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The Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings

    The Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings is one of the most important documents in Chinese art history.

    It gives a glimpse into how the Song dynasty’s literati viewed art. And it influenced art for centuries to come.

    Detail depicting from Listening to the Qin (ca. 1102) by the Emperor Huizong
    Detail from Listening to the Qin (ca. 1102) by the Emperor Huizong, hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk. 147.2 x 51.3cm. Palace Museum, Beijing. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons) The image depicts Huizong (centre, playing the qin) , Cai Jing (right) and another official with servant.

    What is the Xuanhe Catalogue of paintings?

    The Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings (1120 AD) (宣和画谱 [Xuān hé huàpǔ]) is a catalogue commissioned by the Song dynasty emperor Huizong (r. 1100 – 1125 AD).

    It lists and categorises all of the paintings held in the royal collection – 6,396 paintings by 231 artists.

    (Unfortunately, there are no traces left of many of the paintings listed.)

    It also includes:

    • An overall preface
    • Prefaces for each subject matter section
    • Brief artist biographies
    • Comments on artists’ personalities and work 
    • Comments on painting more generally

    For this reason, it is one of the most important documents in the history of Chinese art and art theory.

    It was originally published anonymously and was simply known as the Catalogue of Paintings. Later on, the prefix of Xuanhe (the official name of Huizong’s last period of rule between 1119 – 1125) was used to refer to it.

    Portrait of Huizong Emperor Seated by unknown painter
    Portrait of Huizong Emperor Seated (Song dynasty) by unknown painter, hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk, 188.2 x 106.7 cm. (National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    How the Catalogue is structured

    The Catalogue opens with a preface which explains what the ten categories it is divided into are and why they are listed in this order.

    These categories, in order, are:

    1. Daoist and Buddhist 
    2. Figure paintings
    3. Architectural
    4. Barbarian tribes
    5. Dragons and fish
    6. Landscapes
    7. Domestic and wild animals
    8. Flowers and birds
    9. Bamboo
    10. Vegetables and fruit

    The order here is essentially one of importance. The architectural category is important, for example, because of its variety and how it “reveals the peoples’ customs.”

    And the barbarians are a central part of how the empire operates. The empire’s security depends on protecting people from them, but at the same time they also bring music and gifts (“When their princes come with offerings, we do not despise these people”)

    After the preface, the importance of each category is explained in more depth at the beginning of each section. 

    Thereafter, artists are listed in chronological order within the category they most predominantly painted on.

    First comes their biography and some comment on their work. Then, their paintings (that are “in the royal storehouse”) are listed. 

    This listing reflects the same overall structure of the catalogue, i.e., their architectural-themed paintings – if they had any – come before their barbarian themed ones.

    Many painters painted on more than one theme. And they are often mentioned in the ‘secondary’ or other theme categories.

    However, their biography stays in the category the catalogue’s authors believed was their primary theme.

    Background to the Catalogue

    The Catalogue was written during the Song dynasty (960 – 1279 AD). 

    The dynasty itself, which is remembered as a time of cultural flourishing, is often divided into two main parts:

    • The Northern Song (960 – 1127 AD)
    • The Southern Song (1127 – 1279 AD)

    The Northern Song – when the empire was approximately double the size of the Southern Song – is recognised as the cultural high-point.

    This is especially true of the era leading up to and including when the Catalogue was published.

    Two main factors contributed to this. 

    1. Art theory led by Su Shi

    Wood and Rock by Su Shi
    Wood and Rock by Su Shi, ink on paper, 42.3 x 26.7cm. (Image source: Alamy)

    Painting gained began to gain recognition as an elite art in the same league as (but not quite equal to) calligraphy and poetry in the tenth century. 

    The famous artist, polymath and official Su Shi (1037 – 1101 AD) was the first to invent the term ‘scholar’s paintings’ (士人画)

    Along with members of Su’s artistic circle, including Huang Tingjian (1045 – 1145) and Mi Fu (1051 – 1107 AD), this idea was developed significantly.

    In short, painting and calligraphy done by scholars was viewed as something fundamentally different to that done by professional court painters and calligraphers. 

    Scholar’s art (in theory) was informed by their classical education and the inner cultivation that in turn came from that education.

