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  • The Night Banquet: A Chinese Scroll through Time
  • Patricia Eichenbaum Karetzky (bio)
De-nin D. Lee. The Night Banquet: A Chinese Scroll through Time Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010. 172 pp. Hardcover $40.00, ISBN 978-0-295-99072-9.

In The Night Banquet, a Chinese Scroll through Time, De-nin D. Lee explores the famous and enigmatic tenth-century Chinese hand scroll The Night Banquet of Han Xizai, attributed to the artist Gu Hongzheng. So many mysteries surround the work, including the date of its execution and its true authorship, that for centuries scholars have questioned the attribution to this painter as well as the role of this frankly erotic work of art in a Confucian society that eschews such lascivious distractions. Indeed, the ancient Chinese practice of copying works of art to acquire skill in painting often results in uncertainty of attribution, leaving scholars and connoisseurs to query the real date of a work or the true identity of the painter so they look for information in the seals of ownership and inscriptions or colophons that were physically added onto the scroll. Employing this literary evidence, which is sometimes of great antiquity, they try to determine the vitals and to better understand and to enjoy the work. Often written in beautiful calligraphy, these inscriptions also amplify their visual pleasure in viewing the work. More than that, [End Page 97] the content of the colophons, preserving the opinions of those who have viewed the work over many centuries, adds layers of meaning. The author takes this approach to Night Revels, presenting the painting in a number of contexts by examining all of the physical evidence and the extant historical records relevant to the painting. Though such an approach is a traditional one by Chinese standards, few people nowadays have the expertise to analyze so minutely all of the evidence and to frame the questions raised by each additional colophon. Thus, each of the five chapters is dedicated to some aspect of the work.

The first chapter presents a detailed visual analysis of the painting, a review of all historical references to its putative artist, a recounting of the narrative portrayed, and an overview of the colophons. In an effort to determine the stylistic date of the painting, there are visual comparisons with various similar works. Then chapter 2 considers the two prevalent ways of viewing the work — as a lascivious pleasure or as a moral lesson. The one is rooted in the Confucian opprobrium for sensual pursuits, and the other is an indirect form of personal protest. The third chapter concerns the earliest identifiable colophon written in the Yuan dynasty and exigent circumstances under which it was composed and by whom. As is demonstrated, a knowledgeable historian such as Lee can read each colophon as a testimonial and research information about its author, his status and role in society, and the sociopolitical climate in which he lived. As an evolving document, each colophon reveals how the work was viewed in the past, and each author reads the previous colophons before adding his own entry, which may be at the behest of the present owner of the scroll. Viewing these colophons and the seals of ownership imprinted on the work can also aid in recreating the provenance of the work — who may have owned it and where and when he lived. Chapter 4 examines the Ming and Qing dynasty seals and colophons, and there is a lengthy and fascinating discussion of the Qing emperor Qianlong, who impressed several seals, wrote a colophon, and had an imperial record made of the works in his collection, which includes a lengthy passage on this particular painting. Chapter 5 traces the ownership of the scroll up to the twentieth-century artist Zhang Daqian, who eventually sold it back to the Palace Museum, where it now resides. Analysis of the modern colophons is no less fascinating than the discussions of the earlier ones. In the epilogue, the story of the scroll ends, but the impact on the work of art on contemporary artists is considered. Their work is also seen within the kind of political context that was first used to understand...