The Traumatic Past of the Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies

by Si Xiao

Background of the Admonitions Scroll

Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies © 2020 The Trustees of the British Museum.

We may never find an alternative that exceeds the beauty of the Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies (“女史箴图”) held in the British Museum. As the earliest representation of Chinese silk painting preserved at the present time, this handscroll painting is highly valued by global art communities. Yet, the Scroll’s material presence was increasingly fragilised through a series of traumatic life encounters, related to Britain’s imperialistic activities from the end of the nineteenth century and the British Museum’s incorrect treatment during the twentieth century.  This part of the object biography is largely expunged from the British Museum’s existing narrative.

The original painter of the scroll, Gu Kaizhi (“顾恺之”, c. 345–406), is credited with major technical and aesthetic development within traditional Chinese painting. Gu’s idea for the Scroll was inspired by a didactic text of the same title, written by a famous poet of the Jin Dynasty (266 to 420), Zhang Hua (232 to 300). Unfortunately, Gu’s original work was lost. The Admonitions Scroll in the British Museum is a copy produced during Tang Dynasty (618 to 907), and although it is missing the first three scenes, the nine remaining scenes are still an invaluable treasure in Chinese history. The Qianlong Emperor (1711 to 1799) of Qing Dynasty (1636 to 1912) named it as one of his favourite scroll paintings—the Four Excellent Things All at Once (“四美具”), adding imperial prestige. While the Palace Museum in Beijing keeps a Song-Dynasty (960 to 1279) copy of theScroll, neither its artistic nor its historical value could surpass the British Museum Tang copy.1

In practice, museum audiences have few opportunities to appreciate this treasure.  As explained by David Saunders (British Museum Head of Conservation and Scientific Research):

The silk support is in a fragile condition and has very old repairs in many places, while the paint has cracked and flaked over time. The original and repair silks, as well as some of the pigments used, will be damaged if the scroll is exposed to strong light for long periods, so it is only exhibited for relatively brief periods at low light levels and is kept in the dark when not on display or being studied.2

Considering the irreversible impact of colonial-imperialistic practices on the Admonitions Scroll, it is worth remembering the notable historical causes of the Object’s fragile conditions, which have precluded public display. This essay argues that its fragility resulted from three traumatic encounters. The first one was related to the Siege of the International Legations in 1900, and the subsequent violence and looting that led the the Scroll being stolen from the Qing.  Subsequently, without proper preservation, its material condition deteriorated further during its journey to England where the Scroll was sold to the British Museum in 1903. Finally, during 1910s, the Museum used a Japanese mounting method to separate the Scroll into flat-panel-supported sections. Rather than consulting Chinese experts, the Museum’s remounting practice should be seen as an epistemic mistake that was based on an imaginary perception of what Chinese arts should be. It destroyed the completeness of meaning, form, and history of the Scroll.

The First Trauma: The Siege of the International Legations

As the Qing court’s imperial collection, the Tang-dynasty copy of the Admonitions Scroll was housed at the Jingyi Pavilion of the Forbidden City,3 and moved to the Summer Palace (“颐和园”) in the period of the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835 to 1908). Between 1899 and 1900, the Boxer Rebellion— an anti-Christian and anti-foreign movement organised by Chinese peasants—threatened the security of Beijing legations set up by western powers. In response to the peasant uprising, eight nations—including Britain, France, Japan, and Austria-Hungary—created a military alliance and occupied the Qing’s capital by force of arms from August 14th, 1900. Between mid-August and October, the Summer Palace was burnt and looted by soldiers of the allied forces.4 Remembering the Second Opium War of 1860, British and French allied forces had looted the Old Summer Palace, Yuanmingyuan (“圆明园”). Unlike that 1860 plunder, confined to Yuanmingyuan, the 1900 eight-nation alliance’s looting actions were extensive—including not only the Summer Palace site, but also Qing nobility residences, private homes, and towns and villages around Beijing.5    

It is difficult to figure precisely the quantity of cultural heritage ruined or looted through the 1900 plunder, but numerous objects representing Chinese fine arts and material culture were sent to Europe. The Admonitions Scroll was included. Lieutenant-Colonel Clarence Arnold Keatinge Johnson (1870 to 1937) can be considered as having a direct historical linkage to the Scroll’s departure. As a member of the British Indian Army First Bengal Lancers, staying in Beijing between August and October, 1900, he participated in the Siege of the International Legations. This regiment was used to support Major Noel Du Boulay (1861 to 1949) in controlling the Summer Palace.6 We lack further evidence about whether Johnson entered the Palace; according to his family member’s words, the Scroll was acquired from a noble Chinese lady, as a reward for protecting her family.7 This personal claim has not been supported by any other proof.

