The Stone Table Garden

The artist who painted this scroll was Sun Kehong, a very wealthy and generous resident of the city of Huating, in what is now Shanghai. The scroll was painted for Lu Yashan, another famous Huating resident, and depicts Lu’s garden, which was called the “Stone Table Garden” after a large stone table placed within one of its bamboo groves. This section of the scroll shows Lu watching a young boy watering potted plants. The Stone Table Garden is an ambitious work that took considerable time, so it is likely that Lu produced it for an important occasion. The presence of a crane, traditionally a symbol of immortality, may indicate that this was a birthday gift. Since the painting was created by one member of the elite (whose social status indicates that he would have been an amateur artist) as a gift to another, it is doubtful that the artist was paid.


The interiors of many of the rooms in imperial palaces of the Qing dynasty were vast and dark. To have visual impact, objects within them had to be large and brightly colored. Decorative techniques that took advantage of all available light had great appeal. Using pieces of highly reflective shell in a dark lacquer ground was very effective; this was a technique that reached its peak in the early part of the Qing dynasty. This entire cabinet is covered with black lacquer with pictorial designs appliquéd with mother-of-pearl. This inlay technique is called “flat application” (pintuo) in which tiny precut pieces of mother-of-pearl of varying thickness, forms, and sizes are arranged over a lacquered surface. The pieces are then treated in such a way to make them flat and smooth with the surface. 

In an imperial setting a bright and shiny surface was not enough—the motifs had to convey a clear meaning to anyone who might see them. Depicted on the two doors of this cabinet are foreign envoys paying tribute to the Chinese military. This cabinet was likely created during or shortly after the reign of the Kangxi emperor (1662–1722), a time of military expansion and power in China. The cabinet celebrates that power.

Crowned and bejeweled Buddha protected by a serpent

The meanings of this sort of Buddha image are not easy to ascertain. At one level, there is a reference to a moment in the life of the Buddha. In the sixth week after the Enlightenment, as the Buddha sat meditating, a storm broke out and a mighty serpent spread its hoods over the Buddha to shelter him. Representations of the Buddha protected by the serpent, while rare in Indian art, appear frequently in the arts of Cambodia and Thailand of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In both India and Southeast Asia serpents are associated with the waters of the earth, but in ancient Angkor, legends suggest that their association with the life-giving powers of water in agriculture made them even more important.

The Buddha is here shown crowned and bejeweled, as he would not have been in the weeks after the Enlightenment, so something more was meant than a reference to an episode of his life. Because the prominent school of Buddhism in Angkor in this period assumed the existence of multiple Buddhas, the crowned, serpent-protected Buddha is thought to represent a supreme Buddha.

One-faced linga

Temples devoted to the Hindu god Shiva often contain in their innermost sanctums a linga, or phallic emblem of this deity. A highly complex symbol, the linga represents the generative powers associated with Shiva. While most linga are plain in appearance, some—like this example—depict the face of Shiva. It includes other recognizable emblems of Shiva: matted hair (representing his asceticism and detachment from worldly concerns), the crescent moon in his hair (sometimes interpreted as a symbol of time), and the third eye in his forehead (indicating Shiva’s penetrating vision and wisdom that pierce worldly illusions).

Shiva’s association with the linga form derives from his asceticism. In Indian culture, ascetics were thought capable of attaining extraordinary powers—sometimes rivaling those of the gods—through meditation, austerities, and strict self-denial. Because their practices included celibacy and strict control of reproductive fluids, the upright phallus came to represent accumulated stores of energy and creative ability. Shiva, the foremost of ascetics, possesses powers vast enough to generate creation. The linga refers both to this ability and to asceticism’s potential rewards, which include escaping rebirth.

The Buddhist deity Achala Vidyaraja (Fudo Myoo)

Fudo Myoo, “the immovable one,” is one of the powerful Five Bright Kings of Shingon, a Japanese school of Esoteric Buddhism. This popular god is believed to protect the religion and its followers, and as a result many sculptures and paintings of him were made for temples throughout Japan. Images of Fudo are easily recognizable: his long, straight hair is pulled to the left of his head and arranged in a braid that hangs down his chest. He holds a sword and a rope, symbols of his power, in his left and right hands respectively. His threatening visage is an expression of his ability to ward off evil forces. Here Fudo is seated on a tiered platform of piled angular rocks, surrounded by a swirling flame.

Open only to the initiated, the Esoteric Buddhist ritual that took place before the painted image involved the burning of goma, a holy fire of cedar sticks. As a result, the upper part of the painting is blackened with oily smoke, partially obscuring the face and flames.

Traveling in deep mountains

This work depicts an official visiting a recluse in a mountain setting, a theme that has been featured in Chinese literature for more than 2000 years and has been a favorite of artists specializing in the figures-in-landscape genre. The official is depicted in the bottom left riding a donkey. He has just crossed a bridge and is followed by a servant carrying belongings on his shoulders. The official’s destination, the hut of an old master who lives deep in the mountains, is shown in the middle section of the painting. To the right is a village complex with a number of figures involved in various pursuits. The middle ground of this scroll is filled with mountains, temples, and forests. On the left side is a man walking on a trail. The upper left presents a thatched house in which an old master is meeting a visitor. This work is executed in the so-called blue-and-green landscape style, which was established during the Tang dynasty (617–906) and employed by later artists when an archaic yet decorative atmosphere was desired.

The Hindu deities Shiva and Vishnu combined as Harihara

The two foremost male gods of Hinduism, Shiva and Vishnu, are sometimes shown combined. Usually the combined representations, like this one, are divided in half vertically, with Shiva on the image’s right. Here, the division can be seen most easily in the headdress: the Shiva half has an ascetic’s tied-up locks of hair, and the Vishnu half has part of a cylindrical crown. Also, the two earrings are different, as is the treatment of the hair falling over the two shoulders.

The Hindu deity Vishnu

This image represents one of the many artistic styles of southern India. This southern Vishnu is carved with profuse, minute decoration. Here there is much piercing and undercutting, freeing parts of the decoration from the stone block. The crowns, for instance, almost begin to resemble basketry. Elsewhere, the decoration makes some objects hard to recognize. The conch shell and war discus Vishnu holds in his upper hands have long, hanging garlands that look like handles. Vishnu is flanked by smaller images of his wives. At the upper edges of the backslab are very small representations of all ten of his incarnations.


Function was not the primary concern in making this vase. It is carved of cinnabar red lacquer (tihong), and the carving is so deep and intricate as to render it nearly unusable. The point then must have been display, and this is made all the more clear by the content of the imagery. The subject matter for this piece is drawn from classical literature and, along with the lavish carving, represents the height of the imperial court art of the Qing dynasty.

This vase is made of three parts that fit together: the lower unit, which has a flaring foot; the main body, which is full and round, and the top unit, which has a bulbous section and a flaring lip.

Nine deities

Nine deities sit on their characteristic animals or thrones within arched niches. Only a few, such as Surya, the sun god, at the far left, can be positively identified. Many similar stone representations of this set of nine deities are known from ancient Angkor. Scholars have long debated exactly whom they depict. There is a Hindu tradition of nine planetary deities, each associated with a celestial body—such as the sun, Venus, or a comet—known to ancient astronomers, and these nine are sometimes represented together in Indian sculpture. It is likely that similar depictions of nine deities from Cambodia represent the same set of nine celestial bodies. It is not certain where and how such stone groupings of nine deities were displayed in temples.