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CLP 108: 1992 “The Place of the Artist in Chinese Society.” Lecture, Las Vegas and Elko

Las Vegas/Elko Lecture, Sept. 25-26, 1992

The Place of the Artist in Chinese Society

The serious study of Chinese painting in the west has a history of only about fifty years, scholarship and writing on the subject before that having been done chiefly by general sinologues with no special expertise in art history. Several different directions have been taken successively during this half-century. One was a continuation of the sinological approach, concentrated on reading and interpreting Chinese texts, aimed at understanding Chinese art theory, compiling biographical information on the artists, and so forth; another was an emphasis on style, principally adopted from the German art-historical tradition. A third, which was the basic form for quite a few doctoral dissertations from the 1950s on, combined these two into an artist-oriented study that used sinological methods to construct the painter's biography and style-analysis to trace his stylistic development through a series of works, producing what was intended to be a "comprehensive treatment" of him. Other studies concentrated on particular paintings or groups of paintings related by subject.

Missing throughout this period were studies of the social and economic situation of the Chinese artist, and of how Chinese paintings functioned in certain social contexts in their time. Meanwhile, studies of those kinds were being carried out copiously and on a high level by our western-art specialist colleagues--studies of the artist's shifting position in society, problems of patronage, the artist's economic life, studio practices, and so forth--studies so rich and numerous that this area of inquiry will probably seem to most art historians today a bit old-hat, out of line with their current interests, which tend to be directed more toward the interpretation of works of art than toward the situation of the artist. We in the Chinese art history field are also trying now (somewhat belatedly) to develop, or adapt from outside, new modes of interpretation that will bring us to deeper understandings of the paintings than we have had before. But along with doing so, some of us feel also the need to go back and try to fill in, as best we can, a large gap in our understanding of our subject, the question of the artist's economic and social position. How we are doing this, and what kinds of information we are uncovering, is what I want to talk about tonight.

A brief reminiscence will suggest why our efforts come so late. Some time in 1968, when an exhibition I had organized titled "Fantastics and Eccentrics in Chinese Painting" was being shown at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, a one-day symposium was held in connection with it, in which a group of specialist scholars discussed the paintings and the artists in the terms familiar then: matters of stylistic derivation, local schools, Orthodox vs. Individualist masters, etc. In the question period, someone in the audience asked: What can you tell us about the artist's clients, or patrons? For whom were these paintings done, and under what circumstances? What kind of payment did the artists receive for doing them? I remember answering for the group, saying what any one of us would have said: that we couldn't give answers to these questions because the available information simply wasn't sufficient. And that was true enough, as far as it went. One can read through the extensive Chinese literature on painting without finding more than occasional, glancing references to these matters. From early times and over the centuries, the Chinese writers tell us a great deal about other aspects of painting: they engage in aesthetic arguments, they give technical advice, they relate anecdotes about artists, they provide copious information on schools and traditions, producing a body of writing about art that makes our western-art colleagues envious. What they scrupulously avoid telling us is how artists practiced their art and made their livings.

What lies behind the Chinese taboo against talking about the down-to-earth realities of the artist's life? In order to answer that without taking up the entire lecture, I will have to pass rather quickly over some large and complicated matters; all of them have been dealt with at great length by myself and others elsewhere.[1] One is the Chinese distinction between professional artists and amateurs. Although we make the same distinction in our culture, artist-professionals are clearly in the stronger position with us; we tend to think of amateurs in art as "Sunday painters," not so serious as the professionals, and an exhibition of their works would not draw such crowds or attract the same critical attention. In the traditional Chinese view, by contrast, it was the professionals who were looked down upon: doing painting for a living demoted it to the status of a craft practiced by artisans who had learned it as a skill, as they might learn other income-producing skills. Painters of that kind occupied a relatively low social position, well below the educated men or literati who were engaged in scholarship and pursued official careers in government service. But from the 11th century onward, and increasingly from the 14th, painting was also done on an avocational basis, for pleasure and self-cultivation, by these educated men whose proper vocation was scholarship and official service. And the argument was made by the critics (who belonged to the same literati class as the amateur artists themselves) that the paintings done by these people were superior to the works of the professionals, since they would manifest the subtler tastes and sensibilities of their makers. We read over and over in writings on literati painting, as it came to be called, that one should "look at the painting and see the man."

