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CLP 104: 1990 “On the Periodization of Later Chinese Painting: The Early to Middle Ch’ing (K’ang-his-to-Ch’ien-lung) Transition.” Taniguchi symposium, Kyoto

 

Kyoto Paper 1990, Taniguchi Symposium #9: “The Transition and Turning Point in Art History.”


On the Periodization of Later Chinese Painting: The Early to Middle Ch’ing (K’ang-hsi to Ch’ien-lung) Transition

I. Introduction

Although the problem of periodization in Chinese painting studies is an old one, there have been few thoughtful considerations of it. A few obvious points have been made often enough: that art-historical turning-points need not correspond with political divisions; that the Western habit of thinking in centuries inclines us to use that mode of division; and so forth. Max Loehr, in a paper delivered in 1970, saw “pictorial art” in China as divided into two long periods by the Sung-Yüan juncture.[1] That juncture is the “turning point” most commonly agreed on among writers on the subject; multi-volume histories (Osvald Siren’s, Suzuki Kei’s, my own) typically end one volume with the end of Sung and begin another with the beginning of Yüan.[2]

Loehr did not address the periodization of the post-Yüan period, apart from seeing Tung Ch’i-ch’ang as a crucial figure in it, and thus implicitly dividing later Chinese painting into pre-Tung and post-Tung periods; he ends his paper with a general characterization of early Ch’ing painting without attempting to look beyond. Wen Fong in his “Images of the Mind” essay makes the usual Sung-Yüan division, and like Loehr takes Tung Ch’i-ch’ang to be a pivotal figure, adding Wang Hui with his “Great Synthesis” as another. He ends with a consideration of Shih-t’ao or Tao-chi , and concludes that “The deaths of Tao-chi, Wang Hui, and the other great early Ch’ing painters in the early decades of the eighteenth century marked the beginning of the end of the great tradition in Chinese landscape painting.” He sees the eighteenth century masters as not quite matching “the stature and accomplishments of their great seventeenth-century predecessors, whose styles and theories they emulated,” and the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as a time when “China’s protracted struggle for modernization finally destroyed the Great Synthesis that Wang Hui and Tao-chi worked successfully to achieve.”[3]

In deciding on the divisions between volumes for my own series on later Chinese painting, I chose to make the obvious one between Yüan and Ming, and another in the late 16th century, when the death of Hsü Wei and the decline of the Wu School introduce an undistinguished interim of several decades that ends with the appearance in the early seventeenth century of such great original masters as Ch’en Hung-shou and Tung Ch’i-ch’ang. This latter division would appear to be an example of a significant turning point or transition in art history that was unaccompanied by any correspondingly sharp division in political or social history, unless it be the beginning of the disastrous decline in the Ming imperial power and the effectiveness of the government generally.[4] By contrast, the fall of Ming and founding of the Ch’ing, one of the epochal events in Chinese history, is accompanied by no correspondingly decisive change in painting, although for practical reasons I ended one volume in my series and will begin another at that point.

The present paper will argue (and the argument will be reflected in the division between my fourth and fifth volumes) that another of the major turning points in Chinese painting history, perhaps the most radical after the Sung-Yuan transition, is the one occurring roughly between the K’ang-hsi and Yung-cheng eras, or a bit earlier--I am inclined to locate it, like Wen Fong, around the time of the deaths, within ten years, of the three great early Ch’ing landscapists Shih-t’ao or Tao-chi (1642-1707), Wang Yüan-ch’i 1642-1715), and Wang Hui (1632-1717). More broadly, it might be seen as the art-historical transition from early to middle Ch’ing painting, or (still more loosely) from K’ang-hsi to Ch’ien-lung . My wavering definition of it reflects a disinclination to attempt to pin it down too precisely; I would see it, using the terms argued in the Tokyo symposium on the same theme that preceded this one,[5] as more katoki (transition) than tenkanki (turning point). Tempting as it may be to locate the change at the demise of some master or the end of an era, a sober view will see it as more gradual, with much overlap. Some masters working after it continue in the old ways, as always, but they slip into the sidelines, exhibiting less and less of originality, and the innovations are elsewhere. On the other hand, patterns that can be observed as making up a minor trend before the transition emerge as dominant after it. To put it this way does not diminish the decisiveness of the change; most significant painting after the transition is very different, in definable ways, from most significant painting before it.

II. Changes in Painting

The fundamental changes in the nature of Chinese painting that occurred between early and middle Ch’ing, and which might be said to inaugurate the modern period of the art, can be identified and described in various ways; those I would see as central are:

1. A sharp decline in landscape painting, both in quantity (seen as a proportion of the overall production--although this remains to be proved by any systematic count) and in quality (innovativeness, practice by the best artists of the time). Landscape relinquishes the central position that it had occupied for centuries, and that it was not to regain until the twentieth century--and even then somewhat tenuously. The dominant movement in landscape painting, the Orthodox school of the Four Wangs , produces afterwards no major masters or significant stylistic innovations, and no strong alternative directions in landscape painting replace it.

