Not seeing figures for the trees; gingko on display

There is a tree on the farm where I grew up that became the “go-to” backdrop for family pictures; it is still standing today, and gets photographed whenever one of us passes through the Robson Valley. Over the years it gets larger and statelier. I can totally relate to Chinese figure paintings that include trees as setting details. So when I stumbled on a marvelous composition called The Seven Worthies Of the Bamboo Grove and Rong Qiqi I not only studied the eight gentlemen on their individual mats, but I also looked closely at the trees that framed them.

The composition is in two parts, and the originals are wall murals (in relief) discovered in a tomb near Nanjing in 1960. The tomb is entered facing west, with one mural on the south and one on the north wall, and a raised pedestal in an alcove where coffins for two individuals (believed to be man and wife) once rested.


This is a rubbing of the south wall mural, depicting the literary figure Ron Qiqi and three of the seven sages.



A rubbing of the north wall mural shows four of the seven sages.

The murals were formed in a curious manner—designed on some surface and etched into to boards that were pressed into wet bricks. Once fired, the bricks were assembled into the walls in horizontal layers of three alternating with a row of upright bricks, each brick bearing markings to indicate correct placement.   The scenes are 2.8 meters long and .8 meter tall, with placement starting about .5 meter above the floor.  The images I found were photographs of wall rubbings, which are displayed in a Museum in Nanjing.



The two murals make a fabulous single ‘scroll’ which no doubt allows for more public viewing than does the actual tomb.

Why the seven worthies/sages were NOT shown in a bamboo grove, but instead surrounded by three or maybe four different kinds of trees was my first question. It was followed by many more! Fortunately for me, the Nanjing wall murals have also fascinated several scholars. Audrey Spiro wrote an entire book on the murals, titled Contemplating the Ancients, Aesthetic and Social Issues in Early Chinese Portraiture.  I acquired a former Library copy, but the contents can be viewed online here.

The first individual of the south wall panel is the only figure not depicting a real historical figure.  For an introduction to Ron Qiqi check here.  Reasons for including the fellow with the seven sages are not known, according to Spiro, and neither is full understanding of the subject choice for the tomb walls.

While the eight figures themselves are endlessly fascinating, it was the trees that held my attention over the last few weeks. I presumed the first tree to be intended as a gingko. The distinctive leaf shape and ‘tassel’ arrangement of peduncles could only be some variety of gingko. The shape—fan-like with curved sides—has been a popular textile and ceramic motif in oriental art and I know it well. After first seeing the exquisite golden fall display of foliage in Vancouver one dreary day about 40 years ago, I added gingko to my garden wish list. I currently have a dwarf variety growing in a pot on my patio, shown below:


If you’ve never set eyes on a gingko, take a look at photos of one over 1400 years old next to a Buddhist temple in the Zonghnan Mountains of China.

The Ten Trees of the Nanjing murals:

While the relative size of the gingko leaves in the murals is much too large for the tree trunks, other trees in the two murals also seem miss-proportioned. Two of them (the fourth in each panel) strongly resemble willow. The branches end in arched sprays of drooping foliage that, if longer, would clearly represent willow. It makes sense that the ‘willow’ branches were shortened to ‘fit’ more pleasingly with the other assembled trees. Both panels have a gingko at either end, with one of them featuring a gingko in the middle as well. The three remaining trees—the second in the first mural and the second and third of the second panel—are all individuals, and were not immediately recognizable to me.

I checked out Spiro’s index for entries on the trees and learned that: “Agreement on the species of the trees in the reliefs, apparently forerunners of those frequently depicted on some sarcophagi of the sixth century, is scant. Pine, willow, gingko, bamboo, and locust are among those proposed.” and “Few earlier pictorial sources for these trees have been found.”

In another footnote pertaining specifically to details of the whistling figure (second figure of the south wall panel) Spiro speculates the “curious shrub…could be the tree of ringed orbs or fruits often associated with the Daoist figure”, but she doesn’t name the species. On the next page in a discussion of a rubbing made from another part of the tomb, showing a hare under the moon with a tree branch, the tree is identified as a cassia, which “everyone knows grows under the moon”. She adds that it resembles no cassia tree she knows, but the cassia’s association with the moon by the 15th century was entrenched.

I sought images of various kinds of locust trees—black locust and honey locust seem to have foliage resembling the stylized versions in the murals. I discovered that one of the locusts is sometimes called the pagoda tree, possibly because it was commonly planted next to a pagoda, and sometimes scholar tree, because of its common usage in scholar paintings. (NOTE: Most scholar paintings I have studied involve pine trees.)

All of the locusts are members of the Fabaceae or pea family and produce the characteristic pea flower clusters and seed pods. For some common varieties look here  and here. They also sport similarly shaped leaf structures, botanically described as pinnately compound with no leaf at the tip. That tree next to the whistler does appear to  have pinnately compound leaves.

The non-gingko and non-willow trees in the murals must surely be some varieties of locust or plane (wu-tung). My ‘need to know’ would have to go un-resolved, I thought. Then I tripped over a 1967 doctorate thesis in the U of Vic library titled Scholars and Sages, a Study in Chinese Figure Painting that focused on the Nanjing tomb murals along with a scroll painting called the “Elegant Gathering in the Western Garden”. Author Ellen Johnston Laing helped me significantly with the tree identification as well as biographies for the eight figures portrayed in the murals.

