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Seattle Art Museum (SAM)

A Feast

Photo: Susan Cole

A Feast


Li Jin

Chinese, born 1958

A Feast celebrates abundance and choice in eating, with images of food and utensils arrayed across the length of the sixty-foot scroll. Calligraphy surrounds and fills the spaces between the images, illustrating recipes that are inspired by the images but not directly connected to the dishes the artist depicts.

The scroll begins with an essay, composed by a friend of the artist over email, about the importance of food in Chinese culture, politics and history. Halfway through, the scroll interjects vivid images of Chinese cuisine, utensils and ingredients, which form the core of the scroll. We first encounter cooked dishes--a whole steamed crab served on a plate, prawns with fried eggs, Shaoxing rice wine, a hotpot, a pot of soup, sliced meat--and then find uncooked foodstuff skewered on sticks that is to be cooked in the hotpot. These two parts of the scroll illustrate what a real Chinese feast might entail, but the logic of the feast then gives way to an increasingly random selection of dishes that are sometimes depicted humorously. The chickens' open eyes, for example, suggest that they are still alive, although the birds are dead, disjoined and served on a dish. The presence of the sandwich is also odd because it would never be served alongside cooked dishes that are consumed with chopsticks. With the depiction of a large pig head and entrails (toward the end of the scroll), the images become more graphic and bold. The scroll ends with the second half of the essay and the artist's admonition, "Eat as much as you can."
Handscroll; ink on Xuan paper
33 x 708 5/8 in. (83.3 x 1799.9 cm)
Partial gift of Meg Maggio and the Courtyard Gallery, Beijing and partial purchase with funds from Rebecca and Alexander Stewart, John and Shari Behnke, and the Modern Art Acquisition Fund
Photo: Susan Cole
Not currently on view

The scroll could have been lengthened indefinitely. The continuous presentation of food simulates a real feast, where tables can be added to accommodate more dishes.

Li Jin, email correspondence

Tradition and Innovation

A Feast measures eighteen meters in length and one meter in width. It uses a horizontal format inspired by the traditional Chinese handscroll, which was intended to be unrolled and viewed by an individual. On the other hand, the large size of A Feast encourages public viewing. The painting, however, unlike a typical handscroll, is not a narrative, so viewing the scroll need not begin at its front end.

In the painting, the tone of the ink is masterfully manipulated to render the contour of objects, their shadow and the burnt parts of some dishes. Similarly, the uneven gradation of colors—the result of mixing the color pigments with water—has been exploited to give the painted objects a sense of volume. They are, however, painted rather casually. Colors occasionally spill over the black outline, making the images appear both realistic and spontaneous at once.
Li Jin at work
Courtesy of the artist

Food in Chinese Culture

For the Chinese, eating encompasses more than mere nourishment. Food must please the eye and the sense of taste, but it must also sustain good health and longevity. Eating is also a collective and intimate activity, as family members and friends gather around a hotpot and eat together while enjoying one another's company. The Chinese palate is also notoriously adventurous, ranging from snakes to birds' nests.

Food vessels were highly important in ancient China. Many vessels were designed to properly enjoy special dishes. When made of expensive materials such as bronze, the vessels often signified the social status of the owners.
Ancient Chinese food vessel, Ding, early-mid 11th century B.C., Chinese, 49.152

The Relationship Between Painting and Calligraphy

As the most important art forms in traditional China, painting and calligraphy are conducive to conveying the cultivation and sentiments of scholars and artists. Through inscriptions and colophons (writing added by others to a scroll at a later time), calligraphy enhances the meaning of a painting. Oftentimes an image such as a tree branch or bamboo frames the space in which an inscription can be added. The frame indicates that the space should not be construed as a pictorial form (sky or water, for example) in the painting.

In contrast with these traditional practices, Li Jin fills up the space between images of food with characters that provide "texture" for A Feast. The juxtaposition of characters and images contrasts line with wet ink and color washes. When Li considered the content of the written passages, he realized that the descriptions in recipes are "active," which served to counterbalance the "passivity" of the dishes. The contrast is both visual and conceptual.
The Lanting Pavillion, 1612, Chen Fu, 52.138

Selected Recipe Translated from A Feast

Pork in fine slices 60gm; cooked mushroom 3 pieces; tofu 180gm; onion in slices, 1 soup-spoon; ginger in fine slices, 1 soup-spoon; green onion in fine slices, 1 soup-spoon; sugar, ¼ tea-spoon; pepper powder, ¼ teaspoon; oyster sauce, 1 teaspoon.

Translated by Jan Hwang.
Detail showing this recipe on the scroll, 2003.119

A Visual Feast

What is the importance of food in Chinese culture? How do Li Jin's painting and calligraphic styles differ from more traditional Chinese artists? Follow the links below to explore these and other questions related to A Feast.
Li Jin in his studio
Courtesy of the artist


Exhibition HistoryNew York, New York, Courtyard Gallery, Li Jin, June 2, 2003 - Apr. 11, 2004.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Li Jin and Wen Zhengming, Aug. 29, 2003 - Apr. 11, 2004.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Asian Art Museum, Conceal/Reveal, Dec. 20, 2014 - June 21, 2015.
Published ReferencesIshikawa, Chiyo et al. "Seattle Art Museum Downtown." Seattle, WA: Seattle Art Museum, 2007, pp. 34-35, reproduced p. 35.

"Seattle Art Museum: Bridging Cultures." London: Scala Publishers Ltd. for the Seattle Art Museum, 2007, pp. 40-41.

Upchurch, Michael. "'Conceal/Reveal' at Seattle Asian Art Museum," in The Seattle Times, January 2, 2015, online (

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