2. Other subjects gain in popularity, supplanting landscape: figure painting, including portraiture; plant and animal subjects, including some that would have been considered “vulgar” before; narrative pictures; auspicious and symbolic subjects of all kinds. Subjects that can loosely be called popular are painted much more, by leading artists as well as by lesser ones.

3. The fast, spontaneous-looking manners of painting in broader brushwork, the so-called hsieh-i styles, are practiced far more widely than before. Elaborate compositions in the careful, so-called kung-pi manners are still painted; but the two types come to represent extreme positions in an increasingly polarized situation. The great loss is in the intermediate zones of style, which most of the best painting of the early Ch’ing had occupied: the styles of Hung-jen , Kung Hsien , Shih-t’ao at his best, the Four Wangs, and so forth, which cannot properly be called either hsieh-i or kung-pi. Post-K’ang-hsi artists able to move comfortably in this intermediate zone (where most of the great painting of China from the 14th through the 17th century had in fact been located) are fewer: Hua Yen , Kao Feng-han , and Lo P’ing in some of their works, Jen Po-nien later; a few others who achieve it sometimes but less regularly.

4. Paintings tend to be flatter, with surface design emphasized. Writing is more often integrated somehow with imagery in the compositions, contributing to this flatness, and elements of style and principles of design adopted from calligraphy affect, more than ever before, the styles of painting.

5. More artists of this late period, and more of the best, paint particular subjects--bamboo, plum branches, flowers, fish (Hsü-ku ), prawns and chicks (Ch’i Pai-shih ), camels and pandas (Wu Tso-jen )--over and over, as a major part of their output, and do these more repetitively. There had been, to be sure, specialist masters in earlier centuries, such as Wang Mien and others for blossoming plum; but they were usually not accorded places in the first rank. Wu Chen , for instance, painted numerous ink bamboo paintings, but his position as one of the Four Masters of Yuan depends on his landscapes. Small popular and provincial masters, from Sung times on, had produced peony pictures, or plant-and-insect pictures, or fish-and-water-weeds pictures etc., of the kinds best preserved in Japan; these too were judged to be peripheral or ignored altogether by the critics. Now in the 18th century, masters whom we now consider central and major (although some of them were not to be judged that way by orthodox critics until quite recent times) engage in patterns of production that would earlier have relegated them to the sidelines.

6. Painting as a whole, after the K’ang-hsi era, undergoes a marked decline. To say this once more will annoy those of my colleagues who follow the different-but-just-as-good approach, but it is a conviction that underlies much of the discussion that follows, and may as well be stated flatly here. My present purpose, however, is not to document that decline, or even argue for it, so much as to define and contextualize the changes that painting underwent.

The remainder of this essay will be a consideration of ways of understanding these changes. Developments that have been recognized and studied in the social and economic history of the time will be introduced, not to account fully for the changes in painting--no such causal account is intended--but to suggest a setting, a cluster of correlatives, within which the changes in both spheres can be better seen as elements in a densely interwoven fabric of cultural history. The form the essay takes, then, is not simply an enumeration of factors relevant to the transition I am attempting to define; it reflects a real belief that such large art-historical phenomena are not to be simplistically “explained” by single “causes” or even small sets of causal factors, but can be suggestively enmeshed in a context of that kind, and made more intelligible by it.

III. Changes in Chinese Society

Building such a context has been greatly facilitated for the art historian in recent years by a new richness in the secondary and interpretative literature on Ch’ing society. While some issues are still debated among our colleagues in social and economic history, there is enough consensus to allow us to draw from their writings formulations and insights that can profitably be brought to bear on our concerns.

The middle Ch’ing was, first of all, a period in which China was “confident, prosperous, internally at peace, unchallenged at its frontiers.”[6] It has often been observed that the most innovative periods in Chinese art tend to be periods of tension, of dynastic change and social upheaval: the Six Dynasties, the tenth century, the Yüan, the Ming-Ch’ing transition and its aftermath. A certain stagnation in most areas of 18th century painting might be “explained” in that way. When, however, we recognize the more conservative but equally great achievements in painting of the long-lasting dynasties--the T’ang, Sung, middle Ming--we are still faced with the question of why nothing comparable happened in 18th-century China.

