College Essay Examples

The Thematic Concern of Ren Yi’s Portrait, ‘The Shabby Official Painting.’

The Thematic Concern of Ren Yi’s Portrait, ‘The Shabby Official Painting.'

Ren Yi’s painting located in Hangzhou: Zhejiang Provincial Museum, “Portrait of the shabby official” is a painting depicting his art friend Wu Changshi. The essay writer painting which he created in the year 1888 is ink and color on paper type, measuring 164.2 x 74.6 cm.[1] Most artists will portray themselves, the families or friends in paintings as immaculately dressed, happy, and seated thinking or executing their tasks. On the contrary, Yi paints his friend as a shabbily dressed officer presenting him in a satirical and humorous way. The following is an analysis of how Ren Yi portrays economic, socio-political, cultural, intellectual, and religious aspects in relation to the Chinese culture in his painting.

Biographical and Formal Approach

            The portrait of the shabby man was Ren’s presentation of his friend’s unfulfilling career as an administrator. As an individual pursuing to become a Confucian official, Wu Changshi earned his life both a tutor and a low-ranking officer when Ren came to know him.[2] Wu had lost his family after the Taiping Rebellion raided their local town of Anji. He was going through a tough moment trying to fit in a society where he had no family to run to during times of crisis. Wu had requested Ren to make a painting of him although he did not give him the specific descriptionsthat the painter could have used. However, Ren in his own creativity, made a portrait of his friend in a manner suggesting that he was attempting to reveal both inner and outer turbulences that Wu was going through at the time. 

Thematic-synchronic Approach

The family has a long history of shaping people’s lives. Everyone needs a family to turn to for advice, love and care whenever necessary. Ren made Wu’s portrait after Wu had lost all his family members to war. There is every sign that Wu was could have been going through an internal turmoil for the lack of a family’s love and support. He felt lonely in a strange world, probably making him request Ren to create a portrait of him to derive comfort from it. The artist displayed Wu’s troubled life by portraying him as a shabbily dressed officer to show a lack of care.[3] Ren was revealing what was going on his friend’s life in the absence of family love. Despite his prominent teaching occupation and leadership position, Wu needed family love to complete his social and mental endurance. Whenever a person goes through internal conflicts, their physical actions will reveal it. 

As a product of the Shanghai School, Ren Yi’s art style adopted the school’s principles reflecting on economic and political affairs as China was moving towards the end of the Imperialism era. The Imperial period began in 1842 when China became Britain’s colony and until its end in 1895. Throughout the imperial period, the Chinese natives struggled to push the Britons out of their country and rule themselves. They invented several strategies, including going to war to send the colonialists away. Prominent artists of the 19th century such as Ren Xiong advanced artistic works to advocate for self-rule peacefully. He created striking paintings that attracted the attention of many. Ren Yi, who was Xiong’s younger brother, took followed in his elder brother’s footsteps and started making his paintings to express the desire for freedom and empowerment of the local people. The portrait of the shabby official can also be interpreted to represent the neglected local people. The long monastic robes that Wu was wearing in the portrait could mean empowering of the local people to rule instead of foreigners who had illegally invaded their land.  In the earlier years following the onset of the Imperialism, the Shanghai School artists created artworks painting their determination to fight the colonialists until they leave their land. For example, Xiong’s self-portrait of 1855 depicted a huge built man with a frowning face presented in a thick paper indicating the presence of pressure and lack of space.[4] Ren Yi’s works started featuring as the Imperialism was coming to an end hence the shift in their thematic concerns. Unlike Xiong’s self-portrait, Yi’s shabby official painting presented a relaxed man, who not only had space but also dressed in royal attires. Yi’s art is crucial in understanding the shift of the local as they were moving to the end of the Imperial era. 

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            Ren Yi’s portrait painting of Wu has played a vital role in understanding several aspects of China’s culture. It reflects the cores principles of the Shanghai school, such as the economic aspect, socio-political system, and religion, among others. Ren makes it possible to compare contemporary Chinese artworks with the 19th-century pieces. He represents a particular moment in China’s history when individuals were coming into terms with the aftermath of war and rebellion movements and their preparations to rule themselves independently. He shows the dynamic nature of society and how different contexts shape social events. Yi also explores an essential aspect of art; although it involves creativity, art tells the story of its people reflecting their struggles and thoughts. He reveals that art cannot exist in isolation from the society because artists live in the community and they exclusively base their works on societal issues, making them shift their tasks according to the society’s current demands. Ren Xiong’s Myriad Valleys with Contending Streams, also shows self-determinism in the challenging landscape of the edge of the mountain. The trail leading up is full of jagged edges and unpredictable turns. It shows the challenges in life, and the determination needed to go through these difficulties.[5]

Thematic-diachronic Approach

Historical Economic aspect of the painting

            Throughout history, artists particularly painters and sculptors did not create a piece of art of the sake of it. Being individuals relying on creativity to reveal various underlying social issues, artists could go a mile further to create thought-provoking works touching a wide array of social problems in the society of the time.[6] It is easy to understand an artist’s community by critically analyzing their actions. Like any other artist, Ren Yi used Wu’s portrait to reveal an aspect of the economy. Wu Changshi was wearing official attire, suggesting that he belonged to a particular class in society, the formal working class. The fact that Wu was a teacher and a low-ranking functionary made it necessary for Ren to dress him official attires in the painting. He wanted to reveal that Wu came from a particular class of intellectuals who earned life through prominent occupation. Although Wu Changshi was also an artist, Ren chooses to paint him in formal clothes standing in a robust position. However, Ren also reveals something through Wu’s official uniform. He was shabbily dressed, possibly lowering the glory of his occupation. During Ren’s time and even in modern Chinese society, teaching is a prestigious occupation that most people wish to join.[7] The artist may have chosen to present Wu as shabbily dressed for several reasons, including, the hard life that people go in the process of fulfilling their career aspirations. While the society of his time could have looked at Wu with pride and expected him to be a successful person economically, he may have been struggling like everyone else. Ren was attempting to reveal to the society that having a career did not always guarantee someone a quiet life. As a teacher, Wu’s dress code played a significant role in building his image economically in society.

