The Three Officials

The Three Officials were ancient Taoist deities worshiped since the second century CE. They were believed to keep records of human deeds on earth and to control each person's life span and fate after death. As a result, they were stern, imposing figures of particular importance to Taoist believers. The ancient Chinese believed illness to be the result of bad deeds, which the Three Officials were responsible for recording and punishing. When a Taoist follower became ill or experienced other crises, the priest would submit petitions to the Three Officials on his or her behalf. One petition was burned to transmit it to the Official of Heaven; one was buried for the Official of Earth; and one was submerged for the Official of Water.

This painting shows the Official of Heaven at his desk in the heavens, surrounded by a group of officers and female attendants, called "jade maidens." In front of his desk kneels a Taoist priest, suggesting that this painting was originally made for a ritual in which the priest would envision himself in a similar audience. A lesser officer of the Official of Heaven rises from the lower right, probably intending to either report on the human world or deliver an official petition. The dynamic movement of the clouds upon which these figures hover and the remarkable detail of this and the other paintings from the triptych make them among the most important Taoist paintings to have survived from the Southern Song dynasty. This shows the Official of Earth traveling through a mountainous landscape, about to cross a bridge. It was the duty of the Three Officials to travel through the world observing and recording the good and bad deeds of people and then to punish them appropriately. The Official of Earth is shown here on such an inspection tour. He is accompanied by martial figures appropriate to the severity of his office and demons responsible for punishing wrongdoers. Of particular interest is the tree spirit, a small dark figure with barklike skin in the lower right corner of the painting. Watching over the demons, in the bottom center of the painting, is Zhong Kui, the "Demon Queller"a fierce popular figure who was believed to have taken a vow to protect people from unfair demon attacks. His presence is most necessary here, since demons were known to be overly enthusiastic in their punishments, often indiscriminately harming innocent and guilty alike. This is one of the earliest known depictions of Zhong Kui, who would become a popular figure in later Chinese art. Here, the Official of Water travels through the rough waves of a churning ocean. He rides on a dragon, a traditional symbol of rain, while two attendants ride on sea turtles. Because of their unusual longevity, these turtles represented long life and divinity. The Official of Water is further accompanied by several energetic figures, many of whom are wearing armor and carrying weapons. These details emphasize the god's role as a judge, surrounded by those who can enforce his will. In the bottom right of the painting, the roofs of submerged palace buildings can be seen. These may represent either the palace of the underwater Dragon King or the dwelling of the Official of Water himself. In the sky above the ocean is the Duke of Thunder, a winged, animal-headed god surrounded by a circle of giant drums, which his servants strike to create thunder. The dark, wet ink used to paint the clouds around the Duke of Thunder, paired with the vigorous movement of the waves, suggest that the sky and ocean are about to burst into a violent storm. This concern for atmosphere is characteristic of the best Song-dynasty landscape painting.