Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 15, 1999
Robert E. Hegel Reading Illustrated Fiction in Late Imperial China Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998. 512 pp.; 67 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (0804730024)
Craig Clunas Pictures and Visuality in Early Modern China Princeton University Press, 1997. 221 pp.; 16 color ills.; 80 b/w ills. Cloth $39.50 (1861890087)

Both of these books deal extensively with printed and painted pictures made during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), commonly designated as part of the late imperial era. Clunas and others, however, refer to the years 1500-1800 as China’s early modern period, in part to challenge Eurocentric definitions of modernization and modernity, but also to recognize global connections linking the economy of China with the economies of Europe, the Americas, and other parts of the world at this time.

Craig Clunas is an art historian who has written extensively on Ming dynasty discursive practices regarding various arts. Superfluous Things: Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China explored social implications of connoisseurship literature. Fruitful Sites: Garden Culture in Ming Dynasty China argued for major changes in the conceptualization of what constituted a proper elite garden.1 Before becoming professor of the history of art at Sussex University, the author served for years as a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum. This experience, together with his keen interest in theoretical issues, makes Clunas well-positioned to propose new frameworks for analyzing the plethora of pictures to be found in Ming paintings, illustrated books, porcelains, lacquerware, embroideries, molded ink blocks, stationery, and other objects.

In a series of essays, Clunas argues for a severe disjunction between Ming artistic practices and theory, between the obvious popularity of figurative themes decorating luxury goods and written evidence decrying such decor as vulgar (p. 166-67). He presents his book as an attempt to take into account those “silenced” by the “better informed, the vociferous, the theoretically au courant who have had such a good hearing up to now” (p. 22-23). Yet this very formulation appears to accept the premises of their rhetorical superiority. Some Ming scholars who defended the value of narrative stories with didactic themes were indeed conservative.2 However, one could argue that artists, publishers, and manufacturers exploring the commercial and artistic possibilities of the increasingly blurred distinctions between paintings and other types of pictures were quite well-informed and innovative. The complexity of some of the art they produced also has implications for the levels of education and visual sophistication of those who consumed the goods they produced and marketed.

Clunas claims that by the early 16th century, figural representation was losing esteem among Ming critics, because such subject matter was increasingly the domain of professional painters. He notes, “Ming objects are covered in figural representation at precisely the point when Ming aesthetic ‘theory’ confined them to a distinctly inferior status” (p. 42-43). However, recent advances in the study of Chinese painting indicate that we should not define elite practices solely by what nonprofessional artists did or did not paint. Elite values were also conveyed through patronage and purchases. Many famous painters of the 16th and 17th centuries specialized in figural themes. Moreover, He Liangjun (1506-1573), an early formulator of orthodox aesthetic values, validated professional figure painters by including them in a sanctioned lineage.3 It is by no means clear that Ming critics defined figure painting as inferior to other genres.

Clunas argues that from 1400 to 1700 the elite increasingly emphasized the superiority of selfreferential pictures (those alluding to other pictures based on arthistorical knowledge), while denigrating the value of referential, or narrational pictures. He acknowledges that there were interchanges between these two types, which he characterizes as “iconic circuits” (p. 48). I am not convinced of the heuristic value of these categories, partly because it discourages us from considering narrational pictures as doing more than instantiating familiar stories in simplistic ways. However, Clunas’s analysis of specific examples of books that helped make certain stories easily recognizable for people with modest levels of literacy is extremely valuable (p. 41-55). The increased commodification of knowledge made certain canonical stories more widely known and thus, less exclusive markers of elite status. Paintings with rich art-historical allusions and contextual inscriptions could still denote erudition and good taste, but it probably was much harder in the so-called decorative arts to differentiate ways canonical stories could be instantiated. Rejecting figural themes as appropriate decor for luxury goods was one way to avoid appearing to share the tastes of less educated consumers.