    And scholars simply gifted one another works of art, they did not work for money.

    2. Huizong’s revival of the Academy of Painting

    Auspicious Cranes by Huizong Emperor
    Auspicious Cranes (1112 AD) by Huizong Emperor, section of a handscroll, ink and colour on silk, 51 x 138.2 cm. Liaoning Provincial Museum, Shenyang. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    The Emperor Huizong revived the Academy of Painting during his reign. He oversaw how its artists were educated and worked, too. 

    Huizong disapproved of Su Shi and many in his circle (Su’s writings were banned throughout Huizong’s reign).

    This is because they were seen as political conservatives critical of the government’s reforms.

    However, the ideas this group had developed did seep into how artists at the Academy were trained.

    And the Catalogue often discusses artistic themes in a similar manner.

    The social status of Academy painters was officially raised, too. They were given higher salaries than before and the right to wear pendants that officials usually wore.

    (However, members of the Academy of Calligraphy still enjoyed a higher prestige and salary during the Song).

    Scholar painters vs professional painters (academicians): Class standing

    The Song was a relatively meritocratic Chinese dynasty. The last major dynasty before, the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD), had relied on a much more rigid ruling elite of aristocratic families.

    But since the early days of the Song, officials like Ouyang Xiu (1007 – 1072 AD) managed to rise through the ranks of government from relatively humble backgrounds.

    However, the scholar painting vs professional (i.e., painters working for the Academy of Painters) difference was accentuated by class differences. In short, scholar paintings were done by highly educated scholars (often officials). 

    Professional Academy painters were less educated in the classics, but more trained in the technical skills needed to creating realistic paintings for the government.

    This difference was rarely explicitly stated. But we do see traces of it in many writings, including the Catalogue itself.

    For example, in the biography of the great landscape painter Li Cheng (919 – 967 AD), his disinterest in commercial commissions is made clear. The approving tone of the catalogue is clear.

    于时凡称山水者,必以成为古今第一 […] 尝有显人孙氏知成善画得名,故贻书招之。成得书且愤且叹曰:”自古四民不相杂处,吾本儒生,虽游心艺事,然适意而已,奈何使人羁致入戚里宾馆,研吮丹粉而与画史冗人同列乎?”
    Li is the number one painter of landscapes from ancient times until today […] Once, there was a prominent man named Sun. He knew of Cheng’s reputation for painting and so sent him a letter of invitation. When Cheng received it, he was indignant and he signed, “Since ancient times the four classes have kept separate. I am originally a Confucian scholar. I have partaken in art, but it iss only for my own satisfaction. Why should I enter the guesthouse of a nobleman […] and be considered on the same level as professional painters?

    Xuanhe Catalogue of Painting, Chapter 10

    The Catalogue’s compilers

    There has been debate over who exactly compiled the Catalogue.

    Huizong’s infamous minister and artistic confidant Cai Jing (1047 – 1126 AD) is one candidate. 

    Amy McNair argues in her book The Painting Master’s Shame: Liang Shicheng and the Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings (2023) that the powerful court eunuch Liang Shicheng (c. 1063 – 1126 AD) was the true compiler and author.

    Was the Catalogue based on an earlier version?

    McNair also argues (in the introduction to her translation of the Catalogue) that it was based on an earlier catalogue. 

    The updating was necessary in part because of the large number (approximately 1,000) of new paintings acquired by the royal collection during Huizong’s famously art-obsessed reign.

    Sections of the Catalogue

    One: Daoist and Buddhist

    The preface of this section opens with a quote from Confucius’ Analects that would have been immediately familiar with just about all contemporary readers:

    Set yourself upon the Way, accord with morality, rely on goodness, spend your leisure in the arts.

    Analects (7.6)

    It then states that “painting is also one of the arts” and that painters can also reach the Way through skill in it. 

    However, the Way is not just a Confucian concept. In Chinese thought, it also applies to Buddhism and Daosim (which along with Confucianism, both seamlessly integrated in most elites’ minds). 

    The catalogue explicitly states:

    Paintings can depict Daoist and Buddhist icons lift up Confucian sages, causing people to revere them. If these created forms give rise to understanding, can this be said to be only of minor benefit?

