Auspicious Cranes

Among all the paintings attributed to the Northern Song emperor Zhao Ji, "none is so enchanting as the short handscroll entitled 'Auspicious Cranes.'" 
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Emperor Huizong created “Auspicious Cranes” to commemorate a real gathering of cranes above his palace in 1112. Despite his inadequacy as a ruler, the emperor is remembered as a great artist and an important patron of Chinese arts.

Zhao Ji (1082-1135), the eighth emperor of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) is generally credited as the artist behind “Ruihe Tu,” or “Auspicious Cranes,” a legendary masterpiece of traditional Chinese brush painting.

According to art historians, the Song Dynasty represents a critical chapter in China’s art history. They believe that the Song created what is “Chinese” about Chinese painting, defining its perimeters in a manner similar to the Renaissance in the West.

Indeed, during the so-called “Chinese Renaissance,” Zhao Ji was both a pivotal patron of the arts as well as a rare talent in painting, calligraphy, poetry, music and architecture.

Zhao was the 11th son of Emperor Shenzong, a nearly hopeless heir in line to the throne. So, when he was young, he cared little about state affairs. Instead he was extremely interested in painting, calligraphy and music.

As fate would have it, when Zhao’s older brother Emperor Zhezong passed away heirless, the 11th son came to the throne and reigned as Emperor Huizong from 1100 to 1126.

As a ruler, Emperor Huizong was deemed a failure and widely blamed for the collapse of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) under the invasion of Jurchen forces, though the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), with its capital in today’s Hangzhou, in east China’s Zhejiang Province, extended the Dynasty for another 153 years.

Though the emperor himself died disgracefully as a prisoner at the age of 53, he is remembered as a great contributor to the flourishing of Chinese art.

In his imperial court, Emperor Huizong sponsored a great number of outstanding artists. He established an imperial painting academy to promote gongbi, or meticulous realism, in traditional Chinese painting. He also created the so-called “Slender Gold” style of calligraphy.

An ardent painter as well, the emperor left behind more than 600 paintings. Most of his paintings are realistic works of birds and flowers.

Noted American art expert Benjamin Rowland Jr. (1904-1972) once used the term “magic realism” to describe the Huizong style.

He explained that “Huizong’s precise, realistic recording of the surface texture of natural objects was simply the result of his desire to record with loving care the little things that filled his days with pleasure.”

But among all the paintings attributed to the Northern Song emperor, “none is so enchanting as the short handscroll entitled ‘Auspicious Cranes,’” according to Peter C. Sturman, another American specialist in the study of Chinese painting and calligraphy.

In the 138.2 x 51 cm, ink and color on silk handscroll, Emperor Huizong painted 20 white cranes against an azure sky above gates bathed in magical clouds. The subject matter and architectural composition make this a textbook example of Song painting.

“Colors and patterns harmonize with such wondrous, elegant decorum that the viewer is left wondering how any artist could conceive such otherworldly beauty,” said Sturman.

Emperor Huizong created this masterpiece to commemorate an event that happened on the 16th day of the first month on the lunar calendar in 1112.

According to the emperor’s own inscription and poem on the painting, in the evening of that day, “auspicious clouds” suddenly formed in masses and descended about the main gate of the palace, illuminating it.

Then a group of white cranes appeared hovering above the palace and two of them even calmly perched atop the ornamented roof ridge.

Thousands of residents in the capital witnessed this unusually auspicious sight, so the emperor decided to create a painting and compose a poem to mark this event.

Since then, many Chinese scholars and artists have called “Auspicious Cranes” a “divine gem” in the treasure house of traditional Chinese paintings.

Today, this treasured painting is in the collection of the Liaoning Provincial Museum in Shenyang, capital of the province, in northeastern China and about 800 kilometers south of the location where the artist emperor died in disgrace and captivity in 1135.

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“Listening to the Qin” shows Emperor Huizong, dressed in a black robe, playing the guqin, a Chinese musical instrument, under a pine tree while two officials listen. Besides painting, Zhao also made great achievements in calligraphy, music, poetry and even porcelain making.

Auspicious Cranes

Artist: Zhao Ji (1082-1135)

Year: Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127)

Type: Ink and color on silk

Dimensions: 138.2 cm × 51 cm

Location: Liaoning Provincial Museum in Shenyang

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