The kinds of paintings done by the two groups tended to differ in ways that reflect their class differences..Professional artists, who could be commissioned to execute the paintings one needed or wanted for particular purposes, typically did pictures that had some function, such as for presentation on certain occasions, birthdays and farewell gatherings and retirement parties and the like, or simply for hanging as decoration in the house. When you wanted a picture to illustrate a piece of calligraphy, or a portrait of yourself or a relative, you would call in the professional master to do it. The scholar-amateur artists, by contrast, were inclined to paint pictures that had no such clear function, choosing generalized subjects such as landscape, or conventional plant subjects such as bamboo and blossoming plum. They often painted in ink on paper, rather than in ink and colors on silk, and worked usually in looser, less obviously skillful brushwork. And since in theory they were painting only to express their feelings, not to please any audience, certainly not to make money, they were less constrained by the demands of the marketplace, and thus enjoyed more artistic freedom. They gave their paintings away freely to their friends, and scorned the crude people who offered them money or gifts in the hope of getting one.

So it was, at least, in the idealized version as we find it in traditional Chinese writings. In fact, as we now know, most of the purported amateurs who had any real talent for painting and whose works were in demand found ways to benefit materially from their art. Even when they were firm about not accepting money, they were engaged in the well-known Chinese institution of kuan-hsi relationships, in which exchanges of gifts and favors take the place of monetary transactions. Doing this does not seem to have compromised their status as amateurs, and they were praised nonetheless for keeping their art free from all considerations of profit. The taboo against writing about how artists made their livings--which is part of a larger phenomenon, a general Chinese distaste for acknowledging the mercenary aspects of any cultural practice--originated in writings by or about the scholar-amateur masters, but extended eventually to cover virtually all painters, professionals as well as amateurs, until one could scarcely praise an artist without turning him into a kind of amateur, denying that he had any materialistic motives in producing his work. This exclusion of the "unmentionable" aspects of the artist's activity from writings on painting explains why I replied to the question about patronage and payment, in 1968, by saying that there wasn't enough evidence for answering it.

But in fact the evidence was there all the time, if we had taken the time and trouble to search it out. It is scattered in informal writings such as casual jottings by scholars, diaries, inscriptions on paintings, or letters between artists and their clients or agents, which survive in some numbers, either recorded in books or preserved in originals in Chinese museums and libraries. In 1980 a workshop on "Artists and Patrons: Some Social and Economic Aspects of Chinese Painting" organized by Professor Chu-tsing Li of the University of Kansas was held at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, with sixteen papers devoted to particular artists and schools; these have now been published as a book, which has gone far toward opening up this area of investigation.[2] More recently I myself held a seminar with a group of graduate students and several Chinese visitors participating, titled "The Painter's Practice: How Artists Lived and Worked in Traditional China," in which we pursued clues and scraps of information in written sources of the kind I listed a moment ago.[3] The fruits of that seminar were classified by subject and incorporated into a computer database, on which I based a series of lectures delivered at Columbia University last year; these also will appear eventually as a book.[4]

To illustrate the gap between ideal and reality in accounts of the Chinese artist, let me introduce the example of a late seventeenth century master named Cheng Min. One of his paintings is reproduced as Fig. 1. A contemporary of his writes this conventional praise of him:

"The master immerses himself in old books, not caring whether it is cold or hot, living tranquilly, uttering few words, magnanimous in disposition, his mind fixed on distant goals [that is, unconcerned with day-to-day affairs]. All difficult questions in the classics and histories he can resolve. . . .His painting style is lofty and antique. . . In the most refined of his works, whether feelings of sadness and melancholy or complaint and anger, if these were not aroused by his great talents then they must come from his own experience."[5]

The image of the artist presented here is a familiar one: a person of deep cultural refinement, he lives quietly, caring nothing for worldly matters, engaged in scholarly pursuits, doing paintings or calligraphy as an avocation, to express his emotions--and, to follow through with the usual implications of scholar-amateur status, presumably giving them to his friends, expecting no recompense other than occasional gifts and favors in return.At a symposium in 1984 a Chinese scholar presented a paper on the newly-discovered diary of Cheng Min, which contains entries such as these:

"[1672] tenth month, fifth day: I did three fan paintings for Fu-wen..”

" Seventeenth day: cloudy. Yen-ch'ing and K'uan-chung 'moistened my brush' [gave me money for painting] and I added bamboo and rock for them [to some previously-done painting?]"

