Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 10, 2015
Craig Clunas Screen of Kings: Royal Art and Power in Ming China Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2013. 248 pp.; 60 color ills.; 40 b/w ills. Cloth $57.00 (9780824838522)

Craig Clunas’s Screen of Kings: Royal Art and Power in Ming China is a new landmark in the study of the history of the visual and material culture of China’s Ming dynasty (1368–1644), succeeding his five earlier and equally important monographs on the arts and culture of this period, including Pictures and Visuality in Early Modern China (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997) (click here for review) and Elegant Debts: The Social Art of Wen Zhengming (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2003) (click here for review). Screen of Kings provides a revisionist view of the role of “kings of blood” (qin wang, traditionally translated as “princes”) in the making of empire, society, and history of the Ming. Clunas challenges the existing discourse of “Oriental despotism” by instead investigating the Ming rule with respect to aristocracy. The book appeals to both art historians and historians with four major groundbreaking considerations on the period.

First, building on historian David Robinson’s notion of the “greater court” of the Ming, Clunas situates kings at the center of the story, emphasizing that their courts served as much to relay and reproduce the imperial ethos as to ensure the biological reproduction of the imperial patriline (David M. Robinson, “The Ming Court,” in Culture, Courtiers, and Competition: The Ming Court [1368–1644] , ed., David M. Robinson, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008, 21–60). Second, Clunas deliberately aims to decenter the Jiangnan region (located in the Lower Yangtze Delta in the southeast of the empire), which has long been a major subject of historical and cultural studies of the Ming dynasty (including much of Clunas’s own work). In geographical terms, this is inevitable owing to the lack of a kingly court in Jiangnan; more importantly, Screen of Kings constructs its argument by looking to a wider variety of objects, including rubbings, tombs, jewels, and bronzes, that fell outside the obvious range of Jiangnan literati art and culture. In fact, many of the objects reproduced in the book, particularly excavated materials from tomb burials, are published here for the first time. Third, defining the prominence of “aesthetics” as reified in the glittering “visual and material culture” of these kingly courts, Clunas examines the ways in which aesthetics and power not only constituted one another’s meaning and force but also acted jointly in ordering the world. In so doing, he cautiously eschews an approach of “reductionist instrumentality” that views “culture” as a mere facade for the legitimation of power; instead, he sees its strong resonances and associations with the making of the “real world” (94). Last, but not least, Clunas shows that women mattered. He argues unambiguously for the visibility of royal women as occupants of their tombs and as historical actors within the kingly courts. There, among other things related to decision-making and management, they played essential roles in the reproduction of the imperial clan; thus, they were central in ensuring the political legitimacy of the empire, the stakes of such legitimacy being “no less than the right ordering of the imperium and the cosmos” (161).

Organized according to geographical and material categories, this richly illustrated book examines a broad array of specimens of objects that constituted the agency of the kings across regions. Chapter 1 introduces the key issues treated in the book and embedded in its title: king and screen, and art and power. By invoking the classical understanding of wang as “kings,” Clunas recalls the prominence and centrality of these figures on the Ming social landscape (9). He also uses the literal translation of fan ping (kingly appanage), “a fence and screen,” as a metaphor to signify the kings’ distance from the imperial center while, at the same time, they embodied the imperial image—a function analogous to that of an actual screen. The multiplication of the kingly clans in the Ming appanage system therefore involved a plurality of centers, allowing a boundary-free greater court to take shape. This view offers a fundamentally new way of understanding what mattered across the social and cultural landscape and power apparatuses of Ming China.

Chapter 2 traces the kingly presence in the tangible landscapes of palaces, temples, and tombs. By examining textual representations in gazetteers, records of the sheer number of the kingly clans, and the multifarious rhetoric of “kingly aura” (wang qi) in places, Clunas reconstructs the existence of multiple kingly courts across the empire. He also excavates the kingly presence in the social landscape. Their gardens and estates were sites of social interaction among the aristocratic and degree-holding elites; they also interacted with religious professionals through their patronage of temples and other religious institutions.

Chapter 3 deals with the practices of textual creation, reproduction, and dissemination at the court of the king of Jin in Shanxi. Clunas emphasizes the cultural innovations of the kingly courts, showing their investment in the genre of model calligraphies before the Jiangnan literati’s craze for rubbings; this evidence inverts previous recognition for the dominance and influence of the literati as “tastemakers.” Clunas further argues that calligraphy, perceived as the materialized form of “culture” (wen), was always bound up with concepts of rule; hence, in crafting sets of model calligraphy, the kings sought to model the imperial legacy. Moreover, Clunas incisively analyzes the analogy between the reproduction of rubbings and the biological reproduction of the imperial clan. He points to the pathos of rubbings—each time becoming less perceptible and less authentic—as homologous to the kingly lineage, which became a “slightly fainter replica of the imperial grandeur which stood at the beginning of the chain” (99). Yet that very act of reproduction reinforced the importance of the origin. This idea stands as the cornerstone in Clunas’s assessment of the kingly courts, to which he repeatedly returns in the next chapters.

