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CLP 59: 2004 Respondent Paper for Distinguished Scholar session honoring me on the subject of “Decentered, Polycentric, and Counter-Canons in Chinese Painting.” Seattle

CAA respondent paper


The four papers in this session all deal with departures from the mainline canon for Chinese painting (insofar as it can be defined), or alternatives to it; and since many of you are not Chinese art specialists, I thought I should fill in, before commenting on the papers, a brief outline of how that canon came into being and how it was maintained. What I will say is mostly well known to serious specialists in the subject, although we have frequently talked and written as though we didn't know it, as though the canon represented the whole of Chinese painting, or at least all that we need pay attention to. I will speak briefly also about studies made in recent decades that have significantly broken with this habit of thinking of the canonical schools and artists as virtually the entirety of Chinese painting. A personal note: by turning attention to areas outside the canon, I have opened myself to admonitions from well-meaning colleagues about how doing this is hurting my reputation. Serious scholars, they believe, do not waste their time on trivia.

The crucial circumstances can be quickly stated. Out of a huge output of paintings produced in China over the centuries, for many kinds of use and enjoyment, only a small part was considered "suitable for refined appreciation," as Chinese writers put it, and so worthy of collecting and preserving. This small part, which came to make up the canon, was composed mainly of works considered to be genuinely from the hands of prestigious name artists; and, since the men who made the judgments and wrote the books were themselves, by definition, members of the educated literati class, the kind of painting done by the literati or scholar-amateur artists, as opposed to the professional masters, was strongly favored, especially for the later (post-Song, or post-13th century) periods. Paintings outside this body of name-artist works were less likely to survive, since scroll paintings need care and regular remounting for their preservation. Sometimes the rejected paintings survived under false pretenses: attributions to older and more highly-regarded artists, or false identifications of subjects, which for sharp-eyed Chinese collectors were reasons for rejecting them as fakes, but which we can now try to strip away so as to recognize the pictures as what they are.

S,S. A good example is this large landscape (at left) by Sun Chun-tse, a 14th century artist who followed the style of the Southern Sung court master Ma Yuan, a style that was considered by literati critics to be unworthy or unsuitable for later artists to imitate. No serious collector in China would have included a work by Sun Chun-tse as such in his collection. Sun's paintings survive almost entirely in Japan (as does the one on the right) where they can, by contrast, attain the status of designated Important Cultural Properties. The work at left is an exception: we know from the mounting style and label that it was transmitted down to modern times in China. But only because the Sun Chun-tse signature in lower left (which matches exactly the ones in Japan) was partially hidden by a stroke of ink, and a label added attributing it "positively" to Ma Yuan, the Sung master, himself. Rejected in China as a fake Ma Yuan, it was on the New York market for several years as an anonymous Ming painting; I finally bought it for a modest price and later discovered the signature. Chinese paintings outside the canon could survive under special conditions: misrepresentation, as in this case; export to Japan (Chan or Zen painting is an important example, as treated in Yoshi's paper) or, from the early 20th century, export to Europe and America., where the "low taste" of foreigners preserved many fine paintings that were less likely to survive in China; preservation in a tomb, buried with the occupant--several examples of that are known.

The formation of the canon, although earlier beginnings might be recognized, was mainly a phenomenon of the middle and later Ming, 15th to mid-17th century, when a succession of prestigious collectors, critics, and artists (frequently the same people in multiple roles) made lists and lineages of the old masters most worth collecting and imitating in one's own paintings. The lineage coming down from later Song academy painting, to which Sun Chun-tse belonged, was mostly rejected for the later periods, although it continued to be popular among non-elite audiences.

S,S. ("Dong Yuan" with Dong Q-c insc.; one of Xiaozhong Xianda album.) This canonizing process culminates in the writings of the enormously influential artist-critic Dong Qichang (1555-1636), where it takes a more or less definitive shape, at least in outline, in his famous, or notorious, "theory of the Southern and Northern Schools." It is no coincidence that this fixing of the canon coincides with the period in which sweeping economic and social changes in China greatly increased the numbers of families affluent enough to collect art. Old-guard connoisseurs, or those able to pass as that, served as consultants to new collectors, enjoying their hospitality and generosity in exchange for advice. Their published writings, along with books offering rules for refined living, annotated lists of famous surviving works, and collection catalogues, appeared in unprecedented numbers. The firming of the canon, then, was in part the outcome of the promulgation of it to a broader audience.

