An extremely fine Chinese late Qing dynasty ancestor portrait showing the wife of a senior official of the fifth rank seated in hieratic posture on a wooden chair, wearing a richly ornamented court dress, the coat or pufa with a buzi or Mandarin square featuring a silver pheasant signifying that the sitter’s husband was a senior civil official of the fifth rank
China, late nineteenth century, Qing Dynasty
Gouache on paper
140 x 73 cm.
This very fine ancestor portrait shows the beautiful wife of a senior scholarly official, known as a Mandarin of the fifth rank. This hierarchical ranking is denoted by the silver pheasant featured so prominently on her exquisitely embroidered coat. The silver pheasant, symbol of beauty and good fortune was one of nine different birds used to denote the nine official ranks. Birds were selected because they featured frequently in literary works and literati paintings. A Manchurian crane was the emblem of a first rank officer, then came the golden pheasant for the second rank, followed by the peacock for the third rank. A wild goose denoted a fourth rank officer, a silver pheasant for the fifth and a lesser egret for the sixth. Then followed the mandarin duck for a seventh rank official, a quail for the eight and finally a paradise flycatcher for a scholarly official of the ninth rank.
As with male ancestral portraits, the wife of the senior official is shown in similar pose, seated on a chair, facing the viewer and seen almost life size. The only difference, as seen here, is that the woman’s feet and hands are hidden. Feet were always covered up since they were considered the most erotic part of her body.
Great attention here has been paid to the intricate Chinese ornaments, from the sitter’s ornate headdress, to the juxtaposition of the various fabrics that make up her dress as well as the ornate Chinese rug below. While the highly styled costumes are encoded with symbols associated with court status and social position, the most important part of the portrait is the face, which individualizes and identifies the ancestor and lifts her to the realm of icon. All ancestors were painted with virtually the same expression, a symbolically solemn and detached look, to suggest otherworldly status. Yet great care was taken in the portraits to record the sitter’s face realistically. Capturing the likeness was crucial for the portrait to be able to function as a ritual object since it was believed that if even one hair in the depiction was incorrect all future prayers would go to someone else’s ancestor.