Part 1: Slender Gold
He was born in the City of Dreams. Known throughout history as the “Aesthete Emperor,” he devoted himself almost exclusively to the arts and scholarship, and much like Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria 750 years later, his passion for the beauty would cost him his throne. Actually, it would prove so devastating as to help lead to the downfall of the dynasty itself.
Born in 1082, as the eleventh prince of Emperor Shenzong, it was never conceived that Huizong would ever ascend the throne. His early years were therefore full of much freedom which allowed him to pursue his many interests-- chief among those the practice and collecting of art.
While his older brothers closer in line to the throne were educated and disciplined in statecraft, Confucian political philosophy and the Classics, Huizong was pretty much left alone to dabble in his hobbies. And, by the time he was in his late teens, his literary fame was already known outside the walls of glorious capital.
A series of mishaps and our man in Kaifeng-- against the odds-- ascended the throne in 1100.
How, you wonder, did he begin his reign?
Well, with a grand building project to construct a magical garden which would reproduce all the famous mountains and rivers of the domain; thereby creating a miniature cosmos which he could then preside over. Rocks and rare plants were transported from thousands of kilometers away. In fact, it was probably this enterprise more than any of his others that really ruined the country-- for his passion for rock-collecting was dangerously expensive. In one of my favorite art history books, there is an 18th century print of rocks being transported by boat. In each of the several boat pictured, there are half a dozen crew members all devoting themselves to the task of safely delivering the one fine specimen in their care. Even in the black and white print, one can see how "fantastical" the rocks must have been.
It wasn't just rocks either.
Priceless antiquities and works of art, as well as precious stores of incense and medicines, musical instruments and books filled up the galleries, which had individual names such as, “Steeped in Antiquities,” “Appreciating Antiquities,” “Studying Antiquities” and “Abiding in Antiquities.” Here the Emperor would examine his art works, alone or in the company of a favored official; compose poetry or work on his calligraphy, perhaps even partaking in a bowl of tea “whipped until a milky foam filled the surface” and served up in a porcelain teabowl with fresh lichi fruits and oranges imported from the south.
In Japan, of course, not only is the Song style of tea preparation preserved within tea ceremony, but this concentrated focus on connoisseurship-- as collector, scholar and practioner-- has also been preserved right down to today as well (see Utz Part 2 for more on "the embodied" commitment to art).
Wen C. Fong in his book about Chinese painting, Beyond Representation, writes that Huizong’s most important contribution to the history of art was the completion of two catalogs, the Xuanhe Era Catalog of the Imperial Painting Collection and the Xuanhe Era Catalog of the Imperial Calligraphy Collection. Dated around 1120, both were edited and many parts probably penned by Huizong himself, and they are important both for the high level of scholarship, as well as for their early date which places them as being one of the earliest studies of the Collection in Chinese history.
Looking first at the catalog devoted to calligraphy, we find some 1,240 works by 197 calligraphers, including 213 by the “god of calligraphy,” Wang Xizhi. Both ancient as well as contemporary works were collected, studied and categorized by script type (standard, cursive and semi-cursive) which is the manner in which calligraphy continues to be studied today. In addition to short biographical information on the calligraphers, works were appraised and critical comments made. One entry, for example, is devoted to Tang dynasty calligrapher Huaisu’s (ca.735-ca.799) famous work, Autobiographical Essay. A Buddhist monk, it was claimed that Huaisu created all his best works drunk. And the catalog (according to my Japanese sources) had this to say regarding his wild cursive script:
Intoxicated with wine, he wrote with such drunken passion and emotion that its hard to believe this is the work of a mere mortal
This work, documented in Huizong’s collection and one of several, is still a part of the Palace Collection in Taipei today-- over 800 years later.
Turning next to the painting catalog, we discover some 6,396 paintings by 231 artists, including 126 works by Tang dynasty’s most esteemed painter and poet, Wang Wei (699?-761?). The paintings were divided and studied in the following ten subject categories: religious (Taoist and Buddhist); figure; architectural; barbarian tribes; dragons and fish; landscapes, animals; flowers and birds; ink bamboo; and fruits and vegetables. Wen C. Fong points out that these highly specific categories shows just how specialized scroll painting had become under Huizong’s patronage, and that the high number of flower and bird paintings (with 2,786 representations) reflects the growing interest in the natural world which occurred during the Song dynasty.
This was also the genre Huizong himself preferred to paint in.
Characterizing the entire period, a Confucian-style “Return to Antiquity” (復古) was the catch phrase of the day, and scholars and thinkers engaged themselves trying to re-define the meaning of the great classical texts and works of art of the Shang, Zhou and Han dynasties; seeking to both reconstruct that which had been obscured by time, at the same time delving further than ever before into their spiritual implications.
This was especially so during Huizong’s reign. With the empire at more risk from invaders than ever before, it may seem odd that Huizong would occupy himself almost exclusively with such cultural and intellectual pursuits, but it has to be remembered that these activities gave his regime great prestige and stood in as his mandate to rule. A friend once said it was as if he thought, "if only I could get the bronzes right, all the other stuff would work itself out."
Indeed, ancient bronzes were given particularly special study as the entire imperial collecion was re-catalogued. These studies culminated in two catalogs, both published along with very fine woodblock-printed pictures of the treasures. Great archaeological and art historical research-- respected even today-- was undertaken to both interpret the inscriptions found on the bronzes as well as to properly reconstruct the rituals in which they were used so that, in James Watt's words, “[k]nowledge that was barely retained in the Han period, and was all but lost since the third century, was recovered almost in an instant.”
And, like the great emperors before him, Huizong sought to bolster his new reign by re-casting a set of nine bronze tripods as magnificent symbols of his power. (See my post on the legendary nine bronze tripods).