    Xuanhe Catalogue of Painting, chapter 1

    It then mentions that this section is made up of forty-nine painters from the Jin dynasty (266 – 420 AD) to the Song dynasty.

    Gu Kaizhi (Jin dynasty)

    Detail from The Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies by Gu Kaizhi
    Detail from The Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies (4th century) by Gu Kaizhi, scroll, ink and colour on paper, Tang dynasty copy by Zou Yigui. British Museum. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    The biography in the Catalogue is of the Jin Dynasty painter Gu Kaizhi (344 – 406 AD)

    Gu’s writing on painting was the first known in Chinese. He wrote about painting technique, planning compositions and contemporary and older paintings. 

    After his death, Gu became a legend of a kind of painting sage. However, perhaps unsurprisingly considering how long ago he lived, none of his original works still exist. But there are copies of works attributed to him.

    Wu Daozi (Tang dynasty)

    The Buddha of Accumulated Treasure and Incense attributed to Wu Daozi
    The Buddha of Accumulated Treasure and Incense (4th century) attributed to Wu Daozi, probably a Mind dynasty copy, handscroll, ink and colour on paper, 114.1 x 41.1 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    Wu Daozi (also known as Wu Daoyuan) (active 710 – 760) was an orphan who grew in the Tang dynasty capital, Chang’an (today’s Xi’an).

    He was active during the High Tang period (i.e., when Chinese power, poetry and calligraphy was at its highest point during the dynasty).

    He is believed to have worked outside of the court, except for when the emperor employed his services.

    And he mostly painted figures on Buddhist and Daoist temples – many of which were destroyed during anti-Buddhist campaigns that happened after his lifetime.

    Wu’s style was described by later Tang dynasty art critics as shū (疏) (‘loose’ or ‘sparse’) as opposed to  (密) (‘close’ or ‘dense’) popular around the same time. 

    This stylistic difference it not unlike the later distinctions between the less technically adept scholar/literati painting and professional/court painting.

    The Catalogue approvingly quotes a critic (an unnamed Su Shi) who summed up Wu’s importance:

    In the High Tang, literature was Han Yu, poetry was Du Fu, calligraphy was Yan Zhenqing, and painting Wu was Daoyuan. They were the most capable under Heaven.

    Xuanhe Catalogue of Painting, chapter 1

    Two: Figure paintings

    This section preface discusses a common theme in Chinese art theory: the essence or spirit of paintings. 

    It is difficult to be skilled at painting figures, even when artists have captured the likeness, because they often miss the personality.

    Xuanhe Catalogue of Painting, chapter 5

    These terms very much accord with the theory of Su Shi and his circle. Su himself once stated: 

    If anyone discussed painting in terms of formal likeness, 
    His understanding is nearly that of a child.

    – Su Shi

    However, the preface does list an elegant array of ways in which a figure painter can achieve success:

    如张昉之雄简,程坦之荒闲,尹质、维真、元霭之形似,非不善也,盖前有曹、卫,而后有李公麟,照映数子,固已奄奄,是知谱之所载,无虚誉焉 […]
    The vigoro and brevity of Zhang Fang, the casualness of Cheng Tan, Yin Zhi, Weizhen and Yuan’ai’s ability for creating form-likenesses […]

    Xuanhe Catalogue of Painting, chapter 5

    The Night Revels of Han Xizai by Gu Hongzhong (937 – 975 AD)

    Detail of Han Xizai and companions listing to music inside The Night Revels of Han Xizai
    Detail of Han Xizai with open gown and many women around him from The Night Revels of Han Xizai
    Details from The Night Revels of Han Xizai (ca. 970) by Gu Hongzhong, handscroll, ink and colour on silk, whole piece is 28.7 x 335.5 cm. Palace Museum, Beijing. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Gu Hongzhong has five paintings listed in the Catalogue. His biographic entry only discusses one of these: The Night Revels of Han Xizai painted in around 970 AD. 

    The painting itself survives today. It is a colourful ink painting on silk handscroll with showing multiple well-dressed figures (men and women) eating and socialising indoors.

