Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 1, 2013
De-nin D. Lee The Night Banquet: A Chinese Scroll through Time Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010. 172 pp.; 16 color ills.; 15 b/w ills. Cloth $40.00 (9780295990729)

The first decade of the twenty-first century has witnessed several publications devoted to individual Chinese paintings. They hark back to the 1950s and 1960s, when Sherman Lee and Wen Fong collaborated to write Streams and Mountains Without End: A Northern Sung Handscroll and Its Significance in the History of Early Chinese Painting (Ascona: Artibus Asiae, 1955) and Chu-tsing Li wrote The Autumn Colors on the Ch’iao and Hua Mountains: A Landscape by Chao Meng-fu (Ascona: Artibus Asiae, 1965), two monographs that helped frame the study of Chinese painting in those and subsequent decades. The present crop of monographs on single scrolls include Shane McCausland’s First Masterpiece of Chinese Painting: The Admonitions Scroll (New York: Braziller, 2003), Michael Sullivan’s The Night Revels of Han Xizai: A Scroll by Gu Hongzhong (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), and the volume under review, De-nin D. Lee’s The Night Banquet: A Chinese Scroll through Time. It is testimony to the uniqueness of The Night Banquet, now in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, that it is the subject of both Sullivan’s and Lee’s studies. Whereas Sullivan presents a short introduction to the painting, Lee provides an in-depth examination of the scroll.

Lee makes clear in her fine study that the painting initially attracts the viewer as a voyeur. She leads the reader through the scroll scene by scene. She allows the uninitiated to understand the mechanics of viewing a handscroll, pointing out the details, some highly suggestive, of five sequential scenes. Her aim from the beginning is to construct a “cultural biography” of the work (5–6). She does not confine herself to just the later reception of the painting; she is also concerned with the circumstances surrounding its production.

After introducing the scroll, Lee raises questions of authorship and authenticity. Is the scroll, as traditionally thought, a work of the tenth-century Southern Tang court painter Gu Hongzhong, or is it a work of a later period? In answering these questions, Lee examines the textual evidence, both on the scroll and external to it, and analyzes internal visual evidence. Early recordings of the painting do not all name Gu Hongzhong as the painter, but they are consistent in ascribing the motives behind its creation: Li Yu (r. 961–75), the last ruler of the Southern Tang kingdom, ordered a painter to go to Han Xizai’s (902–70) residence to spy on his night entertainments and record them in order for Li to assess whether Han was morally fit to hold office, or to provide the visual evidence for Han to recognize and repair his reputation. Broadly, Lee weighs several options concerning authenticity: the painting could be an authentic work of the Southern Tang dynasty (937–975), a work of the Northern Song period (960–1127), or a work of the Southern Song (1127–1279). She concludes that the work is most likely a painting of the twelfth or thirteenth centuries. However, this assessment is not the end of Lee’s construction of the scroll’s cultural biography.

In contrast to the voyeuristic gaze is something Lee calls the “Confucian gaze,” a way of looking that seeks moral content, specifically Confucian content, in painting (33–35). She establishes that this way of looking has a long history in China, and then turns to the inscriptions and seals to see how The Night Banquet might have functioned in the Chinese tradition. She accepts a reading of a small double-gourd-shaped seal appearing at the end of the painting—a seal that had long been thought to read “Shaoxing” (“Continuing Prosperity”), a reigning period of the Southern Song emperor Gaozong (r. 1127–1141)—as “Shaoxun” (“Continuing Merit”), a seal used by Shi Miyuan (1164–1233), a high official in the early thirteenth century who continued in the position of chief councilor that had been held by his father, Shi Hao (1106–1194). With this reading Lee looks closely at the role of didactic painting at the Southern Song court, the history of the Shi family, and the politics of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Plausibly, she cautiously suggests that the painting may have been a gift to Shi Hao from Emperor Xiaozong, casting the behavior of Han Xizai as a warning to Shi. Shi Miyuan’s seal would then direct attention away from the salacious to the virtuous, and at the very least would call attention to his filial piety, his respect for his father’s achievements, and his pride in having attained the same position as his father.

