Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 10, 2018
Elizabeth Kindall Geo-Narratives of a Filial Son: The Paintings and Travel Diaries of Huang Xiangjian (1609–1673) Harvard East Asian Monographs (Book 389). Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2016. 504 pp.; 130 color ills. Hardcover $89.95 (9780674088436)

This generously illustrated volume is a welcome contribution to scholarship on seventeenth-century Chinese landscape painting and artistic expressions of loyalism to the fallen Ming dynasty (1368–1644) after the rise of the Manchu Qing (1644–1911). In highlighting geo-narrative, a previously unrecognized category of site-specific painting, Kindall has richly contextualized the distinctive works of Huang Xiangjian, a Suzhou artist who gained fame for his extraordinary filial piety.

For several years after the Qing conquest, Huang had no news of his father, Huang Kongzhao (1589–1678), a Ming official sent in 1643 to serve in the far southwest, over a thousand miles away. In early 1652 he embarked on a long, grueling, and dangerous quest to find his parents and return them to Suzhou. Afterward, Huang wrote vivid accounts of the journey and illustrated it in numerous paintings to secure prestigious reputations for himself and his father as well as material livelihood for the family. Huang also painted scenic sites in mountainous Yunnan, which Kindall speculates were intended primarily for his father, who had traveled around the region during and after his time in office. Kindall calls such paintings “geo-narratives,” a category that she defines in the introduction as “a distinct landscape painting tradition lauded for its naturalistic immediacy, experiential topography, and dramatic narratives of moral persuasion, class identification, and biographical commemoration” (2), and that she characterizes as “a luxury good utilized by the growing educated class of the Ming-Qing transition to communicate personal meaning within a well-defined cultural space” (12). Throughout the book, she asserts that geo-narratives illustrated specific, personal journeys whose topographical details and inscriptional commentaries evoked the most profound responses from viewers who not only knew the history and culture of the region but had also experienced it firsthand.

Building on Kindall’s previously published case studies, the book treats three distinct subjects. Chapter 1 surveys the conventions and approaches of Suzhou traditions of site painting, which Huang Xiangjian learned in his early artistic training and later adapted to make the exotic topography of the southwest comprehensible to his intended audience. Ming artists had developed several kinds of Suzhou place painting, ranging from “honorific” depictions in handscrolls and large albums that imbued local landmarks with an elite recipient’s personal identity and status, to “famous site” pictures that were commercial souvenirs for tourists with conventional views of locations codified for their historical, religious, or cultural associations. Honorific works typically portrayed panoramic vistas from high vantage points and included figures representing the recipient and his associates, plus inscriptions providing social context and poetic resonance. By contrast, impersonal sets of conventional views were much smaller and simpler, presenting key motifs as pictorial shorthand for each place and many figures for the viewer to identify with, but little or no writing beyond the artist’s signature. Kindall observes that famous-place paintings generally do not fit her definition of geo-narrative because they rarely conveyed deep personal meaning but “could be adapted to almost any situation” (88–89).

Chapters 2 and 3 analyze Huang Xiangjian’s writings and paintings of the arduous journey to and from Yunnan, braving countless hardships and dangers to bring his parents home. While earlier writers had described the remote region, only a few schematic pictures in gazetteers provided any visual representation before Huang created his paintings. Within three years of the family’s return to Suzhou in mid-1653, Huang made many ink paintings, both singly and in sets with multiple scenes, with inscriptions detailing his experiences and emotions amid daunting challenges and physical dangers. Referring to his travel diary and en-route sketches, Huang created a codified series of named views through which he “narrated his filiality” rather than simply illustrating the itinerary (172). He appears in each scene as a tiny figure carrying an umbrella, and his parents as two small figures in sedan chairs, dwarfed within the formidable landscape of soaring peaks and rushing streams. Kindall suggests that Huang Kongzhao masterminded the entire project of advertising his son’s extreme filial piety and his own loyalty as a Ming official, orchestrating the publication of the travelogues and circulating the paintings through his social network of Ming loyalists, officials, and Buddhist monks. The campaign succeeded: Huang Xiangjian is remembered as a Filial Son, not as a painter.