In the early 1960s she spent several years in China on grants (and was under the guidance of the renowned Prof. James Cahill) studying the art firsthand. She had access to excellent interpreters and museum staff. Her identification of the trees is therefore highly credible. She writes: “No bamboo appears among the five kinds of trees (gingko, willow, locust, pine, and perhaps wu-tung) which separate each figure.” The accompanying footnote cites two sources that led to her conclusion.

Spiro’s book had photographs of the actual wall murals, with the raised lines on the bricks showing the figures and tree outlines more clearly; from those I discovered the pine tree did look very pine-like, although the needles were rendered in an unfamiliar manner. The possible wu-tung leaves were also outlined in a non-traditional wu-tung manner. Those two would require further research.

The fossil tree got to me!

All of my Chinese painting instruction books that pertain to tree painting identify few trees by species; pine and willow tend to get individual attention. The typical approach to CBP tree treatment is described by Alison Stillwell Cameron in her book Chinese Painting Techniques: “Many varieties of trees grow in China, but they are painted simply as certain types: trees with outline foliage, those with ‘dot’ foliage, and those with bare branches…trees are often grouped by seasons; for instance, flowering fruits are typical of spring and bare-branched trees suggest autumn or winter.”

I have previously investigated willow and pine, given their frequent appearance in CBP compositions and my own interest in their portrayal. I have explored gingko motifs in textile designs and now sought to paint them.

All about the gingko

Early in my research into gingko I tripped over a website with quite possibly absolutely everything one would want to know about the tree!

The website creator Cor Kwant writes: THE GINKGO PAGES are about the tree Ginkgo biloba and all its aspects.  I created this site because of my fascination and respect for this unique tree, a living fossil, unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs. It is the sole living link between the lower and higher plants, a symbol of longevity and is seen as one of the wonders of this world.

Among the most intriguing finds for me was that the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a poem and attached two gingko leaves to send to a woman he admired back in 1815. The poem in Goethe’s handwriting is featured on Kwant’s website, complete with translations into many other languages.  It is great art!



You will also find numerous photos, videos, poems and other artistic creations inspired by or based on the gingko. Plan to bookmark the site and make many return visits!

Gingko in Chinese brush painting

Given the unique shape of a gingko leaf and its current appeal as a quintessential oriental art motif in textiles, I am surprised it does not appear more in traditional CBP. I found only a few flower-bird paintings with gingko foliage, most of them being the ‘outline with color’ style.  Here is one by an unidentified artist:


I discovered a few paintings by Choa Sho-an with gingko leaves rendered in soft yellows and gold colors, surrounding featured birds, a kingfisher and a white peacock. His ‘freestyle’ brushwork is more like traditional watercolor painting, and the gingko was most likely selected to provide a colorful foliage mass, not to showcase the tree variety.



Rebecca Yue in her Chinese Landscapes Made Easy painted bright yellow gingko trees in a contemporary landscape, but she used a daubing method to portray the leaves that does little to suggest the distinctive curved leaf shape. The painting does capture the glowing essence of the tree and shows reflections on nearby rooftops in the detail shown below.


For my gingko studies I started with some monochrome outline leaves:


The desired effect of dark outline superimposed over paler leaves could be better achieved with two separate paintings fused during the gluing process.

I then moved on to using color for outline and adding a wash.

GinkoStudy 1

I experimented with ink outline and a pale green wash.

GinkoStudy 2

Finding the detailed veining of the leaves tedious (stroke width control and color control is of the utmost importance, and ‘not my style’!) I reconsidered the more stylized gingko of the Nanjing murals, and then completed this quick sketch in ink, adding color only to the leaves:

GinkoStudy 3



–I like the Chao Sho-an gingko leaves to a degree, but they seem to disappear into a foliage mass.

–I like the effect of outlined leaves with color added, but that style would appear too ‘zebra-like’ surrounding a bird in a composition, IF it were planned in a realistic ‘scale’.

–One of the key attractions to the Nanjing murals (aside from the figures as prime subject) is the stylized look to the trees and the fact they are NOT painted to scale.

–My quick study of a loosely outlined gingko with the figure Wang Rong was pleasing to me. (I made his rui into a pipe, kept his distorted left leg—maybe he was doing yoga?—but stayed true to most details despite moving down in size from the wall-size composition)

–The guys in the murals are all shown on individual mats, framed by trees, and each one would serve as a single composition; they were ‘portraits’, after all.

–The figures in the wall murals were drafted at 80 cm tall (the slouching one presents at a lower height) and the trees about a full meter tall; I may have to simplify lines to draft compositions of smaller size.

–The method of portraying the pine in the murals is unusual and warrants exploring.

–I’ve not done much with wu-tung (plane), locust, cypress, and other trees indigenous to China.

Conclusion: With so much good reading in the Spiro book and the Laing dissertation I’ve had little time for my art room, but the Seven Worthies keep beckoning, and now stylized leaf shapes float in my mind’s eye.  Dare I tackle all eight figures and ten trees from the Nanjing murals in ONE splendid composition?












This entry was posted in Chinese Brush Painting, painting gingko, painting trees. Bookmark the permalink.

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