The present painting is a 17th-century replica of the well known hanging scroll entitled, 'Literary Gathering' (Wen Hui tu) (Fig. 1) ascribed to the Northern Song Emperor Huizong (r.1101-1125) in the National Palace Museum collection, Taipei, illustrated in Three Hundred Masterpieces of Painting in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1959, pl. 92. It bears the cipher of the emperor on the left edge, and two poetic inscriptions, a quatrain in cursive script in five lines by the emperor entitling the painting (Wen Hui tu) in the upper right corner, and the rejoinder by his minister Cai Jing (1047-1126) in six lines in the upper left corner of the painting.
The setting is a spacious enclosed garden near a pond designed for the enjoyment of tea and wine under the shaded canopy of two large trees. Ten gentlemen dressed in scholars' robes and caps are seated around a table set with a sumptuous repast. Two of them converse under a tree while servants wait at table. Figures in the foreground prepare the refreshments at the water's edge: two concentrate on ladling into ceramic cups with black lacquer saucers, and another figure, dressed in a dark gown with scholar's cap oversees the procedure while holding a large platter with grey spotted design. At the main table the figures are depicted in varying degrees of social engagement, while one in a green robe holds wooden clappers. The black lacquered table is replete with an array of matching dishes and tea bowls of white and celadon wares, chopsticks, plus arrangements of miniature fruit trees and several pyramids of ripe fruit. On a stone table in the rear rests a black lacquered guqin, the ancient seven-stringed zither that is a hallmark of the cultured gentleman, with its silk wrapper lying next to an antique incense burner and some books.
That later copies of famous early paintings exist today should not surprise us, but that a version of the celebrated 12th-century Song painting, A Literary Gathering now in Taipei and ascribed to Emperor Huizong himself, should be copied by a 17th-century connoisseur of notable reputation makes this painting worthy of more than a second glance. This second version is a 'close' copy: the dimensions of the two paintings are comparable (it is not a 'reduced' copy), the composition in its scenic particulars and spatial proportions are faithfully rendered, the refinement and integrity of the original preserved. Only the fresh condition of the silk, the crisp immaculate approach to style, brushwork and color, the controlled weightlessness of the brushline, and the two inscriptions in the upper left-- all these differ from the Taipei painting.
What makes this 17th century version so significant?
First. The painting is a faithful re-creation of the Taipei composition yet does not pretend to its antiquity and well represents the theme and subject matter: the portrayal of a charmed way of life among an educated elite, lifelike in its exact rendering of scholars engaged in the polite arts over a meal. This version is cleaner and clearer, because in making a copy, the hand and eye of the skilled artist strive to understand, thereby re-interpreting, clarifying and simplifying what appears in the original.
Each cluster of activity is presented in detail both realistic and idealized, making the viewer feel privy to glimpse a now-vanished mode of existence. This banquet gathering is the place every connoisseur and collector of any era imagines himself to inhabit, whether its ambience or the exquisite banquet display. As for the occasion, what could be more exalted an invitation than to receive one in which even the emperor - who is presumed to be one of the figures - could relax among like-minded souls.
Whether sitting at the banquet table or standing in the bamboo grove sharing confidences, who among us would not identify with this charmed world, as if hermetically sealed from the intrigues and jealousies, barbed rivalries of the real world outside the garden? Strictly as a composition without any references to literary tropes, here is a portrayal of 'the good life' as enjoyed by both aristocrats and scholars at court. This view is both comprehensive and intimate as perceived by a painter who was both observer and participant, and as such could act as representative of an entire class of individuals in traditional Chinese society.
Second. The ceramics, lacquers, table settings, clothing, furniture, garden design and other accoutrements well represent and preserve those of the Song period.
The ceramics in particular attest to the imperial status of the host and his guests: white Ding and pale blue-green Ru wares that have been the focus of contemporary ceramics' collectors discussion and even help to 'date' the original composition, as they are typical ceramic and lacquer wares of the period (Det. 3). Only the large platter with its mottled design held ceremoniously in the foreground has provoked the most discussion: is it variegated agate (ma nao), or Song spotted Ding, or an early underglaze blue and white? Recently there has been no consensus.
