CLP 118: 1990 “Notes on the Painter’s Practice in China.” Trinity College in San Antonio, Texas

Trinity lecture: Notes on the Painter’s Practice in China

Our image of China has undergone many changes in recent years; perhaps they can be summed up if we say that China has lost much of its mystique for us. Successive versions of China in the West, from the time of our earliest contacts, have always been somewhat idealized and mysterious: a land of philosophers and enlightened rule for 18th-century Europeans; a land of mystery, more than a little sinister, for the popular view in the late 19th and early 20th century; the egalitarian, morally dedicated society that many of us wanted to believe in for the early decades of the P.R.C. None of these can be easily accepted today, and no new idealized vision has been created to succeed them. Perhaps last year’s horrors at T’ien-an-men completed a process long underway in the fading of unreal foreign visions of China.

Another set of special visions of Chinese culture and society, representing another kind of mystique, were created by the Chinese themselves, over the centuries, and largely accepted, for a long time, by those of us in various fields of Chinese studies. These, too, are tending to give way as we try more and more to uncover the reality behind the constructed versions. In Frederick Wakeman’s massive study of the Ming-Ch’ing transition, The Great Enterprise, the Manchus conquerers are seen as a far more positive force in bringing stability and effective rule to China than any traditional Chinese account could have made them. The history of Buddhism in China is being rewritten in a revisionist way by Robert Gimello and others who increasinglyg recognize how over-emphasis on sectarian distinctions, by Japanese writers as well as Chinese, distorted the realities of that history. And so forth. Long-standing myths of China’s cultural insularity and self-sufficiency, and of the virtues of elegant amateurism both in practical affairs and in the arts, are similarly crumbling. It is not a matter of “bursting balloons”; no disrespect is entailed in looking for the real China beneath the unreal visions that have heretofore been presented. It certainly is not a matter of launching some subtly “orientalist,” demeaning assault on traditional Chinese formulations and values. At least in intent, it is a matter of removing a mask in order to find an equally admirable real person beneath. Unlike the unmasking at the end of Max Beerbohm’s “Happy Hypocrite,” which revealed a spiritualized countenance identical to the one the mask had presented, this unmasking uncovers a quite different face--but one no less admirable or absorbing, only more human.

The creation of the myth of China in writings by Chinese was itself a great cultural achievement, comparable to the creation of the myth of romantic love in late medieval Europe, or that of man as a rational being in the European enlightenment. We can admire it without continuing to believe it; we are increasingly unwilling elsewhere to accept as truth the protective, self-enhancing structures that intellectual elites build as “history,” and there is no reason why China should be an exception. For China, it was the Confucian literati who wrote the standard texts that created and propagated the myth. Looking beyond these, or beneath them, is more difficult, obliging us typically to turn to unofficial sources, such as letters and informal jottings.

My argument in this lecture is that writers on Chinese painting created such a myth, and that we are only beginning to look beyond it. How doing so changes our understanding of Chinese paintings, the circumstances of their creation and the meanings and functions they originally had, is the subject of the lecture. I will begin with a brief consideration of the late seventeenth century master Cheng Min, an artist of the Anhui School.

(S) (Note on use of slides) Here is one of his works, an album leaf in the collection of Liu Tso-ch’ou, Hong Kong. Like others of the Anhui masters of this period, Cheng Min painted river landscapes, unpeopled and unembellished by enlivening detail, in a manner that relies heavily on line-drawing, or sketching of contours in dry brushwork, to render the forms. More or less overt references to the Yuan-period master Ni Tsan are common in his works, as they are in other Anhui-school paintings.

Since Ni Tsan is the quintessential example of the cultivated amateur in Chinese painting, and his style is the very emblem of Confucian high-mindedness, this painting would alone set up expectations about the artist’s character and the basis on which he worked in anyone familiar with the signification of styles in Chinese painting; and those expectations would appear to be confirmed in what we read about him. His contemporary T'ang Yen-sheng, who frequently inscribed works by artists of the time, writes about Cheng Min:

"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 [i.e. unconcerned with day-to-day affairs]. All difficult questions in the classics and histories he can resolve. He is an accomplished seal-carver, using the pre-Ch'in and Han [scripts] as models. His painting style is lofty and antique, completely following the 'engendering movement [through] spirit consonance' (ch'i-yün sheng-tung) mode of expression. Accordingly, he can rival the Yüan masters. 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."