The legitimacy of Johnson’s acquisition may be questioned. In contemporary Chinese media, Johnson is frequently characterised as a colonial invader who ‘stole’ national treasure.8 While this view is grounded within a nationalistic narrative, one certain thing is that Scroll ownership shifted from Qing’s authority to a British military officer, within the context of the Palace’s destruction. We cannot detach the person from the general climate within the eight-nation alliance. The 1900 Beijing War saw a ‘wild orgy of plunder’, deriving from ‘a loot fever’ among Euro-American armies.9 As observed by Alfred Waldersee (1832 to 1904), the Commander-in-Chief of the allied forces, the armies “naturally took the course they did in Peking,” having already received “a thorough training in Plundering at Tientsin”.10 Regardless of how Johnson obtained the Scroll, his acquisition—as a participant in the Beijing military occupation—cannot be considered value-neutral.  

No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible; a single person was unlikely to remain immune from the widespread pleasure of looting. Looting had become normalised by western colonial-imperialistic dominance over a non-western civilisation, through armed conquest. If the Summer Palace were not burnt down and looted, Johnson would have had no access to the Scroll. Instead of being ambivalent about the singularity of personal actions, we must address the question of the Palace’s suffering under western imperialistic practices. The traumatic encounter caused by the Summer Palace sacking was a common fate shared by the Admonitions Scroll and many other Chinese artworks diverted into the western world.       

The Second Trauma: Sold to the British Museum

In 1902, Johnson returned to London and inquired at the British Museum about the value of the Admonitions Scroll’s jade toggle. Returning to the Second Opium War period, English soldiers were most interested in collecting those Chinese things that either held direct connection with Qing imperial identity or held explicitly high material value, rather than Chinese fine arts.11 This seems applicable to Johnson’s enquiry. Nevertheless, Museum curator Sidney Colvin (1845 to 1927), with his assistant, Laurence Binyon (1869 to 1943), recognised the art value of the Scroll itself,12 rather than the jade toggle’s monetary worth. Due to intensified geopolitical and economic interaction between Qing and Britain from the middle of the nineteenth century, English art institutes had developed proficiency in classifying and interpreting Chinese art.13 Particularly after the 1860 sacking of Yuanmingyuan, many Palace objects were brought to the British Museum for display and study. This accumulated knowledge allowed the Museum easily to recognise the Scroll’s aesthetic or cultural significance.

In 1903, the Museum purchased the Scroll from Johnson, at the price of £25. (Note that the purchasing power of £1 in the 1900s was about £119.74 in 2018). Compared to the present-day art market—where a famous Chinese traditional painting can be sold for millions of dollars—the amount paid by the Museum was trivial. In Chinese terms, the Museum’s decision was Jianlou (“捡漏”)—characterising a trade scenario when a seller does not know the good’s true value, permitting the buyer to acquire it at grossly underestimated price.  

When arriving at the Museum, the Admonitions Scroll had already become fragile. As reported by Colvin in 1903, the surface of the Scroll was, “much worn and rotted, and bears many traces of ancient repair”.14 Moving from place to place, the Scroll—sensitive to lighting, humidity, temperature, and vibration—did not receive its proper preservation, as in the Summer Palace. Prior to arrival at the British Museum, Johnson (and other possible persons who had handled it) lacked adequate expertise to sustain a favourable environment, so that the Scroll’s material condition unintentionally deteriorated. In society, we recognise a person’s displacement when they are forced to leave their home and migrate to an unfamiliar place. This exceptional experience may affect the person’s mental and physical wellbeing. Imagining the Scroll as a delicate goddess, the Siege of the International Legations brought about its displacement, as warfare terminated her peaceful life, and the journey to England was unexpected and ill-prepared. Her fragile body was exhausted by this overseas travel.       

The Third Trauma: Mistaken Remounting

On receiving the Admonitions Scroll, the British Museum adopted some particular maintenance methods to the item. Notably, the Scroll—as with other cases of Chinese and Japanese paintings—was placed on sloped table tops and displayed as exhibits at the Museum’s Chinese and Japanese Painting AD 500–1900 Exhibition, held between 1910 and 1912.15 During this period, cleaning and remounting activities for the Scroll were also planned. In 1912, a group of Japanese specialists, including Sugizaki Hideaki (“杉崎秀明”, 1889 to ?) and Urushibara Mokuchu (“漆原木虫”, 1888 to 1953), produced 100 copies of woodblock-printed facsimiles for the Scroll, faithfully recording in colour the original painting—but without the traces of existing repairs and damages. Apart from this work, from 1914, Mokuchu and Stanley Littlejohn (1876 to 1917), a painting conservator and restorer, used the Japanese technique of multi-panel folding screens (byōbu) to remount the Scroll, requiring the separation of a paining into individual sections and mounting those sections onto a flat panel.16 Consequently, the Scroll was remounted into two separated parts: the colophons and inscriptions and the main painting, including the landscape with trees added by Zou Yigui (“邹一桂”, 1686 to 1772),17 a Chinese painter in the Qianlong period.