One of the most interesting frameworks Clunas explores is the role of various art objects as gifts and containers for presents. He argues, “Taking ‘the gift’ as an analytical category, no matter how crude, is a useful way of cutting across fine art/decorative art distinctions with regard to Ming objects” and notes that recognizing the importance of gifts in establishing and maintaining social relationships in Ming China also “enables us to get a handle on the whole question of the circulation of images” (p. 58). Even Wen Zhenheng (1585-1645), who elsewhere is represented as critical of figurative subjects on luxury objects, wrote about the types of narrative subjects appropriate as gifts or for other occasions. A central thesis of Clunas’s book is that it is just as important to consider in what context pictures were seen as to examine what was depicted. (p. 57-58)

At this point, it may be useful to introduce Robert Hegel’s book briefly, so that the two studies may be considered together. Hegel, professor of Chinese and comparative literature at Washington University, St. Louis, specializes in the history of Chinese vernacular literature. Hegel’s book is a comprehensive survey tracing the history of vernacular fiction; of publishing techniques, materials, and formats; of painted and printed illustrations; and of the consumption of printed books. To provide sufficient background for these separate chapters, he explores a variety of literature and visual imagery from the 9th through the 19th centuries. Most surveys of Chinese woodblock illustrations are in Chinese, so Hegel’s discussion of 67 plates is a valuable contribution to studies in European languages. It is a tremendous advance as a history of reading in China, the lack of which Clunas bemoaned in his book published one year earlier.

The two authors disagree regarding elite attitudes toward woodblock-printed book illustrations during the late Ming. Clunas portrays them as ambivalent at best. (p. 33-37) He observes that the elite authors wrote very little about such prints and notes that the connoisseurship books generally lack illustrations, even though pictures would have been useful. He supports his argument that illustrated books were seen as vulgar by noting that Du Xinfu’s Bibliography of Ming Titles only rarely signals the presence of illustrations in titles; however, the evidence for this is by no means clear, as he acknowledges in a note and as one can see by comparing his comments with those of Hegel.4

In contrast, Hegel tends to present the educated elite in the late Ming dynasty as appreciating well-designed and expertly carved illustrations. He does not cite many supportive comments of late Ming authors, but instead notes features of the finer editions that might have appealed to elite readers.5 Hegel proposes that the move toward isolating the illustrations from the text by placing them in a separate volume may have signaled that readers needed neither help with reading nor with visualizationa reading practice advocated by late Ming critics who wrote the commentaries published with some vernacular fiction. Such commentaries emphasize the sophistication required to fully appreciate the best fiction and were not written as aids for readers with only rudimentary literacy. Hegel speculates that isolation of the illustrations also may have facilitated prolonged appreciation of the pictures. (pp. 318, 320-25) This possibility should be considered in light of Clunas’s claim that intense study of a few works was a distinctive feature of elite modes of viewing paintings. Clunas sees this “reticence of vision” as running counter to “the expanded sphere of the pictorial found in things like books, and on figuratively decorated ceramics, lacquer, textiles and other luxury goods” (p. 113-14). In this statement Clunas raises an issue that he does not address systematically in this book. How does the diversified pictorial realm of Ming China compare with the situation in earlier dynasties? Figurative decor had occurred on luxury goods and even on relatively inexpensive stonewares since the Song dynasty. (p. 960-1279)

Clunas tends to downplay evidence of elite involvement in the production and consumption of illustrated books, whereas Hegel notes, for example, that Mr. Cheng’s Garden of Ink [Block Designs] includes essays by Dong Qichang (1555-1636), a noted advocate of the superiority of amateur literati painting traditions, and that a collection of lyrics by Wang Zhideng (1535-1632), familiar to most art historians for his short history of Suzhou painters, was published in an illustrated edition. (pp. 196, 198)

Evidence for elite involvement in book publishing is often problematic because the names of leading scholar-officials and famous painters sometimes were appropriated to enhance commercial success or for other purposes. This falsification was done to the names of everyone from the purported compilers to those writing laudatory prefaces and renowned painters credited with providing the models on which the illustrations were carved.

Educated professional artists clearly were involved in designing some illustrations for published dramas, collections of designs for ink blocks, books of scenic spots done in the styles of earlier artists, drinking cards, etc. However, sometimes publishers of fiction claimed that designs for the illustrations were based on works by well-known professional painters active earlier in the Ming, but these were probably instead done by anonymous commercial artists. Hegel concludes that the relatively affluent consumers either were persuaded by such claims or found them meaningful as a way to associate outstanding woodblock prints with works by professional painters, who still were highly respected during the late Ming period. (p. 281) However, for some, such attributions probably inspired only scorn, much as certain cultural arbiters disdained those fooled by the forgeries flooding the art market, a topic analyzed by Clunas in Superfluous Things.