Nevertheless, Chinese society has throughout history used dressing code to identify the economic class of the people in the community. Additionally, another notable aspect of Wu’s portrait is the high-soled boots he was wearing. Not everybody could afford such classy shoes in the society of Rena and Wu’s time. The shoes also ranked him high in society’s economic class.

History of Cultural and socio-political aspects of the painting

            Artists attempt to present their society’s culture as authentically as possible in their works. However, one has to get insight into a community’s culture before cross-examining the presented to investigate the cultural aspects it depicts. Ren painted Wu in an official long yellow gown, also wearing a black mandarin jacket. Besides, he crowned his head with a conical Manchurian hat decorated with rows of red tassels. Ren Yi embraced a versatile culture in his painting by incorporating both the broad Mandarin cultural and minor Manchurian aspects. The dressing was an important cultural aspect in the Chinese society of Ren’s time. The choice of the attires that Ren included depicted in the paintings can be used to tell his broader Chinese culture and the regional Manchurian subscription.[8] Any person conversant with the history of Chinese culture will immediately connect the attires of the portrait the Chinese society.  Another aspect of culture visible in the painting is how the artists made use of his space and the standing posture that Wu Changshi assumed. Being a teacher and functionary officer, Wu was a leader in his profession. Leaders need space to make decisions and exercise power over their subjects. Ren ensured he accorded Wu’s portrait the leadership standards by leaving a lot of blank background space. He did not compact the picture in a limited space. He is also standing in a robust and relaxed position with his eyes, focusing onto something in front of him. The look on his face suggests someone who was watching individuals executing tasks under his instructions, while he was acting as a supervisor. The artist purposefully painted the hat and the robe appearing on Wu’s left-hand side to depict authority. In most societies, red is a representation of leadership, love, desire and passion.[9] In spite of losing his entire family to a war disaster, Wu was still full of love, and he was determined to pursue his profession with passion and joy. His light-yellow gown indicates an approachable person who had openly shared his ideas with others. Being a teacher, he was not only expected to share his knowledge with society publicly but also to be a friendly person to encourage learners to come to him in search of experience. Ren used the portrait to speak about Chinese society’s perspective towards leadership. Being Wu’s close friend, Ren could have an opportunity to interact with Wu on different occasions, learning about his behaviors and attitudes towards his work and society. The significance of the portrait to the Chinese community’s culture is evident by the fact that it has been preserved in a museum for over a hundred years to continue telling the history of Chinese people’s cultural values.  


            Ren Yi’s painting techniques provide a rich source of information to explore China’s history from the lens of art. He reveals how art served as a crucial avenue of telling society’s story besides showing the technical tools that artists used to present their works. He understood how to utilize his creativity and skills to create captivating pieces of art drawing illustrations from real-life situations, as evident in the “Shabby official.” He is among the famous artists who made use of ink and color on paper to create classical paintings whose legacies would outlive their creators.


Andrews, Julia F., and Kuiyi Shen. The art of modern China. Univ of California Press, 2012.

“Chinese Art in the Age of Imperialism.”  (n.d.). Retrieved from

Cushing, Lincoln, and Ann Tompkins. Chinese posters: Art from the great proletarian cultural revolution. Chronicle Books, 2007.

Ebrey, Patricia Buckley, and Kwang-Ching Liu. The Cambridge illustrated the history of China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Merryman, John Henry, ed. Imperialism, art and restitution. Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Watson, William, I. Mark Paris, and John Shepley. Art of dynastic China. Thames and Hudson, 1981.

[1] Cushing, Lincoln, and Ann Tompkins. Chinese posters: Art from the great proletarian cultural revolution. Chronicle Books, 2007.

[2] Cushing, Chronicle Books, 2007.

[3] Watson, William, I. Mark Paris, and John Shepley. Art of dynastic China. Thames and Hudson, 1981.

[4] Ebrey, Patricia Buckley, and Kwang-Ching Liu. The Cambridge illustrated the history of China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

[5] “Chinese Art in the Age of Imperialism.”  (n.d.). Retrieved from

[6] Andrews, Julia F., and Kuiyi Shen. The art of modern China. Univ of California Press, 2012.

[7] Andrews, The art of modern China. 2012.

[8] Merryman, John Henry, ed. Imperialism, art and restitution. Cambridge University Press, 2006.

[9] Merryman, Imperialism, art and restitution. 2006.

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By Hanna Robinson

Hanna has won numerous writing awards. She specializes in academic writing, copywriting, business plans and resumes. After graduating from the Comosun College's journalism program, she went on to work at community newspapers throughout Atlantic Canada, before embarking on her freelancing journey.

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