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Emperor Huizong - Purist Artist in China
 

Emperor Huizong – Purest Artist in China

By Dongfang Yu

 

The Emperor Huizong, Zhao Ji, was the second-to-last king of Northern Song dynasty of China. Zhao Ji was also one of the greatest calligraphists and painters in the country.

 

Perhaps it was a trick played by Heaven on him – Zhao Ji, a talented artist without political and military capability, was made the emperor of Song dynasty. This emperor was fond of calligraphy and painting as well as cute animals and beauty. As a ruler, Zhao Ji was so fatuous and self-indulgent; he doted on crafty courtiers who all betrayed him and his absurdity directly led to the ruin of Song dynasty and his miserable end of capture by Jurchen warriors.

 

As an artist, however, the Emperor Huizong was very diligent. He did not abandon himself to the pleasure in beauty and luxurious life. Taking the calligraphy and painting arts as a lifelong pursuit, this emperor kept himself practising the handwriting unremittingly. The previous history textbooks I read always concentrated too much on his fatuity, incapability and extravagance – but I think, the calligraphy art needs strenuous imitation and long-term practise, which necessitates strong will-power and perseverance – how could a mere fop have such a quality? 

 

The Emperor Huizong made glorious achievements in arts. As the greatest painter, he set up a national painting institute and served as tutor there, which was a very rare case in the history. Some of his flower-and-bird painting works are collected by the government as national treasure. The emperor ranked among the then top five calligraphists; he developed a unique style – Slender-and-Tense-Stroke Scipt called SouJinTi in Chinese, which exerted far-reaching influence on later generations of calligraphers. The 1000-character Essay in Cursive Script, written by this Emperor, is a classic model for imitation and study. 

 

Comparing his art achievements and his enthusiasm for the art, I am more interested in the latter, namely, his devotion to the pursuit of art. As we know, from the very genesis of Chinese calligraphy, there were innumerable literati and scholars who hold this art in great esteem and practised it as a basic skill, perhaps for fame, positions, fortune or for their interest. At least, we can not exclude the utilitarian elements from their motives for practise of handwriting. Of course, their motives were something completely reasonable for them. Even some emperors of dynasties were skilled in handwriting, but they maybe practised it only for daily use and none of them made remarkable achievements in this field with the exception of Li Shimin.

 

Li Shimin, also known as Emperor Taizong of Tang dynasty, was a great statesman and military strategist who helped his father found the Tang dynasty. Li Shimin liked calligraphy very much and he often practised handwriting. What’s more, during his reign, Li Shimin took many measures to promote the calligraphy art. He opened a calligraphy institute and issued an edict, which ordered that his courtiers should learn handwriting there and those candidates who were not qualified in calligraphy examination should not be promoted to official positions. This emperor admired Wang Xizhi (a calligraphist of Jin dynasty) very much and almost extolled Wang to the skies. There is no denying the fact that, to some extent, it was for his interest that Li Shimin attached so much importance to the calligraphy art. As a strategist, however, the emperor’s motives for such measures were complicated. It is held that he made great efforts to promote and popularize Wang Xizhi calligraphy in an attempt to build up a cultural banner among his courtiers and the literati and ultimately in his country. This emperor believed that the works of Wang Xizhi were extremely perfect; in his opinion, the works written by Wang Xizhi constituted an emblem of perfection. As a founder of a dynasty, the Emperor Taizong needed a spirit for pursuit of perfection in reigning over his burgeoning country. Although his motives for the promotion of Wang Xizhi and the calligraphy art were so complicated and elusive, it can be concluded that such measures were taken by him as the implementation of his political doctrine in the cultural fields.

 

Obviously, we can completely rule out the possibility that the Emperor Huizong practised calligraphy and painting in pursuit of any fortune, fame or position. Nor did he do so for any political purpose just as Li Shimin. The Emperor Huizong was not a competent ruler, and he was a mere artist. Throughout his reign, Song dynasty was confronted with a great menace from its northern neighbour – Jin Kingdom (Jurchen), which would invade Song kingdom any time. Facing such a strong and aggressive invader, the Emperor Huizong still practised his calligraphy calmly as if there was nothing but the art in his life. Even on the eve of the ruin of Northern Song dynasty by the Jurchen (1127 A.D.), this artist emperor, held his brush in serenity and wrote the 1,000-character Essay in Cursive Script, leaving us one more monumental masterpiece.

 

Sometimes, I think, what could other emperors leave us on earth?