Studies of 18th century Chinese culture mostly concentrate on urban centers, especially the cities of the lower Yangtze region: Yangchou, preeminently, but also Suchou, Hangchou, and Nanking. The prosperity and thriving activity of the cities, whether social, artistic, scholarly, or commercial, worked (as it had already in Nanking and Suchou in the Ming) to break through class boundaries, and separations of elite from popular, to create such new hybrid types as the merchant-literatus or the scholarly purveyor of popular literary and artistic works. The level of literacy rose among the general populace; many more books, especially popular books, were published. Increased social mobility was accompanied by physical mobility: educated people moved around more. Scholars and artists came to the cities in search of patronage and a milieu within which their knowledge and skills could support them.

Accompanying these developments, and in some part underlying them, was the development of a market economy, and a shift in the social order by which wealth encroached on the older bases of family background and land ownership as the source of power and prestige. Wealthy families were engaged more in commerce and moneylending, less in acquisition of land .[7] The “money economy and its impersonal values”[8] transformed old patterns of patronage, in ways we will consider below for painting; merchants and craftsmen formed guilds, for which the early Ch’ing was the formative period[9] but which expanded in the 18th century, imperiling the old, intimate, one-to-one pattern for transactions between supplier and client.

The rise in status and self-assertiveness of the merchant class, and the relaxation of the old social disapproval they had suffered before, are phenomena that can be traced from the 16th century and culminate in the 18th.[10] The “absence of absolute barriers between literati and merchants”[11] and the close interaction between them allowed them sometimes to exchange roles. Wealth did not necessarily buy political power for the merchant class, but it could purchase them membership in the landed elite, and access to elite culture, through the education of their sons and through patronage of scholars and artists.[12] It has even been argued that it was official government policy in the Ch’ing to “‘gentrify’ the great merchants by inducing them to adopt scholar-bureaucrat, that is ‘gentry’ ideals and values.”[13] The complexity of this relationship--the question of how far the merchants simply adopted literati values and taste, and how far they asserted their own and affected literati practice--is a matter of some controversy among writers on Ch’ing society and culture. Wakeman argued that the merchants did not “adopt a distinct class manner, or style of life, of their own” because the possibility of upward mobility encouraged them to concentrate on attempting to enter the elite instead of developing an alternative to it, so that in the end they simply emulated the gentry’s life-style on a grander scale[14]. Ropp, while giving proper weight to this argument, suggests that in 18th-century China “one can find more evidence of a distinct urban bourgeoise tradition than Wakeman’s analysis would suggest.”[15] He attempts to define a “third, urban middle-class culture” between the elite and mass cultures. The growth of this urban middle-class is, I believe, crucial to some of the changes we have suggested in painting, and we will return to it later.

As the merchants gained in status, a great many literati and would-be bureaucrats lost it, either because they failed to attain official posts or because their official careers proved unrewarding. The imposition of quotas made it difficult for Ch’ing scholars in the lower Yangtze region to achieve the higher degrees. Also, this old route to officialdom through study and examination success was encroached on by a system of purchasing lower degrees and even positions, a system exploited by the merchants to the detriment of the literati. An over-supply of degree holders, in part a simple function of the great growth in population and wealth, created a situation in which, by 1800, only chin-shih (doctorate) holders could be reasonably sure of getting official posts[16] Holders of lower degrees were forced into a variety of other occupations, as teachers, secretaries, writers, sometimes as artists.

IV.Changes in Patronage, and in the Market and Audience for Paintings

For officials and rich merchants, support of scholarship and individual scholars became “a favored form of status display”[17] The same was true for patronage of artists. Some of it followed the old pattern by which, for instance, rich art-lovers in Ming Suchou had supported painters. We have numerous accounts of this kind of patronage of poets, scholars, and artists by the Yangchou salt merchants and other wealthy and powerful people. At the same time, more widespread affluence made possible a simpler kind of support for artists and others, among a greater number of people.[18] It would appear that more people were able to acquire paintings from artists of this period, including the best, without necessarily having any personal relationship with them or introduction to them. We will consider later the implications and effects of this change.

The radical shift of balance in the subjects treated by painters, and especially their turning away from landscape, might be attributed simply to a shift in taste, whether in the artists themselves or in their audience, or to factors within the tradition of painting itself. Such an account would not be entirely wrong, and we will consider those factors later. But it would be inadequate: this is another change that can be tied to larger changes in Ch’ing society. In a 1981 catalog of Anhui school painting and printing I advanced an argument, together with a group of graduate students, that I would like to repeat and elaborate on here; it has also been argued by one of the participants in that seminar, Cheng-chi Hsü, in two unpublished writings.[19] It is an attempt to understand the prevalence of landscape painting, especially landscape done in the relatively dry and austere manners derived from such Yuan masters as Huang Kung-wang and Ni Tsan , among Anhui-school and other painters active in the late Ming and early Ch’ing, and the precipitous decline in popularity of this kind of painting after the center of activity for painting shifts to Yangchow in the K’ang-hsi era; and to understand these phenomena as responding in part to the rising status, growing self-assertiveness, and changing aspirations of merchant patrons.