"Eleventh month, eighth day: I went into town and wrote a fan for Yen-ch'ing . . . Keng-yü summoned me, and I added to [retouched?] a painting by T'ang Yin for him. . . "

"[1673] sixth month, third day . . . Mu-ch'ien ordered a painting for Hsü Erh-ming, and I used the money for food."

"[1674] second month, sixth day: cloudy. After supper I visited Tzu-yen, and entrusted him with three paintings to sell for me."

"Sixth month, sixth day: I visited Hsüeh-hai, where the owner of the I-kuan [an inn?] . . . summoned me to do a painting for him."

"[1676] first month, sixth day: rainy. Ssu-jo visited me to order a painting, bringing payment [lit. 'moisture,' as above.]"

"Ninth month, eighteenth day: for my 'elder brother' Yin-nan I did a painting on satin. Also did five fans for . . . [names]."

"Twelfth month, fourth day: This line [of poetry] came to me: 'To get through the year, I need the money from selling paintings.'"

"Twenty-ninth day. Snow has been falling for the whole month. Fortunately, I have managed to get through my New Year's obligations with the small income from my paintings. I sit recalling that there are a great many really poor people now, and wish that I had a spacious, myriad-roomed house [to entertain them in]--an empty thought."[6]

Other entries in the diary record his carving seals for clients in return for grain or presents, and borrowing money from one of them to buy food.

These two images of the artist cannot easily be reconciled, and in fact contradict one another; the idealized one presented in the standard accounts obviously must give way to this new, presumably truer image provided by his diary. Learning about the realities of Cheng Min's life does not diminish in any way our appreciation of his paintings, but it does change our readings of the paintings, from seeing them purely as expressions of the artist's temperament and feelings to recognizing how they respond in some part to the tastes and wishes of his audience, whom he had to satisfy to survive. We know from other evidence that the region in which he worked, Anhui province, was enjoying great prosperity in this period as a center of commerce, with many families reaching levels of affluence that allowed them to engage in such status-enhancing activities as collecting art; and that painters of the region specialized in those kinds of painting, especially landscapes in a dry, somewhat austere style, that were associated with the refined tastes of the gentry-literati. Knowing what we now know about Cheng and his milieu, that is, encourages us to shift more of our attention from inside to outside--from the artist's psychology to the society around him--in trying to understand the significance of his works.

One of the great Ming masters who was a straightforward professional was Ch'iu Ying, active in the first half of the sixteenth century. Ordering a painting from an artist of this kind was easy: You sent a servant with a letter explaining what you wanted, and some money as part payment, perhaps, with the rest to be paid when the painting was received. A letter from Ch'iu Ying to one of his clients is preserved in which he writes: "Recently you favored me with an order to make a painting for a birthday celebration. It has been respectfully completed and hereby presented for approval and acceptance. When you place another order, just send a word to me and it will be done and delivered; but please do not place any more orders through Hsi-ch'ih. Although he and I are relatives, we do not get along at all. Kindly keep this in mind. The other two paintings will be delivered soon. Not yet recovered [from an illness], I have written this in too careless a hand. Hoping for your forgiveness, I am..." and he signs his name, adding a request for some pills to help his recovery, and a note saying that he has received a payment in silver from the patron's brother.[7] The painting that accompanied this letter is not preserved, or cannot be identified, but it probably looked something like his "Immortals' Realm of the Peach-blossom Spring," now in the Tientsin Municipal Museum (Fig. 2), which was presumably painted by Ch'iu Ying as a birthday picture under circumstances more or less like those revealed in the letter. The painting is full of auspicious imagery--the rich blue and green mineral colors, the pines and blossoming peach trees, the heavy mists, the cave and running stream--that carried the message of wishing the recipient a long and prosperous life.

One would never have approached a scholar-amateur artist in the direct way that Ch'iu Ying invites his client to use, and paying him in money would have insulted him. If one did not know him well enough to drop a hint about wanting one of his paintings, one could ask a go-between to do it. Go-betweens are a staple feature of Chinese society, facilitating transactions of all kinds from commercial sales to marriages, sometimes collecting commissions from both parties. The litterateur and playwright K'ung Shang-jen met the great Individualist artist Shih-t'ao at a party in 1689 and afterwards wrote to a poet friend who had been master of ceremonies at this gathering: "[Shih-t'ao's] poetry and paintings are like the man himself. We met briefly at the poetry gathering, but I was unable to express my hopes ... I wanted to request an album of paintings from him that I might look at when composing poetry, but I feared making such a direct request and hope you might convey it for me."[8] The go-between could also advise on the size and nature of a suitable present to give the artist in return for the painting.