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, practicing scholarly pursuits, doing paintings or calligraphy on an amateur basis, to express his feelings--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. We have not always accepted this image entirely uncritically--suspicions have been expressed, especially in recent years, that it must often mask some more down-to-earth reality. But we have repeated it and allowed it to underlie our writings and our understanding of the paintings without giving it much thought. Even the most sceptical among us have seldom argued for any really radical mismatch between image and reality.

(S) Another of his works. At a symposium on Anhui-school painting in 1984, Huang Yung-ch'üan presented a paper on the newly-discovered diary of Cheng Min, quoting some passages from it that pertain to his activity as painter and calligrapher. Here are some excerpts:

"[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. . . "

"[1773] 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."

Other entries record his carving seals for patrons in return for grain or presents, and borrowing money from one of them to buy food. (Slides off.)

In the cases of most artists, we have no such detailed information about the real conditions of their daily lives, and even if we had it, the disparity between conventional image and what we might call adjusted image would not always be so great as with Cheng Min. But as we uncover more evidence about the circumstances under which Chinese paintings came into being, how they were acquired by others, and how the artist was rewarded, as well as about other practical details of the artist's activity, the degree to which standard accounts of Chinese artists are commonly idealized and untrue to their realities is increasingly apparent. (I gave last spring a seminar titled "The Painter's Practice in China," with graduate students and several Chinese specialists participating, in which we tried to assemble just this kind of information, mostly from scraps and clues contained in a diversity of materials. Our findings are now in the form of a database, which I mean to use for a series of studies.) Along with a new, badly-overdue recognition of the implications for our understanding of Chinese painting of this idealization and distortion of how the artists worked, it is worthwhile, I think, to take a moment to consider how it came about.

The truth, I believe, is that a set of powerful conventions for writing about artists and their works, originating principally in early appreciations of the scholar-amateur painters and in recorded statements by those painters themselves, spread beyond the categories of artists and paintings to which they are properly applicable--the truly amateur artists and their works--to encompass virtually the whole of Chinese painting. The underlying problem was the mismatch between admiration for outstanding artists who were committed, more-or-less full-time professional practitioners of the art, and the failure of the traditional Chinese social order to accord honored places for people in that position. Professionalism was looked down on, amateurism exalted. Intensifying the problem was the increasing practice of painting on an income-producing basis, from the mid-Ming on, by learned and cultured people, as rising levels of affluence and education created a much larger pool of people qualified for bureaucratic service (the Chinese scholar's traditional occupation) than the bureaucracy could absorb, and many of them were forced to turn to other ways, including painting, of putting their learning and talents to use in earning their livelihoods. Attitudes and value criteria that pertained properly to the amateur painters, then, came to be applied more broadly to artists of other kinds, until we reach the situation in which a writer scarcely could praise a painter, even an unambiguously professional one, without making some effort to accomodate him, however forcedly and misleadingly, to the amateur ideal. And praise is what writings on artists usually had to be: most of the literature that we depend on for our understanding of them takes the form of encomia of one kind or another: tributes to the painter included in inscriptions to his paintings, tomb biographies, entries in books made up of "biographical information" on artists, and so forth.

What we are concerned with, then, is the forced accomodation of artists' lives and circumstances to pre-existing types, and the expunging of whatever actualities fail to fit these types. To give enough examples of this phenomenon to convince everybody would take more time than I have, but anyone working in the field could come up with quite a few from memory. They include cases in which an artist who is in fact a hard-working and prolific professional master is described as one who only dabbled in the art, and painted out of purely inner motivations. (S, landscape attrib. to Li Ch’eng) The eleventh century writer Kuo Jo-hsü considered Li Ch'eng, the great landscapist active a century earlier, to have been productive enough that a collector of Kuo's time could be credited with owning over ninety of his winter landscapes. (S, Fan K’uan) By the thirteenth century Chao Hsi-ku, a writer imbued with the new literati or scholar-amateur painting doctrines, wrote of Li Ch'eng (along with Fan K'uan, to whom the characterization is even less appropriate) as "scholar officials who, when they were inspired, would leave behind a few brushstrokes." (Let us take a moment to consider this great landscape by Fan K'uan, and ponder how well it accords with the idea of a painter who "leaves behind a few brushstrokes when inspired.")

