Conveying Inner Spirit: Figural Representations in Chinese Art

Three Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art


In the late Ming Dynasty, art often depicted Chinese literati enjoying gardens. On this dish, musicians have gathered at a pavilion.Lozenge-shaped dish, Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), dated late 16th–17th century. Rogers Fund, 1923. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

“Rendering humans is the most difficult. Next are landscapes, and after that are dogs and horses. Terraces and halls and other structures with set forms are easy by comparison,” wrote the Chinese painter Gu Kaizhi (344–406). In depicting humans, he emphasized using external forms to convey a person’s spirit, an idea that developed into a major guiding philosophy for figural representations in Chinese art. Instead of prioritizing the accurate portrayal of external forms and physical anatomy, artists thus focused on evoking a subject’s inner spirit, the individual’s distinctive “life energy.”


A variety of such Chinese figural representations is now on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibit includes three galleries. The first centers on children, a reflection of the long-standing importance of offspring in Chinese culture and continuing the ancestral line. The second showcases scenes of everyday life in ancient China as well as notable figures of history and legend. And the la