Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 23, 2000
Cary Y. Liu and Dora C.Y. Ching, eds. Arts of the Sung and Yuan: Ritual, Ethnicity and Style in Painting Princeton University Art Museum, 1999. many b/w ills. Paper (0943012309)

Chinese art scholarship is undergoing invigorating change, in tandem with the larger field of art history but with special characteristics of its own. The book under review illuminates the political and cultural significance of painting during the first two dynasties of China’s early modern period: the Sung (960-1279) and the Yuan (1279-1368). The original occasion for this volume’s seven papers was a symposium held in conjunction with the 1996 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art entitled Splendors of Imperial China: Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taiwan. A welcome openness to a variety of approaches is nicely reflected in the book’s rather awkward title. The Foreword by Cary Y. Liu presents the symposium within a historical framework by referring to the two times earlier in the twentieth century when artworks from the NPM were shown in Western museums: the International Exhibition in London of 1935, and the Chinese Art Treasures exhibition of 1961-62. Both were landmark events for Chinese art in the West, and so we may read Liu’s mention of these precedents as an invitation to reflect on how greatly the discipline has changed since the early ’60’s. One noteworthy change is that increasing sophistication in sinological training and cultural context, combined perhaps with the recent discrediting of Marxism as a viable political model, has encouraged acknowledgment of political as well as social and cultural aspects of art.

Richard Barnhart’s essay discusses two large landscape paintings in the NPM as products of a Sung loyalist culture in the early Yuan. Fishing in a Cold Riverand Sitting Alone by a Stream, traditionally attributed to Li Ch’eng and Fan K’uan, respectively, each represent “a reconfiguration of [a] great Sung master for another age” (25). Giving much weight to the extensive poetic inscriptions on both paintings, Barnhart is especially persuasive regarding the former work, on which two long poems allude to the disastrous conquest of Sung by the Mongols and are signed with pseudonyms that evoke the martyred Sung loyalist Wen T’ien-hsiang. Both paintings refer stylistically to Sung masters and in so doing amount to “elegiac monuments to the Sung and its ideals” (31). Barnhart blames the obscurity of the two works (and many others) on “a history of art formed on masterpieces”; to see Fishing in a Cold River simply as a falling-off from the Li Ch’eng ideal is to bury whatever is meaningful about it. “An effort has been made here to. . . find the place in time and mind from which this and other paintings like it have disappeared” (23).

Scarlett Jang’s paper explores Sung developments in the painted representation of exemplary scholar-officials, focusing on an interesting divergence in treatment according to the vintage of the subject. Paintings of renowned scholar-officials of the previous T’ang dynasty depicted them “engaged in literati activities in imagined garden-architectural settings,” while earlier versions had shown the figures in a line-up of formal, full-body portraits (39). In the Sung paintings, commemoration of the individual figures’ virtues was less important than conveying a “collective self-image of the Sung literati” (51); and their depicted engagement in the “Four Gentlemen’s Arts” of zither playing, chess, calligraphy, and painting symbolically projected the weightiness of that self-image. But Sung paintings of Sung scholar-officials, such as The Five Old Men of Sui-yang and The Loyang Septuagenarian Society, sought to commemorate the exemplariness of recent individuals and so maintained the old “portrait sequence” treatment. Because the subjects of the latter painting had recently been driven out of office by the Reform administration, their portraits “served as testament to talent and wisdom spurned, and became a critique of political realities of the period” (62).

The essays of both Barnhart and Jang take painting beyond self-expression and reveal its integral role in how people understood their experience and identity. In the third paper, the historian Patricia Ebrey treats Sung imperial portraits, a category that until recently has received little attention. Ebrey blames art historians’ focus on style for this neglect; style has furnished a misleading taxonomy that classes these portraits as uninteresting human figure paintings instead of ritual objects, and they should be seen as the latter. Using a range of Sung sources, she places the painted imperial portraits in their larger historical and ritual contexts. The rites that emperors usually practiced before these paintings were private and informal, which may explain why the painted emperors are shown wearing informal attire compared to the formal dress on ritual portrait statues that were used for more elaborate and public rites. In spite of a generalized consistency in ritual over the generations, this essay makes evident many shifts in approach to ritual, and to the political uses of ritual, that occurred during the course of the Sung.