    The Catalogue tells the story behind the picture. It states that the painter Gu was sent to a banquet hosted by the Secretariat Drafter Han Xizai by the Emperor Li of the Southern Tang (a kingdom during the Five Dynasties period). 

    The emperor (who the Catalogue calls ‘a pretender’) had repeatedly heard about the minister’s activities and eventually felt compelled to find out more. 

    After Gu successfully attended this event and painted what he saw from memory afterwards, the emperor showed many people. The Catalogue’s author is perplexed at this:

    李氏虽僭伪一方,亦复有君臣上下矣。至于写臣下私亵以观,则泰至多奇乐 […] 又何必令传于世哉!
    Even though Li was a usurper, he should still have observed proper distinctions between ruler and subject. Having his subject’s private indiscretions depicted viewed is excessively improper […] And what’s more, why did he show it to the world?!

    Xuanhe Catalogue of Painting, chapter 7

    Three: Architectural

    This section is very brief section in the Catalogue

    In the preface for this section, the author states that in ‘High Antiquity, people lived in nests and lived in cages, there no architecture’

    He continues on to say that architecture is one of the most difficult types of painting because of the shapes involved.

    Since the Tang and Five dynasties period to this dynasty, there have only been five painters specialising at this. This shows how difficult a skill it is to be able to paint according to the standards of measurement.

    Xuanhe Catalogue of Painting, chapter 8

    Guo Zhongshu (ca. 910 – 977)

    Travelling on the River in Clearing Snow by Guo Zhongshu
    Travelling on the River in Clearing Snow by Guo Zhongshu (ca. 975), hanging scroll, ink on silk, 74.1 x 69.2 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    Guo Zhongshu was a middle-ranking official during the Five Dynaties period and early Song dynasty. He was known for his painting abilities.

    In the Catalogue’s biography of him, the theme of the artist misunderstood by contemporary audiences appears. Guo painting is described as ‘lofty and antique’ and something that has ‘never been easy for people to understand’

    如韩愈之论文,以谓时时应事作下俗文章,下笔令人惭,及示人以为好 […] 今于忠恕之画亦云
    As Han Yu said about writing: “Occasionally, one has to write an essay to fulfil an obligation, and though such works are not great, when you show them to people, they pleased.” […] Today, the same can also be said of Zhongshu’s painting.

    Xuanhe Catalogue of Painting, chapter 8

    The catalogue lists sixteen of Guo’s architectural paintings. One that is not listed is one which survives today: Travelling on a River in Clearing Snow

    This painting depicts an exquisitely detailed boat, complete with passengers, being dragged along a frozen river. The boats’ structures mirrors one another, whilst their contents and passengers’ positions and poses vary.

    Four: Barbarian tribes

    This is another short section in the Catalogue.

    Barbarian (i.e., non-Chinese) tribes were an important feature of life when the Catalogue was completed. Just five years later, the emperor Huizong (who owned the royal collection) abdicated before being taken prisoner by them. 

    And, more significantly, the Song empire itself was essentially reduced to its southern half. The Song government then moved south to Hangzhou, where it survived until another barbarian tribe (the Mongols) took over all of China. 

    But anyway, when the Catalogue was written, peace with barbarians was still a priority. Chinese culture’s power and positive influence over them is emphasised in the preface here:

    Painters pick up on bows and knives hanging from belts, hunting dogs and horse. Though this may seem negative, it is simply treating barbarian customs lightly to demonstrate the sincerity of their reverence for Chinese culture.

    Xuanhe Catalogue of Painting, chapter 8

    Five: Dragons and fish

    The preface to this section states that it pairs the two creatures together because they were both mentioned in the classic Chinese texts The Book of Songs and The Book of Changes

    Dragons have long been a powerful myth and symbol in Chinese culture. They appear to be treated as both in the preface, too. It references them as being a metaphor for the ‘great man’ and as being a creature that some have witnessed.

    Fish were a popular subject for painters. The Catalogue points out that they are a “metaphor for worthy men who are difficult to call into service.” 

