Admonitions of the Instructress

I went to see the ‘Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies’ at the British Museum, a Chinese scroll so delicate it is only on display for a few weeks. It may be as old as the fifth century, and the text is from the third. Many of the episodes depict exemplary Empresses: in this picture Lady Feng, the Emperor’s consort, bravely shields the Emperor from an escaped bear, which luckily is killed just in time by two guards, an incident which occurred in 38 BC.

The scroll originally had twelve panels: the first three are lost. There is a twelfth-century drawing which includes the missing bits: unfortunately we can see from comparing the surviving panels that the copy is not totally accurate. It probably gives a good idea of what is missing, but might also be a later reconstruction of panels that were already lost even back then. The depth of history in the thing is breathtaking.

The British Museum bought the scroll from Captain Clarence Johnson, discreetly passing over how he acquired it: it seems clear that in fact he helped himself to it during the Boxer Rebellion.

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