Night Revels of Han Xizai

Several months ago the Forbidden City showcased some of its imperial treasures in the Wuyingdian (Hall of Martial Valor). Included in the exhibit were a number of paintings from the Jin (265-420 C.E.) to the Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, among them, one of the most famous Chinese scroll paintings called Night Revels of Han Xizai by Gu Hongzhong.

Gu was a southern Tang (937-975 C.E.) court painter who was ordered by the emperor Li Yu to record the sumptuous lifestyle of his minister Han Xizai.

Night Revels of Han Xizai is a narrative painting approximately 333.5 cm long and 28.7 cm wide. The painting was intended to admonish Han Xizai, who though an able minister was recalcitrant in his duties, failing to appear on several occasions for his early morning audiences with the emperor. Han was apparently a nocturnal party boy holding lavish banquests in his private apartments and surrounding himself with singsong girls. The emperor, seeking to expose the decadent ways of the minister, assigned Gu to attend the night-long parties as a secret informant and then to receate what he saw with his brush.

Each 'episode' in the painting is separated by partitions or screens, but they can be viewed as one continuous series of events. The protagonist in each is Han.

One wonders if Gu also wrote an accompanying letter to the emperor describing in detail what he saw. How many days did Gu spend on his masterpiece? How did he come to be a guest as this banquet and where did he sketch his first impressions of the painting? Was Gu asked to ‘spy’ on other officials suspected of leading wanton lifestyles and then paint what he saw? Such questions and many others provide the stuff of a best-selling novel.

In March this year, the University of California Press published The Night Entertainments of Han Xizai: A Scroll by Gu Hongzhong by the eminent art historian Michael Sullivan. A description of the book on the University of California Press website reads:

In this beautiful and concisely focused book, eminent art historian Michael Sullivan guides the reader through a single masterwork of Chinese art, The Night Entertainments of Han Xizai. Attributed to the artist Gu Hongzhong, this Five Dynasties handscroll portrays the scandalous private life of Han Xizai, senior minister to three "emperors" of the Southern Tang Dynasty in the mid-tenth century. Writing in the engaging style that has become his hallmark, Sullivan recounts the story of the production of this important painting, memorably evoking the mood of the peaceable kingdom in the years before its conquest by the newly established Song Dynasty in 975, a disaster that Han Xizai did not live to see. As the first scholar to include in his discussion nearly all the known versions of this famous scroll, Sullivan powerfully demonstrates how the life of a great painting has often been extended via copies and reinterpretations in later centuries.

For musical historians and organologists (those who study musical instruments), Gu's work provides a fascinating visual representation of a pipa and an end-blown flute. I don't have enough time today to provide a detailed discussion of these two instruments and issues that come under the study of musical iconography, but I hope to cover them in a future posting. Meanwhile, for those not familiar with Gu's work, it's the pic that graces the 'front page' of my blog.

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