The merchants were not, of course, the only patrons for the Anhui masters, or for painting of this kind; southern Anhui had an old tradition of scholar-official culture, and long-established families within which it was transmitted. But when we recall that Suchou had enjoyed a flourishing local school of painting during its economic heyday in the middle Ming, and that another, rival school had arisen, somewhat supplanting it, in nearby Sungchiang just at the time that city was coming to rival Suchou in mercantile activity and textile production--and that, moreover, the output of the latter school was largely and pointedly dominated by the same “pure” literati styles of landscape--we can scarcely avoid seeing the emergence of the Hsin-an P’ai or Anhui school in painting (after centuries in which Anhui had produced few artists and no cohesive school) as closely tied to the great economic prosperity of the region in the age of the Hui-chou merchants . The Hui-chou merchants’ avidity in collecting Yüan paintings by the prestigious masters, along with the works of Ming artists such as Shen Chou who were their stylistic heirs, can be documented, as can the success of Tung Ch’i-ch’ang, himself a powerful practitioner and proponent of these styles, as an advisor to collectors who needed guidance in judging the worthiness of their acquisitions as indicators of status[20]

The only hypothesis that fits all the evidence, I believe, is the one argued here: that during the early phase in the development of the merchant culture, when the goal was acceptance into the literati-elite stratum of society,[21] and when the “refinement” or “vulgarity” of taste displayed in the art one collected and supported was taken as an index of one’s cultural level,[22] the choices could not be made simply on the basis of one’s personal preferences, whatever those might be. Landscape painting in itself, and the spare, Yüan-derived styles in particular, were established signifiers of literati culture, and along with others[23] were pursued by the upwardly mobile.

By the end of the 17th century and into the 18th, this situation had changed profoundly. Our belief about what underlay the change was introduced by a cross-cultural comparison--not, as it turns out, original with us--[24] with the merchant culture of Edo in Tokugawa-period Japan. The possibilities of penetrating the upper social levels open to Chinese merchant families were barred to the merchant class of Japan, who could never, for all their wealth, hope for entree into samurai or court-aristocrat status. They settled back and made the best of their situation, creating in Edo and Osaka, with the help of artists and dramatists and others, a rich urban culture that reflected their own social position and tastes.

Taking these two situations as paradigmatic allows us to see the change we are considering, from early to middle Ch’ing painting, as a move from the first model partway toward the second. It was not that penetration into the upper levels of society, literati and scholar-official status, was barred to the Chinese merchant class in this later period; on the contrary, those levels were more accessible than before. But they were no longer so “upper,” so advantageous, nor so set apart from the merchants’ own situation; and the urge to gain access to them, an urge expressed earlier (we believe) in displays of high taste, including the taste for the “pure” literati styles in landscape painting, was no longer strong. Patrons and purchasers of painting, from rich merchants down to the middle-class consumers (to whom we will turn later), seem to have felt enough confidence to demand from their artists pictures of a more popular kind, often of a strongly decorative character, with auspicious subjects, narrative and human-interest subjects, genre and daily-life subjects. Portraits were popular, and one artist (Lo P’ing) gained some renown as a painter of ghosts.

Orthodox-school landscapes were still produced, especially by artists associated with the imperial court, but their production was increasingly dispirited and ceremonial: to swell further the numbers of such paintings in the imperial collection, where they continued to carry the symbolic value they had largely lost elsewhere; or as a leisure-time activity for scholar-officials, who could use them as presents for other officials and friends.[25] But the artists who did these enjoyed nothing like the widespread fame and success of their predecessors such as Wang Hui and Wang Yüan-ch’i, or of some of their contemporaries who painted other subjects. And in urban, commercialized settings like Yangchou where artists responded more directly to the pressures of supply-and-demand, such painting was less popular (with a few exceptions such as Yüan Chiang , who with his followers painted large, elegant landscapes-with-palaces in a Sung mode, or Fang Shih-shu , 1692-1751, himself from an Anhui salt-merchant family, who had some success in Yangchou as a painter of Orthodox-style landscapes.)[26] A 19th century writer, in explaining the poverty of a Yangchou landscapist, quotes an old Yangchou song about painting: “Portraits [bring] gold, flowers silver; if you want to become a beggar, paint landscape.”[27]

The popularizing trend in 18th-19th century Yangchow- and Shanghai-school painting was never so sweeping as in Tokugawa-period Edo, nor did it set itself so openly against the more traditional modes. The ukiyo-e prints and paintings of Edo art are full of irreverent parodies of classical themes; nothing that quite corresponds can be found in the painting of 18th-19th century Yangchou and Shanghai, although Lo P’ing in the late 18th century and Jen Hsiung and Jen Po-nien in the 19th, like Ch’en Hung-shou in the late Ming, do sometimes portray old subjects in a mode of self-distancing and irony. For the most part, painting in these late periods continues to pay respect to literati and high-culture values, even while compromising these with elements of popular style and imagery.

