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CLP 31: 1999 Discussant paper for session on "Visual Dimensions of Chinese Culture"

James Cahill's discussant paper for "Visual Dimensions of Chinese Culture" symposium, March 26, 1999


Both of these excellent papers fit very well the theme of this session, "Artistic Production in Practical Context," and in most respects offer model approaches to this problem, one that increasingly occupies both art historians and general historians. It is a relatively new direction of research, impeded as it was in earlier times by the well-known reluctance of traditional Chinese scholars and their latter-day followers to recognize that the creation of calligraphy and painting had any practical context at all. Studies pursuing this direction are thus necessarily revisionist, as are both these papers. Both show how "cultural capital" could be turned to political purpose, whether by an emperor or by a highly respected scholar-calligrapher.

Pat's paper, an excerpt from her book-in-progress, indicates the direction that her expected revisionism is going to take. Against the standard portrayal of Hui-tsung as a good painter and connoisseur but a weak emperor, an account that linked his failings as monarch with his fervor for aesthetic pursuits, she sees his multilevel engagement with art as in large part politically motivated, aimed at "making his court the cultural center of the realm." The thesis is generally convincing, at least to this reader. I especially admire her section on how Hui-tsung adapted his strategies to the changing conditions of the time, such as the spread of printing (pp. 23-24)--this is new and enlightening. For most of the paper, I could offer only small suggestions, such as the wisdom of distancing one's self a bit more from the claims made by the participants in the situation under scrutiny. For instance, instead of writing that we today can see Li Gonglin as "painting mostly for self-expression," it might be better to write that we can see him "as having claimed to paint mostly for self-expression"--the nature of his paintings, such as the scroll in Beijing with 1,286 horses and 143 horsemen, seems ill-matched to the idea of self-expression, which for him must have been more a matter of rhetoric than of real intent. And the suggestion in her Final Remarks that Hui-tsung's aesthetic bent and real love of the arts "do not mean that he was a romantic preoccupied with expressing his individual genius" may, I feel, be somewhat misleading--no one would argue that, and the deliberate impersonality of his style indicates that he wouldn't have either. That ideal belonged rather to the other camp, the literati artists, who claimed it for themselves even when (as with Li Gonglin) their paintings denied it. I would say that generally the distinctions in theory and taste and practice between Confucian literati and court, or outer and inner court, could be sharpened in some of the arguments.

When, for instance, toward the end of her paper, Pat credits Hui-tsung's "pushing his court painters to paint in a highly descriptive style, probably knowing such technical virtuosity was not easily matched by artists working outside the court" as one of his positive achievements, she does not take enough account, I would say, of the growing critical disfavor for this "highly descriptive style" outside the court. To write that he "rejected the distinction between court and literati culture implicit in much literati art criticism" again puts too positive a spin, perhaps, on what looks more like a defensive reaction of someone for whom old values seemed threatened.

Pat acknowledges (pp. 1-2), that the "amateur ideal" promoted by Su Shih and others "challenged court taste in painting" and calligraphy, then raises the question of how important these challenges were in weakening the cultural centrality of the court. Not so important, her answer would appear to be; very important, I would be more inclined to say, putting more weight, again, on the inner court- outer court distinction. The literati-court divergence in such basic matters as stylistic directions and criteria of evaluation may mark the first major bifurcation in the Chinese painting tradition, and was to prove decisive. But the question cannot be addressed effectively without attention to the paintings themselves. I will return to that point later.

Bai Qianshen's paper is an important addition to the growing body of studies that expose the realities often hidden behind the amateur ideal--since the ideal was more attractive and flattering to the artist, the realities remained invisible for centuries, until the taboo against looking at them was finally lifted (so recently that it's hard to recall the opposition one faced in writing about them, only a few years ago.) These realities include long, laborious work, sometimes supplemented by the employment of ghost painters or writers as aids in meeting the demand; pressures from people who could exact work from the artist without offering material recompense; compromises, sometimes indignities, as the literatus saw his status and talents turned into marketable commodities. Bai's presentation of Fu Shan brings out all these contradictions and dilemmas, but also Fu's success in exploiting the strengths of his cultural prominence.

Fascinating throughout the paper are the slippages between Fu Shan's writing as text, conveying messages to people through letters, and his writing as calligraphy, appreciated aesthetically by the recipients. This is seen most poignantly in a letter written by Fu Shan to an official ( p. 17), asking for his advice and support in a touchy matter, and asking him at the end to burn the letter after reading it. "Do not keep it. Be sure of that" he writes, but to no avail: the recipient, an admirer of Fu Shan's calligraphy, could not bring himself to destroy an example of it. Elsewhere (e.g. p. 18), letters from Fu Shan making requests that might well have been embarrassing to him are similarly preserved as his calligraphy. Bai Qianshen views this slippage positively, remarking that it has served to "preserv[e] an important historical document because of its calligraphic value." But what if the letter had really gotten Fu Shan into trouble? He might have wished he had had the letter copied by someone with a clumsy hand, and sent the copy.

Fascinating also are Bai's paragraphs (pp. 50-51) on the seemingly symbiotic relationships between Han Chinese serving as officials under the Manchus and the loyalists whom they supported, and who served as "symbolic resources" for them; and also his observation on Fu Shan's central role in the revival of chin-shih hsüeh or antiquarian-epigraphical studies.