After scholar-amateur painting came to greater prominence in the Yuan period, it became more difficult to praise artists of other kinds except by distorting their situations. (S, Tai Chin) A contemporary of Tai Chin's named Wang Chih describes that fifteenth century master as one who "delights in poetry and calligraphy as ways to seek the Tao,/ Painting spontaneously to cheer his heart." (S, Wu Pin) The late Ming literati painter and critic Tung Ch'i-ch'ang describes his contemporary Wu Pin, an excellent and productive specialist in both figures and landscapes, as a lay Buddhist who "painted in his leisure time." One wonders how the artists, who were meanwhile no doubt hard at work on fulfilling commissions in the practice of their livelihoods, can have responded to this well-intentioned but quite misdirected kind of "praise," which subtly maligned their real situations by implying that these were somehow dishonorable, and so could not be reported truthfully.

Even more numerous are cases, like the one of Cheng Min with which we began, in which the standard accounts are contradicted by other, presumably more reliable evidence. (S, Pa-ta) The most often-quoted biography of the late 17th century Individualist master Pa-ta Shan-jen, for instance, tells us this about him: "He often used to pass his time at a Buddhist temple outside the town. When the novices there jokingly asked him for a picture and actually tugged at his sleeves or his belt, he did not resist, nor did he refuse when some scholar friend offered him a gift for a picture. But if highly placed people offered him a whole barrel costing many gold pieces, they got nothing. If they brought painting silk with them, he would take it without hesitation but then would say: 'I shall make stockings of it!' For this reason the highly placed people were accustomed to approach the poor scholars, mountain monks, or butchers and inn-keepers when they wanted calligraphies or pictures by Shan-jen, and to buy from them." (S, leaf from Ho Yao-kuang album) But, as we know from an inscription on the Pa-ta album in the Ho Yao-kuang collection, the Nanking collector Huang Yen-lü had no such trouble getting an excellent album from the artist: he sent a sum of money and twelve sheets of paper through one of Pa-ta's patrons, who acted as the artist's agent in getting commissions for him, and in due time he received his album, with which he was very pleased, remarking (S, leaf from sketchy album) that Pa-ta would never have given him the kind of rough and hasty sketches he did to repay gifts from the Kiangsi salt merchants. Again, these are two images of the artist that cannot be brought together--that are, in fact, incompatible.

(S, Wang Meng Ch’ing-pien. Identify; will bring back later.) The "amateurization" of artists, or at least most of those who were considered to merit approval at all, in Chinese writings is part of a larger complex of interdependent ideas and attitudes, all aimed at "dematerializing" the art, removing from it all taint of vulgarity, of commercialism, of functionalism, of philistine responses. They include: an all-but-exclusive emphasis on art as personal expression, and a concomitant de-emphasizing of most other factors that motivated the production of art, including, much of the time, those that in fact brought the work into being and constituted the basis for its reception and appreciation in its original context; in connoisseurship, a focus on authenticity, the determination of authorship, and a diversion of attention from the subject of the work and its meanings, its value as representation; and in criticism, a preoccupation with the "hand" of the artist and with style, both the artist's individual style and his uses of older styles, or references to them. These attitudes are, as I say, interdependent: one more or less leads to another. The connoisseur's concentration on authenticity, for instance, allowed the viewer to read the picture as the personal expression of a particular master, and to appreciate the qualities of his mind as manifested in the painting. It allowed him also to ignore, as the prevailing critical theory said he should, the technical prowess of the artist, his representational skill, the decorative values of the work, whatever narrative or symbolic or other human-interest content it might have--the qualities that had originally allowed it, in a great many cases, to function in some social situation of its time. All qualities of the work other than the aesthetic, all motivations other than those of personal expression, tended to be relegated to the lower levels of response, the philistine, the su or banal. Indoctrinated constantly with this ideology, Chinese collectors and painting enthusiasts of the later centuries appreciated paintings, and wrote about them, in ways quite divorced from the original contexts of the works; this "aestheticization" of the Chinese painting tradition makes it difficult, much of the time, for us now to recover the meanings and functions that the paintings originally had. (Something of the same kind was characteristic of our own responses to art, until relatively recently; now art historians have become more concerned with the social and economic context of the work.)

