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Once upon a time Chinese society emerged from an era of civil war, natural disaster, and economic calamity into an age of wealth and prosperity. The Kang-Qian (Golden Age) of the Quing dynasty lasted during the reign of the emperors Kangxi (reigned 1662-1722), Yongzheng (r. 1722-36) and Qianlong (r. 1736-99). China grew phenomenally rich from its trade in textiles and tea. Unchained from the shackles of long convention (and buoyed up by wealth and new foreign influences), Chinese painting took flight into bold new forms.
At the forefront of this art movement were the eight eccentrics of Yangzhou, a coterie of expressive and individualistic stylists from China’s trade center, Yangzhou. The youngest (and perhaps the most eccentric) was a painter named Luo Ping who claimed to be able to see ghosts. To quote the Metropolitan Museum’s website, “Luo Ping’s contemporary and enduring fame as an artist rests largely on his depictions of supernatural beings. The most celebrated work on the subject is the Ghost Amusement scroll. Painted around 1766, it instantly created a sensation…”
Luo Ping was a devout Buddhist who called himself by the sobriquet ‘Monk of the Temple of Flowers’ (although when he was nineteen he fell in love with and married the poet Fang Wanyi). The two frequently collaborated (which makes more sense in Chinese artistic culture where poetry, calligraphy, and painting are all combined). Although Luo Ping was greatly admired in his time, he refused proffered government posts (officialdom was the only road to greater wealth) and continued to make his living as an impoverished painter. By the end of his life, however, he had moved his family to Beijing, the center of imperial authority and he had returned its style to a more traditional one as imperial taste began to shift back to more conservative aesthetics of China’s past (and as the central authority began cracking down on what is saw as the decadence of merchants).
The Sword Terrace (detail), dated 1794