Qianlong Emperor's Lanting Tu Tie Kesi
Amongst the artefacts and paintings commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor, the magnificent seventeen metre long hand woven silk tapestry or kesi scroll titled Lanting tu tie kesi (Kesi Calligraphy and Painting of the 'Gathering at the Orchid Pavilion') is possibly the most important and finest example of Imperial kesi tapestry extant. In size it is also the largest kesi piece ever made on imperial command. This scroll is a close rendition of the Yu ti bu ke Ming dai duan shi Lanting tu tie (Imperial Inscription of Supplementary Ming Duan Stone Carvings of the 'Gathering at the Orchid Pavilion Painting), a paper scroll from the Imperial painting collection and still in the Palace Museum, Beijing.
This outstanding kesi scroll is significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is an important work of art in its own right signifying the emperor's personal involvement in arts. Qianlong had a zealous passion for art and during his sixty year reign he amassed an art collection of enormous scope and size that included antiques as well as contemporary works of art such as the present piece. He was a true connoisseur and is known to have spent long hours into the night studying his art collection, writing long colophons on his finest paintings, or composing poems for certain artefacts. He appreciated his collection for its incredible cultural heritage but more importantly it served as a 'trophy display' to boost his ego and imperial standing.
Imperial patronage for kesi reached a new height in the 18th century when it became viewed as artistic equivalent of painting and calligraphy. In fact, this scroll is recorded in the third edition of the Shi qu bao ji (Catalogue of Painting and Calligraphy in the Imperial Collection) compiled in 1794. The Qianlong emperor selected a number of important calligraphic masterpieces from his collection to be 'reproduced' in kesi. As with every object made on imperial command, this kesi scroll would have been examined by the emperor at each stage of its production and would have been required to meet his rigorous quality control and approval before completion. The kesi scroll contains an imperial edict and poem, five key rubbings, the Dingwu version of the Lanting xu, together with the rendering of the painting titled The Lanting Gathering by Li Gonglin (AD1049-1106) which depicts the poets gathered by the Orchid Pavilion. It also includes various postscripts and prefaces such as the renderings of inscriptions by Emperor Gaozong of the Song dynasty and postscripts by the Yuan master calligrapher and painter Zhao Mengfu. It was stored in the Yanchunge (Pavilion of Prolonged Spring), an Imperial storehouse located in the Forbidden City, where the majority of the Imperial collection of paintings and calligraphy were kept.
This kesi is also significant because it provides an insight into Qianlong's passion for calligraphy and great calligraphic masterpieces. Calligraphy in China has always been viewed as the purest form of art and dedication to it was paramount in both its practice and appreciation. Amongst the literati class it was common practice to spend long hours copying great calligraphic works. Dedicated copying in this manner is called lin in Chinese, a term associated with a wish to study and learn from a work while reproducing it. Qianlong thought of himself a great classical scholar, poet, calligrapher and the highest authority to which society should turn for judgement on all aspects of cultural life. The present kesi reflects the emperor's adoration for the calligraphy of Wang Xizhi (c.AD 307- c. 365). Such was his respect for China's greatest calligraphers, traditionally referred to as the 'Sage of Calligraphy' that he made it his lifelong mission to reassemble as many important copies of Wang's calligraphy as possible. Wang's most famous work is the Lanting xu (Preface to the Orchid Pavilion) which he wrote at Lanting (Orchid Pavilion) near Shanyin, Zhejiang province, to celebrate the Spring Purifying Ceremony in the 9th year of the Yonghe reign (AD 353). Wang invited 41 guests to participate in a poetry competition whereby if they failed to write a poem they had to drink wine. There was a lot of merriment with wine flowing generously and guests enjoying nature and each other's company. Wine cups were floated down the stream on lotus leaves by the attendants. Wang wrote Lanting xu as a reflection of his feelings about life and death and his want to record the sayings of those gathered for future generations to read. Wang considered the Lanting xu his finest work, and the Song dynasty scholar, Mi Fu (AD 1051-1107) called it the world's best calligraphy in the xingshu (running script) style. Lanting xu was later kept by Emperor Taizong (AD 599 – 649) of the Tang dynasty (AD 907 – 1125) who ordered many well known calligraphers to copy the work at the time. He even commissioned to have it carved on a stone that was placed in the Imperial Academy. It is said that the Lanting xu was buried in Shaoling together with the possessions of the emperor when he died, however it was never found. During the Northern Song dynasty (AD 960 – 1127) Li Gonglin painted the 'Lanting Gathering' to accompany the calligraphic works.