(S, Wang Meng Hua-ch’i). I myself was, for my sins, one of the earliest foreign exponents of the literati or amateur painting ideal as a key to understanding certain kinds of painting. What seems remarkable from today's perspective is the degree to which we have allowed it to pervade our own interpretations of Chinese painting. In our culture, no special stigma is attached to professionalism in art--if a painter has an exhibition and sells all the paintings in it, we see this as cause for congratulation, not disdain-- although it is true that studies that make production for profit central to interpretation of the artist's works, such as Svetlana Alpers' recent book on Rembrandt, can still call forth angry responses from those who feel that the factor of artistic genius has been slighted in the process. With studies of the social and economic contexts of artistic production so prominent in art-historical studies these days, it is all the more remarkable that we in the Chinese painting field seem not only disinclined to recognize the inherited biases that impede our own studies of this aspect of our subject, but even prone to share the traditional Chinese squeamishness about discussing it. We write, too often, as though we were defending or protecting the artists we admire by downplaying their engagement in the somehow shameful business of profiting from their art. The result is a badly unbalanced view of our subject. And it is only balance I am arguing for, not some heavy emphasis on the social and economic factors behind artistic production. Without undervaluing the self-revelatory function of art, we can play it against other, more mundane and socially-conditioned functions, and try to understand how the one impinged on the other. Without taking any kind of reductive approach, we can aim at a more clear-eyed recognition of the true situation, often the predicament, of the artist behind the work.

(S. Ch’en Hung-shou: Lady Hsuan-wen-chun.) The negative effects of our failure to pay attention to the meanings and functions of Chinese painting have been, I now believe, serious ones: the decontextualizing of a great deal of Chinese painting, the divorcing of much of it from its original meanings and purposes, the distortion of its very character, too often, to make it fit an inapplicable set of ideals. We have done this, as I have suggested, on the basis of our readings of Chinese texts. In the early period of our studies, we felt so proud of being able to make sense of these and apply them to the paintings that we never questioned their status as representing the final truth about the paintings. (S. Detail.) But we cannot remind ourselves too often that the standard sources on which we depend in studying Chinese painting--or almost any other subject in Chinese cultural history--are inherently biased toward the literati viewpoint, since it was the literati who wrote them; the scholars “controlled the media,” in effect, and rewrote history freely, suppressing or altering whatever did not fit their doctrines. The fact that many of them held official rank in the bureaucracy made their pronouncements all the more authoritarian. And their bias was strongly against professionalism in the arts, and in favor of their fellow amateurs. (S, detail of same.) In trying to imagine how the professional masters of their day (who in fact comprise most of the best painters) can have felt about this constant denigration and distortion of their achievements, we find little evidence in writings by any of them from which to reconstruct their responses. We long to have a Chinese counterpart to the English artist and novelist Wyndham Lewis’s The Apes of God, that brilliantly bitter attack on upper-class amateurism in the arts and the confusion of critical values it can lead to. But, here as elsewhere in traditional Chinese society, there was no organized voice of opposition, no countervailing force to the dominant faction of literati. (Essay by Ch’en Hung-shou an exception; isolated instance of professional artist criticizing amateurs.)

