Brother Yan, immortal

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As an imperial official and a famous painter, Yan Liben also has an inferiority complex.

One day, Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty, lishimin, and his officials went boating in Chunyuan pool and saw a bird emerging from the pool that they had never seen before. Lishimin felt strange and ordered the literary officials to write poems to praise the bird. Later, he was not satisfied and ordered Yan Liben to come and paint for the bird.

Among the civil and military forces of the Manchu Dynasty, Yan Liben’s painting skills are among the best. At that time, he was on duty in his office when he suddenly heard an imperial edict: “painter yanliben, the emperor ordered you to paint birds.”



? portrait of Emperor Taizong of Tang Dynasty

Yanliben put down his official duties and hurried to Taizong of the Tang Dynasty. He didn’t want to rest for a while, so he lay down beside the pool and buried his head in painting, like a painter. Halfway through the painting, yanliben looked up and found that those around him who were officials in the same court were looking at him proudly.

Yanliben successfully completed the work arranged by his boss, but he always resented the contemptuous eyes of his colleagues.

At home, Yan Liben warned his sons, “I used to like reading when I was young, but now I am famous for painting. It is a great shame that I can only serve others like a servant. You should take this as a warning and stop learning this skill!”

However, Yan Liben’s self mocking painting skills have been handed down to this day with his representative works, such as the painting of chariots and the painting of emperors of all dynasties. Those who despise him have long been lost in the years, and even their names have not been left.


Yanliben was born in an art family. To be exact, he is an aristocratic art family.

The Yan family has a prominent reputation. Since the Han Dynasty, they have often been in high positions.

Yan Liben’s father, Yan PI, was a talented man with deep attainments in calligraphy and painting. He was appreciated by Emperor Wu of the Northern Zhou Dynasty at a young age and married Princess Qingdu, the daughter of Emperor Wu. In other words, yuwenyong, Emperor Wu of the Northern Zhou Dynasty in the painting of emperors of previous dynasties, was actually Yan Liben’s grandfather.



? yuwenyong, Emperor Wu of the Northern Zhou Dynasty in yanliben’s map of emperors of previous dynasties

After Emperor Wen of the Sui Dynasty was proclaimed emperor by Zen, Yan PI was appreciated by crown prince Yang Yong for his talent. The costumes and instruments Yang Yong used at ordinary times were extremely gorgeous, and most of them were made by Yan PI. However, Emperor Wen of the Sui Dynasty was most disgusted with the prince’s extravagant lifestyle. Later, Yang Yong was abolished, and the designer Yan PI was implicated. Emperor Wen of the Sui Dynasty punished him with a hundred sticks. The family was demoted to an official servant and pardoned for the people after two years.

It is a blessing in disguise. Yang Guang, who replaced Yang Yong as crown prince in the first place, showed his true colors after he ascended the throne, and was also fascinated by luxury goods. Therefore, he reappeared master Yan PI and asked him to design chariots for himself.

When Emperor Yang of the Sui dynasty built the Grand Canal, Yan PI was responsible for the engineering design of the Hebei section and supervised the dredging of water transport. It can be said that he made outstanding contributions. As a result, Yan PI, who had suffered a lot, did not suffer from Yang Guang, the emperor of the Sui Dynasty, because he was once a member of Yang Yong group. Instead, relying on his superb skills, he was deeply mourned by Yang Guang after his death, and was given a title and posthumous Title, which was extremely honored.



? emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty in yanliben’s the picture of emperors of all dynasties

Different from Yan Liben’s self denial in the future, Yan PI, who has tasted the sweetness in the art world, has let the children follow him on the road of art. During the Sui and Tang Dynasties, Yan PI and his sons Yan Lide and Yan Liben were known for their achievements in craftsmanship and painting.

Yanlide, yanliben’s brother, is also a national superstar.

Yanlide fought with lishimin in his early years and became a member of the king of Qin group. Like his father, he was famous for his artistic attainments and was therefore ranked as a senior official.

After the establishment of the Tang Dynasty, the emperor’s wedding dress was designed by yanlide. After the death of emperor Gaozu of the Tang Dynasty, the first imperial mausoleum of the Tang Dynasty was built under the direction of Yan Lide. When Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty conquered Koguryo, Yan Lide was responsible for building large ships for navigation and floating bridges for marching.