    It does this whilst referencing a famous line from the Daoist writings of Zhuangzi‘the fish forget one another in the lakes and rivers.’ This comes from a passage that in full reads:  

    鱼相造乎水,人相造乎道。[…] 相造乎水者,穿池而养给;相造乎道者,无事而生定。故曰:鱼相忘乎江湖,人相忘乎道术。
    Fish inhabit the water, and humans inhabit the Way […] Those inhabit the Way can calmly go about with no particular goal. So, it is said that the fish forget one another in the lakes and rivers, and humans forget one another in the Way.

    Xuanhe Catalogue of Painting, chapter 8

    In other words, the pure and unthinking way fish exist is something men of the Way (i.e., men who have mastered the right course in life) should aspire to.

    Liu Cai (Song dynasty)

    Detail from beginning of Fish Swimming amid Falling Flowers by Liu Cai
    Detail from middle of Fish Swimming amid Falling Flowers by Liu Cai
    Details from Fish Swimming amid Falling Flowers (ca. 1075) by Liu Cai, handscroll, ink and colour on silk. St Louis Art Museum. (Purchase: W. K. Bixby Oriental Art Fund). (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Liu Cai’s (? – c. after 1123) biography is one of many are many interesting and amusing ones in the Catalogue.

    It tells us that Liu was a dishevelled and aimless young man of the capital. He liked painting fish, poetry, drinking and socialising.

    Then, one day he was snowed in his house. Several days later, his friends went to check on him. They found that during his isolation, he had had a realisation on how dishevelled he was and what a wreck of a home he lived in. 

    Because of this, he said, he would submit a memorial to the emperor. His friends laughed, but Liu was successful with this, and as a result gained a position as an official. He was eventually given the prestigious title of Gentleman for Court Service. 

    One of the paintings the Catalogue lists is Fish Swimming amid Falling Flowers (1075).

    This is long painting depicting scores of fish that largely appear to be peacefully swimming around in a way that evokes Zhuangzi’s famous passage above. 

    On the furthest right-hand side, there are pink blossoms. These are a symbol that references the ‘Peach Blossom Spring’ – a famous fable by Tao Yuanming (365–427 AD)

    It involves some fisherman accidently sailing into an otherworldly land full of peach blossom trees and petals.  

    The people of this land are exiles from the Qin dynasty several centuries earlier. They are hospitable and live in peace. 

    Once the fishermen leave, a week later, they can never re-find the Peach Blossom Spring again, despite their best efforts.

    Five: Landscapes

    Landscapes have been a central theme of Chinese painting for centuries. During the Song dynasty (when the Catalogue was written) they really flourished.

    Today, the Song is remembered as a pinnacle of the artform.

    The preface to this section mentions the inner cultivation required of landscape painters:

    […] artists without ‘hills and valleys’ in their breasts won’t create forms that that demonstrate their understanding.

    Xuanhe Catalogue of Painting, chapter 10

    ‘Hills and valleys’ (一丘一壑[yīqiū-yīhè]) (sometimes translated as ‘hills and streams’) is a well-known phrase in classical Chinese that originally referred to a peaceful place to retire to. 

    Around the time the Catalogue was written, it came to be used in discussions on art to represent inner cultivation in artists.

    This is because, as the preface mentions, landscapes were not prized for their technical accuracy. They were more like (to use the Catalogue’s phrase) ‘spiritual expressions’.

    A few decades before the Catalogue was written, Su Shi’s good friend and fellow scholar-official Huang Tingjian (1045 – 1105 AD) wrote of Su’s paintings:


    In his breast, hills and valleys resided, 
    When he drew an old tree, it was twisted by wind and frost.

    – Huang Tingjian

    The Catalogue also comes back to the theme of professional painters and scholar painters first written about at length by Su’s and his circle: 

    From the Tang to present dynasty, famous landscape painters were not classed as painters, [because] they did not emerge from the ranks of the officials and scholars.

    Xuanhe Catalogue of Painting, chapter 10

    Li Cheng (Song dynasty)

    A Solitary Temple Amid Clearing Peaks by Li Cheng
    A Solitary Temple Amid Clearing Peaks (ca. 960) by Li Cheng, hanging scroll, ink on silk, 111.4 x 56 cm. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. (Purchase: Nelson trust). (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    The preface for the landscape section clearly identifies the most significant landscape painter: 

    …Up until this dynasty, Li Cheng is the most outstanding painter [of landscapes] […] he has been praised as “indigo dye that is brighter than its plant,” and the methods of other [landscape] painters have been swept away without a trace by him.

