Gu Hongzhong’s Night Revels of Han Xizai 顧閎中 韓熙載夜宴圖 depicts the life-style of Han Xizai.
Han Xizai (韓熙載) (902 – 970) was a scholar-official of the Southern Tang (南唐) court in Nanjing. As he wanted to save himself from a delicate political situation, Han pretended to live a dissolute life, so as to dispel Emperor Li Yu’s (李煜) (937 -978) doubts and suspicion.
Gu Hongzhong (顧閎中) (937 – 975) was a court-painter in the painting academy of the Southern Tang dynasty during the Five Dynasty and Ten Kingdoms (五代十國) period. Gu excelled at figure painting. Emperor Li Yu sent Gu to spy on one of Han’s infamously erotic parties. Two more artist-officials, Zhou Wenzhong (周文矩) and Gāo Tàichōng (高太沖) were also dispatched to secretly observe Han Xizai to not only bear witness to the rumored night revels, but produce a record of the scenes there.
The painting features smooth lines, fine brushwork and a vivid presentation. Art historians suspect that the painting may not be the original work of Gu but a replica copied during the period of Sung Dynasty (宋朝).
There are five scenes on the scroll. Han is in every scene. Screens are used to separate one scene from another. But Scenes 2 and 3 are not separated by a screen.
Han was sitting on a couch with guests and female company, listening intently to a girl playing a pipa lute. The setting was elegant and the mood still formal. The messy and untidy bed behind Han hints at what might be anticipated after the performance. According to literature, those women in the painting may be Han’s concubines or prostitutes. The guests are high officials in the court of Southern Tang.
A girl dances sensuously and accompanied by Han on a large drum. The dance performance is watched by male guests. A monk is standing there turning away from the performance. Art historians think that the dancing girl may be Wang Wushan. She was one of Han’s favourite attendants or concubines.
Han sits on a couch with four women and he washes his hands in a bowl of water. A woman holding a pipa and flutes comes along with a maid. Again there is a curtained bed ready for use.
Han has taken off his top garment and sits on an easy chair with his under garments dishevelled. He has also taken off his shoes and he talks to a woman. A female band of five are playing the flute. A guest is accompanying the music.
Han watches as contact between the guests and female companions becomes more physical and intimate.
Han in his yellow robe is carrying a pair of drum sticks in his right hand. This should have continued on following Scene 2. The order of the scenes were thus likely to have been tempered with or the painter deliberately put Han in this special order.
Despite the painting is a visual record of the excess and self-indulgence in Han Xizai’s home, Han does not look happy and joyful. Instead the lack of expression on his face may depict he is confused, depressed and unhappy. This supports the theory that Han has put on these parties to dispel the Emperor’s suspicion.
The painting shows precise portraits of the figures with fine and continuous brush lines and delicate colours. This is indeed one of the masterpieces of Chinese fine art.
Another Copy of Gu Hongzhong’s Night Revels of Han Xizai by Tang Yin (唐寅) (1470—1523) Ming Dynasty (明朝)
Tang Yin (唐寅), Gu Hongzhong’s Night Revels of Han Xizai, ink and watercolour on silk, long scroll, 30.8 x 547.8 cm, The Three Gorges Museum, Chongqing (重庆中国三峡博物馆) Image Credits: http://baike.baidu.com/item/%E6%98%8E%E5%94%90%E5%AF%85%E4%B8%B4%E9%9F%A9%E7%86%99%E8%BD%BD%E5%A4%9C%E5%AE%B4%E5%9B%BE%E5%8D%B7
The above painting is unsigned but has the inscriptions of Tang Yin (唐寅), so the painting is regarded to be Tang Yin’s (唐寅). Some scholars suspect that the scroll was painted by Qiu Ying (仇英) (1494- 1553), a contemporary of Tang Yin.
I would like to thank Dr Richard Wu most sincerely for his guidance and extra information to be put into this webpage. (Dr Wu is an internationally renowned Chinese fine art historian, artist and practising psychiatrist based in Sydney.)
胡德智 (2005) 中国人物画经典 -五代卷 Masterworks of Chinese Figure Painting- Five Dynasty (AD 907 – 960), Cultural Relic Publishing House 文物出版社. ISBN 7-5010-1699-2
Pratt Keith, et al (2013) The Chinese Art Book, Phaidon. ISBN 978-0-7148-6575-1