During the Northern Song dynasty (960–1126), new ground was broken in aesthetic thought, particularly in the fields of art collecting, poetry criticism, connoisseurship of flowers, and the song lyric. Collectively these activities constitute much of what was distinctive about Northern Song culture. Yet the subjects treated here were unprecedented when they appeared; consequently, bold exploration was coupled with anxiety about the worth of these interests, especially given the Confucian biases against these pursuits.
Despite differences in each area, certain overarching themes surface repeatedly. Together, these interests and choices suggest a logic behind the new directions of literati culture in the Northern Song. By focusing on the “problem of beauty,” Ronald C. Egan calls attention to the difficulties that Northern Song innovators faced in justifying these new pursuits.