“If I Add the Eyes, the Dragons Will Fly Away.” – Stories of the Legendary Painter Zhang Sengyao
(Minghui.org) Zhang Sengyao was a legendary painter of the Southern Liang Dynasty (502-557) in China. A devout Buddhist, Zhang enjoyed depicting Buddhas, divine beings, and dragons in his art. He strove for realism in his work and amassed an impressive arsenal of techniques to recreate reality.
One might even say that his art was so real that it sometimes came alive.
Zhang was one of the few artists during his time that understood perspective, light and shadow. He was an expert in creating mock-relief paintings, a technique referred to as the Autu Style.
In Health Record, author Xu Hao recorded the story of the “Autu Temple,” one of Zhang's works.
The Zhaoling Prince of Liang Dynasty was visiting the Yicheng Temple just outside of Nanjing City when he noticed a three-dimensional floral motif on the gate painted by Zhang. The flowers were in different shades of red and green. From afar, they looked three-dimensional, yet up close they were flat.
The prince was so impressed that he nicknamed the temple after the technique Zhang used.
The book Chaoye Qianzai recorded another story that shows how realistic Zhang's paintings were. At the Xingguo Temple in Runzhou, hundreds of pigeons would come daily to rest underneath the roof of the main hall, and their droppings soiled the Buddha statue.
Zhang was commissioned to paint a falcon on the eastern wall and a harrier eagle on the western wall. Both painted birds had their heads turned and eyes locked in on the roof of the main hall. The pigeons never showed up again after that.
The most famous story of Zhang was recorded in the book The Volumes of Classic Paintings, of dragons painted by him becoming alive when he added the eyes. The story goes that Zhang painted four dragons on the walls of the Anle Temple in Jinling City. However, these dragons were not completed with eyes. Whenever people asked about it, he explained, “If I add the eyes, the dragons will fly away.”
People did not believe him and insisted that he finish the paintings. So he added eyes to two of the four dragons. People were stunned when a lightning bolt struck the walls a few moments later—the two dragons came alive and flew into the sky, while the other two remained paintings on the wall.
This is how the Chinese idiom, “Adding the eyes to the dragons as the finishing touch” came about. Though it originated from a miraculous event in history, the meaning of the saying has been colloquialized in modern language to describe something added to an essay or a speech that makes it more vivid.
The Volumes of Classic Paintings also has two other stories about Zhang. One tells of people from Wucao, who never used dragons in their decorations. Zhang, who loved dragons, painted many at the Longquan Pavilion near the area.
People didn't think much of it until years later, when there was a huge thunderstorm at the pavilion during the time of the Taiqing. The painted dragons all disappeared from the walls. People were amazed when they realized that the dragons had come alive in the storm and flown away.
Another story is about two Indian monks painted by Zhang. Two paintings of the Indian monks were separated during the war of the Houqing. One of them was obtained by a government official named Lu Jian.
When Lu got critically ill once, he dreamed of an Indian monk telling him, “I have been separated from my companion. He is now in the city of Luoyang with the Li family. If you find him and reunite us, I will help heal your illness.”
After looking for some time, Lu found the other painting in Luoyang City and quickly recovered. The author of The Volumes of Classic Paintings commented, “There are many stories of Zhang and his magical paintings, so it's hard to record them all.”
Many miracles happened to artists of ancient times like Zhang, who mostly portrayed divine beings. Because of their faith, they were gifted with talent beyond the human world. As society and technology developed, people have less and less faith in higher beings, turning these miracles into myths and things of the past.