Both papers, however, raise large issues which could only have been resolved, I think, by serious attention to the works of art, and which in the absence of that remain unresolved. For Bai Qianshen, it is the issue of quality in Fu Shan's calligraphy. Bai argues that his sloppy works were probably done for "vulgar people" and for recipients he did not care about. But when he writes of Fu's best works, those that represent his "highest achievement," these turn out to be (unless I misread him) works of xiaokai or small regular calligraphy. I wonder whether there is not a confusion here between value based on the the time and care required to produce them and real aesthetic value--no book or exhibition I can recall has chosen to represent Fu Shan with small regular calligraphy. (Fu Shan's own statements about
"smearing the silk" etc., as quoted by Bai, sound more like conventional modesty than a real opinion about his looser-style works.) But then, what are his best works? Those that best embody, I would assume, his individual style and the striking qualities sometimes perceived as eccentricity, while somehow negotiating successfully and even brilliantly between discipline and spontaneity--just as with Bada Shanren and Shitao and others. The works by him in the exhibition that will open tomorrow are described by Wen Fong as combining "standard, running, seal, and clerical elements in a wild-cursive style. . ." But in any case, this question, again, can't really be addressed except through close attention to particular works.

The direction in which my argument is tending will be obvious. The original statement of the goal of this project that we received from Pat Ebrey last fall said that she wanted to "push the encounter [between history and art history] in another direction by asking not what general history can contribute to art history, but what art history can contribute to general history." That was a good statement, setting the tone for the rewarding sessions that have followed. But I would like to suggest adding a few words to it, so that it will read: what art history that is directly engaged with works of art (or, if you will, with objects of visual culture) can contribute to general history. In choosing the "visual dimensions" theme for this whole project, Pat and others surely meant more than using the eyes to read texts. But, I feel obliged to point out, not many signs of their having been used in other ways can be found in these papers. Bai Qianshen does, to be sure, discuss briefly the influence of Yan Zhenqing on Fu Shan's calligraphy, and of Fu Shan's on Bai Tingshi's, referring to particular examples. And both paper-givers showed slides during their presentations, to illustrate their points. But this is a different matter from deriving some part of one's argument from the visual qualities of the objects.

If we art historians were to do a study or construct an argument built entirely on reading and interpreting the art objects, without reference to contextual matters accessible only through research in texts, we would be accused of formalism or an art-for-art's-sake approach or failure to contextualize or some other methodological misdemeanor. But when someone makes an art-historical argument without really engaging with particular works of art, what is the response? None, because it happens all the time. In a piece written years ago for a Joseph Levenson memorial volume I presented this problem, saying that, for instance, writing about Tung Ch'i-ch'ang's use of fang or creative imitation without showing how it works in actual paintings is like writing about metaphor in English poetry without showing how it works in particular poems--scarcely anyone would do the latter, everybody at that time was doing the former.

It must be acknowledged, of course, that these two papers are drawn from larger, continuing studies of their subjects, Hui-tsung and Fu Shan; Pat's will surely become a book, and I assume that Bai Qianshen's will also, on the basis of his Yale dissertation and later writings. And I assume that both will use readings and analyses of paintings and calligraphy to good effect in those larger studies. It could be said, moreover, that readings of particular works was not to the present purpose for either of them in writing these two papers. I would suggest nonetheless that doing so would have enriched the papers significantly, supporting or amending their arguments--giving them, so to speak, a visual dimension.

Pat writes about ptgs by scholar-official literati on the one hand and by members of the Song imperial family (including members by marriage such as Wang Shen) on the other as though they were more or less interchangeable. But close attention to the surviving paintings by members of the two groups would have permitted her to observe, I believe, that they are likely to differ in fundamental, definable ways--Su Tung-p'o and Hui-tsung could not, that is, have changed places and painted each other's pictures. In stating the matter that way I echo a paper of my own, given in 197?, in which I demonstrated a firm correlation between the life-patterns and the paintings of mid-Ming artists: those belonging to one socio-economic type painted pictures of one kind, those of another type painted pictures of another kind. T'ang Yin and Wen Cheng-ming could not paint each other's pictures. The implications of that correlation still trouble some specialists in the field, but no one has been able to shake the correlation. Perhaps the pattern would not be quite so neat for late Northern Song literati officials and imperial relatives, but it is clearly observable, and recognizing it might have pushed Pat's discussion of this matter in a somewhat different direction.

Near the end of her paper (p. 22), Pat notes in defense of her dependence on words more than on objects that we have only a tiny proportion of the actual objects that figure in her discussion, and that "it is difficult to force those that do survive to talk to us." Difficult, perhaps, but by no means impossible: it is exactly what good art historians do all the time. As a single example, Peter Sturman's paper on the "Cranes Above Kaifeng" painting makes it speak eloquently, delivering, among other things, a political message; and that is only one example of many. (Not enough, but many.) The methods of reading and interpreting visual materials in ways beneficial to one's work can be learned, if one takes the time and trouble, just as one can learn to read and interpret texts, including those in foreign languages. Art historians are properly expected to spend the time and trouble to master the latter, and other kinds of historians, if they are going to use the visual materials effectively, can properly be expected to master the former. I am of course questioning only Pat's statement of the matter, certainly not her ability to deal expertly with visual materials, which has already been amply demonstrated and will be again, we can be sure, in her book. And the same is true of Bai Qianshen's paper: that he did not choose to treat Fu Shan's calligraphy in visual terms on this occasion does not call into question his ability to do so on a high level. I will look forward to both books, and will enjoy especially those passages in which the authors explore, illuminatingly and in a true sense, the visual dimensions of their subjects.

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