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Zhong Kui and the Chinese New Year 

Shoki (Zhong Kui) Vanquishing a Demon, Katsukawa Shunsho (1726–1792), Japan, Edo period, early 1770s, woodblock print, ink and color on paper, The Anne van Biema Collection, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, S2004.3.323.

Zhong Kui is a legendary figure in East Asian countries.  In China, it is customary that by the end of the year in preparation for the New Year, people hang his portrait on their doors as he is the auspicious spirit that protects people from demons and cures incurable diseases.   

Zhong Kui was first mentioned in Dream Pool Essays by Song author Shen Kuo (1031-1095).  He recounts how Zhong Kui entered a military examination where people would be judged on their military skills and then possibly selected to serve in the country’s military.  Despite Zhong Kui’s outstanding performance, he was eliminated due to his unconventional appearance. He was regarded as grotesque looking.  Zhong Kui was so upset with the injustice of his rejection that as a form of protest, he committed suicide.   

Then, one day, an ailing emperor, Xuanzong of Tang (685-762) had a dream in which Zhong Kui killed the evilspirited ghost who sickened him.  The next day, the emperor felt healthy and well.  He ordered the great Tang painter Wu Daozi (680-760) to paint a portrait of Zhong Kui and issued an imperial edict to have his subjects hang Zhong Kui’s portrait at the New Year.  A tradition was born and Zhong Kui became a legend.   

Detail, Zhongshan Going on Excursion, Gong Kai (1222–1307), China, Yuan dynasty, late 13th–early 14th century, Ink on paper, Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, Freer Gallery of Art, F1938.4.

The tradition of Zhong Kui is particularly important as we celebrate this Lunar Chinese New Year which falls on February 12, 2021.  With the COVID-19 virus relentlessly killing and sickening people all over the world, we need Zhong Kui, the Demon Queller more than any other time to protect us and provide hope that this pandemic will end soon.   

To see more images of Zhong Kui, please visit the Freer and Sackler website.


Further reading from Smithsonian Libraries and Archives collections: 

Guo li gu gong bo wu yuan 國立故宮博物院. Ying sui ji fu: yuan cang Zhong Kui ming hu ate zhan 迎歲集福:院藏鐘馗名畫特展. Taibei: Guo li gu gong bo wu yuan, 1997. 

Hu, Wanchuan 胡萬川. Zhong Kui shen hua yu xiao shuo zhi yan jiu 鐘馗神話與小說之研究. Taibei: Wen shi zhe chu ban she, 1980. 

Lee, Sherman, “Yuan Hui, Zhong Kui, Demons and the New Year,” Artibus Asiae 53, no. 1/2, 1993, pp. 211-227. 

Tsai, Chun-Yi Joyce Imagining the supernatural grotesque: paintings of Zhong Kui and Demons in the late Southern Song (1127-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties. Accessed Jan. 28, 2021. 




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