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20+ Amazing Paintings of Demons and Mythological Creatures of the Chinese Folklore

Mystical Beasts and Demonic Spirits: A Glimpse into Chinese Folklore Art

Chinese mythology, a vibrant repository of tales and traditions, holds a unique place in the world’s cultural heritage. Its extensive pantheon of demons and mythological creatures finds vivid expression in the visual arts, especially in paintings and handscrolls from the Ming (明, Míng, 1368-1644) and Qing (清, Qīng, 1644-1912) Dynasties. This article illuminates the fascinating representations of these supernatural entities, each embodying stories and beliefs deeply rooted in Chinese folklore.

The Artistic Heritage of the Ming and Qing Dynasties

During the Ming and Qing periods, Chinese art flourished with remarkable detail and complexity. Paintings from these eras often depicted not only historical and everyday scenes but also the rich tapestry of mythical beings that populated the Chinese imagination. These works are not mere illustrations but narratives that capture the essence of the culture’s spiritual and supernatural beliefs.

Ming Dynasty (明朝, Míng Cháo) art, known for its refinement and elegance, frequently includes scenes of legendary battles, gods, and spirits. Meanwhile, the Qing Dynasty (清朝, Qīng Cháo) brought forth a more opulent and detailed style, with an emphasis on elaborate compositions and intricate brushwork. These periods produced some of the most compelling visual records of Chinese mythology.

Demons in Chinese Mythology

In Chinese folklore, demons (妖魔, yāomó) are often portrayed as malevolent spirits with the ability to shape-shift and wield immense power. These entities are not just symbols of fear; they reflect the human struggle against chaos and the unknown. Key figures include the Nian (年兽, Nián shòu), a beast that terrorizes villages but is repelled by firecrackers and the color red during the Chinese New Year, and the Huli Jing (狐狸精, húlijīng), a fox spirit known for its cunning and transformative abilities.

The Nian Beast (年兽, Nián shòu)

The Nian is one of the most iconic creatures in Chinese mythology. This fearsome beast is said to reside in the mountains, descending to human settlements at the start of each lunar year. Legend has it that the Nian is scared away by loud noises, bright lights, and the color red, giving rise to the tradition of setting off firecrackers and hanging red lanterns during the Chinese New Year celebrations.

Huli Jing (狐狸精, húlijīng)

The Huli Jing, or fox spirit, is another prominent figure in Chinese folklore. These spirits are often depicted as beautiful women who can either bring prosperity or disaster, depending on their intentions. They are known for their intelligence and ability to seduce and deceive humans. The dual nature of the Huli Jing reflects the Chinese cultural ambivalence towards the supernatural, blending respect with caution.

Mythological Creatures: Guardians and Mischief-Makers

Beyond demons, Chinese folklore is replete with an array of mythical creatures, each serving distinct roles within the narrative tapestry. These beings range from benevolent guardians to tricksters and harbingers of doom.

Dragon Kings (龙王, Lóng Wáng)

Among the most revered are the Dragon Kings (龙王, Lóng Wáng), rulers of the four seas and controllers of the weather. These dragon deities, often depicted with regal and fearsome visages, are crucial figures in Chinese mythology. They are believed to bring rain and are invoked during times of drought. The Dragon Kings embody the balance of power and benevolence, serving as both protectors and potential sources of natural calamities.

Qilin (麒麟, qílín)

The Qilin, often likened to a unicorn in Western mythology, is a benevolent creature symbolizing peace and prosperity. This chimeric being combines elements of various animals, including deer, ox, and dragon, and is known for its gentle and righteous nature. The sighting of a Qilin is traditionally considered an auspicious sign, heralding the birth of a wise and virtuous leader.

The Craftsmanship Behind the Mythical Depictions

Creating paintings that capture the essence of these mythical beings requires not just artistic skill but a deep understanding of the underlying folklore. Artists from the Ming and Qing dynasties employed meticulous techniques to bring these legends to life.

Handscrolls (手卷, shǒu juǎn), a popular format during these periods, offered a dynamic way to narrate these stories. These scrolls allowed for a sequential viewing experience, akin to reading a book, where the unfolding of scenes gradually reveals the narrative. The careful use of color, composition, and line work in these handscrolls provided a vivid portrayal of the mythological and the supernatural.