One of Shih-t'ao's contemporaries, another great Individualist artist who was also a Buddhist monk, was Chu Ta or Pa-ta Shan-jen. Standard sources write of his eccentric behavior and his unworldliness; an account of him by a contemporary writer says that he spent his time with other Buddhist monks in temples, and gave them the paintings he did, but that if rich and powerful people asked him, offering lots of money, they wouldn't get anything. But recently a series of letters from him have been published which reveal him accepting commissions, using go-betweens, receiving money and gifts for his works, and so forth--in very much the same situation, that is, as Cheng Min.[9] A Nanking collector named Huang Yen-lü who wanted a work by Pa-ta Shan-jen sent a fairly large sum of money through an intermediary who acted as the painter's agent, and eventually got a fine album of landscapes. He wrote an inscription for it recording this transaction and expressing his satisfaction with the paintings he got, remarking that Pa-ta would never have given him the kind of rough, hasty work he does to repay gifts from the salt merchants of his province.[10] Salt merchants in 17th century China had become extremely rich, through enjoying a government monopoly, and some of them were attempting to raise their social status through collecting art and supporting artists. The inscription reveals (if we can believe Huang Yen-lü) that Pa-ta Shan-jen did in fact paint pictures for these people, but would dash off sloppy works, presumably on the assumption that they would not know the difference between these and the kind of quasi-amateurish but subtly disciplined works admired by the true connoisseur.

Gifts that an artist might accept in return for a painting or in anticipation of one could be virtually anything he needed or wanted, beginning with the materials and tools of his art: rolls of paper or silk, brushes and ink, pigments. Antiques were common gifts; the artist's taste was flattered, he escaped the indignity of being paid in cash, and he could always resell the object through a dealer if he needed money. Artists frequently painted in return for gifts of food and wine--food because it sustained them in times of poverty, wine because it "moistened their brush," or inspired them to paint. The great eighth century figure master Wu Tao-tzu had established a model by doing wall paintings for a Buddhist temple after the abbot had set out a hundred gallons of wine in the temple gateway to tempt him. Artists who were noted womanizers, such as Wu Wei in the 15th century and Ch'en Hung-shou in the mid-17th, were reportedly willing to paint for anyone who provided them with an attractive courtesan as a bedmate. Ch'en also painted directly for prostitutes, who would wheedle him at drinking parties to get his paintings and then sell them to other customers, making a lot of money this way. (In assessing stories of this kind we must remember that the nature of Chinese painting allowed the artist a far more prolific rate of production than European artists could typically accomplish; Ch'en Hung-shou would of course do other works to support himself and his family.) The non-conformist 16th century master Hsü Wei tells in an inscription on one of his scroll paintings that he did it for someone who brought him eight pints of good wine, a hundred crabs, and a leg of lamb; after consuming most of these the painter was truly inspired, with "thunder running through his fingers."

Painters like Cheng Min who were impoverished more or less had to accept whatever commissions they could get; those who had achieved higher status and reputation could be more choosy. We read stories of artists trying to deal with people who had money but little taste and who insisted on getting a painting from them. One of these concerns the tenth century master Kuo Chung-shu, who specialized in detailed architectural paintings. A rich young man invited him to a drinking party and set out silk and paper conspicuously, repeatedly importuning him for a painting. At last Kuo took one of the long horizontal rolls of paper (intended for a handscroll painting) and drew at the beginning a boy holding a reel of kite-string, at the far end a kite, and connecting them a thin brushline many yards in length, representing the string. The young man was too dense to see anything unusual in this, and thanked him profusely.[11] We read stories also of artists who preserved their principles by accepting cash payments for their paintings only when they were in the direst need; under those circumstances, the rules were relaxed. The 17th century painter Lu Wei is one about whom this is said. "The place he lived," writes a contemporary, "was south of the Chao-kuo Temple. People who wanted to obtain one of his paintings would climb to the viewing tower of the temple and look out to his house, to see if any cooking smoke was rising from it. If noon passed and none could be seen [indicating that he had no food to cook] they would take rice or silver to trade [for a painting.] If it didn't happen this way, they couldn't get one at all."

