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  • Rediscovering Zhang Jin and the Ming Painting Academy
  • Hou-Mei Sung (bio)

Zhang Jin 張錦 was the leading master of Buddhist and Daoist figure painting in the mid-Ming court. Yet his name is little known in current Ming painting history. This is not surprising considering that, until recently, the entirety of early and mid-Ming court painting, which played an important role in setting new trends during this time, has been a relatively unexplored area. Even less is known about the Ming Painting Academy. In fact, the lack of information on the Ming Painting Academy has led many scholars to question its very existence.1 In order to fill this gap in Chinese painting history, I have dedicated much of my past research to the task of reconstructing the missing biographies of the Ming court painters and tracing the institutional history of the Painting Academy.

My initial discovery including new dates and biographical information for Zhang Jin and four generations of his family was more than a decade ago.2 However, without a single surviving painting attributed to the Zhang masters, they seemed destined to remain in the archival realm of Ming painting history. This all changed, however, by the recent discovery of a painting by Zhang Jin (Fig. 1),3 which sheds new light on not only the outstanding achievements of the Zhang masters, but also their contribution to the emerging trend of Daoist figure painting. Even more importantly, through a subsequent reexamination of the Zhang masters’ careers, I was able to gain new insight into the still enigmatic military-artisan painters and the military ranking system of the Ming Painting Academy.

To fully understand the reconstructed careers of Zhang Jin and his family, it is necessary to first briefly introduce the institutional history of the Ming Painting Academy. The first part of this essay traces the formation and major institutional changes of the academy. The second part reexamines the career of Zhang Jin and how his family entered the Ming court from a military background in Shandong. The final part introduces the recently discovered painting by Zhang Jin and the Zhang family’s role in setting a new trend in Daoist figure painting in the mid-Ming court.

The Ming Painting Academy

Past discussions of the Ming Painting Academy typically started with the Xuande 宣德 era (1426–35),4 yet my research reveals that the Ming Painting Academy was actually established late in the preceding Yongle 永樂 era (1403–24). In fact, in the very beginning of his reign, the Yongle emperor made an attempt to restore both the Huayuan 畫院 (Painting Academy) and the Shuyuan 書院 (Academy of Calligraphy) in the Hanlin Academy. In 1404, he ordered Huang Huai 黃淮 to carry out this task. For the Painting Academy, Huang recruited Guo Wentong 郭文 通 and Xie Huan 謝環, both from his hometown of Yongjia 永嘉, Zhejiang. Although the reestablishment of the Painting Academy was delayed because of the Yongle emperor’s northern expedition, painters recruited by Huang continued to serve in court. It was not until 1414, after accidentally stumbling upon a painting by Guo and being deeply impressed, that the Yongle emperor honored Guo with a new name, Chun 纯 (Sincere), and the official title of Yingshansuocheng 營繕所丞 (Director of the Work Project Office, 7a).5 Although Huang Huai recorded this incident in an epitaph documenting Guo’s career achievements as the first Ming court painter he recruited for the Academy, I believe that this event also signified the establishment of the Ming Painting Academy. This is evidenced by the fact that the same title was extended to all other senior painters assigned to work in the Yuyongjian 御用監 (Directorate of Imperial Accouterments). Also supporting my view that this 1414 event marked the formation of the Ming Painting Academy is the fact that the official recognition and promotion of the first generation of court painters coincided with the dates of the Yongle emperor’s second trip to Beijing (1413–14), a major operation in the relocation of the government there from Nanjing. The numerous officials and court painters who joined this imperial trip did not return with the emperor in 1414, remaining instead in Beijing.6 Viewed in this historical context, the Yongle emperor’s bestowing the...