Ink wash painting (水墨画, shuǐmòhuà) was another technique used to depict these mystical subjects. This style, characterized by its expressive use of black ink, was adept at conveying the ethereal and otherworldly aspects of the mythical creatures. The fluidity and grace of the ink wash made it an ideal medium for capturing the fleeting and elusive nature of demons and spirits.

Related: Chinese Black Magic, Hungry Ghost Festival images, Traditional Paintings of Chinese Dragons and other legendary creatures

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Chung Kuei Taming the Five Pestilences

Chung Kuei Taming the Five Pestilences
Chung Kuei Taming the Five Pestilences. Hanging scroll (mounted on panel). Ming dynasty, 16th-17th century

Raising the Alms-bowl: The Conversion of Hariti the Mother of Demons

Raising the Alms-bowl: The Conversion of Hariti the Mother of Demons
Handscroll, Formerly attributed to Qiu Ying 仇英 (ca. 1494-1552). Qing dynasty, 1644-1911. Ink and color on silk.
Raising-the-Alms-bowl-The-Conversion-of-Hariti-the-Mother-of-Demons-II
Handscroll, Formerly attributed to Qiu Ying 仇英 (ca. 1494-1552). Qing dynasty, 1644-1911. Ink and color on silk.
Raising-the-Alms-bowl-The-Conversion-of-Hariti-the-Mother-of-Demons-III
Handscroll, Formerly attributed to Qiu Ying 仇英 (ca. 1494-1552). Qing dynasty, 1644-1911. Ink and color on silk.
Raising-the-Alms-bowl-The-Conversion-of-Hariti-the-Mother-of-Demons-IV
Handscroll, Formerly attributed to Qiu Ying 仇英 (ca. 1494-1552). Qing dynasty, 1644-1911. Ink and color on silk.
Raising-the-Alms-bowl-The-Conversion-of-Hariti-the-Mother-of-Demons-V
Handscroll, Formerly attributed to Qiu Ying 仇英 (ca. 1494-1552). Qing dynasty, 1644-1911. Ink and color on silk.
Raising-the-Alms-bowl-The-Conversion-of-Hariti-the-Mother-of-Demons-VI
Handscroll, Formerly attributed to Qiu Ying 仇英 (ca. 1494-1552). Qing dynasty, 1644-1911. Ink and color on silk.
Raising-the-Alms-bowl-The-Conversion-of-Hariti-the-Mother-of-Demons-VIII
Handscroll, Formerly attributed to Qiu Ying 仇英 (ca. 1494-1552). Qing dynasty, 1644-1911. Ink and color on silk.

A Luohan and a demon

A Luohan and a demon
Hanging scroll (mounted on panel). Ming dynasty, 1368-1644. Ink and color on silk.

As the historical Buddha was nearing the end of his earthly existence and approaching nirvana, he entrusted the safeguarding of the Buddhist faith to sixteen esteemed luohan (Arhats). These luohan were charged with the responsibility of upholding the Buddhist teachings until the arrival of the future Buddha. In China, the luohan gained prominence starting in the 7th century, and their numbers gradually increased from the original sixteen to eighteen, and eventually to five hundred. This seated luohan, accompanied by a standing demon, likely belongs to the larger group of five hundred. The luohan is portrayed as aged yet dignified and calm, while the demon’s fierce appearance serves as a reminder to adherents to maintain good conduct in their current life.

Zhong Kui and Demons Crossing a Bridge

Zhong Kui and Demons Crossing a Bridge
Hanging scroll (mounted on panel). Attributed to Dai Jin (1388-1462).
Ming dynasty, 16th century. Zhe School.

Expelling Demons from the House

Expelling Demons from the House
Hanging scroll (mounted on panel). Formerly attributed to Li Tang 李唐 (ca. 1050s-after 1130). Ming dynasty, 16th century. Zhe School. Ink on silk.

Sakyamuni Seated Upon Three Demon-like Creatures

Sakyamuni Seated Upon Three Demon-like Creatures
Hanging scroll (mounted on panel). Formerly attributed to Guanxiu (傳)貫休 (822-912). Possibly Yuan to early Ming dynasty, 14th-15th century. Ink and color on silk.

Luohan and Demon

Luohan and Demon
Hanging scroll (mounted on panel). Formerly attributed to Guanxiu (傳)貫休 (822-912). Ming dynasty, 16th century. Hanging scroll mounted on panel; ink and color on silk.

