evidence on how the Oberlin scroll relates to the Puming tradition.3 That scroll depicts virtually the same subject and has virtually the same inscription in the upper left as the Oberlin scroll, but its style is more fluid and its composition more graceful. Although this painting is not by Puming either, it is much closer to the Chinese master, and more likely to be the work of Chôun Reihô. If that painting is the work of Reihô imitating Puming, then the Oberlin painting must be a later copy of it or of a very similar painting by Reihô. Dating such a copy is difficult, but assuming that its present size is the result of later cropping to satisfy the seventeenth-century Japanese taste for small tokonoma hanging scrolls, a date sometime in the fifteenth or sixteenth century becomes the most likely period for the painting of this scroll.

Finally, we are left with the question of why such a copy was made. Although Reihô's original would certainly have possessed economic value in fifteenth- or sixteenth-century Japan, especially if it was believed to be by Puming, financial profit may not have been the primary motive for painting this copy. In Japanese art, especially religious art, it has long been considered legitimate to make faithful copies or even exact replicas of important cultural objects, often with few indications to distinguish the copies from the originals. Traditionally, the intent of this practice was not to deceive, but to preserve important works of art, and to transmit the knowledge of making them to younger generations. In this way, important techniques would not be forgotten, and in the event of some catastrophic loss of artworks, the originals could be replaced. Thus, we should probably think of the Oberlin painting not as a fake or forgery, but as a legitimate copy, perhaps executed by a young monk-painter trying to learn to paint in the Puming tradition. Seen in this way, the stylistic and compositional awkwardnesses of the painting become resonant reminders of the importance of continuity and tradition in Japanese culture.

C. Mason


With Howard Hollis, Cleveland, from whom purchased in 1957.

Princeton University Art Museum, 1976. Japanese Ink Paintings from American Collections. 25 April - 23 June. Cat. no. 33.

Li Chu-tsing. "The Oberlin Orchid and the Problem of P'u-ming." Archives of the Chinese Art Society of America 16 (1962), pp. 49-76.

Li Chu-tsing. "The Oberlin Orchid: A Problem of Attribution." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 20, no. 1 (Fall 1962), pp. 5-25.

Yoshiaki Shimizu. In Yoshiaku Shimizu and Carolyn Wheelwright, eds., Japanese Ink Paintings from American Collections (exh. cat., Princeton University Art Museum, 1976), pp. 238-43.

Technical Data
This hanging scroll was executed in black ink on paper. It was probably originally a handscroll, of which the present painting is the left half. It is in good condition, with minor losses, repairs, and horizontal creasing. The inscription in the upper left is written in "running script" calligraphy, followed by two seals: Shaku Reihô Chôun sho (Monk Reihô Chôun's seal) and Jû kangiji sha museishi (Dwelling in the land of joy, painting a soundless poem).

1.This translation has been adapted from Yoshiaki Shimizu's translation, in Yoshiaki Shimizu and Carolyn Wheelwright, eds., Japanese Ink Paintings from American Collections (exh. cat., Princeton University Art Museum, 1976), p. 238.

2. Li Chu-tsing, "The Oberlin Orchid and the Problem of P'u-ming," in Archives of the Chinese Art Society of America 16 (1962), pp. 49-76. A somewhat condensed version of this article was published in Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 20, no. 1 (Fall 1962), pp. 5-25.

3.Previously in the Gejô collection, Tôkyô, this scroll is reproduced in Li Chu-tsing, "The Oberlin Orchid: A Problem of Attribution," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 20, no. 1 (Fall, 1962), p. 21.