Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

Hui-tsung and Petromania: Magnificent Obsessions II

In 1100 AD one of those rare individuals who manage to combine energy, talent and aesthetic sensibility ascended the Chinese throne. Hui-tsung, in the quarter century of his rule, was to prove to be one of the most cultivated of all Chinese rulers. He became a supreme connoisseur and patron of the arts and is still recognised as a master painter in his own right. In addition to his painterly skills he was a renowned calligrapher, inventing an elegant new form known as Slender Gold. He was also a superb poet. Those few of his surviving paintings testify to his skill as an artist and to his refined aesthetic feeling. They also indicate that emphasis on accuracy of description, particularly of animals and plants, which characterised the school that he established. Hui-tsung personally reorganised the Academy, and was instrumental in revitalising Chinese painting by insisting on a new sense of naturalism. To promote his ideas on the subject he issued a regulation that painters were 'not to imitate their predecessors, but to depict objects as they exist, true to form and colour'. They were, he insisted, to recreate the perfection that already existed in nature.

His influence was entirely to the good. The Academy began to attract the most talented artists from every part of the Empire. Under the Emperors personal direction (he set the art-examinations himself), a school evolved that produced a body of work that is still regarded as one of the great peaks of Chinese art. Hui-tsung’s involvement in the arts led to an improvement in the social standing of artists at this time, and led to a great revival of interest in the arts in general. The Emperor himself was, of course, an enthusiastic collector and added greatly to the Imperial collection of paintings and calligraphy. One of his more enduring projects was a grand catalogue of all existing painting, classified according to genre, an undertaking that was a source of inspiration for future generations of artists and connoisseurs alike.

If Hui-tsung had limited his enthusiasm to the artistic sphere he would undoubtedly be remembered as one of the greatest of all Emperor-patrons. Unfortunately he had other, and, as they were to prove, fatal, passions: these were, respectively, Garden-building and Empire-building. His obsession with the former was, as we shall see, perfectly ruinous to his country, and his ill-advised dabbling in 'statecraft' was equally catastrophic. As a result he is now remembered more for these foolish indulgencies, which, between them, led to the collapse of his dynasty and the loss of the whole of northern China to half-savage barbarians.

It was not itself unusual for Chinese Emperors to build luxurious gardens. In fact there was a long established tradition in China of Imperial gardens that were intended to reflect the splendour and magnificence of their dynasties, At five kilometres in diameter, Hui-tsung's garden was vast, but by no means the greatest in area. It was, however, intended to be the most ambitious of all such royal garden projects, involving landscaping on a quite unprecedented scale. Hui-tsung had always been rather vulnerable to his counsellor’s flatteries who, to promote their own advancement, tended to encourage him in his excesses. His geomancers indicated that the situation of his capital Pien-ching, set as it was on an extensive plain, was unpropitious. The land to the northeast, they advised, needed height. The Emperor acted on their suggestion with characteristic boldness. His solution to the flatness problem was the building an entire artificial mountain range. This mountain-garden would cancel any malefic forces within the landscape, and bring virtue and prosperity to the Sung dynasty.

An army of labourers were pressed into service to create what was, in essence a giant rockery: it was named Ken-yu, the Impregnable Mountain. But the scheme grew so vast in its conception that it came to dominate the Imperial economy. Eventually the rising costs project depleted the exchequer to such an extent that a new (and extremely unpopular) land-tax was introduced in order that building might continue. Hui-tsung was so enthralled by the progress of his garden that he was oblivious to the social misery that his extravagance was causing, and his advisors were, naturally, keen to play down any disturbing reports - of which there were many.

When it was finally completed the garden was a marvel. It was a miniaturised mountain that towered over the surrounding countryside. It featured cliffs and gullies, wild chasms and escarpments. Lower, gentler, slopes led down to foothills that were covered with thickly planted orchards of plum and apricot, all irrigated by an elaborate sluice system. There were pleasant artificial mountain streams that fed water into richly stocked ponds. The Emperor was utterly enchanted by his creation. His favourite pastime after official business was to wander around his garden, savouring the scent from the blossoms of his orchards and contemplating its many waterfalls. Hui-tsung loved every feature of his mountain-garden, but by far the most important element in this artificial paradise was his immense collection of unusual boulders, for the Emperor was, above all, a lover of stones. In this he was very much caught up in the fashion of the moment for China, at this time, was in the throes of one of its periodic bouts of Petromania.

By now this peculiarly Chinese enthusiasm already had a very long history. In the more remote past large or strangely contorted boulders had been widely worshipped as local gods. Stone veneration always had both aesthetic and magico-religious aspects; they were felt to contain some of the magical power that the Chinese associated with the wilder, mountainous regions of their country. By placing them in a garden some of their primeval energy could, as it were, be domesticated. But long before Hui-tsung's time the appreciation of stones was directed rather more their aesthetic qualities, although there were always spiritual undertones in this business. It has to be said that the practice also seemed to inspire a most intense form of collecting-mania. It was certainly the case that by the 12th century no garden worthy of the name was complete without a decent collection of stones. Fine specimens were given pride of place and frequently had their own viewing pavilion, from where the cultivated gentleman could contemplate the particular tai-hu qualities of his favoured boulder. In the same way scholars or literati would place smaller single rocks on their desks.

