Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 5, 2001
Alfreda Murck Poetry and Painting in Song China: The Subtle Art of Dissent Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. 406 pp.; many b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (0674002431)

In late eleventh-century China, a group of disaffected government officials, their careers in disarray and their lives sometimes at risk, found ways to express political dissent and personal grievances through the use of literary allusions. Expressing dissatisfaction could be dangerous, so these allusions had to be oblique; a reference to spotted bamboo, for instance, evoked an ancient legend about loyal wives searching in vain for their dead lord. Recognizing such an allusion in a poem or in a painting, and understanding its implications in the contemporary context, required considerable erudition as well as a sympathetic alertness to the author’s intentions. Circulating among like-minded people, these coded expressions of protest and discontent were relatively secure from outsiders’ scrutiny. They are even more difficult to access today—or have been, I should say. This impressively researched, deeply ruminated book opens the door to their meaning.

Central to this imagery of protest is the cultural history of the XiaoXiang region, an area south of the Yangzi river (corresponding roughly to modern Hunan province) long associated with thwarted hopes, neglected talent, and undeserved rejection, “a place of unjust exile.” Alfreda Murck begins with a compelling account of the history of XiaoXiang literature and its consolidation in the late eleventh century as a sourcebook for images of dissent. Chapter 1, “A Millennium of XiaoXiang Laments,” reviews stories of famous people, legendary and historical, who were exiled to the region or stranded there, and writings by or about them and their melancholy fates. These figures include the loyal wives whose tears spotted the bamboo—the minister Qu Yuan (c. 343-c. 277 BCE) who, slandered by his enemies and dismissed from office, drowned himself in grief and rage—and an array of others down to Du Fu and other Tang poets. Several centuries later, in the factionalized environment of Shenzong’s (r.1067-85) court, disempowered officials drew on this corpus of XiaoXiang literature for indirect ways to express their own disappointments, resentments, and subversive thoughts. Murck’s second chapter describes the political circumstances of this “Defining Moment” in Northern Song history, which gave rise to the iconography of dissent.

In the next three chapters, Murck examines the codes of poetic allusion deployed by these embattled scholars. An important practice was matching rhymes—composing poems using the same rhyme words as another text, thereby invoking and manipulating its meanings to contemporary effect. Needless to say, intimate knowledge of a literary canon was essential to both writers and readers of this demanding verse form. Murck argues that eleventh-century scholars sometimes used parallel strategies in making pictures: painting titles and imagery could similarly invoke and comment on relevant poems. Her discussion focuses on the Eight Views of XiaoXiang, a set of paintings by Song Di, one of the aggrieved officials of Shenzong’s reign. The paintings are lost, but Song’s eight four-character painting titles—"Geese Descending to Level Sand," “Sail Returning from Distant Shore,” “Mountain Market, Clearing Mist,” and so on—have been recorded. Murck argues that these titles, taken together, echo the structure of a poem in the form of “regulated verse”; and furthermore that embedded in each title is an allusion to XiaoXiang literature and lore. The suite of titles, in other words, amounts to a densely coded litany on themes of exile and loss. The lost paintings, presumably, were a similar litany in visual form. Chapter 3, “Infusing Painting with Poetry,” explains the processes summarized above. Chapters 4 and 5 scrutinize Song Di’s eight titles and their sources in earlier poetry, primarily that of Du Fu, who was intensely admired by the Northern Song literati.

In Chapters 6 and 7, Murck turns to extant images produced in these late eleventh-century circles, each a case study in the uses of allusive poetry and poetry-infused painting as a commentary on wrongs. They include Wang Shen’s painting Misty River, Layered Peaks and his dialogue over it with Su Shi in a series of four poems; Wind in the Pines, a calligraphic masterpiece by Huang Tingjian; and Huang’s poetic exchanges with the monk Zhongren, a resident of the XiaoXiang region and a painter of plum blossoms. Chapter 8 considers paintings and texts on painting at the court of Emperor Huizong (r. 1100-1125), when most of the dissenting scholars discussed in the preceding chapters were dead and their works proscribed. The paintings examined here, Li Tang’s Boyi and Shuqi and the “Qingming” scroll, represent a contrasting “visual rhetoric” of imperially sponsored projects celebrating an “era of peace and order.”

In her concluding two chapters, Murck returns to the imagery of the XiaoXiang region. The subject of Chapter 9 is the earliest extant set of Eight Views of XiaoXiang, a mid-twelfth-century handscroll painting by Wang Hong. Wang’s compositions draw on a suite of XiaoXiang verses, inspired by Song Di’s titles, composed by the monk Huihong a few decades before; his imagery is tinged by the Buddhist tone and perspective that pervade the monk’s poems. Murck believes that the “infusion” of poetry in painting may encompass not only the illustration of specific lines or motifs and the attempt to capture a poem’s feeling or mood, but also the replication of poetic techniques of exposition and allusion: the transposition of literary structures into pictorial forms. She argues that Wang Hong “paints like a poet” in this sense (as well as the others), composing his scenes according to the principles of regulated verse.

The last chapter considers the uses of XiaoXiang and related themes in twelfth- and thirteenth-century paintings. These pictures include Dream Journey over XiaoXiang by Li of Shucheng; Ma Yuan’s Eight Views of XiaoXiang preserved in an eighteenth-century copy; some other compositions from the circles of the court such as Ma Yuan’s Composing Poetry on a Spring Outing and the Seventh Month from the Odes of Bin (both ingeniously contextualized and interpreted); and the well-known XiaoXiang fragments by the Buddhist monk-painters Muqi and Yujian.

This was not an easy book to organize. The material is presented in chronological order, leaving the chapters on Song Di’s XiaoXiang titles widely separated from those concerning extant XiaoXiang paintings. And Murck’s extended, penetrating explorations of specific texts and images—each powerfully described in its historical particularity—have a stand-alone interest that also breaks up the narrative and somewhat impedes its momentum. No matter. What emerges is a collection of outstanding case studies that the field will turn to for years to come.

Certain objections that the book may provoke are not hard to anticipate. Setting aside specific points of interpretation, two issues of a general nature should be noted. First, Murck’s approach to the material is almost exclusively political, and some will find her interpretive agenda too single minded. If her protagonists had outside interests, or ever thought (or wrote or painted) about anything but injustice and loss, one would hardly know it from this book. Indeed, Murck goes so far as to suggest that literati interest in painting was directly related to the discovery of its potential for political expression. Secondly, this is predominantly a literary study. Not only is a major part of it given over to literary analysis, but there is hardly a visual image or pictorial device that is not explained in light of a literary source or archetype. Art historians may take issue with this emphatic privileging of verbal over visual material.

In my view, though, these approaches suit Murck’s project and are justified by her findings. As she makes clear from the beginning, she is concerned with a limited number of paintings produced in very singular contexts. The private vocabulary of dissent used in those contexts is now out in the light of day, and the literary frames and dimensions of the paintings are seen in all their richly layered complexity—the paintings can never again be disaggregated from them. Murck has a superb knowledge of Song literati culture. Her elegant, carefully annotated translations, flanked by the Chinese texts, are rigorous and authoritative. Her work on the poems is an exhaustive exercise in close reading—too close, it may be, for the browsing reader, but for researchers working on this and related material an exceptional resource. And every reader will be well rewarded by her insights into the lived experiences of her protagonists and the nature of their intellectual community, as well as by the world of meanings she has uncovered in a group of difficult, subtle works of art. It is an essential book.

Susan E. Nelson
Indiana University