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The painting depicts a private gathering of noblemen. The protagonist sits at the center wearing a Daoist cap and a dark robe. He concentrates on the zither (qin) he plucks. Seemingly intoxicated by the music and lost in deep thought, two men dressed in official garb and black caps sit as the musician’s audience. The figure on the left wearing a green robe raises his head while the red-robed figure lowers his head and holds a fan. A young page stands to the side with his hands clasped before him with wide eyes focused on the musician. The painter used the sound of the zither as the theme of this painting, which exquisitely portrays the concept of “the moment silence triumphs over sound”. Indeed, the scene has a simple purity. The tranquil atmosphere is presented in simple indications like the canopy of the pine tree and swaying stalks of bamboo, which evoke the refinement of traditional gardens. The fragrant smoke rising from the incense burner on the small table and the archaic ding-tripod containing a peculiar plant on the curiously shaped rock harmonize with the sound of the zither in the secluded scene.
The top of the painting features a heptasyllabic poem inscribed by Cai Jing (1047–1126), the grand councilor of the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127). Emperor Huizong (r. 1100–1125), often known by his personal name Zhao Ji (1082–1135), inscribed the title “Listening to a Zither” (Tingqin tu) in the right corner in his trademark slender-gold script (shoujin ti) and signed the painting with his cipher “First Under Heaven” (Tianxia yiren). Consequently, scholars throughout history have attributed the work to that dynastic ruler. However, further research has shown that it is probably not a work by Zhao Ji but, more likely, a depiction of the sovereign by an artist in the Imperial Painting Academy of his Xuanhe reign (1119–1125). Moreover, the zither player is now thought to be the Emperor Huizong himself.
Zhao Ji reigned during the Northern Song dynasty. Posthumously called by the temple name Huizong, the ruler was a proficient calligrapher and painter; indeed, the slender-gold style (shoujin ti) was his own calligraphic innovation. Apart from actively participating in the arts, Zhao Ji was an avid collector of fine works from previous Chinese dynasties and amassed an impressive treasury. He personally directed the Hanlin Imperial Painting Academy and oversaw the compilation of the Painting Catalogue of the Xuanhe Period (Xuanhe shupu) and Calligraphy Catalogue of the Xuanhe Period (Xuanhe huapu).
Chinese entry by Fu Dongguang
Translated and edited by Adam J. Ensign, Zhuang Ying, et al.