Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 17, 2024
Amy McNair The Painting Master’s Shame: Liang Shicheng and the Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2023. 268 pp.; 9 color ills. $49.95 (9780674293748)

In her book The Painting Master’s Shame: Liang Shicheng and the Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings, Amy McNair demonstrates the breathtaking rise of eunuch officials under Emperor Huizong’s reign (r. 1100–26), and their involvement in art production and management. She argues that the renowned Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings (1120), referred to as the Catalogue was not authored or directed by Emperor Huizong but by his powerful eunuch Liang Shicheng (ca. 1063–1126). An important inventory for third- through twelfth-century paintings held in the palace storehouses, the Catalogue classifies 6,396 paintings into ten subject categories, adding explanatory prefaces and 231 artists’ biographies, thus turning a roster into an art-historical canon. But as McNair perceives, the most vexed issue is that the Catalogue writers remain anonymous. Investigating the Catalogue’s controversial authorship constitutes the heart of McNair’s argument. Refuting previous scholarship, which attributes the Catalogue to either Emperor Huizong or his outer-court officials—Grand Councilor, Cai Jing (1047–1126), Cai Bian (1058–1117), Cai Tao (d. 1147), and Mi Fu (1051–1107)—McNair reattributes its authorship and directorship to Shicheng, a junior guardian with a rank 1b position (26).

McNair marshals a range of evidence, from biographical entries to its aesthetic orientation, to make this argument. She observes that most of the biographical entries in the Catalogue were paraphrased from earlier texts. Only sixteen entries on the Song royal family members and fourteen on the eunuch officials, more specifically eunuch-painters, were newly created by the authors. The entries on the painters elevate eunuchs’ social status to that of literati artists, and the in-depth knowledge of inner-court activities makes them possible authors of the Catalogue (71). By examining these fourteen profiles, McNair establishes that three biographies—Tong Guan’s (1054–1126), Liu Yuan’s (ca. 1093–1112), and Shicheng’s adopted brother Liang Shimin’s (early 1100s)—mimic the entry for the esteemed scholar-official Li Gonglin (ca. 1041–1106). Shicheng served as Huizong’s connoisseur and a director of the Calligrapher Service of the Hanlin Academy at the court (194). Given his privileges in supervising scribes and access to palace storehouses, McNair concludes that Shicheng authored the Catalogue along with his adopted brother, his adopted son Liang Kui, and the Calligrapher Service functionaries. The implied readers were living eunuch officials, rather than Huizong or academy artists (40–41).

McNair further argues that the Catalogue does not accord with Huizong’s obsession with verisimilitude, a sign that he did not compose or direct it. Instead, says McNair, the Catalogue espouses literati painting theory from Su Shi (1037–1101), a banished statesman from the Yuanyou faction who opposed Emperor Shenzong’s reforms (r. 1067–1085) and whose writings were proscribed by the emperor and his son Huizong (92). The Catalogue provides Su’s comrade Li with the lengthiest biography, extolling him as the ultimate exemplar of a literati painter (163). Despite Huizong’s proscription of Su’s writings, Shicheng pleaded with Huizong to lift the ban. Thus, McNair proposes that the Catalogue’s attempt to exalt Yuanyou partisans leaves Shicheng as a possible candidate for compiler and director, as he identified himself as Su’s illegitimate son (178).

What motivated Shicheng to produce the Catalogue? McNair suggests that Shicheng did so for two reasons: to fulfill filial obligations to his alleged father, Su, and to claim for himself the prestige status of scholar-official. As such, The Painting Master’s Shame handily resolves the puzzle of finding the Catalogue’s authors, and this solution becomes a clue in a much more sophisticated investigation that leads to the gradual revelation of unexpected kinship between Shicheng and the Yuanyou partisans (for example, Su). The seven chapters throughout book are organized systematically and logically, so readable that following McNair’s research process becomes captivating. Chapter one previews the eunuchs’ status and functions amidst Song factional strife. Chapters two and three decipher narremes and references in the Catalogue to probe its possible authors and audiences. Chapter four explores how Su’s literati ideas prevail throughout the Catalogue. Chapter five shows how the Catalogue defends Li. Chapter six scrutinizes the fourteen eunuch entries, and chapter seven chronicles the rise and fall of Shicheng and his conspiracy with grand councilor Wang Fu (1079–1126) in 1124 to “alter the succession to the throne” (171).

While reading The Painting Master’s Shame, four questions come to mind, which complicate but do not undermine McNair’s fascinating research. First, one can glean from the book that the Catalogue contains assorted mistakes: misnames, plural voices, syntactic contradictions, and biographical fabrications. These defects deserve to be spotlighted in the introduction, as they effectively buttress McNair’s assessment that the Catalogue does not stem from a single author. To me, its linguistic defects signify the existence of multiple compilers who carelessly pastiched written pieces from multiple authors without unifying phraseology. But was Huizong not one of those who provided entries? Notably, the Catalogue mentions his father Emperor Shenzong twelve times, ten of which utilize the term “Shen-kao.” (kao denotes my deceased father); only Shenzong’s direct child—like Huizong—would dare to title him kao. The fact that Shicheng would not call Shenzong kao could imply that some paragraphs were written by Huizong.