Later, yanlide and his younger brother yanliben designed the Zhaoling Mausoleum for Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty. The famous “six steeds of Zhaoling” relief is the masterpiece of their brothers.



? the six steeds of Zhaoling are green Zhui horses. Figure source: the idea of the figure bug

During the reign of Emperor Gaozong of the Tang Dynasty, Yan Lide became the Minister of the Ministry of work for several years with his merits. After his death, he was buried in Zhaoling with his brother yanliben. At that time, people were envious of Yan’s “eight brothers” and gave them crazy praise (eight, referring to the six Shangshu and other senior officials around the Shangshu).

In his book on painting, Li Sizhen of the Tang Dynasty commented on the paintings of the brothers Yan Lide and Yan Liben: the two brothers Yan revitalized the paintings since the northern and Southern Dynasties. At that time, the images of the envoys who came to the capital to worship and offer treasures, the ceremonies arranged for receiving these envoys, and the customs displayed by these envoys were painted by their brothers. They had a strange shape and deep charm.

At the beginning of the Tang Dynasty, whenever there was a major event in the capital, the emperor would order the Yan brothers to paint. For example, when Princess Wencheng went to Tibet, Yan Liben created the painting of walking chariots that has been handed down to the present day, while Yan Lide painted the painting of Princess Wencheng’s descent. Unfortunately, it was lost later; When Dongman Xieyuan made a pilgrimage to Chang’an, Yan Lide was also instructed to draw the pilgrimage meeting of the four barbarians to celebrate the prosperity of the Tang Empire.

It is precisely because of the brilliant work of the yanliben brothers that history has been handed down in another form.

They are the witnesses and recorders of history, and they engrave the elegance of the Tang Dynasty with immortal writing techniques.


Yan Liben grew up under the encouragement of his father and brother and the edification of art. Although he was later ordered by Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty to paint and said a few angry words, he was actually full of love for painting.

When Yan Liben was young, he studied under zhengfashi, a famous scholar of the Northern Dynasty.

Zheng was not only skillful, but also had a good story about his virtue. It is said that on one occasion, Zheng and another painter Yang Sheng painted pagodas for temples in the capital. Yang Sheng was quite devoted to his work. He covered the place where he painted with bamboo mats. After glancing at it for a few times, Taoist Zheng thought that Yang Sheng’s paintings were not great and there was no need to cover them with bamboo mats.

After a period of time, Taoist Zheng became familiar with Yang Sheng, and then he really understood Yang Sheng’s paintings. He was deeply impressed by them. Instead, he humbly asked Yang Sheng for the secret of painting figures, chariots and horses. Yangsheng answered his doubts generously. He took Taoist priest Zheng to the gate of the Imperial Palace, pointed to the clothes and chariots of pedestrians on the street, and said that was his inspiration.

Yan Liben had a similar experience with Zheng, and learned that the teacher learned to learn from others’ strong points.

An anecdote is recorded in the Jiahua of Sui and Tang Dynasties: at that time, zhangsengyao, a great painter in the painting world, was good at painting figures. He had authentic murals in Jingzhou ancient temples. In order to learn skills, Yan Liben searched everywhere for famous paintings of previous dynasties. Hearing the name of Zhang sengyao, he traveled all the way to Jingzhou to find the ancient temple and watch the murals.

For the first time, Yan took a few glances at the painting, but he didn’t see what was good about it. He thought that Zhang sengyao had no real name, so he hurried back.

When he returned to the place where he stayed, Yan Liben thought about it and felt that he had missed something. After a few days, he went to see the murals. This time, Yan Liben tasted it carefully. Only then did he know that this painting has a profound artistic conception and exquisite pen and ink. It is indeed a well deserved masterpiece. Standing in front of the painting, he murmured to himself, admiring Zhang sengyao, whom he had never met before, and exclaimed: “he is still a good hand in modern times!”

Later, Yan Liben went to the temple for the third time to see paintings. With respect, he stayed in the back hall of the ancient temple for more than ten days. From day to night, he carefully pondered every stroke of the painting and memorized zhangsengyao’s painting skills.

