Why Do Thai Temples Have Chinese Paintings?

Aiken Unni

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Why Do Thai Temples Have Chinese Paintings?

While wandering the richly decorated halls of the most famous temples in Bangkok few visitors ever notice the framed paintings that hang above the windows and doors.

If you do notice them, you might find that the imagery is conspicuously different, even out of place with the traditional Thai murals. What are these paintings? Why are they here?

These are Chinese reverse glass paintings, imported during Siam’s golden age of trade with China in the early 19th century. Largely forgotten by temple-goers today, these artworks actually played a huge role in the development of Thai art.

Read on to find out why Chinese art became so important in the development of Siamese art and how contemporary artists are inspired by this artistic exchange.

Chinese reverse glass paintings

Since the 18th century, reverse glass paintings were a major Chinese export art regularly produced by workshops in the southern province of Guangdong. Generally, they were bought as souvenirs or luxury interior decorations, though they were also popular at the imperial Qing court.

The initial design would be drawn in reverse on paper. A pane of glass is placed on this drawing, allowing the artist to trace it with oil paints. The completed painting on glass is then flipped (so the glass side is on the outside), and then framed. This easy method allowed for glass paintings to be quickly produced en masse for export.

Old ideas, new meanings

Historians believe that glass paintings, like ceramics and other Chinese goods, were used to indicate wealth and abundance, though this doesn’t necessarily explain the subject matter of the paintings themselves. There was a wide variety of choices, but nature, seascapes, and scenes from the Chinese epic “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” proved the most popular.

Nature and the Himavanta

A wall painting of floral and fauna representing Himavanta at Wat Mai Prachumphon.
Wall paintings of flora and fauna representing Himavanta, Wat Mai Prachumphon (late 17th century). Source: Aiken Unni

Pictures of nature have always been popular in Siamese Buddhist art since the Ayutthaya period. They often represented the Himavanta (Himmaphan), a mythical Eden-like forest in Buddhist scripture full of magical and beautiful plants and animals.

Chinese glass paintings were the perfect candidate for these imaginings and saw depictions of the Himavanta in the 19th century. This particular subject appears in temples such as Wat Pho and Wat Suwannaram in Bangkok.

A Chinese glass painting of phoenixes and peonies at Wat Suwannaram in Bangkok, Thailand.
Chinese glass painting of phoenixes and peonies, Wat Suwannaram, Thonburi (Bangkok). Source: Aiken Unni

Seascapes and Chinese junks

A glass painting of ships at Wat Pho in Bangkok, Thailand.
Glass painting of ships, Wat Pho (c. early 19th century). Source: Aiken Unni

In Wat Pho, there also hangs several glass paintings of seascapes with ships and views of Guangdong and Macau.

During the Ayutthaya period, ships, especially Chinese junks, became a symbol of the journey to enlightenment in Siamese Buddhism. This likely stemmed from a section of the “Vessantara Jataka,” which tells the story of the Gautama Buddha’s previous incarnation as Prince Vessantara and describes the path to enlightenment as a ship’s journey across the sea.

Curved base of the prayer hall at Wat Mai Prachumphon in Bangkok, Thailand.
Curved base of the wihan (prayer hall) at Wat Mai Prachumphon (c. 1650–1700). Source: Aiken Unni

Initially, the importance of Chinese junks and ships in general would influence Thai architecture, predominantly on the exterior. A curved base imitating that of a ship became a popular feature in the 18th century temples and palaces. Glass paintings of ships represent a more literal connection to the Buddhist lore.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms

A glass painting of a scene from "Romance of the Three Kingdoms."
Glass painting of a scene from “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.” Source: Aiken Unni

Scenes from the “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” or San Guo Yan Yi, were previously used to decorate the walls of Chinese shrines, instructing viewers on tales of morality. A leading character in the Chinese epic, Guan Yu, was worshiped as the god of war in Chinese folk religion.

During the reign of King Rama III, Siamese monasteries also began to adopt this imagery, as many Chinese practices were gradually being absorbed into the Siamese Buddhist context.

Another reason why the Three Kingdoms became so important was probably due to the similarity in lifestyle of the Early Bangkok Kings with those of the characters in the story. After the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767, much of the lost territory was recovered in the ensuing years, but certain regions were still rife with conflict and rebellions that had to be suppressed.

It is possible that King Rama III had a sentimental connection to the epic, which by then had already been translated into Thai and was sometimes used as a treatise on war tactics.

Impact on 19th-century Thai art

A mural painting in the ordination hall of Wat Kamphaeng in Bangkok, Thailand.
Murals from the ubosot (ordination hall) of Wat Kamphaeng, Bangkok (c. mid-19th century). Source: Aiken Unni

Despite being so popular, the medium of painting glass itself never caught on in Siam, but its visual language and imagery completely transformed Siamese paintings.

