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  • Emperor Huizong and Late Northern Song China: The Politics of Culture and the Culture of Politics
  • Christian de Pee (bio)
Patricia Buckley Ebrey and Maggie Bickford, editors. Emperor Huizong and Late Northern Song China: The Politics of Culture and the Culture of Politics. Harvard East Asian Monographs 266. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2006. xxii, 625 pp. Hardcover $59.95, Isbn 0-674-02127-4.

"The problem with the 'Problem of Huizong' as a construction typical of art-historical inquiry is treating Huizong 徽宗 (r. 1100–1125) as if he were a person—a private person—instead of Emperor of China," writes Maggie Bickford in her contribution to the conference volume Emperor Huizong and Late Northern Song China (p. 453). This "problem of Huizong" affects not only historians of art, but historians of any aspect of Chinese imperial rule. Although one may discern distinctive traits in the reign of this or that emperor, the emperor is not knowable as a "private person." The emperor existed as a surface of inscription, as a convergence of a multiplicity of signs—written, painted, embroidered, sculpted, built in wood or stone—that were produced by the anonymous brushes and invisible hands of a collective of imperial kinsmen, officials, eunuchs, priests, and craftsmen. Constituted by this proliferation of signs, the emperor ruled by encompassing and mediating the multiplicity of discursive force fields and thereby bringing order and meaning to the world.1 This collective, signifying emperorship raises historiographical problems, for to refuse its convergent discursive fields is to disperse what holds imperial power together, yet to engage them requires that the historian leave her trusted discursive territory and, indeed, compromise conventional claims to historical authority. In Emperor Huizong and Late Northern Song China, the essays that acknowledge the opacity of collective surfaces of imperial representation and that engage the divergent, convergent discourses centered on Emperor Huizong attain important insights into the historical conditions of Huizong's rule, including insights into the nature of authorship, authority, power, and historical truth. The essays that insist on the private personhood of Huizong and that seek to explain the events of his reign by reference to the conjectured dispositions of his personal psychology instead perpetuate the ahistorical tautologies of objectivist common sense.

By refusing conventional modern notions of authorship and by recognizing the paintings traditionally attributed to Huizong as collaborative "works of state," Maggie Bickford is able not only to offer new, convincing formal analyses of these well-known works, but to place them in the coherent institutional context of a more general rule of culture. She argues that Huizong's paintings are not generic bird-and-flower paintings, but that they are examples of "imperial auspicious-omen painting" (p. 476). This new classification explains the "impressively [End Page 417] impersonal, expressively opaque" (p. 457) aesthetic of both the paintings and their inscriptions (in the famous Slender Gold calligraphy), as it asserted an "impersonal visual authority" of fictive objectivity (p. 474) wherever the paintings were kept or displayed: at court, in imperial storehouses of omens, in the microcosms of imperial libraries, or at literary gatherings. The paintings possessed the authority of the imperial presence, independent of any actual trace of the imperial body. The recognition of this "effective authenticity" of Huizong's paintings (as opposed to "connoisseurial authenticity," p. 504) in turn allows Bickford to discover, in a few oblique phrases in the written sources, a workshop of unusually gifted, anonymous painters whose exertions substituted for the imperial hand.

The essays by Ronald Egan and Joseph S. C. Lam, similarly, contribute to a sharper understanding of Huizong's rule by recovering and engaging Song imperial notions of authorship, authenticity, and power. Egan recognizes in the 296 untitled "palace poems" (gongci 宮詞) attributed to Emperor Huizong "a timeless and impersonal quality" that makes them "especially separable from the life and identity of the person who wrote them" (p. 381). He concludes, similar to Bickford, that "[w]hile Huizong may not have composed any of the poems, it still makes sense to speak of the corpus as being his," due to the unmistakable imprint of Huizong's court (p. 382). Rather than authentic traces of Huizong's personal brush, the...