Yan Liben was about to leave after his famous painting of “three Gu”. The abbot of the temple told him that there was a picture of drunk monk by Zhang sengyao in the nearby Taoist temple, which was vividly painted. Taoists often used this picture to laugh at monks. You just learned the skill of Zhang sengyao in painting figures. Could you please draw a picture for us.

After listening to this, Yan Liben, with some black humor, immediately drew a picture of drunken Taoist priest and left it in the temple to “PK” with Zhang sengyao.



? the image of Yan Liben in film and television plays. Source: TV stills

After integrating and absorbing the painting style of the northern and Southern Dynasties, Yan Liben has many talents. He is good at painting Taoist interpretation, figures, landscapes, pommel horses and other subjects. He is especially famous for portrait painting. He is good at depicting the spiritual appearance of figures, with round strokes and vivid charm.

During the reign of Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty, Yan Liben was the number one “photographer” for the monarchs and ministers of Zhenguan. He was ordered to create portraits for the meritorious heroes of the founding of the country many times, such as the painting of 18 scholars in the Qin mansion and the painting of 24 meritorious heroes in the Lingyan Pavilion, which painted the famous ministers and generals under Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty. The images were lifelike and vivid. Therefore, he was praised as “the apotheosis of painting and painting”.

N years later, Dufu also recited the portrait of Lingyan Pavilion in “Dan Qing Yin”: “a good prime minister is crowned with a crown of excellence, and a fierce general has a big feather arrow around his waist. The commendatory Duke (Qin Qiong) and the Duke of E (Yuchi Gong) Mao launched a valiant fight.” These works are of great historical value, but most of them have long disappeared.

Today, the palace tombs built by the Yan brothers for the Tang Dynasty have long disappeared with the wind, but Yan Liben’s paintings have been collected in major museums. Later generations can trace the era he described from the paintings.

It is said that the painting of emperors of previous dynasties, which was painted by Yan Liben, is the representative work of his portrait paintings. The personality characteristics of the portraits of thirteen emperors in the painting show the mental states of different historical figures.

This scroll is composed of each emperor separately, namely: Liu Fuling, Emperor Zhao of the Han Dynasty, Liu Xiu, Emperor Guangwu of the Han Dynasty, Cao Pi, Emperor Wen of the Wei Dynasty, Liu Bei, Lord Shu, Sun Quan, Emperor Wu of the Wu Dynasty, simayan, Emperor Wu of the northern Zhou Dynasty, yuwenyong, Emperor Wen of the Chen Dynasty, Chen Qian, Emperor Xuan of the Chen Dynasty, Chen Xu, Emperor Fei of the Chen Dynasty, Chen bozong, empress Chen Shubao, Yang Jian of the Sui Dynasty, Yang Guang of the Sui Dynasty.



? yanliben’s painting of emperors of all dynasties

Among the thirteen emperors, there were the founding emperor, the Lord of rejuvenation, and the emperor of subjugation.

According to their political actions and their different positions in the situations of unification, division and partial peace, Yan Liben portrayed the posture, face and skin, and described the different imperial appearance.

We can see his several emperors.

As the founding emperor of the Wei Dynasty, Cao Pi, Emperor Wen of the Wei Dynasty, fought with his father Cao Cao in the north and South since childhood. After inheriting the foundation of the Wei Dynasty, he became emperor of the Han Dynasty. Therefore, Cao Pi has a provocative vision in his paintings, which is magnificent and aggressive.

Cao Cao sighed in his lifetime: “when you have a son, you should be like sunzhongmou.” In the painting of emperors of previous dynasties, Sun Quan, the Lord of Wu, was elegant and generous, with a smile on his face, showing the emperor’s image of being good at checks and balances and being ambitious.



? Liu Bei, the Lord of Shu, Sun Quan, the Lord of Wu, and Cao Pi, the Emperor Wen of Wei in Yan Liben’s map of emperors of previous dynasties

Among the emperors of the Three Kingdoms in the painting of emperors of previous dynasties, Emperor zhaolie of the Han Dynasty, Liu Bei, was the oldest and experienced the most twists and turns. He had the ambition to revive the Han Dynasty, but he was willing to spare no effort. After losing Jingzhou, he suffered a disastrous defeat in the battle of Yiling and finally died with hatred. It can be seen that Liu Bei in the painting has a depressed and tired look in his eyebrows and is carefully supported by his attendants, which shows that he is physically and mentally tired after a lifetime of war.