S,S. Dong Qichang's listing represents only the skeleton, so to speak, of the canon; other artists who were judged somehow acceptable could be added, and the so-called Orthodox masters (here, Wang Shimin, Wang Jian), self-declared followers of Dong Qichang in the generations immediately following him, more or less placed themselves within it by their styles and their self-validating inscriptions. In recent times, the leading traditional connoisseurs were likely to be also landscapists in the Orthodox tradition: Wu Hufan, Xu Bangda, C. C. Wang.

S.S. Later in the Qing and under the Republic, as tastes and critical tolerances broadened, schools and artists of less conformist leanings were allowed in--the Individualists of the Ming-Qing transition (Shitao, Bada Shanren),

S.S. the Yangzhou Strange Masters in the 18th century, the Shanghai School in the 19th--to make up the received canon for the twentieth century, which is accepted consistently enough by recent Chinese writers of histories of painting that we can use the term now without constant qualification.

Artists excluded from the canon, considered unworthy of a place in serious collections, often suffered that fate by breaking rules; they include some we now rank among the major masters.

S,S. The late Ming Suzhou artist Zhang Hong was not exactly excluded from the canon, but he occupied a lowly place within it, assigned by one critic to the "competent" class and receiving little attention. In part, this was because he often depicted real places instead of ideal landscapes, but also because he used, as in this landscape of 1629, kinds of brushwork that were undisciplined from an orthodox Chinese viewpoint (but highly innovative from ours).

S,S. Gong Xian in the early Qing, now considered a highly original master of strange compositions with striking effects of light and dark, was dismissed by critics for "coarse brushwork"--he applied the ink, not in conventional brushstrokes, but with a kind of stippling, probably learned in part from European pictures. He was scarcely represented in serious collections until recent times, when his reputation rose precipitously. The early Qing individualist masters, who now command the highest prices in later Chinese painting, are scarcely to be found, for instance, in the Manchu imperial collection, or in the catalogs of the great Ming-Qing collectors.

S,S. In all these cases, as in the Chan or Zen paintings that Yoshi spoke about (here, details from well-known works by Yujian and Muqi), artists needed to violate the limitations, or constrictions, of so-called "good brushwork" and conventional subjects and compositions in order to achieve the effects they were aiming for; and, given the Chinese mistrust of artistic and other practices that were not sanctified by tradition, that was enough to bar them from the canon. The Chan masters are virtually unrepresented in Chinese collections; we know them almost entirely from examples preserved in Japan.

S.S. Also excluded, for the most part, were pictures of unelevating or "vulgar" subjects. These included narrative paintings (the one at left represents the principals of the Xixiang-ji or "Western Chamber" drama); and functional paintings of various kinds (on right, a New Year's picture, that would have been hung on that occasion.) In spite of this exclusion, enough of these are preserved from the later period, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, that one can make a book out of them, as I've done: Pictures for Use and Pleasure: Urban Studio Artists in High Qing China, awaiting publication. Also left out were Buddhist painting, especially of the later periods; and portraiture, other than that done by prestigious name-artists. The exhibition catalog-book Latter Days of the Law by Marsha Haufler and others, and Richard Vinograd's Boundaries of the Self, on later Chinese portraiture, have gone some way toward filling in those gaps. Marsha was also chiefly responsible for an exhibition and catalog of Chinese paintings by women artists, which were also mostly absent from the traditional canon.

S,S. (leaf from "Qiu Ying" album; Cui Hui imaginary portrait of Song poet Li Qingzhao). A recent and even more controversial line of investigation for me has been the possibility that paintings of certain kinds were made in the Ming-Qing period primarily for an audience and clientele of women--not pictures of women, that is, or by women, but for women. Other categories I've spoken about were recognized but not admitted into the canon; this one hasn't even been recognized, or pulled together as a body of paintings worth attention. I certainly won't try to present my arguments here; they include the hypothesizing of a "low mimetic," daily-life mode that is new to Chinese painting, into which many of these paintings fit: for instance, the album to which the painting at left belongs, a series of scenes of women engaged in domestic pursuits, including subtle and slightly mysterious interactions with other women. It needs study, and will repay study; but since it bears false seals of Qiu Ying, it's been dismissed as simply a fake--because of that and its quotidian, "vulgar" subject matter, no traditional Chinese connoisseur would spend time on it. These are a few of the areas of Chinese painting that open up now that we've begun, more than before, to judge for ourselves what is "important" or "high-quality" and what is "trivial," even when doing so means going against the traditional canon.