In the 44th year of his reign (1779), Qianlong took all the copies of Wang's Lanting xu, including what was considered the best surviving copy, the Dingwu version by Song Chi (AD 998-1061), and copies by other Tang calligraphers such as Yu Shinan, Chu Suiliang and Feng Chengsu, the poem of Lanting written by Liu Gongquan, and the copy written by the Ming calligrapher Dong Qichang, together with his own poems and had them compiled into eight volumes. This was the greatest compilation work done for all the copies of Lanting xu in the Imperial Palace collection. Amongst the compilations can be found the Yu ti bu ke Ming dai duan shi Lanting tu tie, which became the blueprint for this kesi scroll.
Kesi, literally 'cut silk', is one of the most labour intensive and time-consuming tapestry weave techniques. It is a highly complex method of weaving as the weft threads are made up of dozens of colours and are separately reeled in many small shuttles. The artisan first sketches the pattern to be woven on the warp, and then guides a shuttle with the weft thread of a specific colour across the warp threads only where that particular colour is needed. Kesi derives its name from the visual illusion of cut threads that are created by distinct and unblended areas of colour. The weaving of weft requires a high level of artistic accomplishment often representing an integration of the skills of silk weaving, painting and calligraphy. Each seal and brushstroke seen on the present kesi has been masterly captured and can easily be mistaken for the work of calligraphy on paper. Furthermore, as can be seen from the pictorial depiction of the scholars, the colours are especially brilliant and naturalistic.
The imitation of works of paintings and calligraphy in kesi was not limited to artistic compositions but was also carried over to governmental rule in the form of imperial edicts. These take the form of scrolls with the text woven in both Chinese and Manchu, together with imperial seals. Edicts however were often written in ink rather than woven. The use of kesi for issuing mandates reflects the importance of this medium to convey the words of the emperor, and can be seen as a symbol of his rule. An Imperial edict on kesi was included in the exhibition Heaven's Embroidered Cloths. One Thousand Years of Chinese Textiles, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1995, cat. no. 103.
A kesi handscroll of the calligraphy after Dong Qichang and the Four Song Masters, where the weavers had captured every brushstroke of the original scroll written in ink on paper and kept in Qianlong's collection, from the Amy S. Clague collection, was included in the exhibition Weaving China's Past, Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, 2000, cat. no. 18. Another important album reproduced in kesi contains a woven landscape depicting the famous scenery of the West Lake in Hangzhou and eleven double leaves of the Qianlong emepror's poems in clerical script. This album is also from the Clague collection and was included in the Phoenix Art Museum exhibition, ibid., cat. no. 17.
The Kesi Lanting Tu Tue: Outstanding Work of Art from the Qianlong Period
Researcher, Palace Museum, Beijing
The Kesi Gao Zong Chun Huang Di Qing Ding Bu Ke Duan Shi Lan Ting Tu Tie (Kesi calligraphy and painting modelled after the supplementary duan stone carvings of 'Gathering at the Orchid Pavilion' decreed by Emperor Qianlong) was originally kept in Yanchun Ge (Pavilion of Prolonged Spring) and recorded in the third volume of the Shi Qu Bao Ji (Catalogue of Painting and Calligraphy in the Imperial Collection). It is not an Emperor's calligraphy or essay but a prototype. It is the only prototype known to have been made with the kesi weaving technique. It is also the longest known kesi hand scroll.