During the northern and Southern Dynasties, Yan Liben’s grandfather, Emperor Wu of the Northern Zhou Dynasty, yuwenyong, was also a man of great talent and vision. He recaptured the regime from the powerful officials and further unified the north. In order to highlight the authority of this powerful man, Yan Liben made great efforts to depict his strong personality. His eyes looked at the front with dignity and arrogance.

On the contrary, most of the Chen emperors in Pianan Jiangnan lacked heroic spirit. Especially when painting Chen Shubao, the conquered monarch of Southern Chen, Yan Liben painted him as a wretched man with his sleeve covering his mouth. His eyes were dull and his body was loose, which showed the weakness of the empress Chen.



? the four emperors of Chen Dynasty in yanliben’s map of emperors of previous dynasties

The Sui Dynasty usurped the throne of the Northern Zhou Dynasty and unified the country. It ended the nearly 300 year split between the north and the south, but quickly moved towards the fate of national subjugation. Yan Liben was full of complex emotions about the fleeting Sui Dynasty.

In the painting of emperors of previous dynasties, Emperor Wen of Sui Dynasty, Yang Jian, holding the sword handle, walked slowly forward, being resourceful and worried, showing the difficulties of the founding of the Sui Dynasty. Yangguang, Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty, was a “beautiful” literary emperor. He was also boastful, dreamy and extravagant. Yan Liben also truthfully portrayed his image.

The vicissitudes of the past few hundred years have been described from a picture scroll.



? Emperor Wen of the Sui Dynasty in yanliben’s map of emperors of previous dynasties


The time of history, solidified in Yan Liben’s pen and ink, has a clear appearance.

In the 14th year of Zhenguan reign of the Tang Dynasty (640 years), the Tibetan Zanpu songzangambu sent envoys to propose to the court and asked to marry a princess of the Tang Dynasty to Tibet. Yan Liben’s famous painting “the picture of walking chariots” is a witness of this historical time.

On the right is the emperor surrounded by several palace maids. He looks handsome and solemn. Looking ahead, the petite palace maids next to him are either holding fans, carrying chariots, or walking, showing the youth and beauty of young girls in the Tang Dynasty.

On the left side of the picture, three people are standing respectfully. One of them, dressed in a big red robe, was an official to be introduced to the ceremony. Next to him was an official of the Tang Dynasty dressed in a white robe, who should be an interpreter. Standing in the middle is ludongzan, an envoy sent by the Tubo to ask for relatives.

Unlike the dignitaries and officials of the Tang Dynasty, ludongzan looked sad, as if he was afraid that he would miss the great event of the Tibetan Zanpu.

According to legend, Lu Dongzan, the “six trial marriage envoys” of Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty, stood out and passed the tests. When Emperor Taizong learned that Tubo really admired the Tang Dynasty, he betrothed Princess Wencheng, who was both talented and beautiful, to Songzan Ganbu.



? yanliben’s walking chariot painting

When Princess Wencheng entered Tibet, she brought a large number of skilled craftsmen and craft classics, and imported the advanced culture and technology of the central plains into the Qinghai Tibet Plateau, which was deeply loved by the Tibetan people.

During the Zhenguan period, in addition to Tubo, the surrounding ethnic minorities paid tribute to the capital one after another. The envoys of Kang, Anguo, Khotan, Gaochang, Yanqi, Linyi and other four countries came to the court one after another and bowed down under the authority of the “heavenly Khan”. Chang’an, the capital of the Tang Dynasty, was an international metropolis with millions of people in the world at that time. Visitors of various nationalities and colors could be seen on every street.

Yan Liben’s “walking chariot map” records the historical events of a Han Tibetan family. It is said that the “tribute map” written by Yan Liben depicts the scenes of small Nanyang countries paying tribute to various rare foreign objects in Chang’an.

