Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 15, 2017
Martin J. Powers and Katherine R. Tsiang, eds. A Companion to Chinese Art Blackwell Companions to Art History. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015. 584 pp.; 86 b/w ills. Cloth $195.00 (9781444339130)

Meant to serve as a pedagogical tool to “stimulate comparative contemplation about broad and basic issues in the history of art” (1), A Companion to Chinese Art, edited by Martin J. Powers and Katherine R. Tsiang, is a collection of twenty-five essays by some of the leading scholars of Chinese art history, history, and literature. It adopts a thematic structure, devoting five essays to each of five general topics commonly taught within art-historical surveys—production and distribution, representation and reality, theories and terms, objects and persons, and word and image. The volume brings a much-needed interdisciplinary update to older scholarship on Chinese art by engaging with recent research. There is abundant use of primary-source materials in translation, something keenly sought by students and faculty alike. Some essays in A Companion to Chinese Art also apply contemporary Western methodologies to previously discussed works to give the reader a new perspective, as seen, for example, in Xiaoneng Yang’s examination of bronze works within the context of installation and performance art, Tsiang’s new approaches to discussions of the divine, and Qianshen Bai’s inclusion of the performative aspect of certain formats of art, such as fans. Women also make an appearance, something often missing in Chinese art-survey texts; mentioned in several essays, the lengthiest treatment of women in the arts—three pages—is found in Powers’s essay on artistic status and social agency.

This is an ambitious project. Although it includes an essay on commercial advertising by Tani E. Barlow that takes the reader up to the 1940s, A Companion to Chinese Art nonetheless remains firmly rooted in pre-modern Chinese art. With its heavy emphasis on the fine arts of China, i.e., calligraphy and painting, it misses an opportunity to present students with a more holistic view of Chinese material culture past to present. Only two essays deal with the physical places that make up China—Cary Y. Liu’s excellent treatment of architectural spaces and Xin Wu’s essay on garden art. The majority of the contributions deal with the largely elite work that goes into those places; therefore, other important topics receive less attention. Mentions of Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian images, places, and practices are included in several essays, but a clear explanation of the history of these three major influences on Chinese society or how they are differentiated is found only within Tsiang’s essay on the divine.

Each text has its merits, some addressing more traditional topics from fresh perspectives, others presenting often seen but seldom discussed aspects of Chinese material culture—e.g., J. P. Park’s overview of the importance of books, Jessica Rawson’s treatment of ornament within the rubric of personal identity, and Antonia Finnane’s insightful look at fans and mirrors. It is refreshing to see an entire essay by Shane McCausland devoted to figure painting and another by Dora C. Y. Ching to portraiture, two areas often left untreated within earlier textbooks. Peter C. Sturman raises the ultimate question—what makes a work of art great?—while Scarlett Jang, Ronald Egan, Richard Vinograd, and Ginger Cheng-chi Hsü delve further into this question with discussions of collecting and the canon from various angles. Perhaps the oddest essay is Jianhua Chen’s work on popular literature and visual culture, a surprising addition to a section largely devoted to traditional approaches to Chinese painting and poetry (Alfreda Murck’s clear and concise walk through the history linking text and image) and critiques of earlier scholarship (Jerome Silbergeld’s essay on the meaning of “literati” painting). Following on the heels of Susan Bush’s historicizing of Chinese painting greats Gu Kaizhi and Guo Xi and an analysis of the layered meanings of most painted works, Chen’s treatment of voyeurism in China’s most famous erotic novel, The Plum in the Golden Vase (1610), is sure to be popular with students if not with their teachers. It stands out for its treatment of an aspect of Chinese culture largely lacking throughout the volume.

Although the editors “pondered what basic information about China a nonspecialist would need to acquire before rethinking the core issues of the discipline from a higher vista” (1), and although the book succeeds in generating new questions and ways of conceptualizing Chinese art history, it has fallen short of its admirable goals in several respects. Most obviously, a work that was designed to shatter stereotypes surrounding Chinese art inadvertently perpetuates two of the biggest: one, that all Chinese art is imperial; and two, that all Chinese art is monochromatic. While perhaps unintentional, starting off with Patricia Ebrey’s lengthy discussion of court art production seems unwise if the stated goal is to reimagine Chinese art history. Also, given the cost of the textbook, the illustrations are quite poor, all in black and white and many quite dark, with no maps or even a timeline to give a sense of chronology or place. (The electronic version does have color images, but with no resale value, students generally opt for the old-fashioned hardcopy editions of their textbooks). However, McCausland makes excellent use of charts to map out figure painting across history; other such uses of the nonpictorial visual might have helped to illustrate some of the other essays within which the reader can quickly become overwhelmed by names and dates.

More generally, many of the contributions are so dense with Chinese names and terms that they will most likely deter the nonexpert instructor or students. The back and forth of the thematic structure, too, is unconducive to use by students with no background in China studies coming to grips with the arc of Chinese history that underpins the creation of the art, architecture, and artifacts discussed. Further, many if not all of the essays draw comparisons with Western art, artists, or movements, implying that students utilizing this text should have already had serious grounding in Western art history. While this may be the case for advanced undergraduates or graduate students, it is the rare exception at most institutions, where Chinese art history courses serve to fulfill general education requirements and are populated by a broad spectrum of students, many of whom have previously studied neither art history nor China.

Fortunately, with case studies as the operative format for the entire text, the possibility exists for those utilizing A Companion to Chinese Art to expand on points made within any given essay; there are copious references within each text to other artworks outside of the case studies that also serve well to explicate the central point. The trick will be finding those images, many of which are discussed but not illustrated. For the experienced Chinese art historian, most should be recognizable and easily found; but for nonspecialists or the average reader, many require considerable sleuthing to track down. From a pedagogical point of view, sections such as Ebrey’s “Remaining Issues” and “Further Exploration” would have been welcome additions to all of the essays in the volume.

Functionally, A Companion to Chinese Art holds considerable promise. This is not the first Chinese art-history textbook to be arranged thematically: Craig Clunas’s Art in China (2nd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), which is arranged by location (“Art in the Tomb,” “Art in the Temple,” etc.), comes immediately to mind. While also a challenge to work with, it is useful in presenting students a singular voice against which other scholarly perspectives can be considered. A Companion to Chinese Art flips this structure, presenting many voices and viewpoints from which students are expected to create their own vision of China. And that might be the easiest way to utilize this work for a broader cross-section of students—in conjunction with a more traditional approach to Chinese art history such as is found in Michael Sullivan’s The Arts of China (5th ed., Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009) or Robert L. Thorp and Richard Ellis Vinograd’s Chinese Art and Culture (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001). The majority of the essays treat a specific time and topic or, if seeking to look across time, do so in chronological order. All of the sections include further references, and almost all include Chinese terms in both romanized and character format. Finally, each essay within A Companion to Chinese Art exists as a stand-alone entity, individually marked for copyright; hence, it is understood that the essays could be taken as discrete units and rearranged to suit a differing approach or a more specific course topic. This flexibility is arguably one of the most innovative and useful features of A Companion to Chinese Art.

Karil J. Kucera
Professor of Art History and Asian Studies, Departments of Art and Asian Studies, St. Olaf College