The Night Banquet

De-nin Lee

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  • Published: 2010
  • Subject Listing: Asian Studies / China; Art History / Asian Art
  • Bibliographic information: 172 pp., 31 illus., 16 in color, 10 x 7 in.
  • Contents

The tenth-century Chinese handscroll The Night Banquet of Han Xizai (attributed to tenth-century artist Gu Hongzheng), long famous for its depiction of a decadent party hosted by a government official, is used by De-nin Lee to explore how art objects are created and the many sociopolitical eras and individual hands through which they pass. By the tenth or eleventh century, and in earnest by the thirteenth, viewers of Chinese paintings lodged their responses to a work of art directly on the object itself, in the form of seals, inscriptions, and colophons. The scrawls and markings may amount to distractions for the seasoned admirer of European easel painting, but Lee explains that a handscroll painting without its complement of textual accretions loses its very history.

Through her deft detective work, we watch the Night Banquet handscroll-much like the enigmatic seventeenth-century Cremonese instrument in Francois Girard's film The Red Violin-travel through the centuries from owner to owner and viewer to viewer, influencing and being influenced by the people who contemplate it and add their thoughts, signatures, and seals to its borders. Treating the scroll as a co-creation of painter and viewers, Lee tells a fascinating story of cultural practices surrounding Chinese paintings. In effect, her book addresses a question central to art history: What is the role of art in a society?
De-nin Lee is assistant professor of art and Asian studies at Bowdoin College in Maine.

"A tour-de-force of historical scholarship, The Night Banquet is an engaging narrative that at times reads like a detective novel. Lee investigates every individual who saw, wrote on, or commented about the scroll, and she leads the reader on an enticing journey of discovery that provides both an overview of Chinese history and an in-depth reading of this extraordinary work of art."
-Ankeney Weitz, Colby College

"Lee has been immensely successful in her quest to uncover the history and changing significance of the Han Xizai scroll, detailing what a spectrum of career officials, connoisseurs, collectors, and emperors had to say about it-sometimes disapproving of the subject matter as licentious and immoral, sometimes considering it a vehicle for comment on current political situations. A masterful study, rooted in extensive original research, rich in detail and interpretation, The Night Banquet is a major contribution to the study of Chinese painting and to Chinese culture in general."
-Ellen Johnston Laing, University of Michigan

Note to Readers

Introduction: A Cultural Biography of The Night Banquet of Han Xizai

1. Structure, Imagery, Authenticity
2. The Confucian Gaze and the Voyeuristic Gaze
3. The Confucian Gaze "A drunken man cursing in public"
4. The Connoisseurial Gaze "Like ancient jades . . . worth treasuring"
5. Looking through Modern Eyes "Fortune fit for a nation"

Epilogue Epitaph and Afterlife
Chinese Texts
Glossary of Chinese Characters

"Lee's new, path-breaking, 'cultural biography' invites scholars to reconsider this celebrated work in a new light: as a co-creation of the artist and later collectors whose textual additions record shifting interpretations of the purpose and the meaning of the painting over time."
-Ingrid Larsen, Journal of Asian Studies, August 2012

"The reader is led on a journey viewing the way the painting survived, was enjoyed, and analyzed over the centuries. These historical and literary arguments are compelling. . . . detailed and insightful . . ."
-Patricia Eichenbaum Karetzky, China Review International, Vol. 18:1, 2011

"The following chapters almost read like a 'detective' story. The book is a real page turner, as it gives the reader a broad impression of how the painting has been appreciated by different viewers and owners over a long stretch of time."
-Lucien van Valen, IIAS Newsletter, Spring 2012

"Lee's commentary brings both the banquet itself back to life and all those who have taken a peek at the proceedings since that long-ago dynasty."
-Bob Duggan, The BigThink, June 2011

"[This book] is the first book-length study in English devoted to this painting in its entirety, from the frontispiece to all of the colophons and seals. . . . The Night Banquet is a well-researched and sensibly structured work. Lee successfully merges several subfields of Chinese art history-visual analysis, colleting history, and connoisseurship-under the rubric of "cultural life.""
-An-Yi Pan, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 95, No. 1