- Accumulating Culture: The Collections of Emperor Huizong
Zhang Yanyuan (ninth century), one of the earliest historians of Chinese art, opened his magnus opus Lidai ming huaji. (Celebrated painters of all the dynasties) with the pronouncement that, "As for painting, it perfects the civilizing teachings (of the Sages) and helps (to maintain) social relationships ."1 In Accumulating Culture, Patricia Buckley Ebrey shows that Emperor Huizong (r. 1100-1125) of the Northern Song (960-1126) dynasty, not only accepted such a claim, he went to astonishing lengths to recruit all cultural objects—books, bronzes, calligraphy, and antiquities, along with painting—in his enormous imperial collections to demonstrate the complete perfection of his reign. Ebrey argues that Huizong amassed his enormous collection of objects as a means to forge social relationships and to announce his cultural authority and political leadership.
The maintenance of social relationships seems like an unlikely catalyst for the large-scale collecting in which Huizong engaged, yet in the Northern Song, relationships between an emperor and his officials attained an unprecedented level of contention. During the reigns of Emperor Huizong's predecessors, the Northern Song dynasty had inducted into the bureaucracy, in significant numbers, a new type of official, the scholar-official. This bureaucrat obtained his prestigious position by demonstrating a mastery of the Chinese classics in the institutionalized civil service examination system. This new member of the bureaucracy often came into conflict with the established career official. The latter, like the Chinese emperor himself, had inherited his elevated rank through aristocratic lineage and [End Page 98] was generally seen as part of the imperium. The new scholar-official, while pledging loyalty to the emperor, also challenged him, and in so doing sought to reform government for the betterment of state and society. Often relations between emperors and scholar-officials were antagonistic, yet some emperors, such as Wang Anshi (1021-1086), courted reform-minded scholar-officials, vigorously endorsing their policies in efforts to advance both society and imperial authority.
Ebrey has situated Emperor Huizong and his mega-collecting activities within this historical environment. Accumulating Culture demonstrates how Huizong used his collections to negotiate complex relationships with traditional aristocratic members at court while accommodating new constructions of culture. Contemporary scholarship argues that as the scholar-officials gained political power, they articulated their identity, not through wholesale replication of court culture, but through alternative artistic practices that were often defined against imperial production and were a means to challenge it. The artistic practices the scholar-official generated are now referred to in common academic parlance as "literati culture."
While many traditional and modern historians of Chinese art have focused on the production of literati art, Ebrey's groundbreaking book seeks to redress this imbalance and considers Emperor Huizong's contribution to visual culture of the Northern Song dynasty and beyond. This is a magisterial undertaking. Ultimately Ebrey challenges long-cherished views about literati art, suggesting that it was not as outside as twentieth-century scholarship has argued. For Ebrey, Emperor Huizong was not merely a collector—he was the definition of culture, a political agent who, in addition to consuming art objects, also actively commissioned catalogues of his collections. These catalogues were not a mere inventory of positive data listing his possessions, but served to bring together traditional scholars, scholar-officials, and the emperor to discuss culture and inscribe it for perpetuity. Ebrey shows how in his partnership with the officials Huizong was making shrewd political calculations in his patronage of the arts. For example, members of opposing factions were brought together at cultural social events in the palace library, at private parties in his rarefied chambers, and at royal banquets, designed to replicate Zhou dynasty ceremonial dinners in his grand clarity edifice in order to view and discuss Huizong's collection. Ebrey views these activities as less overtly political than debating policies. While Ebrey recognizes that at times relations were strained between Huizong and the scholar-officials, she argues that his catalogues and the...