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Literary Gathering (Wenyuan tu)

Period: Five Dynasties (907–960) 

Medium: ink and colors on silk 

Format: handscroll 

Artist(s):  (attributed to) Zhou Wenju (ca. 907–975) 

Dimensions: height: 37.4 cm, length: 58.5 cm 

This painting, known as Literary Gathering (Wenyuan tu), was never signed or otherwise marked by the original artist. To the left of the painting, an inscription in slender-gold style (shoujin ti) calligraphy by Song dynasty (960–1279) Emperor Huizong (r. 1100–1125)—who signed the work with his cipher “First Under Heaven” (Tianxia yiren)—attributes the painting to Han Huang (723–787) of the Tang dynasty (618–906). However, according to Chinese painting specialists, the work lacks salient Tang features and rather exemplifies the style of the Five Dynasties (907-960), especially in the rough contours of the drapery that are noticeably similar to the “tremulous-brush outlining” (zhanbi miao) of Zhou Wenju (ca. 907–975). Additionally, the elaborate headwraps (futou) with distinct flaps and an upthrust top were not an innovated fashion until the Five Dynasties period.

The Metropolitan Museum in New York has a painting named Scholars of the Liuli Hall (Liuli tang renwu tu, lit. “Figures at the Hall of Lustrous Stone”), attributed to Zhou Wenju, the second half of which is the same as Literary Gathering. Therefore, the painter of this featured work is definitely Zhou Wenju. The existence of the two paintings raises questions such as “Which of the two is original?” and “Could both be copies?” Research has shown that the painting in New York was accomplished by a lesser artistic proficiency as the expressiveness of the figures is somewhat deficient and the contours of the drapery are gentle. Furthermore, the inscription allegedly by Emperor Huizong that reads “Zhou Wenju, Figures at the Hall of Lustrous Stone, divine work of utmost excellence” and the accompanying impression of the “Seal for Documents of the Palace Storehouses” (Neifu tushu zhi yin) are both forgeries, so the work has been determined to be a reproduction from sometime since the Song dynasty.

However, Literary Gathering has figures with vivid expressions in a scene accomplished with robust brushwork. Moreover, the bottom right corner includes a seal with the inscription “Seal for Imperial Books in the Academy of Scholarly Worthies” (Jixian yuan yushu yin), which proves the work can be no later than the Five Dynasties period and allows for the high probability that the work is in fact an original by Zhou Wenju. With only the first part missing—as seen in the New York version—perhaps Zhou Wenju made a copy at a later time, and the possibility of an accomplished contemporary copyist should not be dismissed. Therefore, Literary Gathering may be considered an original of the Five Dynasties period with little doubt.

The painting commemorates a famous gathering hosted by the poet Wang Changling (698–757) during his official posting at Jiangning (present day Nanjing, Jiangsu Province) in the reign of Emperor Xuanzong (r. 713–756) of the Tang dynasty. The event was held at the Hall of Lustrous Stone (Liuli tang) of the county office. Those gathered may have included Cen Shen (or Cen Can, 715–770) and his brother and Liu Shenxu (act. 733). The painting shows four scholars reflecting on poetry around a pine tree. One leans against stratified rockery as he searches for inspiration in his poetic composition. Another, deep in thought, rests upon the pine tree. Two others are seated as they deliberate upon how to best polish their poems. Each figure has unique, vivid expressions. The missing first half, which can be seen in Scholars of the Liuli Hall in New York, shows four figures seated in discussion, including a monk, and servant boys. The complete scroll with the two scenes allows the viewer to appreciate the opulence of the feast.

The painting techniques of this work and those of Scholars of the Liuli Hall and another work by Zhou Wenju called Qi Match by Layered Screens (Chongping huiqi tu, extant Song-dynasty handscroll copy) have similar styles and the overall appearance of Zhou’s work but show variance in artistic proficiency. The tremulous contours of Literary Gathering are delicate and flowing with a robust energy and weightiness. The composition combines the tree and rockery with detail in a richness of layers and sense of verticality while incorporating unique expressions on each vividly portrayed figure. As an original of the Five Dynasties period, the work reflects the advancement of the art at the time.

The painting is listed in the first compilation of Precious Collection of the Stone Moat (Shiqu baoji: chubian) of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), Mysterious Views (Xuanlan bian) by Zhan Jingfeng (1532–1602) of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), and Collection of Discerning Views of the Xuanhe Reign (Xuanhe ruilan ji) by the Emperor Huizong of the Northern Song (960–1127). During the Southern Tang dynasty (937–975), the work may have been listed in The Palace Collection (Gezhong ji) by Li Yu (937–978), the last ruler of that dynasty.


Chinese entry by Shan Guoqiang

Translated and edited by Adam J. Ensign, Zhuang Ying, et al.