Eighteenth-century Yangchou painting, then, represents neither a simple continuation of the literati-elite culture nor a rude intrusion of merchant culture into it, but exactly the comfortable interaction of these that we identified earlier, as well as the emergence of a new urban middle-class clientele for painting. It offered an attractive reconciliation of what had been divergent directions, rejecting the austerities of the old Anhui-school and Orthodox landscape modes but incorporating enough high-culture allusions and taste to escape the taint of “vulgarity,” and to betray an awareness of old literati values without entirely embracing them.

Two others of the deep-rooted changes in the character of painting in the late period outlined above (section II), the increased practice of the fast, spontaneous-looking manners and the somewhat repetitive production of pictures of particular subjects, can similarly be linked to factors of patronage and the economic situations of artists. For these, the argument first made by Cheng-chi Hsü in a 1985 paper on Cheng Hsieh’s famous price list of 1759 seems most generative of understanding.[28] Noting these characteristics (sketchiness, thematic repetitiveness) in Cheng’s output, and also the lack of dedications in the inscriptions on most of his paintings, Hsü related these to the prices asked by Cheng for his paintings on the price-list, which were low in comparison to what artists received for their works from salt-merchant and other individual patrons. She concluded that all these factors indicate “a different level of clientele,” a largely anonymous, middle-level group who ordinarily acquired the paintings through direct cash purchase and “probably were the principal consumers of Yangchou painting.” Cheng himself contended that selling paintings in an openly commercial way was more honorable than joining the salon of some rich merchant-patron and sacrificing one’s artistic independence and integrity.[29]

In a paper presented in the following year Julia Andrews, building on Hsü’s hypothesis, used a similar argument to account for the volume of quickly-done paintings produced by Cha Shih-piao (1615-1698) in his later years, after he had moved to Yangchou. A “ditty” of the time that she quotes pairs him with a maker of mother-of-pearl inlaid plates, saying: “For dishes in every place it’s Chiang Ch’iu-shui ; for scrolls in every home it’s Cha Erh-chan [Shih-piao].”[30] I have tentatively extended this way of reading to the quick, copious, and often undistinguished productions of Kung Hsien and Shih-t’ao in their late periods, when they, too, were spending most of their time in Yangchou, and noted that one of Cha Shih-piao’s contemporaries in late 17th century Yangchou, the landscapist Chang Hsün , had anticipated Cheng Hsieh in posting a price-list for his paintings.[31] So we appear to be justified in pushing back the beginnings of this mode of production to the late 17th century, at least in Yangchou. And we can trace it as a dominant pattern for many prominent Chinese artists in later periods, down to Wu Ch’ang-shih , Ch’i Pai-shih, and even living masters.

In the old pattern, the artist fulfilled the needs of a limited and personal group of patrons with a smaller output; recipients of the paintings could either be somehow associated with the artist, or be patrons only in a simpler economic sense. In the later pattern, the artist responds with a larger output to a larger clientele of people who want to participate in the level of culture he represents, and are satisfied with a specimen of his hand, even when it may be relatively slight as a work of art. Or else they simply want an attractive painting of an easily accessible subject in an up-to-date style. In either case, the literati values of individualism and personal expression are somewhat commodified. These developments in painting are clearly functions of the expansion and wider accessibility of culture, and the growth of an urban economic middle class, which were noted above as generally recognized phenomena in 18th-century cultural history.

Traditional Chinese writers, of course, seldom account for them in this way; determined to follow the idealizing mode in locating the motivations for artistic choice purely within the artist, they are inclined to explain the popularity of rough and spontaneous styles as reflecting the non-conformist temperaments of a series of individual painters, and the untiring reiteration of a certain subject within a master’s oeuvre as expressing that master’s fondness for that subject. (Cheng Hsieh, in this view, was extremely fond of bamboo and orchids, Chin Nung of blossoming plum, and so forth.) But the serious inadequacy of that kind of account, for developments in painting that clearly correlate with factors of period, place, or the artist’s social position, is obvious: it confronts us always with the absurdity of groups of artists in some time or place or situation all deciding, individually, to follow some practice or set of practices that seem in fact to be more or less peculiar to them. Chinese writers have, on the other hand, sometimes themselves cited economic and social factors in discussing the practice of painters. The writer of the “old song” quoted earlier suggests, not that Yangchou artists suddenly lost their liking for landscape, but that painting it could no longer earn them their livings; and a nineteenth century writer attributes Huang Shen’s adoption of the cursive splashed-ink mode for figure pictures, after he came to Yangchou, to “the fickleness of taste” in that city, which “promoted novelty and favored the unusual.”[32]

V.Changes in Aesthetic Taste; Other Factors

To avoid giving an impression of excessive economic and social determinism to this study, we will end with a briefer consideration of the importance of internal factors, including factors of shifting aesthetic taste.

