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Among the questions that have piqued the interest of Chinese art historians most in recent years is how painters were paid. Negotiations with patrons and clients were almost never a matter of record; indeed, fiscal transactions were rarely discussed, even by the parties involved, but rather conducted on the basis of mutually understood codes of value, taste, and reciprocity. Compensation might well come in the form of gifts and favors rather than money, further obscuring the outlines of the transaction. Ginger Hsü’s A Bushel of Pearls: Painting for Sale in Eighteenth-Century Yangchow joins a number of recent studies that illuminate aspects of this very private market system and goes further than any in producing a detailed, complex, and convincing picture of painters’ livelihood in a specific historical setting.
That setting is the southern city of Yangzhou in the eighteenth century, a thriving urban center known for fine crafts and luxury goods, flourishing service and entertainment industries, and freelance painters catering to a variegated clientele. Hsü begins by sketching in the characteristics and conditions of “painting as a commodity” in this milieu. The most popular subjects were flowers and fruit, often in color; figural scenes relevant to the local urban experience also had a place, while landscape, the prime subject of painting in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, assumed a minor position. A prevailing aesthetic of guai, the eccentric, helped to shape a local period style. People favored paintings with an expressive air: sketchy, abbreviated styles emphasizing brush performance, embellished with autobiographical or self-reflective inscriptions—features suggesting a personal relationship between artist and owner, in keeping with traditional literati values. The resulting product—informal, personal, decorative—was a distinctive mix of the literary and the commercial.
Hsü’s second chapter is a fascinating overview of social life among the city’s elite, focusing on the brothers Ma Yueguan and Ma Yuelu, wealthy salt merchants and prominent figures in local commerce and culture. Unstintingly generous as patrons of the arts and scholarship, the two Mas hosted literary gatherings, assisted talented men of modest means, and otherwise helped catalyze intellectual and artistic activity. They were particularly involved in the book world, assembling an outstanding private library, publishing high-quality editions, sponsoring and participating in bibliographic studies, and welcoming scholars to use their collections. Under this kind of patronage, the economic lives of painters were substantially the same as those of poets, scholars, and musicians: negotiating their livelihoods and moving about socially by marketing their talent. The lines between merchants and intellectuals faded as the groups mingled to their mutual advantage.
In the following chapters Hsü presents as case studies the stories of four painters different in class background, education, and professional strategies who made their careers largely in Yangzhou: Fang Shishu, Huang Shen, Zheng Xie, and Jin Nong. Fang Shishu represents something close to a traditional literati artist of the old school. A highly educated scholar from a secure class background, he moved in the best circles of Yangzhou society, enjoying the hospitality of wealthy friends who appreciated his company and his literary attainments as well as his art. He practiced landscape painting in the conservative orthodox style of the last century; exchanges of obligations and rewards with his patrons were of the elegant, unspoken kind, based on mutual understanding and trust, of gentry artists and their social peers in the Ming.
In contrast, Huang Shen was a professional painter of craftsman background with no formal education and no degrees. He spent most of his life as a traveling artist in the Jiangnan region and beyond. He seldom painted landscapes, specializing instead in a wide range of other subjects, including flowers and plants and figures of all kinds, from legendary heroes to street people. Aware of the value of literary skills and of an individualistic painting style, he studied to master them; his blunt, sketchy paintings inscribed with poetry in eccentric calligraphy earned him comparisons with icons like Wu Daozi and Li Bai. Prominent citizens bought his work (though they did not ask him to their literary gatherings); unencumbered by the social restrictions of the scholar-artist, he also sold on the open market. The chapter concludes with a short section on another craftsman-painter, Hua Yan, with a view to demonstrating that this was one of the characteristic career trajectories of painters at the time.
Hsü’s third artist, Zheng Xie, was from a poor but educated family. Early years of struggle led to success in the examinations and a lucrative official career, after which he settled into a comfortable retirement, painting orchids, bamboo, and rocks in monochrome ink—impeccable literati subjects. Zheng painted largely as a pastime, but he expected to be paid in cash. He had little respect for the old custom of using paintings and writings as gifts to earn and discharge favors and looked down on the guest-painter status of people like Fang Shishu. From his secure position, he felt free to discuss questions of payment directly, as his famous no-nonsense price list attests.
Jin Nong’s background is obscure, but he seems to have been a commoner. Though deeply learned and highly regarded as a poet, he had no official career, instead traveling about and making his way improvisationally, collecting and dealing in antiquities, advising people on their acquisitions, and running a workshop with craftsmen carving inkstones, copying books, and making lanterns, which Jin ornamented with calligraphy. In his old age, ill and unable to travel, he took up painting; his subjects are plum and bamboo, animals, figures, and Buddhist subjects. Though his work did not sell well, his amateurish style— like Huang Shen’s virtuoso sketchiness—answered to the taste for artlessness and eccentricity, while his archaistic calligraphy had the cachet of the ancient and erudite.
With this book the old essentializing view of “eccentric” Yangzhou culture and art can be finally shelved, replaced by a much more complicated, real, and interesting picture of an urban community accommodating itself to rapid change through a multitude of strategies. I have summarized the narrative in some detail because richness of detail is one of its most valuable contributions. Hsü gives us a cornucopia of stories culled from a wide range of sources, well documented and well interpreted, that bring the Yangzhou scene vividly to life and open it up to a new level of study and analysis.
Acknowledging at the start that she is setting aside the “creative energy of the individual artist,” Hsü has built her book on the premise that “eighteenth-century Yangchow painting was an artistic product shaped by a collective social and cultural experience and by a constant exchange between a group of urban artists and their audience” (3). Framed in this way, every artistic move made by these painters is taken to be commercially motivated, with no space for the expressive momentum of their own ideas and visions. The picture is, in other words, incomplete in important ways. And though her writing is highly engaging, the author’s frequent reiteration of basic points and restatement of conclusions renders the progress of her argument somewhat spongy in places, seeming to circle rather than advance. But these are minor flaws in an altogether valuable and important book about the business of painting—and not just as it was practiced in eighteenth-century Yangzhou, but well beyond it in both time and space. The Yangzhou scene was certainly distinctive, but comparable customs were widely current. It will be useful and stimulating to anyone interested in art production almost anywhere in Ming and Qing China.
Susan E. Nelson