The Palace Collection today is sometimes referred to as “Qianlong’s Collection.” This is because the collection as it now exists took much of its form during his reign. However, it can be argued that the collection is as much under Huizong’ imperial debt as Qianlong’s. For under Huizong’s reign, art and imperial patronage were given a political importance like never before, and his artistic tastes and collecting styles can still be felt strongly in the great Chinese art galleries and auction houses of the world.
Indeed, even today, anything once believed to have been part of Huizong’s vast collection carries a prestige and is valued almost beyond compare (here in Japan, as well). In the end, though, what can be said of the man whose personal artistic impact was so great?
In East Asia, it is said that a man’s character can be read in his handwriting. Our emperor is known above all for just that: his magnificent calligraphy-- and humbly disagreeing with the eminent Professor Fong, it is here that I see Huizong’s greatest contribution to art history.
Surprisingly conservative, the long history of Chinese calligraphy is characterized by how very few new styles emerged after the sixth century. However, Huizong, while still just an imperial prince had already created his own style of writing-- “the slender gold” (瘦金體)-- which is described by its admirers as being like “floating orchid leaves,” or “bamboo moving in the wind” or even more aptly, like “the legs of dancing cranes.”
His detractors however complain that the “skinny legs” are “too scrawny” to hold up the body, or “too bony”, like “a starving student in misfitting clothing.” Whether one is partial to his characters or not, the fact remains that, like any distinct style that appeals, the “slender gold” is not going to go away.
Trying to read the man by his handwriting, then, let’s take a look at the characters themselves.
The first impression that strikes us is that despite the sense of speed and pleasing movement that these “dancing crane legs” convey, there is also a precision and something almost methodical about the writing, especially in the endings and connections between strokes. Like jade, there is a hardness, coolness and resonance as well. His writing appears every bit the ideally elegant and refined handwriting that every scholar-official throughout Chinese history strove for. It is about as elegant a man's writing gets, I think.
And “reading” his writing carefully, one almost senses-- at least when it came to the arts-- a perfectionist side to his character, as well, calling to mind a self-portrait created by the Emperor, called 聴琴図, now in the Palace Museum in Beijing. In this painting, we find the Emperor giving an impromptu performance on the scholar-gentlemen’s instrument of instruments, the Qin (an instrument I may just take up myself one of these days).
Seated in his garden under a tree and facing some flowering branches in a vase placed delicately on a stand made out of one of his beloved collector’s rocks, he appears in his scholar’s robes from head to toe every bit the image of the true gentleman-scholar. And it was this aspect of his character which people have found appealing enough to forgive the fact that he was to lose his country to foreign invaders.
Instead of blaming their “Aesthete Emperor,” the problem has instead historically been laid at the feet of Huizong’s “evil last minister,” Cai Jing-- here dressed in red robes and seated at the Emperor’s left. The evil minister was himself a calligrapher of the highest rank and was once included in the list of Song dynasty’s Four Great Calligraphers.
His blackened name however was removed by later scholars and replaced with that of Cai Xiang, to be included with the other three Greats: Su Shi, Mi Fu, and Huang Tingjian. For in the Confucian world-view, a work of art must be viewed through the lens of the artist’s moral strivings. Therefore, when Cai Jing’s name became blackened, so too did his calligraphy.
More of the Emperor’s “slender gold” appears at the top of the painting. Can anything else be discerned in the characters? After the immediate impression of precision wears off, perhaps the strongest impression that one is left with is a sense of fancifulness; and a willingness to ignore conventions for the sake of beauty. Indeed, Huizong consciously broke the rules of writing characters in order to achieve his unique new style. We can see this, for example, in his poem here (詩帖巻、徽宗) where downward strokes rebelliously snap back upward instead of obediently stopping, and the character for “north” (use magnifying lens: 14th row from right) is not written according to the conventional rules.
Perhaps it was this same part of his character that would explain how this emperor who had special tunnels dug under the palace in order to visit his favorite courtesan’s house or walk the streets of Kaifeng un-detected could continue obliviously writing his poetry and lavishly spending on the arts as his country teetered on the edge of disaster. For it was only a matter of time before he would see his glorious capital plundered and he, along with two hundred years of Song dynasty imperial collecting would be carted off as war-booty to Manchuria where they would be scattered, and many lost forever.
For our Emperor was to end his days alone in a cold Manchurian prison not far from present-day Harbin.
There remains one lonely poem supposedly written by the Emperor not long before he died so far away from his beloved Palace Collection that reads:
Swallow Mountain Pavilion
I tell of the sorrow of partings upon partings
To a pair of swallows
Who refuse to understand
The heavens are so faraway; the earth so faraway
Separated by countless rivers and countless mountains
Oh, where is that old Palace?
How can I ever forget that old Palace?
Sometimes I visit in dreams
And yet all alone
Sometimes I am even unable to dream
It is a poem I think of constantly. In fact, I don't even know if my Emperor really wrote it. Just now, trying to locate the source for my translation, I wondered, maybe it is not a translation at all but maybe some poem I made up years ago while dreaming of my favorite emperor...
I am reading Calvino's Invisible Cities. In the book, Marco Polo and the Great Khan have the most exquisite conversations-- and sometimes they even speak without words, as one imagines what the other wants to say, the other imagines answering. In the same way, I cannot help but wonder where does Huizong's lonely dream end and my own feelings begin? Someday, I would like to travel to that northern place where he supposedly ended his days. There is, I read, a beautiful icy-cold river there.
If anyone knows the source of the poem, I'd very much like to see the Chinese or English versions. I will keep looking for the Japanese. It's got to be in the library here somewhere. (I'll ask Señor Borges if he knows).