One interesting case raising the issue of elite involvement in book publishing is Xiong Fei’s (fl. 1620-40) publication of The Roster of Heroes, a Combined Printing, which Hegel cites as an example of “subversive ways of utilizing received narrative materials” (p. 40). Each page was divided into sections with the text of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms printed along the bottom and that of The Water Margin, on the top. One hundred illustrations were published as a separate volume, each accompanied by a poem and often by a brief prose comment on the picture attributed to famous literati of the recent past known for their opposition to the powerful eunuch Wei Zhongxian (1568-1627), thus linking the older historical novels with contemporary events. Hegel first presents this information in a straightforward manner, but later raises some doubts, acknowledging that they might be false attributions.6 In either case, these illustrious names recontextualized the earlier novels. It is interesting that one of these literati, Wen Zhenmeng (1574-1636), was the elder brother of Wen Zhenheng, the author Clunas concludes belittled contemporary illustrated books by omitting them from consideration in his connoisseurship manual.

Progress in understanding the commercial and political strategies of book publishers, authors, and illustrators should help scholars evaluate arguments made by Julia Curtis and Stephen Little regarding the possibility of subversive political subtexts in the decor of some types of porcelains produced at Jingdezhen during the so-called “Transitional Period,” occurring in the late Ming and early Qing dynasties (1644-1912).7 Neither Hegel nor Clunas addresses their arguments, which pose serious challenges to conventional ideas of the role of “decor” on functional objects.

Hegel’s key thesis is that vernacular fiction and woodblock-printed illustrations were held in greater esteem during the late Ming than in the Qing dynasty (1644-1912); however, he is not always consistent in how he characterizes elite attitudes toward such illustrations or their designers.8 He notes that books with finely designed and carved illustrations were rarer in the Qing, when fiction began to be published in small formats, quite unlike the practices prevalent in the Ming, when formatting and other features tended to link fiction with other subject matter rather than to isolate it.9 Not all literary historians will agree with his conclusion that vernacular fiction was less respected during the Qing, or with his assumption that we should judge esteem for vernacular literature based on publication quality.

Hegel relates his narrative of the changing fortunes of vernacular fiction to what he sees as the declining status of professional painters in the Qing dynasty, a development he credits Dong Qichang for initiating in the late Ming period.10 It is debatable, however, whether the status of professional painters declined during the Qing dynasty. Moreover, the distinction between professionals and amateurs had been articulated by much earlier critics, such as Su Shi (1036-1101). This is not to suggest that there was an unbroken chain linking Su with Dong, but only to note that the distinction had been a rhetorical issue for some time, one that always needs to be tested against evidence for actual practices.

A major challenge in evaluating elite attitudes toward vernacular literature and pictures in diverse media is trying to decode tensions among politically powerful officials (who by the 15th century sometimes came from the ranks of mercantile families) and politically marginal but often highly literate merchants and educated professional authors and artists who benefited from the increasingly commercialized society of the late imperial/early modern period. Both authors define membership in the elite rather broadly, which may well be necessary, but also presents problems, because the elite was by no means homogeneous.

Clunas opposes a simple equation of different types of art objects with members of specific social status groups and acknowledges that an object did not carry a single, uncontested meaning for all who saw it. (pp. 40-41, 76) However, he undercuts these theoretical positions by assertions of elite consensus regarding the vulgarity of figural decor on luxury objects, illustrations in books, and other matters of taste. He often seems to imply that the true elite consisted only of those cognoscenti who wrote scornfully of the vulgar taste of others, variously defined as merchants, eunuchs, women, or educated men from other regions.

Hegel employs a loose definition of elite status, but makes some useful distinctions among readers based on comparisons of different kinds of vernacular fiction, sometimes of different editions of the same stories. (p. 294-303) He recognizes that a given work could appeal in different ways to diverse readers, and also that a given elite person could read for different purposes. In some novels and short stories, the subject matter, style of language, lack of sophisticated literary techniques, and other features indicate a type of literature that appealed widely, even to highly educated readers who sometimes enjoyed light entertainment. What Hegel calls “literati fiction” might be enjoyed on a simple level by many, but was appreciated fully only by highly educated, careful readers. A similar analysis of different potential levels of interpretation for art objects might be undertaken, taking as its model Clunas’s exploration of a wide range of literature recounting famous stories, from those in Classical Chinese to popularized versions in vernacular Chinese.