A striking aspect of much of the best 18th and 19th century painting, its flatness and emphasis on surface design, along with the tendency to integrate calligraphy with pictorial imagery in the work and to employ varieties of brushline that further flatten the forms, can be related to contemporary developments in calligraphy. Calligraphers and collectors in this period were turning their attention from the t’ieh tradition of appreciating and imitating informal works of calligraphy such as letters and casual notes, usually written in the cursive script styles and studied in either originals or rubbings, to the pei tradition of studying rubbings of large or even monumental inscriptions with significant texts, typically written in the more formal script styles, seal script or clerical script (chuan-shu and li-shu ) or special forms of the standard k’ai script.[33] The appreciation of the pei calligraphy, and the imitation of it in one’s own calligraphy, seal carving, and painting, was the basis of what came to be called the chin-shih chia or “metal and stone [epigraphy] masters” movement. In painting it was centered in the Yangchou school in the 18th century and the Shanghai school in the 19th, but its influence was broader than any local movements, and although it might be said to have affected only a segment of late Chinese painting, that segment includes many of the outstanding artists: Chin Nung, Wang Shih-shen , Chao Chih-ch’ien , Wu Ch’ang-shih, as well as others such as Li Shan , Jen Hsiung, and Jen Po-nien in some of their painting; and it had a profound effect on 20th-century painting. The stylistic affinities within this movement between painting, seal design, and calligraphy also encouraged painters of the late period, either alone or with the collaboration of calligrapher and seal-carver friends, to create works in which the three arts are integrated into striking compositions.

In both the Yangchou and the Shanghai schools, the chin-shih chia movement served as a needed corrective to the popularizing tendency , and the penchant for loose and sometimes sloppy brushwork, that could afflict the painting of these schools and open it to critical censure.[34] The antiquarian flavor, strong surface design, and disciplined use of the brush that this movement brought to painting allowed reconciliations of popular and scholarly taste that gave the patrons of its artists the best of both worlds: an air of high-culture sensibility in works that also pleased simpler desires for decorative styles and appealing subjects. Such works could be understood, if we chose to return to the social-history mode, as very emblems of the interpenetration of popular and elite, or merchant and scholar-official classes, that are characteristic of the late period.

In understanding the decline of landscape we could also turn our attention to internal factors and see it more as a self-contained development within the history of painting. We would then emphasize the dominance of the Orthodox school during the period of our transition, its depressing effect on alternate modes of landscape, and its own inherent proneness to deaden creativity in its followers. The arguments made by Orthodox school artists and theorists from Tung Ch’i-ch’ang through Wang Yüan-ch’i and beyond were not simply affirmations of the superiority of their styles, but vehement denunciations of other schools as heterodox and perverse, downhill routes to perdition.[35] At the same time, the degree to which the Orthodox-school doctrine set strict boundaries on innovation within its own ranks all but ensured its quick decline by shutting off new directions that might have re-invigorated it. A few 18th century artists--Li Shih-cho , Hua Yen, Kao Feng-han , Tsai Chia --can paint interesting and original landscapes on occasion, but these are isolated achievements, which did not breathe new life into landscape painting as a whole. And since the major formal and expressive explorations, the real thrust of the whole Chinese painting tradition, had for centuries been located primarily in landscape, the exhaustion of the Orthodox school in the late period had a depressing effect on the whole tradition, contributing to its decline.

It has also been pointed out, as a factor in the decline of landscape painting, that the gradual absorption of most of the great surviving examples into the imperial collection under the reign of the Ch’ien-lung Emperor deprived 18th-century and later artists, excepting court artists, of the access to these paintings that painters had sometimes enjoyed in earlier centuries. It was not until the coming of photographic reproduction in the 20th century, and the opening of the Palace Museum Collection to a wider public, that painters were again able to draw on the masterworks of their heritage.

VI. Conclusion

It would be easy enough to find a great many artists and paintings in the late period that do not bear out the generalizations attempted in the foregoing essay; and the argument might be made that the consignment of all these exceptions to the status of insignificance is unjustified--that Orthodox-school landscape, for instance, continues to be interesting in the late period, if one can only exercise the critical discernment needed to appreciate the fine shadings of style that distinguish one master from another--and so forth. Arguments against decline, or against relative judgements more generally, are easy to make and difficult to counter. Short of organizing an exhibition of one thousand representative late Orthodox-school landscapes, leading a succession of typical viewers through it, and measuring (by pulse rate? eye movement?) the levels of sheer boredom they experience--which would, I contend, be very high--one cannot support in a quantifiable way one’s argument for a drastic decline in this branch of painting.

