Monday, September 24, 2007

the most beautiful intelligence report in history

Excerpted from The Palace Museum: Peking: treasures of the Forbidden City / by Wan-go Weng & Yang Boda, New York, Abrams, 1982, p.160-163:

"One of the most celebrated of Chinese figure paintings is Han Xizai ye yan tu, or The Night Revelry of Han Xizai. The son of a general executed by the emperor of a northern kingdom, Han (907-970) fled and offered his services to the Southern Tang dynasty. But during the reign of its last ruler, he perceived the inevitable fall of the corrupt regime and tried to stay out of politics, deliberately leading a pleasure-seeking life in order to disqualify himself from responsible positions. The suspicious monarch sent his court painters Zhou Wenju and Gu Hongzhong to spy on Han and make a visual record of his licentious behaviour.
"This scroll, attributed to Gu, is the most beautiful (and possibly the most wryly deadpan) intelligence report in history. It comprises five distinct scenes, artfully separated by three screens and one very brief space. The first scene is of feasting to lute music, with a curtained bed suggestively half-visible in the background. Han, with high hat and full beard, sits on the couch with a man in a red robe who may be Lang Can, a scholar who ranked first in an imperial examination. Before the couch stands a long, low table (like a modern coffee table) set with footed dishes of food, ewers of wine, and wine cups. Seated near the table are two guests, who are probably Chen Zhiyong, an official in charge of rites, and Chen's student Zhu Xian. The lute player is the sister of Li Jiaming, assistant director of the Imperial Theater and Music Academy, who sits watchfully by her side. The small girl in blue behind Li is Wang Wushan, an extremely talented dancer. Behind her stand two students of Han's and two servant girls. Han and most of his guests focus their attention on the lute player, thus subtly unifying the composition by sightlines.
(description of middle scenes omitted, but I can add them if requested)
"In the fourth scene, Han sits cross-legged upon one of the fashionable Western-style chairs. The wine has made him warm: his hat is still firmly on his head, but he has stripped to his loosened undergarments and is fanning himself. A concert is now in progress. Five female musicians are playing straight and cross flutes under the stern eye of Li Jiaming, who keeps the beat with a clapper. Around the edge of a floor-standing landscape screen a man and a woman exchange a few words; they serve as the transition across time and space into the fifth and final scene.
"This penetrating study of a private party displays excellent draftsmanship, exquisity coloring, an ingenious composition, and convincing details such as the celadon wine warmers typical of the tenth century. It is an exquisite commentary on the social decadence of the age. ... the characterization of Han Xizai appears to be true portraiture, although other figures are perhap within the artist's repertoire of stereotypes. The historicity of the subject has never been questioned, and the picture provides us with an irreplaceable example of Chinese figure painting datable between the tenth and twelfth centuries."

The painting is findable online, though mostly in very small images of the original or larger images of mediocre modern copies. On the very small side is this one, at the site of an artist who parodies classic works. His take on 'Night Revels' is reviewed here, and isn't a mediocre modern copy, at least. Ah, here's a more visible image (in two parts) of the original.

I've thought for a long time that this would be a terrific setup for a novel, whether straight historical or fantasy. Someday I may be capable of enough subtlety and texture to attempt it.

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