In the following chapter, Lee pursues the Confucian gaze into the Yuan period, looking closely at the first two colophons attached to the scroll, one anonymous and one by Ban Weizhi, dated to 1326. The anonymous colophon presents a biography of Han Xizai; the details of Han’s life and the identification of the figures in the scroll become the source for subsequent readings of the iconography. The author of the colophon gives a narrative in which Han is the protagonist. Emperor Li Yu does not escape criticism, but aim is clearly taken at Han Xizai: Han is one who shamefully wasted his talents. The erotic tone of the scroll goes unremarked. Lee sees this colophon as analogous to the moralizing exegesis of the erotic odes in the Book of Songs by later Confucian scholars. Ban Weizhi’s colophon, a vehicle for articulating social and political positions, also takes a critical stance in relation to Li Yu and Han Xizai. According to Lee, Ban sees Han’s actions as a form of remonstrance of his ruler. Ban supports upright officials who are critical of their rulers and in so doing appears to be critiquing the political situation of his own time.

The subsequent history of the scroll, as seen through colophons and seals, shifts from the Confucian gaze to the “connoisseurial gaze” (6–7, 64). Lee follows every lead that the colophons and seals provide. Her discussion is engrossing as she examines what The Night Banquet may have meant to viewers and owners of the seventeenth century, during the transition from the Ming to the Qing dynasty, and of the eighteenth century, when the painting entered the imperial collection. For the official and calligrapher Wang Duo (1592–1652), who served both the Ming and the Qing dynasties, adding a colophon gave him a platform to justify himself to later ages; for the high official and collector Liang Qingbiao (1629–1691), the placement of seals provided what Lee calls “a personal topography” (75, 110); for the Qianlong emperor (r. 1736–1795), his colophons and seals asserted his ultimate authority as a historian to judge Han Xizai and Li Yu and intimately bound the painting to his biography.

In the early twentieth century the biography of the scroll begins a new chapter when the scroll leaves the palaces in Beijing. Puyi (1906–1967), the last emperor, was allowed to live on in the Forbidden City after the establishment of the republic in 1912. From his perspective, paintings such as The Night Banquet were his personal property, not the property of the new republican government. As Lee states, ownership of the painting became contested. In the early 1920s, in order to finance a hoped-for study abroad, Puyi and his younger brother smuggled paintings and calligraphy out of the palaces; The Night Banquet was among them. After the imperial family was expelled from the Forbidden City in 1924, his plans to study came to naught. Ultimately the collections that he had taken to Tianjin accompanied him to Changchun with the establishment of Manchukuo under the Japanese. They served to legitimize his rule as emperor in Manchuria. When Manchukuo collapsed in 1945, the collections were scattered, and The Night Banquet ended up on the market in Beijing. By the end of 1945, it had been acquired by the painter and collector Zhang Daqian. Zhang impressed ten seals on the painting that boasted of his art collection, spoke to his attitude about creativity, and indulged in nostalgia.

While Zhang owned the painting he showed it to the businessman-collector Pang Yuanji and the official and calligrapher Ye Gongchuo, both of whom wrote colophons, continuing the cultural practice of contributing an inscription to a scroll. Pang treats the scroll as a rare masterwork of the past that was formerly available to only the emperor and his associates but is now accessible to him. His colophon reflects the changing social context of collecting in the twentieth century. Ye wrote two colophons that reflect traditional and twentieth-century connoisseurship. He writes in both prose and poetry: his poems return to the assessment of Han Xizai and Li Yu that had occupied earlier writers. (He is sympathetic to Han.) Zhang’s seals and the colophons by Pang and Ye were the last accretions to the handscroll before Zhang sold it to agents of the government of the People’s Republic in 1952.

With the addition of these colophons and the entry of the painting into the collection of the Palace Museum in Beijing, the biography of the painting, so ably traced by Lee, comes to an end. The interventions through colophons and seals ensured that the meaning of the work did not stay static. As masterpieces are protected in museums from further mediation, Lee questions how much will be lost to their future history. There is an afterlife, however, and she concludes her study with works by two contemporary artists, Wang Huaiqing and Wang Qingsong, responding to The Night Banquet. Lee’s biography of The Night Banquet is a fine contribution to the studies of individual Chinese paintings. In her telling, the biography of a single Chinese painting comes alive, revealing much about the world of Chinese art in later imperial China, and helping to frame the way we look at Chinese painting.

David Ake Sensabaugh
Ruth and Bruce Dayton Curator of Asian Art, Yale University Art Gallery