Now, on to the papers.

Yoshi's very interesting paper deals with the kind of painting called Wangliang hua, "ghost" or "apparitional" painting, as it was practiced in China in the 12th to 14th centuries, and in Japan as late as the 17th century. Wangliang hua was the subject of a pioneering study by Yoshi's teacher and mine, the late Shimada Shujiro, an almost saintly figure for both of us--it's as if we both belonged to the lineage of some great Zen master.

At the time Wangliang hua was first practiced in Song-Yuan China, the canon as it would later develop was still in rudimentary form, not yet coalesced; and yet Chan or Zen painters as a group were already placed outside it. Writers on painting of their time dismiss their pictures as coarse, devoted to commonplace subjects, suitable only for hanging in monks' huts, not for refined appreciation. Too much of their painting, as Yoshi puts it, "went counter to the whole point of clarity in the Chinese canon of painting," and made up what he calls a "canon outside the canon." The reverence in which Zen painting was held in Japan, by contrast, depended partly on its associations with the tea ceremony and other revered institutions there, and partly on the freedom the Japanese enjoyed from the taboos that beset Chinese connoisseurs and arbiters of quality. That the Wangliang hua style could reappear in the Edo period in the totally different context of Rimpa, done mainly for a clientele of aesthetically-minded merchants and townsmen, illustrates another well-recognized characteristic of Japanese art: the ease with which motifs and styles there could change contexts and take on new meanings. It was not so easy in China.

S,S. I argued in a paper several years ago that the practice of Chan painting didn't really cease in China after the Yuan; monk-amateur artists in the Chan temples went on doing it, but not on a high enough level--it was amateurish in the most negative sense--or with enough originality to eam it a place in the canon, or any attention from critics. None of it, so far as we know, survives in China; we know it only from the works of monk-artists of the Huang-po or Obaku sect of Chan, who came from temples in Fujian and settled and continued painting in Japan, where their works are preserved in some numbers. These are two of them, both unoriginal and undistinguished pictures, I would say, and representative, I'm afraid, of Obaku painting as it survives. A body of painting could also be excluded from the canon, then, by not being a interesting enough to merit a place in it. Judgements of that kind should be made carefully, but we need not shy away altogether from making them.

S,S. Pat Berger's paper treats Buddhist painting also, but of a more iconic kind. Buddhist and Daoist figure painting, which had occupied the highest position in the collection catalog of the Song Emperor Huizong, drops from favor among later collectors and has no place in the canon through the Ming. By the late Ming and early Qing, however, the early to mid-17th century, a few interesting and original artists had begun again to do Buddhist paintings.: Ding Yunpeng, Chen Hongshou, Cui Cizhong, Wu Bin (who painted these two, leaves from an album Pat mentioned, the one with a colophon by Dong Qichang.) The question on which she quoted me--a question I had raised without really trying to resolve, was: how could pictures so bizarre, so seemingly idiosyncratic, function as Buddhist icons? That question aside, we are again in a situation where admission to the canon, and to the rank of pieces worth owning by serious collectors, depends on the name and fame and distinctive style of the individual artist. Court painters of the kind who worked under the Qianlong emperor could not indulge in any such irony, or grotesquerie; the emperor's engagement with Buddhism was a serious matter, with political implications among others.

(slides off) As a collector, the Qianlong emperor, along with the advisors who helped him amass his collection, adhered for the most part to the by-now well-established canon as it had been represented in the collections of the great 17th-early 18c collectors--much of whose holdings, in fact, Qianlong was voraciously swallowing up. The Manchu Emperors' embracing of the Orthodox School of landscape and of orthodox views on collecting were both in large part aimed at legitimizing their rule in the eyes of educated Chinese. But this was a stance adopted mainly with an eye toward their Chinese subjects; their own taste appears to have been for more highly finished, realistic styles and entertaining subjects, most of all themselves. For these, the identification of the artist was a minor consideration; court painters sign very neatly and small, avoiding any shows of individuality.

