Yesterday (June 14, 2012) I received the latest issue of China Review International, an excellent journal that publishes reviews of books in Chinese studies. I saw with excitement that my own book Pictures For Use and Pleasure: Vernacular Painting in High Qing China, published in the autumn of last year by the U.C. Press in Berkeley, was given the lead review. But then, after reading the review and reflecting on it, I decided to write the editor (Roger Ames, an historian of China whom I got to know during our years in Honolulu) expressing my response to this review. They don’t publish responses such as this, so it was mainly to blow off steam, but it seems worthwhile to make it accessible here, because it raises and exemplifies once more a recurring problem I’ve had in the way other scholars respond to my writings--and, by extension, a kind of response that anyone writing a piece of art-historical scholarship that depends on visual analysis of paintings is in danger of getting. The old visual-verbal issue again, with “verbal” standing for a dependence on texts, and a reluctance to accept anything that can’t be found in texts. So, with that as preface, here it is.

James Cahill, June 15th, 2012

Editor, China Review International

(Is this Roger Ames? If so, hello Roger--it’s been a long time.)

I received my copy of the latest issue (17/3) this morning and saw with excitement that the lead review is of my recent book on what I call vernacular painting. I read it with something less than complete pleasure. It isn’t a negative review--your reviewer isn’t knowledgeable enough, or engaged enough with his subject, to do that--and it consists largely of quotations from my text, tied together with rather qualified and provisional comments: If we accept Cahill’s premises, then this appears to be justified. . . and so forth. It isn’t a review that tells the potential reader much of anything, really. I am writing to say that you chose the wrong reviewer--maybe a good scholar in his own right, but with no understanding of Chinese painting or how one should write about it, and no sympathy for its subject--which he tries to reduce, against its real, much broader content, to a new appreciation of the easily-dismissable “beautiful woman pictures.” (It wasn’t I who “dubbed them” meiren-hua; that’s an old and well-established term for them.)

Like so many Chinese historians, he seems to be deeply doubtful of any scholarship that isn’t based in reading texts. “Specialists may wonder,” he writes, “whether internal evidence from paintings alone is sufficient support for such claims, but the idea is, nevertheless, intriguing.” And so forth. I’ve encountered that throughout my career, but could have hoped for better from a reviewer of my last major book in a journal like yours. What he should know--and you should have realized--is that the subject of the whole book, what I call vernacular painting, wasn’t respected by the Chinese literati who did most of the writing and publishing in China in traditional times, so that one doesn’t find much about it in searching the literature, as of course I did. One has to (after doing the necessary book-research as far as it takes you) read the paintings themselves, and the relationships between them, with a trained eye, and that’s what I also did--and wrote the book around what I saw. But those limited to book-reading won’t accept that.

I remember after the first of my Compelling Image lectures at Harvard in 1978, in which I presented overwhelming visual evidence for something lots of Chinese didn’t want to believe--that some of their best late Ming- early Qing painters adopted a lot from European prints that they could see by then--K.C. Chang (Chang Kwang-chih) saying to me: Very interesting, Jim, but I can’t accept it until you produce evidence. By which he meant, of course, evidence in texts of the time; and of course there wasn’t any, for reasons I could have explained to him if he had wanted to listen. I could have pointed out to him how he, Karlgren, and all the other text-readers had  got the sequence of early bronze décor styles wrong, while my teacher Max Loehr, using his trained eye, famously got it right.

To refuse to credit visual evidence for arguments about art is the equivalent, as I used to tell my students, of arguing that a piece of scholarly writing on Beethoven should be based only on earlier writings about him, not on listening to his music. I came to realize long ago that many of the most interesting issues and developments in Chinese painting aren’t to be found discussed in the Chinese literature on it--the writers about painting and the artists doing the paintings were engaged in quite different enterprises, and often are going in quite different directions, even when they were the same person.

Too late to do anything about it, and readers of your journal will get a very partial and ill-informed version of what my book is about, and how it indeed breaks important new ground. A good review, by an art historian, appeared in the Journal of Asian Studies, and I’ll hope for more while I’m still here to read them.

Best, James Cahill/Jim

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