An instructive case is that of Cheng Pan-ch'iao, a famous painter and calligrapher active in the rich city of Yangchow in the 18th century (Fig. 3.) One source tells us that his brush could be "moistened" by a dinner of his favorite dish, dog meat. But at another point in his life, when he had retired from his post as a prefect and needed money more than gifts, he posted a price list stating his charges for a large, medium-size, or small scroll, adding: "The presentation of food and gifts is not as good as silver coins, because what you give is not necessarily what I want. If you present cold hard cash, then my heart swells with joy, and everything I write or paint is excellent . . . Honeyed talk of old friendships and past companions goes by my ears like the autumn wind . . ."[12] The only subjects that Cheng Pan-ch'iao painted were bamboo and Chinese orchids in ink monochrome, sometimes with the addition of a garden rock to anchor and fill out the composition. But he was ingenious enough to make his slender repertory fit the needs of more or less any occasion. By his time, these two plant subjects were so loaded with symbolic meanings that they could carry a diversity of messages. Bamboo could stand for longevity, so a picture of it was a proper gift for birthdays. The vigorous growth of the plant made it suitable (properly inscribed) for contratulating someone on the birth of a son. Cheng even presented one of his bamboo paintings to the people of his district when he retired, writing in the inscription that the bamboo in this case stood for the fishing pole that symbolized his new life as a hermit.

His friend Chin Nung specialized in pictures of blossoming plum branches, another subject with a rich range of meanings. The plum tree can look withered and dead throughout the winter, and yet burst out with a profusion of blossoms when spring comes. So it stood for survival and rejuvenation, and a painting of it might congratulate someone who preserved his vigor into his late years. An example in the Freer Gallery of Art, painted by Chin Nung in 1759, extends that meaning to a more specific circumstance: the artist relates in his inscription that he painted it for someone who had acquired a lovely new concubine, and likens the red color he used on the blossoms to her rouged cheeks.[13]

Chin Nung and Cheng Pan-ch'iao, working in the mid-18th century in the commercial atmosphere of Yangchou, were open in selling their paintings for money; both argued that doing so, while it might seem undignified, gave them more independence than the older pattern of attaching oneself to some patron and having to satisfy his wishes. By this earlier pattern, for example, a rich man might invite a painter into his household, where he would be expected to produce pictures in return for lodging, meals, and perhaps some cash payment, becoming a kind of artist-in-residence. Many examples of this practice are recorded. The late Ming master Ts'ui Tzu-chung, for instance, a specialist in figures in archaic styles who never was popular enough to earn a decent income from his paintings, lived in his last years with sympathetic friends who were better off than he. An extant painting dated 1638 (Fig. 4) was done as a farewell gift for one of these patrons who was leaving Beijing to take up an official post. Ts'ui Tzu-chung's picture portrays the two of them seated in the garden of the host's mansion enjoying a cup of tea, powdered tea of the kind used in the Japanese tea ceremony; two servants in the foreground are grinding it in a mill.

A variant of the artist-in-residence situation on the highest level was that of the painters employed in the imperial court. Chosen from all over the empire, they could attain high honors and prosper if they pleased the emperor and the noblemen and ministers for whom they worked. But they did this at some sacrifice of artistic individuality, since court painters were not encouraged to work in personal, self-expressive manners; what was wanted was a polished performance, and a picture that could be enjoyed for an extended period without becoming boring or revealing any technical faults. An excellent example is the handscroll representing "A Spring Festival on the River" (Fig. 5), a reworking of a Sung-period composition done by three court artists in collaboration. Apart from its artistic and entertainment value, it carries a political message, celebrating the peaceful rule of that period and implicitly praising the emperor by portraying a prosperous, stable urban community. It is filled with anecdotal and informative details, such as shops along the streets selling a diversity of goods. The artists, in doing such a work, had to make many sketches of real-life scenes and combine them into a single finished painting, which became a kind of compendium of individual pictures to be read sequentially. In 1962, while we were photographing paintings at the Palace Museum in Taipei, where this famous scroll is kept, we discovered the preliminary drawing for it, what the Chinese call the hua-kao, painted on paper in fine ink outline. It was signed by still another court artist, whose name does not even appear on the finished work. How the responsibility was divided between the artists engaged in such a project we do not know, but we are told that a detailed preliminary drawing had to be submitted to the emperor or some high officials for approval before the work could proceed. Portraits were also done in draft and shown to the sitter before the painter undertook the finished work. At least one such a draft survives from the eighteenth century, the one done for a portrait of the great 18th century poet Yuan Mei by a noted artist of the time, Lo P'ing.[14] In Yangchou, the flourishing city where both poet and painter lived, eccentricity was prized, and people enjoyed being portrayed in odd, sometimes unflattering ways. But Yuan Mei evidently did not appreciate the way Lo P'ing had depicted him; he returned the draft to the artist, adding a long inscription in which he blamed the rejection on his family, saying they complained that the picture made him look like the old man who helped with cooking in the kitchen, or the man who brought lemonade to the gate.