Third. The author of this signed version had an independent stature as a collector and connoisseur. In the inscription in the upper left (Det. 1) the painting is signed and inscribed by Geng Zhaozhong (1640-1686), 'one of the most discerning of the Qing dynasty connoisseur-collectors [whose] well-known collector's seals, which appear on many of the finest ancient Chinese paintings, are eloquent proof of his virtually infallible judgment in matters of quality and authenticity'. (Lawton, 'Some Notes on Geng Zhaozong,' p. 144.)
It is noteworthy that the three artists' seals, 'Seal of Geng Zhaozhong,' 'Ink Garden,' and 'Text of Xingong,' appear only with his colophons and on works from his collection (Cf. Figs. 2 and 3). The two seals are separate from the set of seven or eight found on ancient paintings in his collection that do not bear his colophons. As Geng did not publish a catalogue of his collection, his collectors' seals and his inscriptions are the sole means to reconstruct his collection. They signified his appreciation, connoisseurship and ownership, and were impressed exclusively on those works that passed his high standards of quality and discernment.
In fact the original 12th-century painting on which Geng based this version was collected by him and bears seven of his seals. Other major works that bear his collectors' seals are now extant in well known collections. In the Taipei Palace Museum, for example, other than Literary Gathering, Geng collected the celebrated Early Spring, dated 1072 by Guo Xi. No fewer than seventeen scrolls now in the Palace Museum, Taipei, bear Geng's collectors' seals, having found their way into the Qing palace collection and recorded in the imperial catalogue, Shiqu baoji, compiled at the behest of the Qianlong emperor, Qing Gaozong (r. 1736-96). Among these seventeen paintings with Geng's seals in Taipei are Ming Huang's Journey to Shu, Zhou Wenju's Parting of Su Wu and Li Ling, Guo Xi's Early Spring, Li Gonglin's Nine Songs, Huizong's scroll of calligraphy, Ma Hezhi's Tang Feng and paintings by Cao Zhibo, Wang Mian, Fang Congi, Ni Zan and Wang Fu from the Yuan. (See Marshall Wu, 'A-Erh-Hsi-P'u and His Painting Collection' in C.T. Li, ed., Artists and Patrons, University of Washington Press, pp. 72-3.)
Notable Western collections that contain Song and Yuan paintings once owned by Geng are in the Cleveland Museum of Art (e.g. Buddhist Retreat by Streams and Mountains by Juran, Lantern Night Excursion of Zhong Kui by Yan Hui) and the Nelson Gallery of Art, Kansas City (e.g. Fishermen handscroll by Xu Daoning, an unsigned album leaf of peony flowers, the handscroll of Ink Bamboo by Li Kan and a landscape album leaf by Sheng Mou). Lastly, among the holdings of the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., there is a set of four Song- period album leaves with facing inscriptions and collectors' seals by Geng: Palace Ladies Bathing Children, Palace Ladies with Attendants ascribed to Zhou Wenju, Landscape by Yan Ciyu and Flowers and Insects attributed to Huang Qucai (Figs. 1 and 2). The Freer set of four reveals the classic format of an album leaf with facing inscription, placement of collectors' seals and identifying labels set into the mounting.
Four. The unique identity of the painter. Who was Geng Zhaozhong and what was his relation to the Qing emperors?
Geng was not Manchu, but his family came from Shandong, moving to the Liaodong peninsula not far from the Manchu homeland. As seen in the biography of his grandfather, the Gengs through several generations supported the Manchus in their conquest of China and were rewarded for their loyalty. In 1642 Geng's grandfather became a Chinese bannerman attached to the Plain Yellow Banner; he set out to arrange auspicious marriages for his three sons, petitioning the two older ones, including Geng, be sent to the palace to wait upon the Emperor. Conscious of the importance of good relations with the Chinese, the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1661-1722) had Geng marry the daughter of an Imperial Princess of the Second Degree, which won him a Manchu equivalent to the fu-ma title bestowed on an imperial consort.
