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The Five Virtues

An hanging scroll with several birds in a large tree rendered in colored ink.
CC0 Public Domain Designation

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  • An hanging scroll with several birds in a large tree rendered in colored ink.


Qing dynasty (1644–1911), 1895


Ren Yi (Chinese, 1840-1895)

About this artwork

Ren Yi was among the most successful and influential among Chinese painters of the so-called Shanghai School. Arriving in Shanghai in 1857, he took the artistic name “bonian” (one-hundred years), claiming that it would take him a century to achieve success. However, by 1875 Ren Yi was the best-known painter in Shanghai. His highly sought-after bird-and-flower paintings initially followed the Song dynasty (960–1279) convention of applying rich color fields within outlines, producing decorative patterning with lifelike representation. This work represents his mature, more spontaneous style that is characterized by looser brushwork, more ink washes, and greater tonal variation.

These five pairs of birds represent the Five Cardinal Relationships, following the Neo-Confucian principle that strict and proper implementation of hierarchy among different groups achieves social harmony. Above, a pair of long-tailed phoenixes roosting in the branches of a Wutong tree represents the preeminent relationship: a ruler and his subjects. Emerging from behind are two cranes, who, more commonly associated with longevity, represent filial piety. Perched above the cranes, a pair of orioles signifies the relationship between older and younger siblings. Marital loyalty is embodied in the pair of ducks swimming in the water below, and friendship is captured in the jovial interaction of two wagtails. The artist’s choice of such an orthodox subject revealed his firm belief in the traditional values of Chinese society.


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Arts of Asia


Ren Yi


The Five Virtues


China (Artist's nationality:)

Date  Dates are not always precisely known, but the Art Institute strives to present this information as consistently and legibly as possible. Dates may be represented as a range that spans decades, centuries, dynasties, or periods and may include qualifiers such as c. (circa) or BCE.

Artist's working dates 1890–1900


Hanging scroll; ink and colors on paper


Artist's inscription: 光緒乙未春, 上月上浣. 山陰任伯年 Artist's seals: Bonian 伯年 Ren Yi zhi yin 任頤之印 Collector's seals: 密亨利愛詩客夫婦所藏書畫 定海劉松父珍藏


185.9 × 97.2 cm (73 1/2 × 38 1/4 in.)

Credit Line

Gift of Florence Ayscough and Harley Farnsworth MacNair Collection

Reference Number


IIIF Manifest  The International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) represents a set of open standards that enables rich access to digital media from libraries, archives, museums, and other cultural institutions around the world.

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Extended information about this artwork

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