Erlang and His Soldiers Driving out Animal Spirits

May 1, 2015 - May 31, 2015

Erlang is best known as a deified commander served by fearsome troops, hounds, and falcons. They search the mountains to capture and expel evil spirits. Demonic animals flee, and some use their powers to disguise themselves as humans. This 17th-century scroll may be a copy of a late 13th-century handscroll, which together with an extant 13th-century scroll, recount this story.

     Legends of the demi-god Erlang are rooted in the ancient beliefs of Qiang and Di ethnic groups, who resided in what is now Sichuan province. According to Qiang myths depicted in art of the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), archer-huntsmen possessed magical powers over malevolent mountain spirits who took the forms of dragons, tigers, and monkeys. Erlang became an amalgam of these warriors.

      In 1063, an imperial edict converted Erlang from a vilified demon associated with a foreign cult into a valorous demon queller. Song dynasty rulers recast Erlang’s identity as the second son of Li Bing, who lived during the third century BCE and was credited with building famous flood control and irrigation works in Sichuan. Eventually, Erlang came to be considered a great general in the Taoist pantheon. Narrative scrolls depicting Erlang’s mountain expedition were popular in the Southern Song period (1127–1279), when the painting reproduced on the iPad was created. One vignette in the handscroll on view depicts capturing the river dragon. In some Erlang sagas floods end after this dragon is tethered to a stone post in a retention pool at the Vanquishing Dragon Temple. Erlang’s minions also apprehend demonic monkeys, who are associated with a white ape that kidnaps women in a tale that probably originated in the 700s.