Geng's success with the Kangxi Emperor garnered him the highest honorary titles during his lifetime, including receiving medicine from the emperor's own physicians. Upon his demise at the young age of forty-six, Geng was buried with full honors befitting those of a Manchu nobleman. It was no doubt through this close imperial relationship that Geng's collection eventually made its way into the Qing palace collection, as Kangxi's grandson, the Qianlong Emperor was on the throne following Geng's activity at court. Given Geng's discerning connoisseurship, Kangxi's early patronage of the arts, and Qianlong's ambition and immersion, the link comes as no surprise.
Five. This painting as unica, its informative inscriptions and the issues they raise. As far as is ascertainable, this is the only painting both signed and sealed by Geng as a painter and inscriber. As a leading connoisseur and collector, Geng wrote numerous calligraphic inscriptions, especially on album leaves (the four Freer leaves are part of an extant set of thirty-two), but there are no independent works of his calligraphy or paintings. We can, however, verify the authenticity of this inscription by comparing it to other known and accepted examples of his handwriting.
Geng Zhaozhong consistently wrote in a small running-regular script (xiao xingkai) both for inscriptions and labels, and while modest in style, his calligraphy is graceful and elegant, balanced and easy, without being tight or ostentatious. Geng's handwriting reveals his study of early masters such as Zhong You (151-230) and the Two Wangs of the 4th century, especially as reinterpreted by later Song and Yuan calligraphers, and it bears a resemblance to the fine inscriptions by the Yuan painter Qian Xuan (c. 1235-after 1300) that invariably adorn his figure or bird and flower paintings.
Among the inscriptions available for comparison is a leaf in the Freer Gallery of Art dated to 1648 (Fig. 2 ). We can see several similarities: 1) of script style, with each character well-formed and balanced, of slightly squat proportions and with fluent linking strokes; 2) of compositional spacing and steadiness of individual characters in columns; 3) of comparable characters in Geng's signature and in the text of the two inscriptions (such as ren, tu, yi, ti, and his habit of writing miao with a silk radical, or of having the wen character written like fu.) Besides the calligraphy, the two author's seals are identical.
Geng's inscription is valuable for the light it sheds on the history of the Taipei painting. In it he says he is trying his hand at copying a work in 'my family's collection' -- a 'Literary Gathering by Zhou Wenju' (and not Huizong). Zhou Wenju was a 10th-century figure painter who served the last ruler of the Southern Tang court in Nanjing, later following his captured patron north to the Song court. Zhou Wenju was celebrated for his depictions of palace ladies. In fact two fine album leaves in the collection of the Freer Gallery bear such an attribution and were owned by Geng. They have Geng's inscriptions, seals and label in his calligraphy (Fig. 3). Moreover there is recorded evidence of a painting by Zhou of a Wen Hui tu in the Song Emperor Huizong's painting catalogue, Xuan He Hua Pu (preface dated 1120, ch. 7).
If the Taipei scroll was in his collection, why did Geng not record or mention the two Northern Song inscriptions now found on it? Was this a purposeful oversight on his part to 'predate' the works to the Five Dynasties' Zhou Wenju? Or was the painting that Geng refers to in his inscription a different painting? When were the Song inscriptions added? Could it be that these inscriptions were interpolated after Geng's time but before they entered the Qing imperial collection? Do these questions cast doubt on the authenticity of the Song inscriptions? Recent studies of the Taipei painting have taken the authenticity of the inscriptions for granted; it is the style and authorship of the painting that has attracted more interest, postulating Huizong's painting manner to be closer to a free amateur ink style, than the 'magic realism' of the Painting Academy, as here, especially as part of a program of specific subjects glorifying the reign, and fully endorsed by the emperor and his minister. Huizong's calligraphy needs to be compared with the one unassailable genuine work in the rarer cursive script, namely, the long Thousand Character Classic handscroll in the Liaoning Museum written on a specially produced seamless paper engraved with dragons.