The various desirable qualities of stones were, by now, well established. Some were valued simply for their size, others for their contorted and suggestive shapes. They might be prized for the number and quality of holes, or for the resonant sound that they made when struck. Extremes of grotesqueness had its value, as did a delicacy of form. Anthropomorphism also had its place. A fine specimen of any of these categories would be very much sought after, and in the 12th century there were few items that were so expensive. The business of supplying stones was itself highly developed. There were entire provincial regions that made their livelihood in this way. An especially attractive stone could command enormous prices, and the cost of transporting some of these boulders, which might weigh several tons, was just as great. Not that cost was a consideration for Hui-tsung. With the entire resources of the state at his command he had unlimited scope for his enthusiasm.

The Emperors mountain-garden had no end of marvellous pavilions, kiosks, grottoes and fantastically contorted pines. But his huge and ever-increasing collection of stones provided the essential foci. They were arranged, according to his instructions, about the paths that threaded through his garden. Some were set in groups, others were placed singly by streams or waterfalls. One extensive group that was felt to resemble grotesque animals and bizarre figures was arranged so that it appeared to have been sculpted by the elements. The finest specimens of all were displayed along the road by the main entrance to the garden in a sort of tableau. According to an obviously sympathetic contemporary account 'some looked like ministers having an audience with the Emperor, they were solemn, serious, trembling and full of awe; some were charging forward as if they had important advice or arguments to present'. One fifty-foot high monster stood in the centre of the road with other smaller boulders arranged as if to guard it, as though it were the Emperor himself. Hui-tsung was utterly engrossed in his collection. Many of the stones were given personal names, and several had poems dedicated to them, which the Emperor then had engraved upon them and inlaid with gold.

But there were clouds on the horizon. Although he was entirely oblivious of the fact, Hui-tsungs obsession was beginning to seriously affect the Chinese economy. It had become necessary to add further levies to the already onerous tax burden. This move greatly increased the miseries of the peasantry, whose lives were already being thoroughly disrupted by the Emperors petromania. Barges carrying rocks were choking canals for weeks on end and interfering with food distribution and all other commerce. Roads were similarly obstructed by endless wagonloads of rocks pouring in from far and wide. The Emperors commissioners scoured the countryside for prize specimens of stones, and were not at all averse to extorting them with menaces from owners who were unwilling to part with them. Of course none of this endeared Hui-tsung to the population at large, but he was so engrossed with his collection that he was quite oblivious to the cost and disruption that he was causing. He was equally unaware of his commissioner’s rapacity, and of the hostility that was being generated in the population at large.

As a result of Hui-tsung's profligacy the economic situation continued to deteriorate, until a further swingeing increase on the tax burden finally led to lead to open rebellion. A peasant protest movement, the Fang La, sprang up and grew rapidly to a million strong force. When the rebellion was suppressed in one province it sprung up in another, and the Imperial army only finally subdued the revolt after a year of intense and bitter struggle. The Emperor was left with a thoroughly alienated population and a disaffected army. A few short years later Hui-tsung's lack of judgement was to meet with even more dire consequences when he engaged in a bungling, duplicitous attempt to set various barbarian tribes against each other. This adventure seriously backfired, and with no popular support the hordes counter-attacked and thrust right into the Chinese homeland, even reaching the capital. In the ensuing chaos Hui-tsung's wonderful garden was sacked and destroyed by angry peasants who saw it as the symbol (and actual cause) of their misery. The orchards, bamboo groves and beautiful buildings were cut down and used as fuel. The calligraphic tablets with their delicate poetry were smashed and thrown into ditches, and the Emperor's adored stones were either broken or carted off.

Soon after this Hui-tsung and the Royal Family, together with the entire Imperial court, their wives and concubines (some 3000 souls) were taken prisoner by the barbarian Jurchets and deported hundreds of miles to the wild northern forests of Manchuria. From all accounts very few lived to survive this dreadful experience, dying either of grief or from the hardships imposed upon them by their brutal captors. Hui-tsung himself survived, but spent the rest of his life in captivity, finally dying in a tent deep in a Manchurian forest.

With the Emperor and his court in their power the Jurchets were able to rampage at will over much of northern China. The army, with its resources much reduced as a result of the Emperors extravagance, was hopelessly inadequate. The centuries old Sung dynasty was forced to abandon every part of China north of the central Huai river, managing only to retain its grip in the south, It is one of the great ironies of Chinese history that its most cultivated of Emperors should have been responsible for the collapse of his own civilisation. Very little survived either of Hui-tsung's reputation, or of the great body of work produced by the Academy that he created. The cult of stone-adoration persisted however and there were, from time to time, further peaks of enthusiasm, the last continuing well into the 18th century.