Cary Liu’s paper discusses imperial ritual of a different sort, providing a case in Ch’ing architectural history of “a renewal of past artistic and institutional prototypes” (113). The Wen-yuan ko, completed in 1776, was a hall for the Ch’ing imperial library that was constructed on the model of a Northern Sung palace library hall, T’ai-ch’ing lou, that was no longer extant in the eighteenth century but was depicted in a mid-eleventh-century handscroll held in the Ch’ing imperial painting collection. Liu offers an interesting theory on the original propagandistic function of this handscroll, which later evolved from a work of “historical commemoration” to “an important model for architectural renewal” (98) when Ch’ing imperial library planners emulated the green-colored, “multi-story, timber-frame palace library typology” suggested in the painting (112). Liu concludes that such revitalizations of old precedent, repeated in other areas and institutions, reflect “patterns and manifestations of culture” as “imperishable” as the literature which these libraries were built to hold (113).

Julia Murray examines the various ways in which a series of poems from classical literature (Seventh Month, part of the Book of Odes) has been visually represented over the centuries, part of her larger project to discern “patterns of evolution” in Chinese narrative illustration. She begins by establishing an important idea that is itself the fruit of long study and discussion: “Prior to the post-Han entrenchment of Buddhism, there was no need for multiple-scene sequential illustrations, and they seem not to have been made” (122). But after continuous-narrative illustrations appeared, both epitomization (from many scenes to one) and “expansion” (one to many) became “possible routes of evolution for narrative subjects that were illustrated in both single-scene and multiple-scene versions” (123). With this basis, Murray surveys known illustrations of Seventh Month and comes up with six approaches or types. She then speculates about the different types’ relative advantages and suggests the period that each one made its appearance. As a study of narrative method, this paper is noteworthy because 1) it doesn’t assume a unilinear pattern of development, and 2) consideration of political function plays a large role in when each narrative type is thought to have originated.

Yu Hui uses his extensive knowledge about China’s various “minority groups” of earlier times to redate Ch’en Chi-chih’s Treaty at the Pien Bridge to the Yuan period, and to analyze its meaning. The painting’s subject is an event of 626 when invading Turks met with T’ang troops outside the capital and sued Emperor T’ai-tsung for peace. However, most of the composition is devoted to a long display of skilled “Turk” horsemanship and acrobatics that is actually modeled on the Ima-shu (equestrian arts) of various northern peoples, especially Tanguts, with whom the artist would have been familiar in the fourteenth century. The artist expresses resentment toward his rulers in dressing as Mongols the Turks who submit to the Emperor, while showing the victorious T’ang troops in contemporary rather than traditional T’ang attire. It is unfortunate that what appears to be a delightful painting is so poorly reproduced.

In the final essay, Hong Zaixin investigates the background, function, and modern obscurity of the large Yuan painting attributed to Liu Kuan-tao, Khubilai Khan Hunting. It has received little attention because the institutional context in which it was made is no longer accessible. Hong shows the considerable “extent to which the image-making activities had become ingrained in the institutional structure of the Mongol Yuan period” (191). He then discusses in depth the different means by which this painting demonstrates Khubilai’s maintenance of ancestral institutions such as hunting, military arrangements, and Mongol household conventions, at the same time that it projects the khan’s “majestic authority” and “dignified bearing characteristic of legitimate Han Chinese emperors” (198). While “there is no more irresponsible or superficial practice than simply equating artistic expression with political implication” in art historical study, this painting’s significance to Mongol rulership is undeniable (198).

Elizabeth Brotherton
State University of New York, New Paltz