A professional painter who was obliged to master a wide repertory of subjects and styles would take every opportunity to make study-copies or fen-pen from whatever old paintings he could gain access to. The early 16th century painter Ch'iu Ying, the writer of the letter quoted earlier, is said to have copied T'ang and Sung paintings in this way, for use in his paintings. His long handscroll titled "Spring Morning in the Han Palace," for instance, depicts groups of palace ladies engaged in a diversity of quiet, aristocratic pursuits.[15] Some of the groups, perhaps most of them, are taken from old paintings, some of which still survive to be identified as Ch'iu Ying's models. No fen-pen by Ch'iu Ying himself are known, but an album of them made by a follower of his, the 17th century Ku Chien-lung, now in the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum in Kansas City, gives us some idea of how they must have looked.[16] Albums of this kind would be kept in studios and passed on to the artist's successors as repertory books, and, if we can judge from later practice and cases in Japan, were important in establishing and legitimizing a lineage of painters, as well as in transmitting old designs.

We do not know much about the organization of studios, how apprentices were used, and such questions. In China, the artist's studio was ordinarily in his household, and family members were commonly employed as his assistants. A letter survives from the late 17th century painter Yün Shou-p'ing to his wife, written while he was traveling, asking her to send his nephew to help him by coloring some of the paintings he was doing. Since coloring did not ordinarily involve brushwork or "the hand of the artist," clients would usually not object if it was done by someone other than the master himself. A few of the paintings by the great late Ming figure painter Ch'en Hung-shou are unusual in bearing inscriptions crediting his assistants, or sometimes his son, with their part in producing the work, doing the coloring or painting in the setting for the figures. In addition to high-level, one-of-a-kind works, a popular artist such as Ch'en would turn out some quantity of more routine, repetitive paintings for sale to people who needed them for presenting on such occasions as birthdays and weddings. Auspicious pictures of Taoist immortals or herb-gatherers (Fig. 6) could serve that function. In this case, Ch'en's disciple Yen Chan did the coloring, and no doubt the intricate, time-consuming design on the robe. Relatively mechanical, time-consuming work of this kind could be left to assistants. The composition survives in at least four versions, and probably more. Formerly we would have worried about which among them was the original, and dismissed the others as forgeries. Now we allow the possibility that some of them, at least, are studio works of a kind produced by Ch'en and his assistants in some number, more or less as ready-mades. They are rather stiff and hard as paintings, as might be expected from this mode of production; on the other hand, they were no doubt quite a lot cheaper than the more sensitively-done works by Ch'en Hung-shou that we admire today, and served their purpose well enough, as auspicious decorations hung on the occasion of the birthday party.

Finally, a practice for which there is increasing evidence is that of employing ghost painters, what the Chinese call tai-pi or "substitute brushes." Tai-pi could be legitimate, for instance the professional letter-writers hired by people who lacked the literacy to write them for themselves; they could also be what we call ghost writers, penning compositions for someone else to sign, or to be published under another's name. Artists who were tai-pi served as ghost painters, doing pictures for others who were were too busy to keep up with all the demands for their work, or who had accepted too many commissions and lacked the time to fulfill them. Many of the leading artists of later centuries in China are reported as having employed ghost painters in this way. One was Tung Ch'i-ch'ang, the great late Ming landscapist and theorist (a major exhibition of his works was recently shown in Kansas City and Los Angeles, and will open soon at the Metropolitan in New York.)[17] Tung, because he held high official posts in the government, including a period as tutor to the young prince who would become the last Ming emperor, was in theory above the need of profiting from his paintings; and it seems improbable that he made a practice of selling them for money. But he did give them to people, along with examples of his calligraphy, in exchange for gifts, and used them also for political presents, to win the favor of men of higher rank or repay favors done for him by his fellow officials. Several writers of his time or shortly after tell of his employing less-known artists of his region to paint for him.

