For a long time, the court in China was characterised by Confucianist ethics. Self-control, soberness and hard work were values worthy of pursuit. How then, could the official Han Xizai, who worked under the emperor Li Yu in the 10th Century, be famous for his nocturnal escapades? Why where his adventures painted in the most sophisticated way? And why did the court keep and preserve this painting of pleasure for ages? These are questions that fascinate Regina Llamas – expert in Chinese culture and the history of entertainment. She gave a lecture about The Night Revels of Han Xizai during the third session of the Touched by Art series.
The Night Revels are painted on a 3.4 meter silk scroll with ink and colour. It is believed to be a copy made in the 12th century, of an 10th century painting by Gu Hongzong. Besides the images of the nocturnal adventures of Han Xizai, the scroll contains a colophon written throughout the ages by different owners of the painting. The colophon forms a rich source for understanding how the painting was received in different eras. However, there is much left to be guessed, as multiple interpretations coexist.
There are basically two stories about the origin of the painting, Llamas explained. The first one tells the emperor Li Yu heard about the adventures of Han Xizai and sent a court painter to witness his nightly activities. It was the only way for him to get a glimpse of such parties, as the emperor was of course never invited. The second story turns the painting into a educational document. As it was controversial to even speak about the activities Han Xizai was involved in, Li Yu decided to confront Han Xizai indirectly with his behaviour by showing him the painting.
Yet, when looking at the painting, it is quite hard for a contemporary audience to understand what all the fuss is about. Besides some beds and lots of women, explicit transgressive behaviour is not shown. Are they not just decently attending a concert? Probably because of the prudish ethics of the time, the painter could only subtly hint at what was happening at Han Xizai’s home parties. One can tell, for instance, from the instruments that are depicted, that they are listening to popular, and not to formal decent music. And perhaps some of the women are his concubines – people believed he had up to forty of them.
While our standards for what counts as transgressive behaviour might have changed, it is not very difficult to appreciate the painting for its aesthetics. While other scrolls from the same time period predominantly show ‘floating’ figures on a plain background, here furniture plays an important role. It provides the painting with perspective in a very original way and it serves to separate the scenes from each other. In one scene a figure even seems to break with ‘third wall’ – while calling Han Xizai to the next scene.
Just like this figure seems to point at the borders of fiction within the painting, The Night Revels and all the speculation around it offer an interesting reflection on entertainment. Not only Han Xizai is being entertained on the richly painted scenes, the scroll itself is entertainment as well for those who get to see it. This is why reflecting upon Han Xizai’s life, and why it was painted, in a way becomes reflecting upon the nature of entertainment. Do we not just like the emperor Li Yu, want to have a glimpse of a life we will never live ourselves?