painting, hanging scroll

Ren Yi is a Shanghai School master, known for his figure and bird-and-flower painting, which combines the imagery of decorative art with the bold brushwork of literati painting.

The God of Longevity is known as an old man with an extraordinarily big forehead, carrying a walking stick made of peach wood. Respect for him is probably linked to the worship of ancestors and elders, one of the most important Confucian principles. Wu Changshuo, a 20th century master and student of Ren, added the calligraphic title ‘happiness prolongs life’ quoted from the Confucian philosopher Xunzi (c. 312-230 BC).

In this painting, the God of Longevity and his attendant seem to be full of joy on their way back from the peach garden. Particular consideration has been given to the choice of imagery used here. Peach blossoms, for example, are the symbol of prosperity, and their bright pink colour is also a popular metaphor for feminine beauty. Peach branches are believed to ward off demons, and the peach itself is considered a fruit for immortality.


  • Catalogue text

    Ren Yi was from Shanyin, present-day Shaoxing in Zhejiang province, the son of a portraitist. In the winter of 1868 he moved to Shanghai, where he lived for the rest of his life. Shanghai was a rapidly growing commercial centre at that time, and artists from all over China went there to sell their paintings. There emerged a 'Shanghai School' of painting, associated with a synthesis of popular and traditional style, in which Ren Yi is regarded as the leading figure. He is known for his bold brushwork and use of colour, particularly in figure and bird-and-flower paintings. The latter were mostly in Song style until he came across an album by the early Qing individualist painter Zhu Da (Ba da shan ren), by whose looser style he was influenced. He was more closely a successor to the Shanghai based painters Ren Xiong (1823-57) and Ren Xun (1834-93). Wu Changshuo was a pupil of Ren Yi.

    In: Vainker, Shelagh, Chinese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2000)

Further reading

Vainker, Shelagh, Chinese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2000), no. 117 on p. 134, illus. p. 135 fig. 117

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