S. My purpose, however, is not so much to advocate a re-appraisal of the professional painters’ tradition in China as to suggest that we do these artists no service when we perpetuate the well-meant Chinese myths in which they are made respectable by being transformed into amateurs. Nor is it useful to adopt the Chinese elegant disdain for the practical and economic realities of the painter’s practice. Apart from the desirability of giving as complete and balanced an account of our subject as we can, we will find these realities to be thoroughly absorbing in themselves. The complex and varied ways in which some seeker after a painting conveyed his wishes to the artist; the equally diverse ways in which the artist was rewarded if he complied (and of course he did not always comply); the dilemma of the artist who accepts too many commissions and must deal with impatient clients while trying to step up his rate of production--these prove to be interesting and enlightening.

The fruits of our searches for information on the painter’s practice in China could be material for a series of lectures; I can touch on only a few points, emphasizing those that alter our way of looking at the paintings. If we begin to pay attention to the occasion for which the painting was done, the circumstances under which it was created, the function it served--our understanding of it is enriched.

(S. Kuo Hsi, “Early Spring,” 1072.) Chinese landscape has customarily been seen as having aesthetic and philosophical value; it has seldom been seen in terms of function. I have begun to do that recently, with interesting results. Kuo Hsi’s well-known essay stresses the spiritual benefits of contemplating landscape imagery in paintings, as a kind of substitute for landscape in nature. But a recently re-discovered additional section, written by his son, tells of the commissions Kuo Hsi received and carried out, imperial and other, and why certain subjects were chosen for particular places and situations, e.g. ptg of whirling snow at time of drought (which, in a quasi-magic way, helped to end the drought); or a wall painting of pines, rocks, and rushing water in a pavilion for escaping the heat of summer. (S. Section of Freer scroll.) Also, his son tells of a painting his father did: (etc.)

Now, this enables us to give a fuller, three-part account of the painting: what it looked like, in subject and composition; what it signified (meaning); what occasion it was done for (function). We can’t always do this for other Chinese paintings; but we can assume that much of the time, they had specific meanings and function. We can assume, that is, some demand or desire for a painting, which was somehow communicated to the artist, who somehow reponded. Or, he might be responding to an understood, general demand, e.g. for paintings for presentation on birthdays.These aspects of Chinese paintings have virtually been ignored in studies of them, up to very recently.

How, then, were the wishes of clients conveyed to the artist? If he was a straightforward professional master, it could be a simple commission, specifying the subject of the picture and the amount of the payment. Even these were often sent through go-betweens,a practice we will consider later.

S. Ch’iu Ying, early 16th century, done for the brother of Hsiang Yuan-pien. Birthday? presumably (describe). (S. detail) Ch’iu Ying lived at Hsiang’s house for several years, as painter-in-residence; a common arrangement, in which the artist repays hospitality with paintings, which the patron can either keep for himself or use as gifts for his clients and friends. The host communicates his wishes to the painter-guest, who responds.

How would an ordinary commission be conveyed? By good fortune, we have a letter from Ch’iu Ying to one of his patrons which gives some insight. After an effusive opening (“Your attendant Ch’iu Ying kowtows and bows ...etc) he gets to the point: “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 my illness] I have written this in too careless a hand. Hoping for your forgiveness, I am” (etc.--more politenesses.)

(S. Kung Hsien landscape, K.C. scroll, section) Commissions, in the form of requests, could be conveyed to the artist in the form of letters. Chinese epistilatory manuals give, along with models for other kinds of letters, examples of how to write to an artist to request a painting. They are always full of effusive praise, or flattery. The artist, whether amateur or professional, could not be treated like an artisan, the person who makes one’s furniture, or whatever. Anne Burkus (my former student, now teaching at U. Chicago) introduced several of these in an unpublished paper. (S. another section) One, for instance, to be used when asking a landscapist for his works, might begin with a statement that his paintings rival nature: “What is this thing? You, sir, are able to make clever contest with the work of Heaven (i.e. nature) . . . I beg that you bestow upon me several pictures from your flourishing wet brush to hang in my central room. Thus the three tributaries of the Hsiang River, the Five Sacred Mountains, the stony chambers of Mts. Heng and Lu, may be seen without emerging from out my door...”