That a separate section of the imperial catalog was devoted to Buddhist painting, including works done by artists of the academy and even works by non-Chinese artists, is the remarkable circumstance that Berger traces. Early Buddhist paintings, within the mainline tradition of collecting, had been valued for their antiquity and high technique, and later ones for the identity and style of the artist; Qianlong, leaving behind those art-historical and aesthetic criteria, valued them as icons and images, as practicing Buddhists had always done. The innovation represented by Qianlong's inclusion of these in his catalog was not adopted generally into the canon--other and later collectors do not, to my knowledge, have separate sections of their catalogs for Buddhist-Daoist painting, especially for recent and iconic ones.

Judy Andrews's paper anticipates Lin Xiaoping's in showing that Chinese authorities and institutions in the early 1920s were already questioning whether traditional Chinese painting had any useful role in the formation of a new China. Was Western-style realistic oil painting more in keeping with the new ideals and directions? Chen Shizeng's attempt to make literati painting seem "progressive" by likening its anti-realistic and self-expressive aspects to Post-Impressionist and Abstract developments in Europe only reinforced the bias toward scholar-amateurism, by now the conservative direction in the received canon. But relying on Japanese writings for their histories, as Pan Tianshou and others did, on the grounds that Japan was "about three decades" ahead of China in modernizing their educational system, was also very problematic, since the Japanese versions of Chinese painting history necessarily differed markedly from the Chinese canon. This was both because the Japanese, with their separate visual culture and different contexts for viewing and using the paintings, had only a limited understanding of the qualities the Chinese valued most, and because works that could serve to represent the most prestigious artists and schools in China were not to be seen in Japan. At best, the Japanese writings could offer versions of Chinese painting history that diverged from the traditional Chinese accounts, and so must have seemed fresher, more "modern." Judy and Shen Quiyi outline the circumstances of this interchange and mismatch between would-be progressive Chinese educators and problematic Japanese models more fully and clearly than it has been attempted before, to my knowledge; and they mean to explore further the effects of it in future research.

Lin Xiaoping's paper is less about what happened to the traditional canon for Chinese painting after the founding of the People's Republic than about disputes over whether traditional painting, guohua, had any legitimate place in the new China at all. Lin's account of Jiang Feng's well-intended attempt to establish socialist realism in Chinese art education and associate guohua with the "feudal" past is poignant and ultimately depressing, reminding us again that under such an oppressive system, no one is likely to prevail and prosper for long. Guohua was to make a qualified comeback, strongly tinged with socialist realism among artists and given politicized readings among writers. During the bad years of the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath, as I saw when I first visited China in 1973, old paintings could be exhibited and published only with commentary praising or condemning their subjects and the artists' roles in society--works by Dong Qichang and Wen Zhengming were accompanied by labels identifying them with the landlord class and charging them with political misdeeds, while those of more "progressive" artists were presented together with a narrative (often invented or exaggerated) about their engagement with positive political movements of their time. (Lin Xiaoping has written about these matters in other contexts.)

When the bad years ended and writers on painting were no longer obliged to make politically-based judgements, they reverted immediately and happily to their long-forbidden version of art as self-expression, in which the work was to be read primarily as a manifestation of the artist's nature and feelings. When one of my students. Scarlett Jang, went to China in the mid-80s and talked about political themes in Chinese painting (a new focus for us at that time--I had just held a seminar on it), Chinese artists and art historians didn't want to hear about it--their response was "We've been through all that already"--although in fact their version of political content was a far cry from what we were attempting. Now the traditional, name-oriented canon returned, triumphantly, to a position of dominance, and heavily underlies most writing on Chinese painting published since then. But the challenges to it, among both Chinese and foreign scholars, continue to erode it; books giving determinedly non-canonical accounts of Chinese painting have been published outside China, and perhaps also in China, unknown to me. In any case, some of the most interesting work for the future will be done in areas of Chinese painting that were once thought unworthy of attention.

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