In the future, one hopes that specialists engaging in interdisciplinary research and collaboration will turn their attention to an earlier stage in the commercialization of Chinese society. Although Hegel surveys some evidence for the Song dynasty, he did not utilize Maggie Bickford’s fascinating article on Song Boren’s Register of Plum Blossom Portraits.11 Much more research needs to be done on the fine underglaze-blue porcelains and cheaper Cizhou-wares decorated with scenes from vernacular literature that existed long before fine woodblock prints frequently accompanied such literature. It is often said that prints link paintings with decor in other media, but this is a thesis that should be examined more critically, especially for the 12th through 15th centuries.

Both of these books explore complex artistic practices and raise important questions, but necessarily do so without the benefit of a deep substratum of focused studies. However, there are signs that this foundation is expanding.12 Many important questions thus remain, but these two books should stimulate others to explore the complexities of visual and literary culture in China during the late imperial/early modern era and earlier. Reading these two books in conjunction, one realizes how important it will be to consider pictures in a variety of contexts: framed by the history of pictorial conventions operative within a specific medium but also among different media, in relation to the full range of potentially relevant texts, and in conjunction with studies of the history of Chinese musical dramas and operas.

Kathlyn Liscomb
University of Victoria, British Columbia

1 Published respectively in Urbana and Chicago, 1991, and London, 1996.

2 For the views of a conservative critic, see Sewall Oertling, Painting and Calligraphy in the Wu-tsa-tsu: Conservative Aesthetics in Seventeenth-Century China, Ann Arbor, Mich., 1997, esp. pp. 123-4, 194.

3 He Liangjun, “Siyouzhai hua lun,” in Meishu congshu, (Taibei, 1947 rprt. ed.), vol. 3, i 3, i 1, 38-39.

4 Clunas, 34, n. 33; and Hegel, 141, 303-04, and 313, n. 46, where he cites Clunas’s presentation at the 1994 meeting of the Association for Asian Studies, Boston: “Words and Images in Ming Books,” without addressing its challenge to his own analysis.

5 Hegel, epigraph for ch. 4 (identified on p. 404) and 292 (but it is n. 4, not n. 5) for his citation of one author’s defense; and for aspects appealing to elite readers: 110, 133, 172, 179, 184, 192, 197, 200-01, 204, 206-07, 216-24, 251-60, 264, 282-83, 317.

6 Hegel, 40-41, 204, 206, and n. 39 on 410. Closer editing should have corrected these inconsistencies as well as the slightly different titles in both Chinese and in translation.

7 See Julia B. Curtis, with an essay by Stephen Little, Chinese Porcelains of the Seventeenth Century: Landscapes, Scholars’ Motifs and Narratives, exh. cat., China Institute Gallery, China Institute, New York, 1995, for examples and further bibliography.

8 Hegel, 253, 268, 270, 275, 287.

9 Ibid., 121-23, 152, 213, 216, 233.

10 Ibid., 270-72, 286-87.

11 “Stirring the Pot of State: the Sung PictureBook: MeiHua HsiShen P’u and Its Implications for Yuan Scholar-Painting,” Asia Major, 3rd series, VI/2, 1993, 169-225.

12 In addition to studies cited by Clunas and Hegel, a valuable contribution is that of Scarlett Jang, “Form, Content, and Audience: A Common Theme in Paintings and WoodblockPrinted Books of the Ming Dynasty,” Ars Orientalis XXVII, 1997, 126. Presentations of work in progress include: Anne BurkusChasson’s paper at the symposium held in conjunction with the exhibition “Splendors of Imperial China: Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei” at the Art Institute of Chicago, July 1996: “Liu Yuan’s Lingyan’ge and Practices of Reading in SeventeenthCentury Suzhou,” which is the subject of her book manuscript; Suzanne Wright’s paper at the College Art Association meeting, Toronto, February 1998: “Looking at Writing Papers in Late Ming China,” based on her dissertation research at Stanford University; and a paper I gave on the same panel entitled “Li Bai, a Hero Among Poets, in the Visual, Dramatic and Literary Arts of China” will be published by the Art Bulletin.