The same is true of the other arguments made above: they are based on judgements formed over many years of studying Chinese painting, and the judgements depend in turn on criteria for quality and art-historical importance that are far from being universally accepted. My basic belief (one well articulated by Max Loehr)[36] is that what matters in the history of art is what is new, not simply replicated from the past. But I try to steer a course between the over-restrictiveness of Loehr’s judgements (which allowed, for instance, only Tung Ch’i-ch’ang as a truly significant figure in late Ming painting) and the over-inclusiveness of others who decline to make judgements of quality and importance at all, and who write (or organize exhibitions) as though anything any artist produces is equally worthy of our attention. Good artists and excellent paintings are not well served by the latter attitude, nor is our understanding of the history of Chinese painting. Historians of the late period in China are able to define large trends and developments, and argue major issues on a high level and with some agreement about what these issues are. We art historians seem not to have yet reached that stage in the progress of our studies. The foregoing essay is an attempt to lay out a provisional model, and to stimulate the kind of discussion that will move us closer to that desirable end.

James Cahill, Berkeley, April 1990

References in the text


[1]Max Loehr, “Phases and Content in Chinese Painting,” Proceedings of the International Symposium on Chinese Painting, Taipei, National Palace Museum, 1972, pp. 285-297.

[2]Osvald Siren, A History of Early Chinese Painting, 1933; A History of Later Chinese Painting, 1938. Suzuki Kei, Chûgoku kaiga shi, Part I, through Northern Sung, 1981; Part II/1, through Southern Sung (with Liao and Chin), 1984; Part II/2, through Yüan, 1988. My own series, which will eventually comprise five volumes, opens with the beginning of Yüan.

[3]The essay forms the long introductory section of a catalog, Wen Fong, ed., Images of the Mind: Selections from the Edward L. Elliott Family and John B. Elliott Collections of Chinese Calligraphy and Painting at The Art Museum, Princeton University,” Princeton, 1984. The passage cited is on p. 209.

[4]For a provocative, enlightening, and very readable study of this uneventful turning point in Ming history, see Ray Huang, 1587, a Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline, New Haven, 1981.

[5]Periods of Transition in East Asian Art, Tokyo National Research Institute of Cultural Properties, 1988. See especially the comments on this problem by Maribeth Graybill, p. 25, and the final remarks of Nobuo Tsuji, Yoshiaki Shimizu, and Stephen Addiss, pp. 264-268. John Hay’s provocative essay in this volume, pp. 65-84, “Chao Meng-fu: Tradition and Self in the Early Yuan,” is a thoughtful treatment of the Sung-Yuan transition which in the end (and typically for Hay) complicates more than it simplifies by questioning what he takes to be the overly-neat formulations of others.

[6]Albert Feuerwerker, quoted in Frederick W. Mote, “The Intellectual Climate in Eighteenth-century China,” in Ju-hsi Chou and Claudia Brown, ed., Chinese Painting under the Qianlong Emperor (Phoebus 6, no. 1), 1988, p. 18.

[7]Paul S. Ropp, Dissent in Early Modern China: Ju-lin wai-shih and Ch’ing Social Criticism, Ann Arbor, 1981, p. 15.

[8]Susan Naquin and Evelyn S. Rawski, Chinese Society in the Eighteenth Century, New Haven, 1987 (hereafter Naquin and Rawski), p. 56.

[9]Peter J. Golas, “Early Ch’ing Guilds,” in G. William Skinner, ed., The City in Late Imperial China, Stanford, 1977, pp. 555-580.

[10]Cheng-chi Hsu, Patronage and the Economic Life of the Artist in Eighteenth Century Yangchow Painting, Ph.D. dissertation, Berkeley, 1987, II, 262, citing a study by Yü Ying-shih.

[11]Benjamin Elman, From Philosophy to Philology: Intellectual and Social Aspects of Change in Late Imperial China, Cambridge, Mass., 1984, p. 88.

[12]Ropp, op. cit., p. 28.

[13]Mote, op. cit., p. 36, citing Yen Hsien-en. Naquin and Rawski, p. 16, also suggest that the Ch’ing rulers were “quite comfortable with nouveau-riche merchants and other arrivistes,” and found it easy to “welcome such families into the ranks of the Ch’ing elite.”

[14]Frederic Wakeman, The Fall of Imperial China, New York, 1975, 50-51.

[15]Ropp, op. cit., 48 ff. See also Naquin and Rawski, p. 60, writing of merchants who “did not merely ape the literati life-style but were leaders in it,” and their discussion, pp. 59-61, of the merchant contributions.

[16]Elman, 130; Naquin and Rawski 13.

[17]Naquin and Rawski 51, cf. Elman 100 ff.

[18]Cf. Naquin and Rawski 222: “Although firm support for this is lacking, we hypothesize that the cash nexus may have influenced Qing behavior more generally: gifts, like relationships, were becoming more impersonal.”