It is indeed true that quite a few extant paintings with apparently genuine inscriptions and signatures by Tung seem to have been painted by other hands; this one, in the Palace Museum in Taipei, looks like the work of Shen Shih-ch'ung, one of those identified as his ghost painters. A recorded letter from Tung's friend Ch'en Chi-ju to Shen Shih-ch'ung reads: "My old friend, I am sending you a piece of white paper together with a brush-fee of three-tenths of a tael of silver. May I trouble you to paint a large-size landscape? I need it by tomorrow. Don't sign it--I will get Tung Ch'i-ch'ang to put his name on it."[18] Needless to say, this practice complicates the problem of determining the authenticity of paintings with Tung Ch'i-ch'ang signatures on them.

Another famous master who employed ghost painters in some number was Chin Nung, mentioned earlier as active in Yangchou in the mid-18th century. By his time, the artist could be more open about selling his works, as he, Cheng Hsieh, and others were. A self-made man who was proficient in poetry and calligraphy, Chin Nung did not begin painting, by his own testimony, until he was over fifty. But then his fame rose rapidly, and his own output could not supply the demand for his works. He used his own followers and others to do paintings for him to sign. One of these followers was Lo P'ing (the painter of the portrait of Yüan Mei discussed above), and some of Chin Nung's "best works" of figure painting are probably by Lo, who was the more technically proficient painter of the two. Chin Nung's paintings were valued, not for their technical finish--they are often quite amateurish--but as products of his hand, and of his special, quirky taste. And, paradoxically, it is just when the hand of the individual artist is most in demand, and in fact becomes the marketable commodity, that we find it more than ever being reproduced by others than the artist himself. My colleague at U.C.Berkeley Svetlana Alpers recently published a book on Rembrandt which enraged some of her colleagues by concentrating on the great Dutch master's studio practice and his use of assistants more than on his individual genius.[19] Svetlana's book was among other things a response to the findings of a large-scale study of Rembrandt's paintings, carried out by a group of scholars over some years, which has concluded by identifying many of them, including some of the most famous and admired, as works by followers, not by the master. Svetlana argues that these findings are not so damaging to Rembrandt's achievement and reputation as some have taken them to be. What Rembrandt created was a style, a hand, a type of painting that could be immediately identified as his, and which he commodified by selling the paintings openly. He also, she claims, oversaw the production of "Rembrandts" by others, "encouraging other artists to pass themselves off as himself." The same seems to have been true of Chin Nung.

Rembrandt and Chin Nung are as unlike in their styles as two painters could be; but they are like in their responses to interestingly similar situations. Both were accomodating their art to new commercial cultures. In both cases it was the artist himself, manifested in his "hand," that was in effect being commodified; what the clients were purchasing was not pictures that met certain technical standards or were suited to certain uses, but Rembrandts, or Chin Nungs. Both artists, in their project of presenting themselves to their audiences as interesting individuals, were the first in their respective traditions to paint substantial numbers of self-portraits (Fig. 7). And both exemplify the freedom an artist could attain by responding to the conditions of the marketplace instead of subordinating himself to the demands of aristocratic or economically high-level patronage. In doing this, both help to usher in the modern periods of their traditions.

The study of the Chinese artist in society is in its infancy, both inside and outside China. Several of the Chinese specialists who participated in my seminar have, after their return to China, held seminars of their own on this subject or written articles incorporating some of the material we unearthed. This is a hopeful development, since the Chinese scholars have far better access to sources, and far better command of them, than we have. Scholarly explorations of greater refinement than my own--which. as a first attempt, has taken a largely unhistorical and anecdotal approach--will certainly render it obsolete before many years have passed. Nevertheless, since the initial violation of the taboo perhaps had to be perpetrated by an outsider, my study will at least have performed that useful function, and for a time, at least, will serve in some part to fill this gap in our knowledge of Chinese artists and paintings.

[1]A brief general discussion of the distinction between professional and scholar-amateur painters in China can be found in my book Hills Beyond a River: Chinese Painting of the Yüan Dynasty, 1270-1368, Tokyo and New York, John Weatherhill, 1976, pp. 4-6. For a full account see Susan Bush, The Chinese Literati on Painting: Su Shih (1037-1101) to Tung Ch'i-ch'ang (1555-1636), Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1971.

[2]Chu-tsing Li, ed., Artists and Patrons: Some Social and Econimic Aspects of Chinese Painting, Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1989.