Raising the Alms-bowl: The Conversion of Hariti, the Mother of Demons

Raising the Alms-bowl
Handscroll. Colophon attributed to Wen Zhengming 文徵明 (1470-1559). Qing dynasty, 17th-18th century. Ink and color on silk.

Clearing Out a Mountain Forest

Clearing Out a Mountain Forest
Handscroll. Formerly attributed to Li Song (傳)李嵩 (late 12th-early 13th century). Ming dynasty, 15th century. Ink on paper. Baimiao style.

Retinue of the Minister of Water 

Retinue of the Minister of Water
下元水官圖. Handscroll. Attributed to He Cheng 何澄 (1224-after 1315). Yuan dynasty, early 14th century. Ink on paper.

Zhongshan Going on Excursion

Zhongshan Going on Excursion

Handscroll. Gong Kai 龔開 (1222-1307). Yuan dynasty, late 13th-early 14th century. Ink on paper. H x W: 32.8 x 169.5 cm
Zhongshan Going on Excursion
Handscroll. Gong Kai 龔開 (1222-1307). Yuan dynasty, late 13th-early 14th century. Ink on paper. H x W: 32.8 x 169.5 cm
Zhongshan Going on Excursion
Handscroll. Gong Kai 龔開 (1222-1307). Yuan dynasty, late 13th-early 14th century. Ink on paper. H x W: 32.8 x 169.5 cm
Zhongshan Going on Excursion
Handscroll. Gong Kai 龔開 (1222-1307). Yuan dynasty, late 13th-early 14th century. Ink on paper. H x W: 32.8 x 169.5 cm

The artist’s inscription reveals that this handscroll portrays the legendary figure Zhong Kui, renowned as the Demon Queller, embarking on a hunting expedition with his sister. According to the legend, Emperor Xuanzong (reigned 712–756) experienced a feverish dream in which a small demon invaded the palace. Suddenly, a towering man named Zhong Kui appeared, attacked the demon, and consumed it. Upon waking, the emperor found himself miraculously cured. He then ordered a court painter to create a portrait of the figure from his dream, which was subsequently disseminated across the empire as a protective charm against evil spirits. By the 10th century, additional legends and practices had become associated with Zhong Kui, including stories of him having a wife and a younger sister.

In Gong Kai’s whimsical and imaginative painting, Zhong Kui and his sister are depicted traveling in sedan chairs. They are accompanied by a group of slave-demons who carry Zhong Kui’s sword, bundles of household items, pots of wine, and smaller demons they have captured.

Zhong Kui, the Demon Queller, Patrolling the Palace

Zhong Kui, the Demon Queller, Patrolling the Palace
Hanging scroll. Hongwu (active 1751-1792). Qing dynasty, late 18th century.
Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk.

The story of Zhong Kui originated in the 8th century during the Tang dynasty (618–907). Emperor Xuanzong (reigned 712–756) once fell ill with a fever and dreamed that a mischievous demon had invaded the palace. In his dream, a dark and unattractive man named Zhong Kui suddenly appeared, attacked, and devoured the demon. Zhong Kui identified himself as the spirit of a wronged scholar from a previous era, driven by loyalty to protect the throne. Upon waking, the emperor found himself miraculously cured. In response, he ordered a court painter to create a portrait of Zhong Kui and had the image widely distributed as a protective talisman against evil spirits.

Over the centuries, it became customary to hang portraits of Zhong Kui in homes during the lunar New Year and on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, periods believed to be particularly susceptible to malevolent forces. This painting depicts Zhong Kui patrolling palace grounds while riding a donkey, under blooming peach trees—symbolic of immortality and a long, healthy life. Zhong Kui is shown with a retinue of subjugated demons, who carry items such as a wine jar, brocade cushion, food boxes, and an umbrella.

Lü Dongbin Subduing a Demon

Lü Dongbin Subduing a Demon
Hanging scroll. Formerly attributed to Li Gonglin (ca. 1049-1106). Ming dynasty, 14th-15th century. Ink and color on silk. Zhe School

Guan Yu, Wenchang, and Kuixing

Guan Yu, Wenchang, and Kuixing
Hanging scroll (mounted on panel). Formerly attributed to Li Gonglin (傳)李公麟 (ca. 1049-1106). Qing dynasty, 1644-1911. Ink on silk.

Source & Images: Smithsonian Institution

Topics: Chinese Mythological Creatures,Chinese demons,Chinese folklore

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