    Xuanhe Catalogue of Painting, chapter 10

    Li Cheng (李成 [Lǐ Chéng]) (919 – 967 AD) was from an aristocratic background. He was descended from the same family as the Tang dynasty’s ruling family

    His father and grandfather had been scholar-officials. The family had relocated to Shandong after the fall of the Tang dynasty (about a decade before Li’s birth).

    Since his lifetime, he has been considered perhaps the Chinese greatest landscape artist of all time. Some art fans even speculated on whether he had been an immortal…

    His style inspired generations of landscape painters, especially during the genre’s peak during the Northern Song period (when the catalogue was written).

    However, it is also thought to be the culmination of intense artistic evolution during the previous Five Dynasties period (907 – 979 AD) that Li lived most of his life through.

    Six: Domestic and wild animals

    The preface to this section quotes ancient texts to justify the importance of animals, in particular of horse and oxen. 

    It then goes on to mention several other types of animals, domestic and wild. Wild animals, it argues, can be portrayed ‘in barren or wintry wilds’ but,

    Dogs, sheep, and cats – the animals that live by the side of with man – are extremely difficult to [paint].

    Xuanhe Catalogue of Painting, chapter 10

    “Filthy” Zhao (Five Dynasties)

    The hometown and real name of “Filthy” Zhao (赵邈龊[Zhào Miǎochuò]) were not known (Zhao was his surname, but his first name ‘had been forgotten’). His nickname came from his appearance.

    He was good at painting tigers. The Catalogue tells us that the key to Zhao’s success was his ability to capture the ‘form-likeness’ of these animals. 

    ‘Form-likeness’ is an important concept in Chinese painting. It simply means the realistic depiction of something.

    However, going beyond this realistic depiction to capture the essence of something rather than its ‘mere’ physical appearance is important.

    The only one who was good at form likeness while skilful at personality and manner and able to similar and have a sense of life was Filthy [Zhao].

    Xuanhe Catalogue of Painting, chapter 10

    Qi Xu (Song dynasty)

    Pasturing Water Buffalo by qi xu
    Pasturing Water Buffalo (ca. 1000 AD) by Qi Xu, handscroll, ink and colour on silk, 47.3 x 115.6 cm. Palace Museum, Beijing. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Qi Xu (祁序 [Qí Xù]) was from the Jiangnan region of China (approximately the region south of the Yangtze River). He was good at painting cats and Oxen.

    Here, the Catalogue gives a revealing aside about the importance of painters observing nature. This point overlaps with the concept of going beyond ‘form-likeness’ raised above (in the “Filthy” Zhao section).

    A man once had a painting of fighting oxen. Everyone praised this painting. However, a farmer pointed out a flaw in it: “the fighting oxen I have seen all keep their tails tucked closely to their body, but here their tails are raised. This is wrong.”

    Xuanhe Catalogue of Painting, chapter 14

    The Venerable Master ‘What?’ (Five Dynasties)

    The biography of the Venerable Master ‘What?’ (何尊师 [Hé Zūn Shī]) is a good example of the eccentric parts of the biography.

    He lived during the late rule of the Emperor Mo of Liang (913 – 923 AD) (during the Five Dynasties era) in the area that today is Ningyan County in Hubei Province. 

    His real name and hometown are unknown, but he is said to be ‘over one hundred years of age’. 

    He is called the Venerable Master ‘What?’ because he would answer enquiries about his identity with the reply: “what what?” 

    Though he could paint flowers and rocks, the Catalogue tells us, his real skill was in painting cats. Unfortunately, he seems to have only been interested in ‘ink-play’, and never developed his skills further.

    What a pity Venerable Master “What?” could not go on to paint tigers, but remained skilled at only cats, for it seems not to be something an otherworldly person would study, but only something a person would lodge in his mind as a kind of amusement.

    Xuanhe Catalogue of Painting, chapter 14

    Seven: Flowers and birds

    The preface to this chapter opens in a way that would at once be familiar and unusual to many Western readers. It mentions integral flowers and trees are to heaven and earth. But, it adds:

    其自形自色,虽造物未尝庸心,而粉饰大化,文明天下,亦所以观众目、协和气焉。They create their own forms and colours, and even though Creation is indifferent to them, the beautify all that’s under heaven, and all [humans] that look on them feel harmonious and filled with life.