The foreign envoys in the picture are barefoot, bare chests and legs, with local characteristics. The coral, ivory, strange stones, parrots and other tributes they pay are also strange.



? Yan Liben’s “tribute map”

In addition, even some little-known imperial secrets were painted by Yan Liben.

It is said that the painting of Xiao Yi earning Orchid Pavilion, written by Yan Liben, tells the story of Emperor Taizong of Tang Dynasty looking for the authentic work of Orchid Pavilion preface.

According to historical records, Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty loved calligraphy and painting, especially Wang Xizhi’s calligraphy, but there was no Lanting preface, so he sent people all over the world to search for this calligraphy.

According to the Lanting records by heyanzhi, the descendants of Wang Xizhi inherited the Lanting preface as a family treasure. When Wang Faji and his brother, the seventh generation of descendants, encountered war, they became monks and took the Lanting preface to Xingqing temple. Before Wang Faji (FA Hao Zhi Yong) died, he passed the authentic work to his disciple paocai.

After hearing this, lishimin asked the debater to go to Beijing to entertain him. After a few days, he asked him about the whereabouts of the book. His eloquence fulfilled his trust. He pretended that he didn’t know where the original work was. Lishimin repeatedly asked him several times and had to let him go.

Emperor Taizong Yingming I of the Tang Dynasty speculated that the authentic work of Lanting preface should be at the debating place, but he didn’t know how to get it. At this time, the prime minister fangxuanling recommended a talent named Xiao Yi to him and asked him to outwit the preface to Lanting.

After receiving the order, Xiao Yi borrowed some calligraphy notes of the “two kings” (Wang Xizhi and Wang Xianzhi’s father and son) from Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty, dressed up as a poor scholar, and went south with the merchant’s boat to the temple where the debater was located.

After chatting with Xiao Yi, the debater became very speculative. They became good friends, playing the piano, throwing pots, and composing poems together. Then they talked about calligraphy and painting.

Seeing that the time was ripe, Xiao Yi took out the calligraphy of “two kings” borrowed from the emperor for the debaters to watch. The debaters also relaxed their vigilance, took out the authentic work of “preface to Lanting” and had a friendly academic exchange with Xiao Yi.

After a while, the debater went out to a banquet. Xiao Yi took the opportunity to enter his study and took away the authentic work “preface to Lanting”. After the debater came back, he finally knew the whole story, but Xiao Yi had already gone to Chang’an with the preface to the Orchid Pavilion.

Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty knew that his means were disgraceful. Considering that the debater was old, he did not investigate his crime of bullying the monarch. He also rewarded some property. The debater used the money to build a three-story pagoda.



? the painting of Xiao Yi earning Orchid Pavilion by Yan Liben

According to legend, Yan Liben described this story with the painting of Xiao Yi earning Orchid Pavilion. In the picture, the monk debater sat down with the scholar Xiao Yi and cooked tea. He talked freely and had a deep friendship, but he never thought that Xiao Yi came prepared with the emperor’s secret order.

Later, the authentic work of “preface to Lanting” was lost. Many people speculated that it should be buried with Emperor Taizong in Zhaoling.

The great Tang Dynasty is prosperous. The world pursues the glory of the Tang Dynasty and the glory of the world empire, but it is difficult to know what the picture is. Yanliben’s “useless use” of self doubt gives the most intuitive answer.


However, yanliben’s status as a painter has made many people have a grudge against him.

During the reign of Emperor Gaozong of the Tang Dynasty, Yan Liben took over the post of minister of the Ministry of industry of his brother Yan Lide. Later, he became an official and worshipped Youxiang, and jumped from the ministerial level to the premier of the State Council. At that time, Zuo Xiang was Jiang Ke, a general who had made meritorious service in the war. Therefore, some scholars made up a doggerel: “Zuo Xiang is famous in Xuanwei desert, while you Xiang is famous in the world.”

At first glance, I thought I was praising Yan Liben, but in fact, I was satirizing Yan Liben that he was only good at painting and had no ability to kill and assist.

One year, there was a famine in Guanzhong. The imperial court had to let the students of the Imperial College go home on holiday. Each of these students is very “angry youth”. After going out, they spread this doggerel poem everywhere: “the left is Xuanwei desert, and the right is well-known. The release of students from the three pavilions makes shijingming famous.”

