Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 23, 2000
Philip K. Hu Visible Traces: Rare Books and Special Collections from the National Library of China Queens Borough Public Library in association with Morning Glory Publishers and Art Media Resources, 2000. 370 pp.; 180 color ills. Paper $65.00 (0964533715)

This exhibition and its accompanying catalogue bring together for the first time in the United States a dazzling variety of Chinese rare books, rubbings and maps from the extensive holdings of the National Library of China, Beijing. This joint enterprise was organized by the National Library of China and the Queens Borough Public Library as part of an on-going effort to increase international professional cooperation and information exchange between these two institutions. While the quality and importance of the objects would easily argue for a major museum venue for this exhibition, the decision to use major public libraries was made as a way to link material that was primarily associated with the written word to the institutions that are the repositories for such material. Just as the objects themselves blur boundaries between art objects and material culture, the library environments allow larger and more diverse public audiences to experience the artifacts of another culture in a more familiar space. One of the great strengths of this exhibition is that it is accessible to a general audience and broadens specialists’ understanding of both print and visual culture in China. The beautifully designed, full-color catalogue of the exhibition is destined to become one of the standard reference works in the field.

The exhibition and catalogue are arranged in four sections: rare books and manuscripts, epigraphical and pictorial rubbings, maps and atlases, and texts and illustrations from China’s ethnic minorities. In the catalogue, the material is organized chronologically in order to show developments and continuities that exist within each medium. Although the chronological scope of the exhibition is immense, covering nearly the entire history of written languages in China, this range is necessary, since the study of the most ancient forms of writings and the objects on which they exist formed the basis for such reproductive technologies as rubbings. The inclusion of such diverse types of objects as rubbings of bronze inscriptions, illustrated books of fiction and manuals of instruction, and maps, also highlights their interrelationships.

The installation of the exhibition at the Queens Borough Public Library differs from the arrangement of material in the catalogue. While the catalogue starts with rare books and manuscripts since they are most clearly related to libraries as well as the most numerous type of object in the exhibition, spatial limitations at the Queens Library site demanded that the large hanging scrolls be displayed toward the front of the gallery space. The epigraphical and pictorial rubbings and maps were thus exhibited on flanking sides of the main gallery space. This deviation had the benefit of uniting the more obviously pictorial material, allowing the viewer to experience a very wide range of techniques and media in the production of images. Since the practice of taking rubbings from engraved stone stelae and pictorial reliefs probably predates the invention of woodblock printing as a means of reproducing text and images, opening the exhibition with this material had the advantage of initially presenting some of the earliest forms of script and stone engravings. The rare books were then placed next to the texts and illustrations from China’s ethnic minorities; this not only linked similar types of objects, primarily focused on texts and their illustrations, but had the advantage of connecting texts associated with the Chinese language and its traditions with those in other languages that have been important parts of the Chinese empire. Because each section could be viewed on its own, and all of the material had points of intersection, the order in which each was viewed was not critical to the overall cohesion of the exhibition.

The beauty and rarity of the books, manuscripts, rubbings and maps and their thoughtful installation highlights the close relationship between textual and pictorial arts in China and the high level of craftsmanship that was involved in the production of these objects. Part of the frustration, though, in any exhibition of books and long handscrolls, is that only a portion of each work can be displayed. The accompanying catalogue gives both a full record of each object in the exhibition and additional full color reproductions of other sections or details of these works. When initially planned, the exhibition only included a brochure with very brief entries on the exhibits. As a result of Philip Hu’s exhaustive research on each object and his commitment to including as much Chinese text as possible, the brochure developed into a larger project. The opportunity to publish the much-expanded catalogue essays came a mere six months before the exhibition opening. Thus, this catalogue is intended as a source book for the objects, but one in which a sophisticated array of physical, technical, aesthetic and historical information come together for each work.

The catalogue begins with a brief introduction written by the curators at the National Library of China that traces the development of Chinese writing systems and the technologies associated with writing and its reproduction, such as the invention of paper, the preservation of documentation through rubbings and woodblock printing. The introduction also provides an overview of the holdings of the National Library of China in these areas and some general characteristics of the kinds of objects present in the exhibition. As the editor Philip K. Hu states in his preface, the individual bilingual catalogue essays do not represent parallel English-Chinese texts, but provide complementary, although often overlapping, types of information. The Chinese version of each entry tends to be more detailed than its English counterpart and contains more specific biographical and historical information. The English entries usually have more analysis of the aesthetic qualities of the works. This bilingual approach will be particularly useful to specialists, who will want to read both essays. In general, the catalogue essays provide a thorough explanation of the historical contexts for each object, as well as detailed information about other extant versions or editions. Hu also gives very thorough descriptions of the physical properties of each work.

The essays in the first section on rare books and manuscripts are exceptionally strong. Hu discusses the texts themselves and their history and meticulously describes their production. In the second section on epigraphical and pictorial rubbings, Hu also explains the history and use of the objects or texts reproduced. He often discusses the collections of Qing and early Republican period scholars and bibliophiles from which many of these objects originated. Throughout the catalogue, the inclusion of some transcriptions and translations of major texts, such as the Kangxi emperor’s preface to the Illustrations of Riziculture and Sericulture and the Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Gathering by Wang Xizhi, enhances the exposition of the works. The entries in the section on maps present the different ways in which geographical information was communicated visually, as well as question the boundaries between map-making and landscape painting. The inclusion of works in languages by various ethnic minorities in China in the last section emphasizes the role of the Qing dynasty in promoting the concept of a unified Chinese empire. The Qing rulers’ status as foreigners, their identification with other north Asian ethnic groups, and patronage of Tibetan Buddhism encouraged the production of texts in various languages, as well as bi- or multilingual texts. Buddhism’s important role as a force of cross-cultural communication and interaction is evident in the works selected for this exhibition.

In addition to these extremely substantial catalogue entries, Hu’s compilation of both individual bibliographies for each object and his general selected bibliography at the end of the volume is truly impressive. Although Hu does not claim to be comprehensive in his bibliographic efforts, the chronological list of sources for each work provides probably the largest variety of sources for the study of these individual objects. The selected bibliography is also extensive, despite the necessary limitations imposed by the editor. One feature that is missing from this volume, which would help the reader utilize this book to its fullest potential, is an index. A catalogue with such a complex variety of material needs an index which can be used effectively as a research resource.

This monumental catalogue will be considered an essential resource in the study of printed and illustrated books, as well as an excellent introduction to the study of epigraphy and maps. Beautifully designed and thoroughly researched, it makes a significant contribution to Chinese studies. Philip Hu’s lucid and comprehensive exposition of these objects and their contexts will be of interest not only to historians, art historians, and literature specialists, but to all scholars who wish to make interdisciplinary connections through visual culture in China.

Kathleen Ryor
Department of Art and Art History, Carleton College

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