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China: When the Emperor Was a Painter

Updated: May 7, 2021

Chinese scroll in ink on silk of cranes flying over a pagoda
Auspicious Cranes by Emperor Huizong, c.1100. Ink and color on silk.

As an artist, the lives of artists in other cultures have always been a fascination, so I was particularly interested in 2013 when the Victoria and Albert Museum in London did Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700 - 1900. I spent the whole summer that year with the catalog from that show, trying to absorb all I could. In particular I was fascinated by the story of Emperor Huizong, the last emperor of China's Northern Song Dynasty, and his influence on the development of the arts.

As in most societies, in China there was a status butting order. Artists and artisans were lower in social standing than farmers or scholars, but higher up that merchants and traders. Artists had their workshops in their homes (sound familiar?), but were gradually allowed to enter the market places with a storefront studio/gallery and a workshop in the rear (also familiar). However around 960 A.D. the new Song imperial court recruited the best artists and gave them the title, Academician, which raised their status to that of a scholar. (By the way, writers were also given this rise in status, as China always saw a connection between writing and painting.) The really nice thing about being in the "Academy of Scholarly Worthies" was that it came with a salary. (Imagine that, artists and writers with salaries!) However, after about 150 years that grew stale, which is where Emperor Huizong came in.

Detail of handscroll by Emperor Huizong of Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk. c. 1100

Court Women Preparing Newly Woven Silk, detail from a handscroll by Emperor Huizong, c. 1100.

Huizong founded the National School of Painting in 1104. A selection of 30 of China's most promising painters were chosen and put through a program of technical training in painting, combined with a thorough education in philosophy and Chinese classical writings. Their progress was assessed in terms of realism, originality, and poetic education. The painters practiced calligraphy and wrote poetry. The connection of poetry and painting became particularly strong in China as the idea developed that poetry was painting with sound and painting was silent poetry. Huizong's own work included the development of a type of calligraphy known as "Slender Gold," which he displayed to the side of his painting Auspicious Cranes. He also prescribed the subjects to be painted by the assembled artists, who naturally strove for excellence, as well as the elegance represented by the slender gold calligraphy model.

Auspicious Cranes with Slender Gold calligraphy by Emperor Huizong, c. 1100

One can see in the examples above that the Emperor had a penchant for hand scrolls. The depiction of the Court Ladies is 145 cm. long or around 4 feet 9 inches in length and a narrow 14.5 inches tall. Chinese scrolls were like video tape before its time. The viewer could go on a journey through a part of the country just by unrolling the scroll. The previously seen part of the scroll could be rolled up with the left hand, as the right hand unfurled the upcoming scenery. If one wanted to revisit a section, just unroll the left side to the desired view or jump ahead by unrolling on the right side, all done by hand of course, as there was no remote. Not all of the landscape scrolls were travelogues. Many were extended views of lovely scenery, in which the viewer could spend time appreciating the locale. As opposed to the normal landscape views, Huizong unfurls the royal court, with the ladies making cloth for the emperor, showing the viewer that traditional activities were well observed even in the royal court and were accomplished by the noble ladies.

The emperor's National School of Painting only lasted for six years, as more pressing problems began to engulf the Northern Song, culminating with their capital being attacked and overtaken in 1115. The royal court fled south to what is now Hangzhou to eventually found the Southern Song Dynasty (1127 -1279). Unfortunately Emperor Huizong was taken prisoner and died in captivity in 1125. However, the idea of the painting academy continued under the Southern Song with many of the painters coming from the well-educated scholarly class. Over the years these scholar/painters would serve in the government if they passed the rigorous civil service exams. This meant that they painted in their spare time while being generally occupied by their administrative duties. Those who did not pass the exams, or chose not to take them, became "professional scholar painters," and fortunately in the very wealthy Southern Song, there was a good market for paintings. Over the centuries this idea of the scholar/painter turned toward the ideal of the scholar in retreat in a simple dwelling in the mountains where he painted and wrote poetry, becoming a philosopher of sorts. This ideal became the subject of many Chinese ink landscapes.

Winter Evening Landscape by Li Gongnian, early 12th century.

The move from the north to the south was a difficult one for a people used to a colder, more hardy climate. Yet the painting came under a new influence, that of a warmer, less rugged environment. Sometimes depicting a cloudy, rather watery, rain swept atmosphere, the painting became softer. At the same time, some of the artists began exploring the varying usages of ink, which in the Ming Dynasty began to turn Chinese painting away from color and toward more stark black ink work on silk. Not unlike some of the 15th century Italian Renaissance painters, some Chinese painters began to think that color got in the way of the drawing.

Another development in the Southern Song was a whole school of painting centered in the port city of Ningbo and dedicated to Buddhist art. These artists did works in large sets, many of which were imported by the Japanese who had come to China to study Buddhism. These works have been well preserved in the home monasteries of those monks in Japan.

However, though the art changed with the move to the south, the original home of the Song in the mountains of the north was not forgotten. Though softened somewhat by mist, it is still seen here on the left in an ink painting on silk from the 12th century by Li Gongnian.

One hanging scroll in a set of 12 entitled Landscapes in the Manner of the Old Masters by Wang Jian, 17th century.

One can still see the northern influence in a painting like this one, done in the 17th century Ching Dynasty. Interestingly, in the series of 12 hanging scrolls that comprise this master work of landscapes dedicated to the style of the "Old Masters," most of them were copied from the works of the high culture of the Song Dynasty. Only three have any color other than dark ink on silk the color of tea, reflecting that shift to simple black ink on neutrally colored silk.

While Emperor Huizong was a better artist than he was an emperor, his influence on the painting moved the Song to create a standard of excellence that passed down through the centuries and which future dynasties found hard to exceed.

Painted fan detail from Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk by Emperor Huizong, c.1100

Have any of you painted on silk before? What was your experience? Log in and tell us about it.

Source material for this blog comes from Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900, curated and published by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, U.K., 2013.

Photos taken by me from the catalog and used in accordance with Fair Use Policy for purposes of critique and review.

For more on Marjorie Vernelle, see the author page at

She also has an engaging art history blog that talks of painting and wine on

© Marjorie Vernelle 2019

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