Willows in Troubled Times: Ecology, Gender, and Apocalypses in Gong Xian's (1619-1689) Paintings and Theory

Translated title of the contribution: 亂世之柳: 龔賢(1619-1689)繪畫及理論中的生態觀、性別與末世

Yizhou Wang* (Contributor)

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to conferenceConference paper


This paper focuses the representation of willows or withered trees in the paintings, painting theory, and poetry of the seventeenth-century poet-artist Gong Xian (1619-1689) and the human-plant relations in the context of the Ming-Qing transition. Gong Xian has been known as a loyalist yimin artist in the early Qing period and the most distinguished painter of the so-called “Eight Masters of Jinling (Nanjing)”. Since the art historian Silbergeld (1980) first discovered the significance and political symbolism of the willow theme in Gong’s paintings over four decades ago, scholars have hardly continued to investigate Gong’s depiction of the willow, a prominent subject in his painting practices throughout his life span. This research contributes to the study of Gong’s art with new insights into the willows in his paintings, painting treatises, and inscriptions or poetry on his paintings from the interrelated perspectives of gender, ecology, and apocalypse. It applies a transdisciplinary approach combining art history, gender studies, literary studies, cultural history, and ecocritical art history.

The study indicates that, by emphasising a gendered division in the pictorial depiction of willows and his writings, Gong differentiated his own willow imagery from the dominant literary imagery of willows that was associated with women, femininity, and sexuality. Also, Gong highlighted the notion of time and seasonal changes in the life of a willow tree. He developed a distinctive willow imagery called huangliu, “abandoned willow”, that was no longer praised for its flourishing in spring and was absent of gendered characteristics of females; while instead, it was transformed to parallel the Chinese category of “virtuous” plants such as pine trees and cypress that are evergreen and are associated with Confucian scholars’ qualities. Gong’s “abandoned willows” became an iconic presence in his landscape paintings without human figures, either as his metamorphosis or his/audiences’ companions for living through cataclysms. Finally, the research examines the connections between Gong’s paintings and the intellectual thoughts about apocalypses in the Ming-Qing transition, with a discussion on the intersection with the ideas about “indignation” and winter of the Ming loyalist monk Juelang Daosheng (1592-1659), as Gong’s Chan Buddhist teacher.


Translated title of the contribution亂世之柳: 龔賢(1619-1689)繪畫及理論中的生態觀、性別與末世
Original languageMultiple languages
Number of pages24
Publication statusPublished - May 2024
Event10th Young Scholars’ Forum in Chinese Studies 2024 = 第十屆中國文化研究青年學者論壇 - Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong , Hong Kong
Duration: 23 May 202425 May 2024
https://www.cuhk.edu.hk/ics/general/forum/2024/program.html (Conference program)


Conference10th Young Scholars’ Forum in Chinese Studies 2024 = 第十屆中國文化研究青年學者論壇
Country/TerritoryHong Kong
CityHong Kong
Internet address


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