In chapter 4 Kindall analyzes Huang’s Attaining a Grand View from Mount Jizu, dated 1656, a long handscroll depicting an itinerary with thirty-one labeled landmarks in western Yunnan, from Lake Er near Dali to “Mount Chicken-foot” (Mount Jizu) within sight of the snowy Himalayas. More complex and artistically sophisticated than the ink sketches of his filial odyssey, the scroll presents panoramic scenery from an elevated perspective, and its blue-and-green-style coloring creates an otherworldly ambiance. In his lengthy inscription, Huang linked the peak to the transmission of Buddhism, summarized the region’s political history, noted his father’s connection to the mountain, detailed his own journey there, and rhapsodized about the magnificent view from the summit’s pagoda. Kindall posits that the scroll accommodated “three interrelated levels of experiential reading” (203). The most basic was simply a “traditional painted journey through an exotic region” (203), readily accessible to anyone familiar with earlier travel narratives; a more informed reading required knowledge of the area’s history, Huang’s personal story, and the inscription; at the highest level, the viewer also needed direct experience of the place and the imagination to visualize the entire panorama from the mountaintop, in order to “associate it with the metaphorical implications of a daguan, or grand view” (203). Kindall suggests that only Huang Kongzhao and his close friends could have made the most profound reading and speculates that Huang Xiangjian painted the scroll for his father. In a lengthy disquisition, she traces the political and philosophical symbolism of the grand view to Qin Shihuangdi’s (259–210 BCE; r. 221–210 BCE) tours to sacred mountains and reviews well-known later literature on climbing a height to see into the past, which by the seventeenth century included enlightened understanding of cosmic principle. She thus proposes that “grand view” paintings should be considered a “separate art-historical tradition” (237) in which the most significant variable is not style, as in other types of landscape painting, but personal experience, specified in accompanying inscriptions.

In a similar vein, Kindall argues that the ultimate subject of Huang Xiangjian’s masterly Scenic Frontier of Diannan of 1658, which she treats in chapters 5 and 6, is his father’s life journey and spiritual progress toward sagehood. The eight-leaf album (now mounted as a handscroll) depicts eight separate itineraries through distinctive regions of Yunnan, each introduced by the artist’s four-character title and lengthy inscription that “cues viewers to the site, route, and experience of the upcoming trek” (267). Using techniques from Suzhou site painting and invoking familiar tropes of eremitism, Huang mapped the “traditional iconography of the idyllic retreat of the retired official” onto Yunnan’s exotic landscape, and filled it with “traces of Han colonizers with whom an upright gentleman might identify and commune” (287). Six of the eight locales he depicted were controlled by a Ming prince whose court in Kunming was still resisting the Manchus, so the album’s utopian ambiance addressed loyalist sentiment. Huang’s umbrella-holding figure travels through “the life landscape of his father” as a “narrator and commentator” (339–40), culminating in a scene where his father enters a Buddhist monastery while his son sits on a plateau surveying the grand view. As with the Mount Jizu handscroll, Kindall suggests that the album accommodated multiple levels of interpretation, which were accessible to successively fewer viewers and fully understood only by Huang Kongzhao. Lacking conclusive evidence to support her sometimes speculative identifications of sites and their significance to Huang Kongzhao, a devotee of Wang Yangming (1472–1529), Kindall offers a bricolage of discussions on a range of topics, such as the nature of the self and shared tenets of Chan Buddhism and Taizhou philosophy. She concludes that Huang Xiangjian painted the visually impressive album to portray his father’s spiritual journey to sagehood, perhaps as a highly appropriate gift for the latter’s seventieth birthday. While at times tediously detailed, her argument is creative and intriguing, although some readers may remain unconvinced.

In keeping with her theory that experiential knowledge is essential for full appreciation of place-specific paintings, Kindall personally visited famous sites around Suzhou and retraced Huang’s itineraries in Yunnan, preparing herself like a seventeenth-century visitor by reading local gazetteers and travelogues. Her occasional comments on these excursions enliven her text and could have been expanded in the epilogue, which reports a Suzhou audience’s reaction to a lecture she gave there and affirms that geo-narrative landscapes “narrated various elements of personhood through layered, individualized constructions of physical and experiential topography, cultural and historical topography, and personal topography” (342). Her definition suggests possibilities for reconsidering works of other artists and periods.

Appendix 1 contains a translation of Huang’s travel writings, and appendix 2 itemizes his paintings. Several photographs from Kindall’s travels are reproduced alongside the corresponding painted views; some are too dark or cluttered to be effective. The notes and bibliography indicate that she is well-read in Chinese studies as well as art history; one relevant work that could be added is Wu Hung’s A Story of Ruins: Presence and Absence in Chinese Art and Visual Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012). A handscroll that appendix 2 lists in a Christie’s auction catalogue now belongs to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (acc. no. 2015.784.4).

Julia K. Murray
Professor Emerita, Department of Art History, University of Wisconsin