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Zhong Kui

We are getting into Autumn and that means blog posts about ghosts, spirits, monsters, and the supernatural. Why don’t we start out in a big way with Zhong Kui, a king of the underworld.

Zhong Kui was a ghost, and he was tasked with hunting ghosts…and he commanded an army of 80,000 ghosts. To find out how he managed to end up in this ridiculous position, it is necessary to take into account the tension between meritocracy and autocracy. In ancient China, the official imperial exams were the gateway to highly esteemed civil service jobs and official advancement. Although he was infamously ugly, Zhong Cui was a devoted scholar. He studied long and hard to master all of the disciplines which would be on the statewide exams, and his hard work paid off. After traveling to the capital to take the great exam, he came in first in all of China…a surefire path to honors and high office!

Zhong Kui, the Scholar (Ren Yi, 1883) Ink on Silk

Unfortunately, the Emperor of China in Zhong Kui’s day was vain, stupid, superficial, and capricious. When the emperor saw how ugly the top-scoring student was, he declared the outcome was invalid. Zhong Cui was stripped of his rightful title of “Zhuangyuan” (top-scorer) and tossed out of the imperial city in derision. Enraged by the corrupt nature of society, Zhong Cui furiously rushed against the city gates and dashed out his brains against the great bronze doors. His hometown friend, Du Ping, had Zhong Kui’s remains laid to rest with honor, while Zhong Kui’s spirit made its way down the long road to Diyu, the black mansion, aka Chinese hell.

Zhong Kui Brooding (Min Zhen,1776) ink on silk

In China, suicide is accounted a sin. If all unhappy people killed themselves, the world would be empty and the serenity of the universe would be imperiled. This put Lord Yama, the emperor and judge of the underworld in a bind. Unlike the vainglorious mortal emperor of China, Yama was a shrewd judge of character (you have to be, to be the ruler of hell) and he saw great potential in Zhong Kui. Yet at the same time, the scholar had literally thrown his life away…and gravely profaned one of the sacred rules of existence. What was to be done?

Zhong Kui Keeping the Hungry Ghosts At Bay (Contemporary)

And thus Yama decided on the perfect punishment/reward: he elevated Zhong Kui to be a colleague. The pleasures of the world and of heaven would never belong to the ugly scholar, but in the end he did end up with a prestigious official rank–as one of the thirteen kings of the underworld. Zhong Kui was given an army of 80,000 subordinate ghosts and a mandate to hunt down unruly specters and monsters (and probably some cool magic and supernatural powers too).

Zhong Kui

He traveled back to his home village and arranged for his sister to be married to his faithful friend Du Ping and then he began hunting down malicious spirits. Since malevolent ghosts (and crooked autocrats) are endemic to all eras, Zhong Kui is still busy at his task, but the rest of China has finally come to appreciate his worth and he is revered as a guardian deity.

Cupid Delivering Psyche (Sir Edward Burne-Jones, ca. 1867, gouache on paper)

The story of Cupid and Psyche is a breathless tale of hidden identity, subservience, misplaced trust, and true love.  It is a favorite theme for western artists, particularly since it features Cupid (the capricious god of love who wreaks so much chaos in mortal life) emotionally caught in a seemingly impossible situation. Each of these three paintings by Edward Burne-Jones depicts the moment, late in the story when Cupid finally forgives Psyche (who has suffered endless woe, pain, and setbacks).  Psyche has visited the underworld and returned with a box containing divine beauty.  Warned not to open the box, she has decided to steal a pinch so that Cupid will love her despite her mortality.  Unsurprisingly the otherworldly box contains poison of infernal sleep. Cupid then intervenes directly and utilizes his divinity to rescue her from the curse.

Cupid Delivering Psyche (Sir Edward Burne-Jones, 1867, mixed media)

As a young man Edward Burne-Jones studied theology at Oxford and was anticipating a career as a minister–until his spirit was seduced by ancient poetry (really!).  He left the university without a degree and joined a brotherhood of artists and poets. He painted three nearly identical versions of this dramatic scene over the course of several years.  The first and finest from around 1867 is a gouache portrait of Maria Zambaco, a Greco-English beauty.  In 1866, Maria’s mother had commissioned Burne-Jones to paint Maria (as Psyche no less) for an entirely different picture, and the (married) Burne-Jones fell in love with the (married) Zambaco.  Their tempestuous affair destroyed both marriages and nearly led them to suicide before ending in 1869 (although it resulted in a number of gorgeous paintings—which were pilloried by the Victorian art world for portraying female sexual assertiveness in a positive light).

Cupid Delivering Psyche (Sir Edward Burne-Jones, 1871, watercolor and pastel on paper?)

Although outwardly the same, these three paintings are also subtly different.  In the last painting, from 1872, Cupid is not red and radiant but gray and diffuse (and he has lost his ever-changing wreath).  Psyche’s hair has changed color and her features have been altered.  Additionally, the sheer repetition of this same moment of divine intervention suggests that romance is a figure eight:  our arguments and passions keep repeating themselves (which is in fact what happens in the tale of Cupid and Psyche).  Lovers  relive the same moments of longing, confusion, and passion again and again and again even as the world changes like water and our lives wear out.

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