Chapter 4 reconstructs the collection, creation, and dissemination of paintings in the imperial clan. Clunas argues that the kings’ production and circulation of both calligraphy and painting relayed and reinforced the imperial power of culture across the “whole surface of the world” (102). His reading of Zhu Youdun’s (King Xian of Zhou, 1379–1439) 1416 painting of Zhuge Liang (181–234)—a renowned historical figure and loyal aide to the lord of Shu Kingdom—as a sort of self-portrait of the painter is illuminating, as the painting epitomized the delicate relations of the kings to the imperial center. This chapter also examines patronage of large-scale decorative paintings, stone-carved pictures, and woodblock-illustrated books, which constituted a discursive court pictorial practice outside the imperial court while also securing the local identity of the kingly appanage by producing and reproducing the glorious past of the region.

Chapter 5 highlights the agency of royal women by investigating the lavish contents in Lady Wei and King Zhuang of Liang’s joint tomb in Hubei. Lacking textual records, Clunas successfully demonstrates how material culture might help reconstruct royal women’s agency. He accomplishes this by looking at royal women’s ownership of precious objects made in imperial workshops or imported from the “Western Ocean”—objects that were passed from women of the imperial court to the kingly court and that consequently served as expressions of the imperial center’s validating the kingly marriage. Clunas argues that women in the imperial clan “are enmeshed in a reciprocal flow of allegiance and benefaction from the center out to the widest edges of the world,” and that they were central, not peripheral, in the imperial making of the world (155).

Chapter 6 examines the kingly courts as sites for social interactions between aristocratic and bureaucratic elites through their shared appreciation of the arts and their mutual investment in cultural production and distribution. Clunas challenges the traditional view that the kings indulged themselves in culture as an apolitical pursuit of learning in order to seek refuge from imperial suspicion. He contends that “the idea that ‘power’ and ‘culture’ exist as an antithetical pair . . . is highly problematic” (179), instead considering the publishing activities of regional courts as existing in competition with the cultural production of the Jiangnan urban center. Indeed, he suggests that the kingly courts and scholar elite jointly created Ming cultural practices.

Finally, in chapter 7, an epilogue, Clunas reflects on the reception and representations of the kingly courts in history and at present. He also evaluates how the seemingly invisible kingly elites could be positioned in history if attention is paid to their material operations and cultural activities.

Throughout the book, Clunas energetically seeks to redress the longstanding dismissal of the kings of blood as a vile and depraved group: “We do not have to see Ming kings as either paragons or thugs, indeed learning to see them otherwise is a large part of what this book is about” (64). It is precisely the domain of this undefined “otherwise”—i.e., defined by what is not—that calls for attention, and the focus of Clunas’s account on the existence of the kingly appanages revises preexisting understandings of the period through an openness to their history. However, the book shows that this approach is limited or, perhaps, possesses inherent social circumscriptions. Clunas’s emphasis on the social interactions between aristocratic and bureaucratic elites in generating or appreciating arts and culture leaves one wondering if the kingly courts engaged with other classes of local people in ways other than by displaying their curious form of imperial visibility to the locals. This question is partially answered through Clunas’s defining concept of relay and reproduction: in the case of model calligraphy, this supreme cultural form was ordered into being by the kingly courts with the aid of the craft of subaltern workmen, just as the imperial patriline was perpetuated by means of the bodies of subaltern women. In other words, Screen of Kings succeeds in constructing an organized yet open account of history from the variegated materials it addresses, while it simultaneously raises the reader’s curiosity as to whether those materials might be embedded in an even wider historical messiness—that of a contingent assemblage of labor and personnel participating in the actualization of the relay and reproduction of the imperial imageries and powers. As Clunas is acutely aware, these betwixt-and-between “otherwise” assessments of the kingly courts correspond to the unstable historical processes of negotiation between the imperial and the local, between the past (antique traces or imperial origins) and future (cultural modelling or biological reproduction), and between expected rules (filial piety and loyalty) and temporary distinctions (individual choices and decisions).

As a result, Clunas also argues against seeing relay and reproduction as simply causal or sequential processes. As he points out in the case of calligraphic models, the kingly court was “very sophisticated in its acceptance of plurality and variation, archaeology rather than genealogy” (78). The method of archaeology (in a Foucauldian sense), which determines the differences and similarities between things in order to produce controllable forms of knowledge, has vigorous resonances with Clunas’s approach to his subject. This is evident in his effort to discern snippets of textual records and to utilize scraps and traces of objects to reconstruct the social relationships between the imperial center and the local kingly palaces, as well as in his rigorous interpretation of aristocratic women as historical actors. While admitting the fragmentary aspect of the narrative and deliberately bracketing the “literati” dimension of the whole story of the Ming, Clunas points out that it is exactly such partial nature of evidence that has always grounded the narrative of Ming art (120).

Methodologically, Screen of Kings excels in a substantiated interpretation of the dynamism between aesthetics and power. Clunas concludes that the kingly courts’ practices of calligraphic model compilation, publication, and the construction of gardens are neither “the displacement activities of those denied access to ‘real power’” nor activities staged to “further and thus mask the ‘forms of subjugation’” (196). With a similar recognition of the discursive field of force, Screen of Kings reassures the reader that visual and material objects and representations can act to shape history in ways that previous historical narratives tend to ignore; they are no less powerful than other accepted forms (such as government) that have cast historical knowledge.

Lihong Liu
University of Rochester