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The Night Revels of Han Xizai

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Period: Five Dynasties (906-960)
Medium: ink and colors on silk
Format: handscroll

Artist(s): Attributed to Gu Hongzhong

Dimensions: h: 28.7 cm, w: 335.5 cm

This is an excellent copy of an original work by Gu Hongzhong. From many factors, it is thought to have been done during the period from 1163 to 1224 in the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279).   Serving as an official in the painting academy patronized by Li Yu (r. 961-975), the last monarch of the Southern Tang dynasty (937-975), Gu Hongzhong excelled at figure painting. He was accorded the same high status as his contemporary, the court painter Zhou Wenju (active 10th century). As for the motive for this painting, there are two stories. According to the Painting Catalogue of the Xuanhe Period (1119-1125) (Xuanhe huapu), Li Yu who planned to appoint Han Xizai (902-970) to an important position in the court, hesitated when he heard that Han lived a dissolute life. Therefore, he asked the painter Gu Hongzhong to spy on Han at night and make a visual record of his behavior. A second version of the story appears in The Supplement to the History of the Five Dynasties (Wudai Bushi); it states that the emperor was so angry with Han Xizai for his decadence that he showed this painting to Han to express his dissatisfaction. Han Xizai accepted the emperor's blame and felt guilty. Both versions emphasize that it was Gu Hongzhong who was ordered by the emperor to execute this painting. Another imperial painter, Zhou Wenju, was recorded to have painted the same topic; the painting is known to have been preserved until the Yuan dynasty (1206-1368). Today only the work attributed to Gu Hongzhong has survived.   
  The painting vividly represents a night party hosted by Han Xizai, who anticipated the fall of the corrupt court. It depicts the host and guests engaging themselves in revels, flirting, chatting, singing and dancing to delightful music. Of all the figures painted, the complicated characterization of Han Xizai's wistfulness and aloofness is of paramount importance.   
  The first of the five scenes that make up the painting shows the enjoyment of music. With high hat and full beard, Han Xizai is sitting on a couch with red-robed Lang Can, a scholar who ranked first in the highest imperial examination. They are listening attentively to a pipa lute (a stringed musical instrument) played by the sister of Li Jiaming, assistant director of the Imperial Theatre and Music Academy, who sits watchfully by her side. The girl in light blue is Wang Wushan, a talented dancer serving Han Xizai. The man standing behind her is Han's student Shu Ya. Seated near the table are two guests, Chen Zhiyong, an official in charge of rites, and his student Zhu Xian.   
  In the second scene, Wang Wushan is dancing to the beats of a drum that Han Xizai is striking. Everybody is focusing on her movements except Han's friend the monk Deming, who crosses his hands in front of his chest and bows his head. Although embarrassed, he cannot help but listen to the beats.   In the third scene, surrounded by four female companions, Han is resting on a couch washing his hands in a basin. The fourth scene depicts five females playing flutes. Han Xizai sits in a chair, cross-legged with his robe unbuttoned. In the fifth scene, Han holds two drumsticks in his right hand and waves goodbye to his guests with his left hand. A male guest is whispering to a maid behind Han.   
  The five discrete scenes are artfully linked by screens. The painter brilliantly portrayed the figures, especially Han Xizai the host, whose appearance is in accordance with historic documents. His sophisticated characterization is conveyed by the precise depiction of his gestures and facial expressions. On the one hand, he indulges himself in wine, women and song, beating a drum for a servant dancer and enjoying a concert in open robe. On the other hand, he appears to be absent-minded and wistful during the revelry. He beats the drum without a hint of a smile, chats with his female servant when listening to the flute song. All these expressions contribute to the very indication of Han's unhappy life in his old age.   
  The painting is a portrait of both Han's physical appearance and of his complicated personality. The precise portraits of the figures, fine and continuous brush lines and delicate colors contribute to a high artistic value of the painting. The bright gowns of the maids are juxtaposed to the dark robes of the males; the colorful patterns on the dresses and curtains are contrasted to the elegant furniture. The different shades and tones display a splendid range of colors.   
  There remains an inscription about Han Xizai, twenty words in length, at the beginning of the scroll by a collector of the Southern Song. The Ming calligrapher Cheng Nanyun (active early fifteenth century) wrote a three-word title "Night Revelry" (Yeyan tu). At the end of the scroll a label in running script reads A Brief Biography of Han Xizai (Han Xizai xiaozhuan) with several authentication seals. The Qing emperor Qianlong (r. 1736-1795) also inscribed a colophon after the painting.   
  The painting was included in The Precious Collection of the Stone Moat: the First Edition (Shiqu baoji), a catalogue of the Qianlong Emperor's calligraphy and painting collection.

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