A lot of technical difficulties must have been encountered in weaving such a huge and long scroll. The length of this scroll is particularly long -- more than 17 m. Therefore, it is not possible to weave the whole scroll using the more traditional vertical weaving method. If you rotate the scroll 90 degrees and place the calligraphy horizontally, it is viable but it will be hard to guarantee the quality and the artistic achievement. The original work is first copied on the silk by drawing the outline. If you place the calligraphy horizontally, it is not convenient to copy and will definitely affect the quality of weaving. However, we can find such horizontal weaving method in hand scrolls at times. For example, the "Qing Kesi Dong Qichang Lin Song Si Jia Shu Han" (Qing Kesi on Dong Qichang's Imitation of the Calligraphies of Cai Xiang, Su Shi, Mi Fu and Huang Tingjian". The "Kesi Lanting tie" is woven section by section horizontally. This is one of the unique methods used in the weaving of such a large work.
A "Yu Ti Pu Ke Ming Dai Duan Shi Lanting Tu Tie" (Imperial inscription of supplementary Ming duan stone carvings of 'Gathering of Orchid Pavilion' painting) is in the collection of the Beijing Palace Museum and the content is almost exactly similar to the "Lanting tu tie". The "Lanting tu tie" should have been based on it. The only difference is the impressions of the seals. The section division of the kesi matches the former and hence it is clear that the sectional division has nothing to do with the factor of technical skill.
Extra effort is rendered on the characters and the seals due to the technical difficulties. Not only are there many characters and seals but that there are many different types of script. It is very challenging to present the different characteristics of the copies. The master copy is based on the carvings of the Ming dynasty stone. It is very rare that the tattered parts of the stone rubbings and the uneven stone carvings are meticulously presented. The famous Song kesi artist Zhu Kerou vividly presented bits of wilted leaves that were bitten up by worms on a flower and bird painting. While the approach is different, the results are equally successful. In the second section of the third part, the seal "Hua Xue Po Shi Mi Fu" (Great artist Mi Fu) has been impressed upon the word "Fu". Such overlaps of colours make the piece particularly lively.
The weaving of seal impression is a weak area and a challenge that artists have to overcome with regards to kesi. This is because the frames of the square seals are warp lines and so the "mother-child warp" method has to be adopted. Otherwise, the two lines will be separated. As for the round and oval seals, the technical requirements for curve lines are also very high. In addition, issues such as the slim words on the seals pose certain difficulties. There is a red round seal impression of the word "Zhao" at the end of the eighth and ninth sections of the third part. The round curve achieved a very high level of standard. There are altogether 46 seals of varying sizes in the scroll. This demonstrated the superb craftsmanship.
The second part is "a reproduction painting of Li Gonglin's Elegant Gathering". The characters, mountains and stones, tree bark, waterside pavilion are all weaved. A combination of touching up, ke weaving and drawing are used for the detailed outlines of the characters' clothes, beard and hair, mountains and stones, waterside pavilion as well as the tree barks. This method is very popular during the Qing dynasty. It can be considered a shortcut way to achieve the best visual effect, i.e. a bid to lower the difficulties of weaving and work volume. This work is without exception.
It is difficult to ascertain the exact time of weaving the piece as there are no direct references to it in the historical records. However, the piece is referred to in third edition of the "Shi Qu Bao Ji". The editorial work of the third edition began in February 1794 and was completed in June 1817. The second edition was completed in May 1794. Therefore, the work would have been woven by 1794. We may have some information and hint on when it was woven through analysing the work.