This remounting practice could be viewed as an epistemic mistake causing permanent damage to the Scroll. As early as 1908, Binyon praised the ancient Chinese repairs as “many times over with exquisite skill and care” so that the Scroll itself could be “most jealously preserved”.18 According to a monograph for preservation of Chinese paintings, Decoration Records (“装潢志”), written by Zhou Jiazhou (“周嘉胄”, 1582 to ?) in the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644), the process for repairing an ancient painting was analogised as medical treatment: it would maintain good health with proper treatment; otherwise, it would result in death.19 According to this text, preservation of a silk painting in a Chinese way could be phased into sequential techniques such as washing (“洗”), uncovering (“揭”), filling (“补”), underpinning (“托”), and forming (“式”), all of which are incorporated into modern preservation methods by Chinese practitioners.20 The ancient repairs observed by Binyon can be explained by these exquisite techniques. Yet, although the complexities of Chinese preserving techniques applied to the Scroll were roughly detected, the Museum did not care to inquire among Chinese experts. Regarding the British Library’s remounting of the Scroll, Tao Yuzhi  (researcher of Chinese painting-and-calligraphy art at Shanghai Museum) noticed that partitioning an ancient Chinese silk painting and remounting on a panel are equivalent to destroying the cultural relic, which could never happen in the Shanghai Museum, the Beijing Palace Museum, nor the Taipei Palace Museum.21  

During the 1910s, the British Museum accumulated knowledge about aesthetic aspects of Chinese paintings, but how to mount artworks remained heavily dependent on artistic fashions, tastes and meanings within a British social context.22 In other words, due to disconnection from Chinese scholarship, the Museum took it for granted that a Chinese painting in a fragile condition could be recovered through immediately-available sources of preservation. One such source was the belief among European curators that a frame, usually combined with wooden panels, could replace original mounts and provide improved protection for East Asian paintings.23 The other source was the Museum’s close connection with Japanese experts, accustomed to employing panel folding screens in their repairing and restoring tasks. Unfortunately, none of these sources represented authentic cultural knowledge. As consequence, the Admonitions Scroll was remounted, based upon an imaginary perception about how the Chinese scroll should be treated.

Reflecting upon the remounting practice, two forms of mistake were involved—one cultural and one technical. From a Chinese cultural perspective, those colophons and inscriptions provided by successive collectors in history are called Tiba (“题跋”) and are an indivisible element of the Scroll itself. These marks play not only as authentication of the artwork but also as a custom among in Chinese artists and collectors which embodies their opinions and understandings. By splitting the Scroll, its completeness of meaning, form, and history was destroyed. A counterproductive effect was also observed within the technical field. In particular, the separation indirectly accelerated the fragility of the scroll. As explained by Clarissa von Spee (a curator of the Chinese and Central Asian Collections at the British Museum), although multi-panel folding screens can prevent a silk scroll from wrinkles and cracks, the painting when upon the flat panel was more exposed to lighting conditions than when preserved in scroll form.24 Moreover, because the Scroll was displayed on a wall, scaling-off caused by gravity became another stubborn problem. In short, such mistakes did not merely result from thoughtlessness or carelessness, but from a kind of neglect—failing to fulfil the due care of stabilising an ancient artwork in good physical condition, regardless of the museum’s intention.


During the later twentieth century, when the British Museum proactively reinforced their collaboration with Chinese experts and also experienced great technological progress in imaging, mounting, and consolidating, all the improper treatments to the Admonitions Scroll were addressed. Nevertheless, we cannot overlook the irreversible reality that the physical state of the Scroll could never return to its condition prior to the 1900 sacking of the Summer Palace. A series of relational changes gradually underwrote the Scroll’s traumatic life experiences starting with the looting culture of the western allied armies—directly or indirectly leading to the Scroll’s departure from its cultural origin. Without this colonial-imperialistic climate, it is unlikely that the rapid accumulation of Chinese collections and knowledge of Chinese objects in the British Museum would have been possible. Travel to England, as well as the Scroll’s initial encounters in the British Museum, may still imply a colonial orientation. Caretakers wielded the power to measure and dominate the Scroll, based on their British mindset—but their decisions and actions were abusive, with detrimental consequences for the Chinese masterpiece.