Second, one of the greatest strengths of The Painting Master’s Shame is its extraordinary tracking of who would be able to acquire firsthand information about lesser-known contemporaneous painters. McNair notices that the Catalogue creates sixteen entries on royal family members, many of whom were barely known as painters: for instance, Mrs. Wang, wife of Huizong’s uncle Zhao Jun (1056–1088), and Zhao Zongxian (late 1000s), a relative of Huizong who depicted a painting at the house of Huizong’s friend Wang Xian (69). In an equally rare move, the Catalogue labels Zhao Jun with his outdated posthumous title Prince of Wei, rather than calling him Prince of Yi, a new title promulgated by Huizong in 1100 (43). McNair reasons that the royal anecdotes and incorrect titles were recorded by eunuchs in attendance, but one might ponder: since the relatives’ painting activities were too trivial to be surveilled by eunuchs, could some entries derive from Huizong’s old memos based on his boyhood reminiscences? Alternatively, who would have dared to tamper with an emperor’s early memos while recasting them into the Catalogue?

Third, McNair utilizes the notorious Daoist Xu Zhichang (1069–1154) as an example to show how writers forged a biography in the Catalogue, arbitrarily altering Xu from a Daoist into a scholar-artist who painted murals (4–5). In my eyes, the Catalogue’s sycophantic promotion and elevation of Daoists to artist status could signify Huizong’s patronage of the work, since the emperor indulged himself in Daoism. Another indication of Huizong’s patronage is the Catalogue’s sister work: the imperially sponsored Xuanhe Catalogue of Calligraphies (ca. 1120–23). McNair describes that “Liang [Shicheng] may also have directed the writing of Xuanhe Catalogue of Calligraphies” (223), because the two catalogs from a similar time, share analogous compositional structures: twenty subject categories, formulaic prefaces, biographical entries, lists of artworks (87), and standard phrases like “At present, there are [number] works kept in the palace storehouses” (74). The catalogs’ shared features not only bolster McNair’s assumption that “some of the writers might have been the same people” (87), but also suggest to me the likelihood that a single person from a higher authority demanded that the two catalogs abide by prescribed formulas. Shicheng from 1116 to 1120 retired to mourn for his adoptive eunuch father Liang He (d. 1116; see McNair, 175) and was reinstated to his old positions on June 11, 1120 (see Song huiyao, zhiguan 77.11). The Catalogue was completed on the June solstice of 1120. How did Shicheng orchestrate his team to compile this body of work during a three-year mourning period? Who was more capable of mustering and paying for two groups of authors to produce two imperial catalogs? Most likely Huizong, the supreme leader who was much more capable of ordering agents to fulfill his cultural enterprises. 

Fourth, McNair points out that “the text was never presented at court” (37), arguing that “his [Huizong’s] absence is conspicuous” (2). Notably, the Catalogue’s preface explicates Huizong’s empowerment: “Imperially composed (yuzhi) at Xuanhe Palace.” The question then arises if the Catalogue was solely Shicheng’s project why he would utilize the term yuzhi (imperially composed)? Huizong’s slender-gold scripts with the same endorsement of yuzhi appear in court paintings around the 1120s: Auspicious Cranes, Auspicious Dragon Rock, and Five-Colored Parakeet, among thousands of paintings in Albums of Sagacious Viewing in the Xuanhe Reign. As a patron and partial author, Huizong often appropriated collective works from his agents, adding something and signing yuzhi to proclaim his primacy. Since the yuzhi phrase and Shenkao sentences remain in the Catalogue, should we perhaps not exclude Huizong from the authorial group?

Altogether, The Painting Master’s Shame: Liang Shicheng and the Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings vividly unravel how eunuchs thrived at Huizong’s court by transforming themselves from humiliated servants into cultural elites similar to the scholar-official class. In the fields of Chinese political and institutional history, The Painting Master’s Shame makes significant contributions, discovering that by the 1120s remarkable numbers of eunuchs passed literary examinations, held degrees, and adopted sons. McNair’s mesmerizing research on Shicheng reminds us of the erudite eunuch Liu Ruoyu (1584–1642), who wrote A Weighted and Unbiased Record in 1638 and History of the Ming Court (1500s), providing eyewitness accounts of court intrigues in the Ming (1368–1644). By deftly integrating methodologies from bibliography, philology, and textual analysis, McNair illuminates the startling alliance between eunuchs and scholar-officials at the Northern Song court. 

Huiping Pang
Professor of Chinese History, Hangzhou Normal University