- Accumulating Culture: The Collections of Emperor Huizong
In Accumulating Culture, Patricia Ebrey, challenges traditional historiography on Emperor Huizong (r. 1101–1125) of the Northern Song. She reassesses existing evaluations of the aesthete-emperor’s cultural ambitions that either romanticize his talent, or find in it reasons for the loss of Northern China to the Jurchens; and does so by interpreting Huizong’s art collections not as evidence of frivolity, but as expressions of his efforts to “strengthen the ancient roots of the monarchy and make his court the cultural center of the realm” (p. 11). Ebrey proposes [End Page 409] that in Huizong’s personal taste and support for institutional aspects of collecting, his honoring of “scholars’ culture” (wen) is manifest.
Not uncommonly, imperial collecting is interpreted in modern scholarship as a dimension of statecraft, but Ebrey specifically examines it as a medium whereby emperors patronized the educated class and its values. Emperors had at their disposal a repertoire of cultural means to build the relationships necessary for a civil rather than a military power base. Several Song-dynasty rulers practiced calligraphy, wrote poetry, and personally participated in literati social behavior—by organizing gatherings for viewing books and art, for example. In institutional terms they patronized education by supporting Confucian learning and schools and implementing projects to collate and print books. By transforming the civil-service examinations into the primary avenue for attaining positions in government, they established a means for recognizing the accomplishments of scholars; they also enhanced the power of the remonstrative offices, which were populated by members of this scholar-official class. Ebrey defines imperial ownership of ritual and art objects as another expression of this kind of patronage, and demonstrates the ways in which collecting initiatives became part of what I will call an “economy” of wen during Huizong’s reign.
The premise of “honoring Confucian principles” (chong ru) is the subject of Chapter 1, about imperial motivations for participating in literary activities earlier in the Song. It also emerges as the key used by this book for interpreting evidence on the influence of scholars on aristocratic collecting practices: the principles for acquisitions and research advanced by the prominent eleventh-century literati discussed in Chapter 3 provide the background for how they shaped Huizong’s personal interests, the subject of Chapter 4. Chapter 5 considers the central role of literati scholarship in the management of imperial collections, with a focus on the Palace Library and its scholar-curators, such as Dong You and Huang Bosi. Three subsequent chapters evaluate surviving catalogs of the imperial collection; by considering how their content and form promoted the collecting ideals and cataloguing methods of scholars in different fields, Ebrey shows that these records were a means by which the court patronized literati.
Chapters 6 is about the field of antiquities, mainly the ancient bronze ritual implements like vessels and bells that are recorded in [End Page 410] the catalog Chongxiu Xuanhe bogutu (The revised Xuanhe antiquities illustrated). Chapters 7 and 8 analyze the Xuanhe shupu (Xuanhe calligraphy catalog) and Xuanhe huapu (Xuanhe painting catalog) respectively. Huizong’s collections were not only unprecedented in scale; they also received these forms of formal documentation. Although the publications may reflect Huizong’s personal tastes and inclinations, they were not just inventories of his personal possessions. Ebrey argues that in purpose and form they are reminiscent of the catalogs of things that were the province of scholars: books, whose accrual was imperative for establishing a new dynasty and formed the first imperial collection needing documentation upon the founding of the Song, were a medium that depended on scholars’ expertise to collect; and ink rubbings of inscriptions and line drawings of antiquities, which scholars in the eleventh century started to use as evidence for the study of history. Furthermore, by considering catalogs of objects as coextensive with those of books, Ebrey connects Huizong’s collection building and record-making initiatives to the private practices of scholars.
Whether private or institutional, collecting was inherently complicated by the power relations between...