(S. Another section of Kung Hsien handscroll) Letter to great Nanking master Kung Hsien, active in late 17c. (painter of this scroll), from one of his would-be clients praises his reclusiveness: “The place you, sir, chose to live must be at a distance from the town. Those who command others to seek you out cannot get to see your face directly; you, sir, are truly eminent . . . Each work of your brush and ink is worth a thousand antiquities. You, sir, therefore keep people at a distance. And yet people still seek you out.” And so forth: the client writes as though the artist is favoring him in agreeing to paint for him, even though he must have known (as we know from other evidence) that Kung Hsien was badly in need of money, and would paint for almost anyone who was willing to pay it.

(S. Ch’ien Ku, travel painting.) Commissions, or requests to artists, were often conveyed through go-betweens. The use of go-betweens (chung-jen, literally “men-in-the-middle”) was not, of course, peculiar to Chinese painting; it was a pervasive feature of Chinese society, smoothing interpersonal transactions of all kinds, helping to avoid frictions that might result from direct negotiations between the two principals. Go-betweens could be relatives of one or the other of the parties (as in the Ch’iu Ying letter I read) or friends of both parties; they had to be trustworthy and unbiased, and perceived so by both. Many exmaples are recorded, from which we can reconstruct the practice in some detail, how the go-between was rewarded, etc. In a typical example from the late 16th century, the Suchou calligrapher P’eng Nien relays a request to the painter Ch’ien Ku:

“I send you herewith a blank silk album. It is Hu Liang who commissions me to ask for an album of pictures of Mt. Pai-yueh from you, so that he can send it to the Official Ho. I hope that within a day or two, I can gather a few woodblock craftsmen to work on it. Master Ho loves literature very much; he is surely able to appreciate your ingenious art. Most sincerely I plead with you: please do your scroll in a day or two.” (And again, effusively polite phrases to conclude.) (This is a leaf from a similar album by Ch’ien Ku.)

(S. Another leaf.) The category represented here is the travel painting; we have a great many examples from the Ming and Ch’ing dynasties. We might suppose that these typically record travels made by the artist; and indeed, some of them do. But in most cases for which we have evidence for the motivation and circumstances of the painting, it turns out to have been done at the request of someone else who either had made the trip, and wanted to recall it in the artist’s picture, or who planned to make the trip, and wanted some foreknowledge of what he would see. This revision in our understanding of how the paintings came into being follows a general pattern. Formerly we were inclined to locate the impetus and meaning of the painting inside the artist, seeing it as expressing some feeling of his or recording some experience. Now, as evidence accumulates, we are more and more inclined to locate these outside the artist, in some situation in which society to which he responds.

(S. Shih-t’ao, Huang-shan). The pictures may be based on past experiences of the artist, as in the case of this one by Shih-t’ao, who visited the great mountain range Huangshan in the 1570s, and continued to paint its scenery for the rest of his life, for instance in this great handscroll of 1699, done for someone who had recently traveled there. But the pictures can often be quite schematic, not conveying much detailed information about what the scenery looks like; there are even instances of famous places depicted by artists who never visited them, but depended on schemata adopted from other painters who had.

(S. Ending of scroll, with his inscription.) I should add that another matter on which we have been assembling evidence has to do with how artists were paid, or recompensed. The true scholar-amateurs often did paintings for people they knew, or responded to requests for their works, without thought of monetary payment, which in fact would have offended them. Instead, they received their rewards through an elaborate system of exchanges of favors, in which one party obligates the other through a gift or favor, and the other party must chscharge the obligation. So effective was this system that literati-amateur painters whose works were in demand could live comfortably on the proceeds from their paintings while maintaining in principle their status as amateurs. Professional masters, in order to cover their daily needs, were forced to demand more direct kinds of payment; but even these were often conveyed to the artist in some roundabout way that softened the commercialism of the transaction.

(S. Wang Fu farewell ptg.) One might ask: does the “meaning and function” approach to Ch. ptgs really affect our understanding of them significantly? That objection is sometimes raised these days: the paintings remain exactly the same; who cares how and why they came to be made? But they aren’t exactly the same, when we understand these aspects of them, in that our experience of them changes, how we read them, what we pay attention to. This landscape by Wang Fu, early 15th century, was subject of paper by one of my colleagues, who translated the inscriptions, made a formal analysis of how the artist carries the eye systematically into depth etc., did all the standard things, but took no account of the work’s original purpose: as a farewell painting, done for someone departing for the capital to take up an official post. His friends gather to see him off; boat about to carry him away. Reading it in these terms, we realize that the long, step-by-step recession isn’t simply a matter of style; the artist has embodied in pictorial form the idea of the painting, and of the recipient’s passage into distance. (describe).

