A congregation of scholarly and cultivated friends, known as an "elegant gathering," was an important form of social interaction in traditional China. Such "parties" among literary circles were held for various reasons and could be either large or small. During elegant gatherings, the host and guests not only enjoyed fine food and drink, they also took part in other refined activities of the traditional scholar, such as reciting poetry, performing the zither, playing Go, viewing works of painting and calligraphy, and enjoying tea. Naturally, such events often involved participants taking out brush and ink to produce related works (such as painting, calligraphy, and poetry). These "mixers" involving cultivated acquaintances offered many opportunities for inspiration and friendly competition, which is why they have been called a cradle of culture and creativity. For example, the "Orchid Pavilion Preface," revered as the premier work of running script in Chinese calligraphy, was born from a gathering on the Spring Purification Festival in 353 AD. During this meeting of great minds, scholars composed poems on the spot or consumed wine from floating cups, with Wang Xizhi (303-361) calligraphing a preface to the literary collection that not only became renowned but also a model for elegant gatherings among future generations.
The painting of elegant gatherings was a method to pictorially document these cultivated meetings and an important source of emulation to depict such events from the past. The places, people, and activities at the gatherings, even the arrangement and display of related things, were objectified in the minds of later artists, who even added or injected new elements from their imagination and period to the works. Elegant gatherings from various times and places in Chinese history were thereby infused with new life as a result of such creativity and transformation. And though the cultural competition at gatherings may have been a source of pressure for participating scholars, it was wrapped in the unique conventions and elegant packaging of tradition, becoming an interesting byproduct of these activities.
This special exhibition is divided into six sections that introduce to audiences some of the famous and important elegant gatherings in Chinese history: "Unconventional Talents of the Jin and Tang," "The Model for Elegant Gatherings," "An Elegant Gathering of the Imagination," "Harmonizing in a Time of Chaos," "In the Name of Birthday Celebrations," and "Banquets of Imperial Authority." In addition to the works in these sections are some interesting ones that offer a side note to how scholars dealt with the pressure of (and found inspiration for) spontaneous performances.