Paintings up till the early 19th century focused more on bright and uplifting colors, with the purpose of bringing joy to the viewer and teaching an illiterate audience. In the 19th century however, paintings were more solemn in palettes, using dark blues and greens similar to the landscapes in glass paintings. These darker tones also allowed for a greater sense of space and depth.

A mural painting of ships in the ocean in the ordination hall of Wat Boromniwat in Bangkok, Thailand.
Murals from the ordination hall of Wat Boromniwat by Khrua In Khong, Bangkok (c. 1860s). Notice how the color scheme and composition are similar to the glass painting of ships from Wat Pho. Source: Aiken Unni

Chinese painters also adopted the use of perspective from European painters in the 18th century, with Siamese painters following suit in the 19th century. The use of perspective would grow even more popular during the reign of King Rama IV, when Westernization was a priority. The monk-painter, Khrua-In-Khong, was renowned for his Western-inspired murals, some of which owe their style to Chinese paintings of Westernized subjects.

Contemporary artists inspired by Sino-Thai art

Like their culture, Chinese art had a lasting impression on Siamese art and values, and several contemporary artists celebrate this cultural plurality.

A piece from the installation "Sediments of Migration" by Pannaphan Yodmanee.
A piece from the installation “Sediments of Migration” by Pannaphan Yodmanee, 2018 Bangkok Biennale. Source: Aiken Unni

Pannaphan Yodmanee, for instance, focused many of her works on these themes of trade and cultural contact. Her installation at Bangkok Art Biennale 2018 involved traditional-style paintings on concrete slabs that were placed in small gardens around Wat Pho. Her paintings were inspired by the various portrayals of foreigners in traditional temple murals.

You might find that the experience of searching for her work can mirror a broader exploration of Thai art: everything might appear similarly “Thai,” but if you look long and hard enough, a mosaic of different cultures becomes apparent.

The "Giant Twins" by Komkrit Tepthian, was re-exhibited in front of Bangkok Art and Culture Centre in Bangkok, Thailand. The Giant Twins was inspired by a combination of Thai  and Chinese cultures that exist within Thai temples.
”Giant Twins” by Komkrit Tepthian, re-exhibited in front of Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, originally shown at the 2018 Bangkok Biennale. Source: Aiken Unni

Another artist who took inspiration from Sino-Thai exchanges during the early 19th century is Komkrit Tepthian. His work, “Giant Twins,” represents conjoined sculptures of a quintessentially Siamese giant door guardian with a Chinese export stone sculpture of a warrior.

The work hints at the famous Siamese twins, Eng and Chang, who lived during the Bangkok period. It also suggests that the two cultures developed side by side. While each is distinct, they have been blended to form the traditions we see today.

"DRAGONERPANZER”, ceramic tank sculptures with blue and white patterns, were exhibited at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre in Bangkok, Thailand.
“DRAGONERPANZER” (Dragoon Tank), 2020 by Wasinburee Supanichvoraparch. The 22 x 63 x 25 cm ceramic sculptures were exhibited at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. Source: Bangkok Art Biennale Foundation, courtesy of the artist.

Wasinburee Suphanichvoraparch was also inspired by the value of Chinese export goods from the Ming and Qing dynasties. His work, “DRAGONERPANZER” (dragoon tank), consists of tanks created in blue-and-white porcelain. The artist was inspired by how blue-and-white porcelain was so valuable that it was traded as currency and even exchanged for mounted troops, hence the use of tanks.

A font of inspiration

A mural painting of a Chinese god on the wooden door of Wat Pho in Bangkok, Thailand.
Painting of a Chinese god on the wooden doors of Wat Pho in Bangkok, Thailand. Source: Kaipungyai / Shutterstock.com

Despite being overlooked by most temple-goers today, Chinese reverse glass paintings and more generally, Chinese export art, played a vital role in Siamese art and culture. After traveling from Guangdong to Bangkok, Chinese paintings took on new meanings based on ancient Siamese Buddhist scriptures and continued to influence the palette and visual language of mid-19th century Siamese murals.

Even today, Thai artists celebrate and reinterpret this cultural plurality. Despite having had their heyday two centuries earlier, Chinese export art like reverse glass paintings continue to be treasure troves of inspiration.

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Aiken Unni

Aiken Unni is pursuing an art history degree at the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London. Having nurtured a keen interest in Siamese art and architecture from a young age, his studies span the art & culture of wider Southeast Asia, while specializing in paintings from the Ayutthaya period.

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