Top 10 Chinese paintings (IV):Buniantu

By / 05-10-2015 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Bunian Tu (Emperor Taizong Receiving the Tibetan Envoy) depicts the meeting of Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty and Ludongzan, an envoy sent by the first king of Tibet in 641.


Yan Liben (601-673), the artist who created Bunian Tu (also called Emperor Taizong Receiving the Tibetan Envoy), was one of the most revered Chinese figure painters in the early years of the Tang Dynasty (618–907).

In addition to serving as prime minister, he was an accomplished calligrapher and painter, and his subjects ranged from religious figures, horses and vehicles to mountains and rivers, but his specialty was portraits. Yan’s paintings have three stylistic characteristics: powerful and vigorous lines, elegant and steady color, and a detailed portrayal of expressions.

Bunian Tu is one of Yan’s most famous paintings, and it is now housed at the Palace Museum in Beijing. Drawn on tough silk, the painting depicts the meeting of Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty and Ludongzan, an envoy sent by the first king of Tibet in 641, to accompany Princess Wencheng back to Tibet to be his queen.

In the seventh century, the Tibetan kingdom of Tubo grew in strength and in 634, Songtsän Gampo sent an envoy to Chang’an, the capital of the Tang Dynasty, to propose a marriage alliance. Emperor Taizong accepted the proposal and decided to give him his daughter Princess Wencheng in marriage.

In 641, Ludongzan came to Chang’an to accompany the princess back to Tibet. The painting depicts Emperor Taizong’s reception of Ludongzan. Princess Wencheng brought with her vegetable seeds, tea, books and craftsmen, which played an important role in promoting the Tibetan cultural and economical development.

The painting is 129.6 centimeters long and 38.5 centimeters wide. It is a work of both historical and artistic value. In terms of composition, the figures are divided into two groups.

On the right side of the painting, the emperor sits on a sedan chair surrounded by maidens holding fans and a canopy. He looks composed and peaceful. On the left side of the painting, three persons stand in a line. The one in red is an official in the royal court, the envoy stands aside formally looking in awe at the emperor, and the last person is an interpreter. There are no other surrounding elements.

People on the left of the painting, especially the interpreter, are timid or even overcautious, with a look of profound respect and humility, while the maidens on the right of the painting stand with easy grace. Tension on the left is contrasted with relaxation on the right, while grace on the right stands in relief with strength on the left. The whole painting displays a contrasting yet harmonious scene.

The lively colors symbolize the joyousness of the event. According to Chinese tradition, red is the major decorating color for happy occasions. This painting follows this tradition. The official in the royal court, who occupies the most prominent position in the painting, is dressed in red. In terms of painting technique, the drapery of the figures, objects in the painting and people’s expressions are all vivid as life, showing the accomplished technique of the painter.

There are currently disputes over the authenticity of the painting. Some people say it is the authentic work of Yan, while others hold it is a copy made in the Song Dynasty (960-1279). There are also experts who doubt whether this painting was originally created by Yan at all. Despite all those disputes, Bunian Tu still possesses high artistic value.