A few inconsistencies in the composition support the suggestion that this vertical scroll is derived from an earlier composition in horizontal format depicting Eighteen Scholars (shi ba xue shi). This refers to an incident in which the Tang emperor Taizong ordered portraits of eighteen scholars to be painted after a royal invitation. It is likely that to adapt the present vertical composition necessitated eliminating six or eight scholars and a group of musicians, which appeared to the right. That explains the standing figure in green holding the clappers, associated with keeping time in a musical ensemble. With the musicians 'off stage,' one can understand why the guqin zither lay silent on the stone table.
The adaptation into a vertical format transforms the more intimate handscroll mise-en-scene into a monumental and imposing work, new for the Northern Song figural art. It is here that the relationship with Zhou Wenju may have some bearing as Zhou's depictions of palace ladies show them in informal poses at leisure, in domestic or literary activities, 'genre' scenes that give us a glimpse into private quarters as if unobserved. It is an innovative viewpoint that links the Taipei composition and its current copy to the 10th century painter, thereby giving credence to Geng's colophon and to some observations in Li En'qing's colophon.
In his inscription, the 19th century collector Li En'qing praises the quality of execution, adding that neither Wen Zhengming, Tang Yin or Qiu Ying, all major painters of the Ming period, could have achieved this level of excellence. Li even compares its style to that of the Yuan painter-calligrapher Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322), giving us the impression that the painting might date from the Yuan period. Li even goes so far as to doubt whether Geng was the painter, speculating that there was an original signature that had been obliterated and that Geng saw a good thing and took the credit.
Six. The 'backstory' that brings Literary Gathering at a Festive Meal to the West represents an act of amity between China and the West during a turbulent era for both. Dr. Jakob Rosenfeld, born in Poland and trained as a physician in Vienna, Austria, specializing in urology, on May 23, 1938, was arrested by the Nazi Gestapo and shipped to the concentration camp in Dachau. Through the efforts of his sister, Dr. Sabine Rosenfeld, also a physician, his release was effected after a year at Buchenwald, and he made his way to Shanghai in June 13,1939, where he offered his medical training to the Peoples' Liberation Army at a time when China was in the throes of tremendous social and political upheaval. In 1949 at a banquet in Shanghai honoring Dr. Rosenfeld with Mao Zedong as host, Dr. Rosenfeld commented on how much he liked a painting that hung in the room. In an act of spontaneous generosity, Mao gave the painting to the good doctor who chose to fulfill his destiny in China. Posthumous honors have recently been bestowed on Dr. Rosenfeld: in 1992 a public statue and hospital were named in his honor in Jinan, Shandong Province (Confucius' hometown), and in 2003 commemorative postage stamps were issued and a special exhibition in Tian'anmen Square was held.
In Chinese art, a close relation between the connoisseur-collector and the emperor was enjoyed as in few other civilizations. A discerning eye and art collection conferred social status on an individual and attracted imperial attention. It's no accident that the two most zealous imperial art lovers - whether their goals were politically motivated or not - Song Huizong and Qing Gaozong are linked to the Taipei original and mediated by a truly discerning eye, in this case the private citizen Geng Zhaozhong. Geng's version lends a new luster to the concept of 'copy.' Perhaps it was more than serendipity that the painting should have graced an imperial dinner of the twentieth century, that of Mao Zedong entertaining Dr. Jakob Rosenfeld, and, in a gesture of thanks, the painting became an emblem of contact between two individuals and two very different worlds and cultures, thanks to a Jewish physician who so willingly offered his talents to those in need in a land far from his own.
Marilyn Wong Gleysteen, Ph.D, independent scholar
Washington, D.C., July 27, 2007.
Washington, D.C., July 27, 2007.
Washington, D.C., July 27, 2007.
Washington, D.C., July 27, 2007.