First, the mounting should be the original. Second, only one out of the five seal impressions is "Qianlong Yu Lan Zhi Bao "(A treasure inspected by Emperor Qianlong) while the other four are "Jiaqing Yu Lan Zhi Bao" (A treasure inspected by Emperor Jiaqing), "Jiaqing Jian Shang" (Appreciated by Emperor Jiaqing), Xuantong Yu Lan Zhi Bao" (A treasure inspected by Emperor Xuantong), and "Bao Ji San Bian" (Third edition of Shi Qu Bao Ji). This explains that the hand scroll is always been kept in the Palace until the period of Xuantong. On the other hand, judging from Emperor Qianlong's usual practice and the scroll being such a treasure, Emperor Qianlong would not only make a lot of seal impressions but would also give specific instructions on the mounting. For example, the types of head wrapper, cord, clip, decorative border, fabric and mounting, etc. All these reflected Emperor Qianlong's appreciative habits and aesthetic interest. It is the ultimate pursuit for exquisiteness when it comes to mounting.
It is very likely that Emperor Qianlong who ordered the weaving of the scroll did not live to see its completion. Therefore, it could be deduced that the work was likely to have been woven between the end of the Qianlong period and the beginning of Jiaqing period.
This "Kesi Lanting tu tie" must have been the one and only work of its kind judging from various records. It was kept in the Palace until the period of Xuantong and unknown to many. How did it end up outside the palace?
The "Kesi Lanting tu tie" was recorded in the Bao Ji San Bian and originally kept in Yan Chun Ge. Yan Chun Ge, a main part of Jianfu Palace (Palace of Establishing Happiness), was located in the Western side of Jianfu Palace and its construction began in 1742. The garden of Jianfu Palace was known as the Western Garden as it was situated on the western side of the Inner Court. The entire garden occupied 4000 square metres and included the Palace, Building, Hall, Study and Pavilion. It is a unique imperial garden that was built in the early years of the Qianlong period. The treasures were kept there in the Qianlong years but the place was sealed up during the period of Jiaqing. The Yanchun Ge, Jingyi Xuan (Pavilion of Tranquil Ease) and their surrounding was burnt to the ground on 26th November 1923 (see Qing Gong Su Wen (Narrative History of the Qing Palace) edited by Zhang Naiwei and Wang Geren). The fire was apparently started by eunuchs who stole treasures from the Garden and wanted to destroy the evidence. It was fortunate that the kesi hand scroll was taken out of the Palace on 2nd November, just 23 days before the fire.
The "Qing Dynasty Aftermath Committee" was taking stock at the Yang Xin Dian (Hall of Cultivation of Character) in 1925 and found the lists of objects that Pu Yi had bestowed on Pu Jie. There were altogether more than 200 types of books from the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties as well as a thousand over pieces of calligraphy and paintings from the Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. The "Lanting Tu Tie, one item, number 627" was recorded on the list with the date of 2nd November 1925. Although what Pu Yi did was essentially a massive migration of national treasures out of the Palace through the act of bestowing, one does not know whether to laugh or cry at this twist of history given that some treasures were actually preserved.
The large scroll of the "Lanting tu tie" is the longest piece of kesi hand scroll which we have known so far. This is also the only tie which is woven using the kesi method. This could be considered a challenge to the weaving technique of kesi. The series of method used in weaving this work could have exhausted all skills, manpower and resources. It is without doubt representative of the high level of skills mastered for kesi calligraphy in the Qing dynasty.
1714.5 BY 31.6 CM; 675 BY 12 3/8 IN.
Shiqubaoji, Sanbian, vol.6, Taipei, National Palace Museum, December, 1969, p.2805.
Xu Bangda, "Pu Yi's Painting Gifts to Pu Ji", Wenwu, no. 12, 1950.
Zhu Qiqin, Qing Inner Residence Kesi Calligraphy and Painting Works, vol. 1, Fine Art Series, vol. 4, edited by Huang Binhong and Deng Shi.
Tao Xiang, ed., Contents of Four Types of Calligraphy and Painting Works Lost from the Imperial Palaces: Painting Gifts to Pu Jie, Book Titles Series II.