[3] The Chinese participants in my seminar were: Mr. Shan Guolin and Zhu Xuchu of the Shanghai Museum; Mr. Shan Guoqiang of the Palace Museum, Beijing; Mr. Cai Xingyi, formerly of the Zhongguo Yishu Yanjiuyuan, Beijing; and Professor Pan Yaochang of the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, Hangzhou. All were in Berkeley for all or part of the seminar and made significant contributions.

[4]The lectures were presented in October, 1991 as the Bampton Lectures; the book will be published by the Columbia University Press. The present lecture is taken in part from the material in this forthcoming book, and is intended only as an introduction to the matters treated more fully there. Because of limitations in the number of illustrations I can use, quite a few passages from the lecture that dealt with particular paintings had to be deleted.

[5]The encomium is by T'ang Yen-sheng, and is included in the biographical entry on cheng Min in Yao Weng-wang, comp., An-hui hua-chia hui-pien, Hefei, 1979, p. 315.

[6]These excerpts are translated from the sections of Cheng Min's diary included in Huang Yung-ch'üan, "Cheng Min 'Pai-ching-chai jih-chi' ch'u-t'an," in Mei-shu yen-chiu, 1984 no. 33, pp. 39-40 and 49-50. The article is based on Huang's discovery in the Che-chiang Provincial Library in Hangzhou of the manuscript of a portion of Cheng Min's diary, covering the years 1672-76.

[7]See Jean-Pierre Dubosc, "A Letter and Fan Painting by Ch'iu Ying," Archives of Asian Art XXVIII, 1974-75, pp. 108-112.

[8]The translation is from Richard Strassberg, The World of K'ung Shang-jen: A Man of Letters in Early Ch'ing China, New York, 1983, pp. 172-73.

[9]The contemporary account is by Shao Ch'ang-heng (1637-1704); an English rendering is in Victoria Contag (tr. Michael Bullock), Chinese Masters of the Seventeenth Century, Rutland, Vt. and Tokyo, Charles Tuttle, 1969, pp. 17-18. For the letters, see Wang Fangyu and Richard Barnhart, Master of the Lotus Garden: The Life and Art of Bada Shanren, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1990, pp. 280-285.

[10]Jao Tsung-i, "Landscape Paintings by Chu Ta in the Chih-lo Lou Collection and Related Problems," in Journal of the Institute of Chinese Studies of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, vol. 8 no. 2, December 1976, pp. 507-515; English summary pp. 516-17.

[11]The story is related by the eleventh century Kuo Jo-hsü; see Alexander Soper,Kuo Jo-hsü's 'Experiences in Painting' (T'u-hua Chien-wen Chih), Washington, D.C., American Council of Learned Societies, 1951, p. 44.

[12]See Ginger Cheng-chi Hsü, "Zheng Xie's Price List: Painting as a Source of Income in Yangzhou," in Chinese Painting Under the Qianlong Emperor, part II, Phoebus vol. 6 no. 2, Tempe, Arizona, 1991, pp. 261-271. The notes on the implications of subject matter in Cheng Hsieh's paintings given below are from Hsü's doctoral dissertation, unpublished.

[13]The painting is unpublished; it will be reproduced in my forthcoming book The Painter's Practice: How Artists Lived and Worked in Traditional China.

[14]For this painting and a translation and discussion of Yuan Mei's inscription see Richard Vinograd, Boundaries of the Self: Chinese Portraits, 1600-1900, Cambridge and New York, Cambridge University Press, Pl. 12 and pp. 84-91.

[15]This long handscroll is in the National Palace Museum, Taipei; sections of it have been reproduced in a number of publications, e.g. in Cahill, Chinese Painting, Geneva, Skira, 1960, p. 145.

[16]The album is published in Eight Dynasties of Chinese Painting: The Collections of the Nelson Gallery-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, and the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, 1980, no. 254, pp. 342-47.

[17]The catalog has been published as Wai-kam Ho, ed., The Century of Tung Ch'i-ch'ang, 1555-1636, 2 vols., Kansas City, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1992.

[18]The letter is recorded in a book by Wu Hsiu (1765-1827) but apparently is not extant. It is discussed in Hsieh Chih-liu, "T'an Tung Ch'i-ch'ang ti tai-pi" (On Tung Ch'i-ch'ang's Ghost Painters), Duoyun 23, 1984 no. 4, pp. 117-118.

[19]Svetlana Alpers, Rembrandt's Enterprise: The Studio and the Market, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1988.

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