Auspicious Cranes Painting: Rui He Tu

Auspicious Cranes Painting: Rui He Tu

Auspicious Cranes, a precious colored painting on silk, was created by Emperor Huizong of the Northern Song Dynasty, Zhao Ji. This artwork is currently treasured in the Liaoning Provincial Museum. The painting intricately depicts the magnificent scene of a flock of cranes soaring above the palace, immersing viewers in an ethereal atmosphere.

In the painting, the cranes gracefully whirl and hover, resembling swirling clouds. Their movements are light and elegant, with each motion conveying a sense of grace and composure. The cranes either soar high, skim the low skies, spread their wings as if dancing, or dive as if hunting, each posture vividly animated. With his exquisite painting technique, Emperor Huizong skillfully combines the cranes' lively essence with the palace's solemnity, creating a harmonious and poetic scene. 

Upon closer examination, each crane appears almost alive, dancing in the painting as if narrating an ancient and mysterious story. This painting not only showcases Emperor Huizong's superb painting skills but also embodies the essence of traditional Chinese culture.


Content of the Painting 

"Auspicious Cranes" delicately portrays the splendid scenery of the Xuande Gate in Bianliang (present-day Kaifeng). In the painting, the Xuande Gate is gently enveloped by colorful clouds, making it appear as a mystical and ethereal realm. Above, the cranes whirl and dance, their forms light and graceful like sprites dancing in the sky. Two cranes stand quietly atop the roof ridge, communicating with each other and adding a touch of liveliness and spirituality to the entire scene.


The painting's brilliance lies in its partial depiction of the palace, focusing on the roof ridge to highlight the spectacular gathering of cranes. This composition emphasizes the theme while making the scene more concise and dynamic. Against the dignified backdrop of the palace, the cranes' flight and perching exude a mysterious and auspicious aura, evoking a sense of transcendental beauty and harmony.


Background of Creation

On the night of the Lantern Festival in the second year of the Zhenghe era of the Northern Song Dynasty, January 16, 1112, a strange phenomenon appeared in the sky above the capital Bianjing. Suddenly, clouds floated low over the Duanmen Gate, like a mysterious veil gently covering the ancient and solemn gate. 

At that moment, a flock of cranes appeared, flying and singing above the palace. Their elegant forms and clear cries intertwined, creating a beautiful scene. The cranes circled for a long time, seemingly admiring the bustling and beautiful capital. Surprisingly, two cranes even landed on the tall roof ridges of the palace, standing proudly and exuding nobility and dignity.

This scene amazed the palace attendants and citizens, who watched in awe and joy. The cranes seemed to sense the people's gaze and emotions, singing long and melodiously, as if communicating some mysterious message.

Emperor Huizong, who witnessed this scene, was ecstatic, believing it to be a good omen of prosperity for the empire. He joyfully took up his brush and meticulously depicted the scene on silk, hoping to forever capture this auspicious moment. He also composed a poem to commemorate the event, expressing his hopes and expectations for the country's future.


Artistic Appreciation


Theme: "Auspicious Cranes" not only radiates divine brilliance and royal grandeur but also exudes an ethereal and elegant charm. The palace is placed solemnly at the bottom, with two-thirds of the composition left for the vast blue sky, creating a majestic and royal aura. The surrounding clouds break the horizontal lines of the palace, adding a dynamic flow to the otherwise stable and dignified scene. The cranes symbolize noble aspirations and high moral character. The two cranes on the roof stand gracefully, embodying movement in stillness, and harmonize with the flying cranes, adding an air of elegance and spirituality to the painting. 

Composition: Breaking the conventional methods of bird-and-flower painting, "Auspicious Cranes" combines elements of landscape and birds to create a poetic realm. The cranes and the roof are balanced in a two-to-one ratio, with the roof's geometric shapes anchoring the composition. The palace, while not the main subject, occupies the largest area in the lower central part, showcasing grandeur. The precise architectural depiction through boundary painting, coupled with the floating clouds, extends the scene beyond the upper limit of the painting.

Imagery: The twenty white cranes display varied postures, with no two exactly alike. Two cranes stand on the roof ridge, one singing with its head raised, and the other appearing unsteady, adding a dynamic feel. The cranes form a circular pattern, flying around the roof with diverse and lifelike postures, each crane vividly depicted. The cranes' arrangement is symmetrical, creating a harmonious and enchanting image, as if they were musical notes soaring through the sky.

Color: The sky, filled with flying cranes, is painted with a flat stone blue, highlighting the purity and nobility of the white cranes. The palace's intricate structure is meticulously detailed, with the entire piece exuding an elegant and refined charm. The cranes' varied postures and the delicate portrayal of their eyes and bodies create a lively and auspicious scene.


Influence on Posterity

The composition of "Auspicious Cranes" represents a bold departure from traditional bird-and-flower painting methods, integrating a narrative element within the artwork. This early attempt at surrealism predates similar Western movements by centuries, making it a quintessential example of traditional Chinese cultural essence and surrealist techniques.


Historical Transmission 

In 1127, the Jin army captured Bianliang. During the chaos, treasures, including "Auspicious Cranes," were looted and dispersed. Miraculously, 600 years later, the painting resurfaced and was treasured in the Qing imperial collection, adorned with seals from various emperors and recorded in imperial catalogues. It eventually found its way to the Liaoning Provincial Museum after being rescued during the tumultuous years of the early 20th century.


Author's Biography 

Zhao Ji (1082–1135), also known as Emperor Huizong of the Northern Song Dynasty, was both an emperor and a distinguished artist. He actively collected cultural artifacts and artworks, presided over the Imperial Painting Academy, and compiled important art catalogues. His artistic skills extended to both painting and calligraphy, creating his unique "Slender Gold" script.





  1. *"Surviving Treasures of the Northern Song: 'Auspicious Cranes'". People’s Daily.*
  2. *Editorial Department of "Art Grand View", "Chinese Art Education Academic Symposium: Modeling Art Volume 9", Liaoning Fine Arts Publishing House, October 2016, pp. 286-288.*
  3. *Yin Xiaoning and Ji Yan, "Appreciation of Classical Garden-themed Paintings", Shandong People's Publishing House, December 2015, p. 169.*
  4. *Quan Zi, "Poetry Construction: Spring 2016, Issue 21", Writers Publishing House, May 2016, p. 163.*
  5. *"Liaoning Museum Exhibits 60 Auspicious Objects Including 'Auspicious Cranes' by Emperor Huizong", Netease, June 11, 2018.*
  6. *"First Appearance of 'Auspicious Cranes' in London", Netease, June 11, 2018.*
  7. *"Zhao Ji", Palace Museum, April 26, 2018.*
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