    Xuanhe Catalogue of Painting, chapter 14

    It then discusses birds, their variety (‘who knows how many kinds there are?’) and their importance as symbols of human affairs (rank, ceremony and inspiration). 

    Xue Ji (Tang dynasty)

    Xue Ji (薛稷 [Xuē Jì]) (649 – 713 AD) was a well-known Tang dynasty calligrapher, artist and poet

    He enjoyed a distinguished career – he reached many high-ranking positions, including of Minister of Ceremonies and Junior Guardian of the Heir Apparent, and was even made a Duke. 

    However, late in his life, he became embroiled in court controversies and was ordered to commit suicide by the emperor.

    The Catalogue does not mention these biographical details (which is quite natural). However, it does talk about Xue’s skill in painting cranes.

    Though he was good at all sorts of bird, flower and figural subjects, he was especially skilled at painting cranes. At the time, many people raised cranes. So, they knew their appearance whether they were flying, chirping, drinking, or pecking. However, very few painters had skill in depicting them […]

    Xuanhe Catalogue of Painting, chapter 14

    Eight: Bamboo

    Bamboo has long been significant in Chinese painting. Su Shi once wrote of one of Wen Tong’s (who features in this section of the catalogue) bamboo paintings that art lovers:

    will see in their imagination the character of my late friend, which in bending but not yielding was just this this.

    – Su Shi

    This image implicitly hints at the ideal of a Confucian official. And bamboo itself, the Catalogue claims, though seemingly a simply subject, is seen as something more suited to those with the Confucian background than painting professionals.

    It is often ‘poets and writers’, and not ‘staff painters’, who are best able to capture the essence of bamboo, it argues. 

    [poets and writers] inscribe in their hearts all of the eight- or nine-hundred li [500 metres/1,640 feet] of Yunmeng marshes’ bamboo.

    Xuanhe Catalogue of Painting, chapter 20

    Li Wei (Song dynasty)

    Li Wei (李玮 [Lǐ Wěi]) (active ca. 1050 – ca. 1090) was another of the emperor Huizong’s in-law uncles and art tutors. 

    The Catalogue tells of how as a young child he met the Empress Dowager and the Emperor Renzong (r. 1022 – 1063 AD) and impressed the later with how calm and composed he was.

    The emperor was so impressed that he arranged for Li Wei to marry a princess. 

    Li’s calligraphy and artistic skill is praised in his biography. We are told:

    […] 时时寓兴则写,兴辄弃去,不欲人闻知,以是传于世者绝少,士大夫亦不知玮之能也。
    […] when he felt inspiration, he painted, but afterwards, he threw the paintings away. This is why so few of his works are around and scholar-officials don’t know of his abilities.

    Xuanhe Catalogue of Painting, chapter 20

    Nine: Vegetables and fruit

    ‘Skill in painting vegetables and fruits from life,’ the preface of this section tells us, ‘is very difficult to achieve.’

    It also covers grass and insects. In other words, without saying it directly, this section is concerned with the most everyday minute of life.

    The link between the poetry and painting of these subjects is emphasised directly:

    Poets know the nature of grass, trees, insects and fish. So, when painters use their imaginations to seize creation, and penetrate its mysteries, they are also doing poetic work.

    Xuanhe Catalogue of Painting, chapter 20

    Afterlife of the catalogue

    The Catalogue was completed in 1120. Five years later, the Northern Song fell when the Jurchen-led Jin dynasty (1115 – 1234 AD) took over the northern part of China. 

    The emperor Huizong abdicated in 1125 and was taken prisoner by the Jurchen’s soon after.

    For centuries, his reputation has been of an emperor more concerned with the arts than governing.  

    The remaining Song dynasty rulers and elite then moved south to Hangzhou, where it survived until the Mongols took over all of China.

    The Catalogue influenced generations of art history and theory.

    Although it was written at a time when Chinese civilisation was under great threat, it is still positively associated with the artistic heights of the Northen Song dynasty.