1 The Song copy of the Admonitions Scroll consists of the complete twelve scenes in corresponding to the Admonitions text. This copy was produced based on the Tang copy, but over-simplified the artistry of brushwork and colouring expressed in Gu’s original work. Moreover, although the Palace Museum copy provides additional scenes of the Admonitions, the three scenes are examined as the Song painter’s own creation according to Zhang’s text for imperial edification. Hui Yu, “A study of the volume of ” Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies” in Song Dynasty 宋本《女史箴图》卷探考,”The Palace Museum Journal 1 (2002): 6.

2 David Saunders, “Preserving beauty,” BBC, accessed January 7, 2021,

3 Nixi Cura, “A ‘Cultural Biography’ of the Admonitions Scroll: The Qianlong Reign (1736–1795)” in Gu Kaizhi and the Admonitions Scroll, (ed) Shane McCausland, 260-276 (London: British Museum Press, 2003), 269-270,

4 James Hevia, “Looting Beijing,” in Tokens of Exchange: The Problem of Translation in Global Circulations, (ed) Lydia Liu, 192-213. (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1999), 199.

5 James Hevia, “Looting and Its Discontents: Moral Discourse and the Plunder of Beijing, 1900-1901” in The Boxers, China, and the World, (eds) Robert Bickers and Rolf Tiedemann, 93-114. (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), 93. 

6 Gordon Casserly, The land of the Boxers or China under the allies. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1903), 121.

7 Shane McCausland, First Masterpiece of Chinese Painting: The Admonitions Scroll. (London: British Museum Press, 2003), 118-119.

8 An example of the Chinese nationalistic discourse can be seen from: Pei Duo-fen, “Eight Allied forces ransacked the summer palace, and the Millennium paintings, worth 25 pounds, fell into the hands of the British Museum 八国联军洗劫颐和园,千年古画25英镑,落入大英博物馆之手,” Tencent News, Accessed 15 January 2021.

9 James Hevia, English Lessons: The Pedagogy of Imperialism in Nineteenth-Century China. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 209.

10 Alfred Waldersee, “Plundering Peking,” The Living Age 317(4118) (1923): 565.

11 Katrina Hill, “Collecting on campaign: British soldiers in China during the Opium Wars,” Journal of the History of Collections 25(2) (2012): 248.

12 McCausland, First Masterpiece of Chinese Painting: The Admonitions Scroll, 119.

13 Craig Clunas, “China in Britain: the imperial collection,” in Colonialism and the Object: Empire, Material Culture and the Museum, (eds) Tim Barringer and Tom Flynn, 41-51. (London: Routledge, 1998): 44-45.

14 The British Museum, Trustees’ Reports, (27 March 1903), p.2.

15 The British Museum, Guide to an exhibition of Chinese and Japanese paintings (fourth to nineteenth century A.D.). London: The British Museum, 1910), 11-14.

16 Catherine Higgitt, Joanna Kosek, David Saunders and Keisuke Sugiyama, “The Admonitions Scroll: condition, treatment and housing 1903–2014,” The British Museum: Technical Research Bulletin 9 (2015): 29.

17 The British Library, “handscroll (mounted on panels); painting,” Accessed 13 January 2021.

18 Laurence Binyon, Painting in the Far East: An introduction to the history of pictorial art in Asia, especially China and Japan. (London: Edward Arnold, 1913), 42.

19 “前代书画,传历至今,未有不残脱者。苟欲改装,如病笃延医。医善,则随手而起,医不善,则随剂而毙,” Jiazhou Zhou, Decoration Records装潢志. (Ed) Lianxia Shang. Beijing: Chinese Book Press.

20 Pingfang Zhu, “On the restoration of ancient Chinese silk painting and calligraphy略述中国古旧绢本书画的修复,” Science of Conservation and Archaeology 19(2) (2007): 51-52.

21 Shaohua Han, “The British Museum’s split mounting of the Admonitions Scroll is ignorant and pained at home and abroad 大英博物馆割裂装裱《女史箴图》是无知,海内外心疼文物受伤” The Paper News, Accessed 13 January 2021.

22 Higgitt, Kosek, Saunders and Sugiyama, “The Admonitions Scroll: condition, treatment and housing 1903–2014,” 28.

23 Ibid.

24 Han, “The British Museum’s split mounting of the Admonitions Scroll is ignorant and pained at home and abroad 大英博物馆割裂装裱《女史箴图》是无知,海内外心疼文物受伤”

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