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September 20, 2015

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Night Revels of Han Xizai

SOME of the world’s great paintings were originally commissioned works, such as portraits of kings or queens, canvases of historic events or pictures of monumental buildings.

But the purpose for commissioning the painting entitled “Night Revels of Han Xizai,” now widely deemed one of the top masterpieces in China’s art history, was rather unique. It was created simply because Li Yu (AD 937-978), the last ruler of the Southern Tang Dynasty (AD 937-975) wanted to spy on a top official in his court.

When Li Yu ascended to the throne in 961 AD, he intended to appoint Han Xizai (AD 902-970) as his chancellor. However, Li didn’t have complete trust in this talented statesman, who was known for his writing and calligraphic skills, because he hailed from the rival north.

Foreseeing the inevitable decline of the dynasty, Han didn’t want to go down with Li. Instead, Han spent his time with extravagant indulgences. He threw sumptuous parties every night at his home and reveled with friends, musicians, dancers as well as prostitutes.

Han told a close friend that he wanted to “dirty himself to avoid becoming chancellor” and he didn’t want to become “the laughing stock of history.”

Later, he also began to miss important imperial meetings under false excuses.

To find out what Han was really doing at home, the emperor decided to send Zhou Wenju (AD 943-975) and Gu Hongzhong (AD 937-975), two imperial court painters, to attend one of Han’s nightly gatherings and then paint what they saw.

After a night of partying, each artist created a painting based on careful observation. The one produced by Zhou was lost during subsequent decades, but Gu’s artwork has survived and become today one of the most treasured masterpieces in traditional Chinese painting.

The night revels painting, a 28.7 x 335.5 cm, ink and color on silk handscroll, features realistic portrayals of more than 40 figures.

The painting is divided into five distinct sections by strategically placed screens. Viewed from right to left, they depict Han Xizai listening to a pipa (Chinese lute) performance, striking a drum for dancers, resting, watching five female musicians playing flutes, and seeing off his guests.

The artist employed fine, fluid brush lines to depict the gestures and facial expressions of Han and other life-like figures. He also used vivid but elegant colors in various shades and tones to illustrate the stylish furniture, instruments and costumes.

However, in the painting Gu also purposely created a somber ambiance. Several of the figures in the painting seem quite downcast, and none are shown smiling.

It was said that Gu’s painting helped the ruler dispel some of his distrust in Han Xizai, the apparently self-indulgent official. This thought did little to slow the decline of Li’s dynasty, which collapsed just a few years later.

Since the creation of “Night Revels of Han Xizai,” many Chinese painters have tried to imitate Gu’s inspired figure painting skills and effects. Even in modern times, one can see artists drawing from this classic work. For instance, famed artist Chen Yifei (1946-2005) created an oil painting in 1991 which depicted five beautiful ladies in traditional Chinese dress playing flutes. Viewers can see clear similarities between Chen’s canvas and the fourth section of Gu’s night revels.

“Night Revels of Han Xizai,” the only extant artwork of Gu Hongzhong, is now in the collection of the Palace Museum in Beijing.


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