The Chinese Painting in the Dennes Room
The painting, “The Nine Wise Old Men,” dates from the Ming Dynasty and was given to the university in 1953 or 1954 by Mr. William Edward Colby. It is on permanent loan to the Philosophy Department.
The following explanation was provided by Ch’ung-ho and Hans Fraenkel from the Institute of East Asiatic Studies in 1954:
Lo-chung chiu lao hui, The Gathering of the Nine Old Men at Lo-chung, also called Hsiang-shan chiu lao hui, The Gathering of the Nine Old Men at Hsiang-shan, is the title of an essay by the famous writer Po Chü-i (772-846), preserved in the collection T’ang-tai ts’ung-shu. It describes the meeting of seven old literati at Hsiang-shan, near Lo-yang (in modern Honan Province), in 845. At the meeting, each of the seven wrote a poem, whose text is included in Po Chü-i’s account. The seven old men were Po Chü-i, Hu Kuo, Chi Wen, Liu Chen, Cheng Chü, Lu Chen, and Chang Hun. Two others, Li Yüan-shuang and the Buddhist monk Ju-p’u, had apparently attended a previous gathering but were not present when the poems were written.
The subject has frequently been represented in painting, from the T’ang dynasty (618-907) down. The present painting dates from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), judging from the condition of the paper.
The nine old men are not philosophers, in the strict sense of the word, but literati, with a Confucianist background. One of them, Ju-p’u, is a Buddhist. This kind of gathering, with emphasis on the enjoyment of pleasures, brings out the Taoist tendencies which are often present even in orthodox Confucianists.
In this painting, the peach and the fungus are Taoist means of achieving immortality or at least longevity. The bat represents good luck, in Chinese popular belief. Wine-drinking and ear-scratching are simply expressions of carefree happiness.
Pictures such as this one were sometimes given as birthday presents, to convey wishes of longevity and happiness.