By 1600 Wu Bin, who began painting in his native Fujian Province, had moved to the southern capital, Nanjing, where he served as a court-appointed painter specializing in landscapes and Buddhist subjects. A lifelong devotee of Buddhism, Wu entered an order of untonsured monks affiliated with the Chan Buddhist Qixia Temple in Nanjing.
In Chinese popular imagination, mendicant monks, conjurors, and mysterious hermits were often thought to be disguised “living luohans,” or Buddhist holy men capable of magic and miracles. When government corruption and ineptitude imperiled social order, as it did in late Ming times, such superstitious messianic beliefs became more widespread.
Reveling in oddity, Wu Bin’s art represents a fin-de-siècle rebellion in painting style. In The Sixteen Luohans, one of his earliest extant works, the artist has already begun to invent an eccentric archaism in figure painting that was to influence late Ming figure painters, most notably Chen Hongshou (1598–1652; acc. no. 2005.112a–l), as well as woodblock artists. The theatrical nature of the luohan figures suggests that the artist may have been inspired by popular religious dramas or festival processions.
[Maxwell K. Hearn 2008]