[19]Shadows of Mr. Huang: Chinese Painting and Printing of the Anhui School, Berkeley, 1981: my Introduction, pp. 7-15 (especially p. 10), and Sandi Chin and Cheng-chi Hsü, “Anhui Merchant Culture and Patronage,” pp. 19-24. Hsü’s other relevant writings are: “Merchant Patronage of the 18th Century Yangchow Painting,” paper for the workshop “Artists and Patrons: Some Economic and Social Aspects of Chinese Painting,” Kansas City, 1980; and her Ph.D. dissertation, see above. See also my The Distant Mountains: Chinese Painting of the Late Ming Period, Tokyo and New York, 1982, 136-37, “The Beginnings of Anhui School Painting and Its Extensions.” To go over this set of arguments again may seem redundant, but I am making them here in a different context, and cannot avoid presenting them at least in outline.

[20]See Shadows of Mt. Huang 11, Distant Mts. 136-37.


[21]Timothy Brook outlines the conditions within which the late Ming merchants "had not constituted themselves as a class" and were not "successful in establishing a measure of political indendence." He quotes Victor Lippert in noting that "the merchants were quite content to be incorporated into the structure and goals of the traditional society." See Timothy Brook, "The Merchant Network in 16th Century China: A Discussion and Translation of Zhang Han's 'On Merchants'," Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, XXIV/2, 1981, pp. 165-214; these passages on pp. 184-85.

[22]The statement was made first about Ni Tsan’s paintings, and was later used by the great patron-collector Chou Liang-kung (1612-1672) in his Tu-hua lu for the greatest of the Anhui masters, Hung-jen: “People of Chiangnan say that whether one has [Hung-jen’s] paintings or not determines one’s degree of refinement or vulgarity, just as was said in olden times for a Ni Tsan.” See Shadows of Mt. Huang, p. 34.

[23]Shadows of Mt. Huang 19-24.

[24]It had been used earlier by Wakeman, The Fall of Imperial China, 51. See also Naquin and Rawski 23.

[25]The best treatment of the Orthodox school of landscape in the 18th century is in Chou and Brown, The Elegant Brush, pp. 3-5 and 63-105. Chou and Brown judge these artists and paintings more positively than I would, but this does not diminish the value of their discussions.

[26]Cheng-chi Hsü devotes one chapter of her dissertation to Fang; see Hsü, Patronage, ch. 3, pp. 86-117.

[27]Wang Yün, Yang-chou hua-fang lu, preface 1883, ch. 2, p. 13b, quoted by Cheng-chi Hsü, “Merchant Patronage,” p. 11.

[28]Hsü, “Cheng Hsieh’s Price List”; this argument made in the final pages.

[29]Hsü, op. cit., 9-11.

[30]Julia F. Andrews, “Landscape Painting and Patronage in Early Qing Yangzhou,” paper for College Art Association Annual Meeting session on “Chinese Landscape Painting: Content, Context, and Style,” New York, February 1986.

[31]“Hsieh-i As a Cause of decline in Later Chinese Painting,” in Three Alternative Histories of Chinese Painting, Lawrence, Kansas, 1989, pp. 104-109. The information on Chang Hsün’s price-list is from the entry on him in Chou Liang-kung, Tu-hua lu, ch. 3.

[32]Hsü, Patronage and the Economic Life, I, 122.

[33]For this distinction see Lothar Ledderose, Mi Fu and the Classical Tradition of Chinese Calligraphy, Princeton, 1979, p. 11. See also Shen C. Y. Fu et. al., Traces of the Brush: Studies in Chinese Calligraphy, pp. 52-77, for a discussion and examples of this school of calligraphy.

[34]For a brief discussion of this effect of the chin-shih chia taste on painting see James Cahill, “The Shanghai School in Later Chinese Painting,” Hong Kong, 1988, 54-77, especially 57-61.

[35]For a selection of these writings see James Cahill, “The Orthodox Movement in Early Ch’ing Painting,” in Christian F. Murck, ed., Artists and Traditions: Uses of the Past in Chinese Culture, Princeton, 1976, pp. 169-181.

[36]“The historian is interested in the inception of styles, not in their perpetuation. The importance of a work from the historian’s point of view, therefore, depends largely on his insight into its one-time stylistic newness. A new style is a new idea, a conscious change and creative event, something that marks off one period from all other periods and thus supplies what makes for continuity in history. The mere continuous existence or survival of a style after its prime, by contrast, rather denotes stagnation, and in stagnation we may experience the phenomenon of discontinuity.” Max Loehr, “Some Fundamental Issues in the History of Chinese Painting, Journal of Asian Studies XXIII, 2, Feb. 1964, 185-193; this passage on p. 188.

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