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                  Patriotism hidden in Li Tang’s paintings

                  Author  :  TANG XIAOLIANG     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2020-05-13

                  A detail from “Gathering Vetch” by the Song artist Li Tang Photo: FILE

                  Born in Heyang Sancheng (present-day Mengjin, Henan Province), Li Tang (1066–1150) was a major Chinese painter who lived during both the Northern Song (960–1127) and the Southern Song (1127–1279) dynasties. Before the fall of the Northern Song, Li served under Emperor Huizong in the Painting Academy at the court in Bianjing (now Kaifeng, Henan Province). In 1127, the capital city fell into the hands of the Jurchen-led state of Jin, during which time the ruling Emperor Qinzong and his family all fell captive in an event known as the Jingkang Incident (the Northern Song came to its end the next year). Following Prince Zhao Gou, Emperor Qinzong’s brother, the remnants of the Song court retreated south of the Yangtze River and reestablished the dynasty in the south, hence its designation as the Southern Song, and Lin’an (now Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province) became the new capital city. Li also followed the court to Lin’an. After the Southern Song court rebuilt the Painting Academy, Li, then in his 70s, was recommended to the academy. 

                  Li was a great landscape artist. He reformed the landscape style of the northern school represented by Jing Hao and Fan Kuan, using firm brushwork to depict precipitous mountains. Late in life, Li further simplified the earlier style to achieve a more immediate, striking effect and perfected the brushstroke texture known as the fupicun (“axe-cut stroke,” known for the similarity of the brushstrokes to those left on wood by an axe) into the da fupicun (“broader axe-cut stroke”), which gives a tactile sense to painted rocks through angular lines expressed in abrupt, staccato brushstrokes. Li was among the most influential of the Southern Song landscape artists and had many followers, including Liu Songnian, Ma Yuan and Xia Gui. He established a style that pioneered landscape painting in the Southern Song.

                  As the head of the Four Great Masters of Southern Song, together with Liu Songnian, Ma Yuan and Xia Gui, Li was not only known for his landscape painting, but also for his outstanding achievement in figure painting. Most of the figures in his paintings were historical heroes honored for their patriotism and integrity, such as “Duke Wen of Jin Recovering His State” and “Gathering Vetch.” 

                  “Duke Wen of Jin Recovering His State” is in the present collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Finished in the late Northern Song era, this painting illustrates episodes from the life of Chong’er (c. 697–628 BCE), later known as Duke Wen of Jin, a scion of the royal family of the state of Jin during the Spring and Autumn Period. Chong’er endured 19 years of exile from his realm before finally being restored to power and rapidly leading Jin to hegemony over the other states of his time. This narrative painting consists of six sections, each of which is decorated with plants, rocks, horses, carriages and buildings. The image of Duke Wen appears in several sections. All the figures are vividly depicted with different manners, such as Duke Wen with regal dignity, chamberlains with reverent looks, solemn guards, elegant palace maids and timid servants. The skillful compositions and the variations on strokes give the painting a precise and comprehensive reality. Li also designed the figures’ clothes according to the fashion of the Spring and Autumn Period. In the last years of the Northern Song Dynasty, what Prince Zhao Gou (later Emperor Gaozong, the first emperor of the Southern Song) had experienced was similar to Duke Wen’s suffering. Therefore, this painting aims at encouraging the Southern Song rulers to overcome great difficulties, push north to recover their lost territory and avenge themselves on the Jurchens. However, Emperor Gaozong was not Chong’er. He never seriously tried to recover the north, but rather enjoyed the beauty and prosperity of his new homeland (historians believe that Gaozong refrained from asking for the release of former Emperor Qinzong, as such a move would have called into question the legitimacy of his succession). In order to maintain his rule and a pleasure seeking lifestyle, Emperor Gaozong even sentenced his court members, on whom he would have to rely in case the war went on, with false charges, while favoring the officials who were generally regarded as traitors by later generations because they proposed compromise with the Jurchen invaders and framed loyal officials.

                  “Gathering Vetch” is now in the collection of the Palace Museum in Beijing. It illustrates the story of Bo Yi and Shu Qi, two famous recluses of the early Western Zhou Dynasty (1046–771 BCE). Bo Yi and Shu Qi were sons of the ruler of Guzhu, one of the states under the rule of the Shang Dynasty. They left their homeland and followed Ji Chang, who was known as the Count of Zhou (one of the semi barbaric states located on the western frontier), and later known as King Wen of Zhou. Upon his death, his son and successor, Ji Fa (later known as King Wu of Zhou), began to plot against the Shang. During the attack on the Shang, the two brothers, as former subjects of the Shang, admonished King Wu not to rebel against the Shang ruler, yet their pleas didn’t yield success. King Wu finally overthrew the Shang and established the Zhou Dynasty. Bo Yi and Shu Qi refused to identify with the Zhou citizens. They left and withdrew to the Shouyang Mountain (in present-day Shanxi Province), where they finally died of hunger because they refused to consume any crops produced under the rule of the Zhou. In their dying days, they composed a poem named “Cai Wei Ge” (“Melody of Gathering Vetch”) to express their allegiance to the Shang and strong opposition against the rule of Zhou. 

                  In the painting “Gathering Vetch,” the brothers are sitting on a slope among precipitous cliffs. Bo Yi hugs one knee and looks at his younger brother with piercing eyes, revealing a manner of firmness and calmness. Shu Qi leans forward with a sincere and modest look, suggesting he is willing to follow his brother. Both of them are thin and weak, indicating that they have suffered a lot in the wild, eating wild plants for survival. However, their strong minds help them overcome physical suffering.

                  It is easy to notice the connection between the experiences of the two brothers and what Li Tang endured when he followed the Song court to the south. After the Jingkang Incident, Li was captured by the Jurchens. However, he managed to escape as they transported him to the Jin. On his way south, Li endured many hardships, wandering from place to place. Li finally arrived at Lin’an in 1132, but his difficulties were not over. Without relatives to whom he could return, Li struggled to survive, selling his paintings to earn a living. The turning point of his life came when a court official found him and reported to Emperor Gaozong. Knowing that Li was a great artist, Emperor Gaozong summoned him to the Painting Academy. As an artist with a formidable reputation, Li was highly regarded in the academy. 

                  At that time, the Southern Song rulers had chosen to make peace with the Jurchans and indulged themselves in pleasure seeking. Painting “Gathering Vetch” as satire was a courageous move in that time and situation. These paintings represents Li’s love for his homeland and his discontent at the Southern Song’s compromise and betrayal.


                  The article was edited and translated from Guangming Daily. Tang Xiaoliang is a member of the board of directors of the Chinese Painters and Calligraphers Association.


                  (Edited and translated by REN GUANHONG)

                  Editor: Yu Hui

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