This means that our Zuo Xiang is a powerful general in the mighty desert, and you Xiang is a famous artist in the painting world. All the students of the three pavilions have been sent home, and the clerks of the three provinces, the six ministries and the censor’s desk have to be familiar with scriptures. The implication is that people who paint are not qualified to be prime ministers.

The students admired the ministers who had made great achievements. They thought that Yan Liben, who was good at painting, was just a name in vain.

The emperor valued him, the literati mocked him, but Yan Liben never defended himself.

Some people say that language always becomes weak when it is most needed. But silent hard work is destined to leave immortal achievements.

Yan Liben carefully depicted the national affairs he had witnessed or witnessed in his paintings, while he tirelessly dealt with trivial official affairs, never neglecting his work.

When he took up the post of Henan Taoist dethroning envoy (a commissioner sent to inspect various places in the early Tang Dynasty), Yan Liben met another misunderstood young man.

At that time, the young man had just entered the official career and was conscientious, but he was falsely accused and jailed because the officials of his department had ulterior motives.

Yanliben attached great importance to this matter and personally took charge of the trial. He found that although the young man had not been in office for a long time, he had outstanding political achievements and high moral character. The crime he committed was a false accusation.

Yanliben examined the case file and always remembered the young man’s name – Di Renjie.

After summoning Di Renjie, yanliben apologized to him on behalf of local officials, and praised him: “Confucius said: ‘you can know benevolence by looking at it.’ it can be described as’ the Pearl of Haiqu and the relic of Southeast China ‘.”

After Di Renjie was rehabilitated, Yan Liben played the imperial court and recommended his promotion and reuse. It was with Yan Liben’s insight that di Renjie gradually emerged in the imperial officialdom and later became the mainstay to save the Li Tang Dynasty.



? portrait of Di Renjie


Yanliben once made fun of himself, so that future generations would no longer learn to paint.

However, when other senior officials and dignitaries have long been turned into a heap of loess, the works of “prime minister painter” yanliben have become the symbol of Zhenguan and Yonghui. After more than 1000 years of wind and rain, such as the pulse of the Tang culture, they are still beating actively.

In the Tang Dynasty, people like yanliben are really great.



? Tangsancai. Source: Photographic network

For thousands of years, not many dignitaries and dignitaries have been able to make people remember their names. However, in the tombs of the Tang Dynasty, the “three colors of the Tang Dynasty” fired by unknown craftsmen have become handicrafts representing the Tang Dynasty, shining brightly in the dust.

In the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, craftsmen and painters from all over the world chiseled eternal paintings in the frontier fortress after riding on horseback. Some painters from the civil society with low social status can only live in dark and humid caves all the year round, and even keep their lives here, but their artistic attainments have realized eternal life in stone carvings and murals.



? cave 45 of Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang is a Buddhist statue in the prosperous Tang Dynasty. Source: Photographic network

The people of the Tang Dynasty worshiped law, and calligraphy was brilliant for a time, including ouyangxun, yanzhenqing, liugongquan, etc; Tang paintings are also colorful. There are wudaozi, who is “Wu Dai Dangfeng”, Zhang Xuan and Zhou Fang, who are good at painting ladies, lisixun and lizhaodao, who are good at painting landscapes, Han Gan painting horses, Xue Ji painting cranes, Han Yun painting cows

The ink and ink between paper and silk, like rivers of all ages, will be handed down forever.



? Han Gan’s painting of horses

As the Chinese writer liucixin said, “give time to civilization, not to civilization.”

What is immortality?

This is immortality.


[later Jin Dynasty] Liu Xu: the old book of Tang Dynasty, Zhonghua Book Company, 1975

[song] Ouyangxiu, Song Qi: New Tang Dynasty, Zhonghua Book Company, 1975

Chenshouxiang: painting history of Sui and Tang Dynasties, people’s fine arts publishing house, 2000

Fanbo: special history of Chinese painting art ยท character volume, Jiangxi fine arts publishing house, 2008

Shenwei: < Study on the > maps of emperors of previous dynasties, Zhejiang University Press, 2019

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