(S. Chang Feng, same) Moreover, when we assemble a group of paintings of different periods that had this function (which we can ascertain from the inscriptions on them) we become aware that they follow a compositional type. this one, by Chang Feng, dtd. 1648, (etc., describe). What then becomes interesting is the way in which successive artists have manipulated the basic formula in individual ways, or altered it to fit particular circumstances and occasions. The paintings then take on another dimension of meaning, of expressiveness, and our understanding of them is enriched.

(S. Wang Meng, reclusion ptg) We can make groupings of this kind within the large category of landscape painting. Another type is the landscape of reclusion, done for someone who has built a villa away from the world, in which to live quietly--a common practice in turbulent times in China. this one, by the late 14th century master Wang Meng (two of whose paintings we saw earlier), was painted for a relative who had done this; its composition reflects, or expresses, the idea of seclusion, being shut off from the outside world, again in its composition: (describe).

(S., Wang Meng, Hua-ch’i) Bringing back one of the ptgs by Wang Meng seen earlier, we can confirm that subject to this additional insight into the meaning that underlies the composition, the painting looks different. (Describe).

(S. Wang Meng, Ch’ing-pien Mts.) Another Wang Meng painting, his masterwork of 1366 in the Shanghai Museum, “The Ch’ing-pien Mountains.” Now we can add another level of meaning, in reconstructing the original circumstances of the painting... (etc.)

(S. One of Nanjing Museum portrait series). Similar considerations arise when we approach the genre of portraiture in this way. An album of portraits of famous men of chekiang Province in the Nanking Museum, dating from the late Ming period, the early 17th century, was published by the museum and later (four leaves) by myself in my 1982 book on late Ming painting. I wrote about them, as the authors of the museum publication had, as uncharacteristically realistic, unidealized, for Chinese portraits, presenting the sitters “warts and all,” so to speak, and with facial expressions quite different from the standard bland benevolence that we see in Chinese portraits. (S. Another of series.) We failed to recognize what I now believe to be the truth about them: that they are not finished ptgs at all, of the kind that the sitters would have received, or their family if it was a posthumous portrait. Chinese portraits began with sketches from life, and then apparently made preliminary depictions based on these, aiming at the most realistic portrayal possible within the Chinese techniques and conventions. But these, in turn, would then serve as the basis for finished paintings that would have a quite different character:

(S. Finished portrait of same period) in which the unattractive aspects of the sitter’s physiognomy would be expunged, and a more acceptable and conventional visage would replace the more true-to-life one.

(S. Yuan Mei by Lo P’ing) We have preserved, in fact, an extremely interesting example from the 18th century, painted in 17 by Lo P’ing, and representing the famous poet Yuan Mei. This preliminary portrayal was given to Yuan Mei by the artist for his approval, and was rejected. (Describe).(S. detail of face)

This is center-piece in a book-length study of later Chinese portraiture, in press, by my former student Richard Vinograd.

(S. Cheng Hsieh) Finally, what of the subjects that seem most free of functional character, subjects such as bamboo, orchids, etc., the favorite subjects of the scholar-amateur artists? These are ordinarily read as expressions through symbolic forms and expressive brushwork of the high-minded Confucian attitudes of the artist, his personal character, his freedom from commercial restraints, etc. Cheng Hsieh, or Cheng P’an-ch’iao, was one of the most prolific and popular artists of the Yangchou school in the mid-18th century, whose romantic personality us felt to be expressed in his paintings, which always represent the same symbolic subjects: bamboo, orchids, and rocks. Most of his painting was done in his later years, when he was living in Yangchou after retiring from a career as a bureaucrat.

(S. Another of his works.) But another of my students, Ginger Hsu, working on him in her doctoral dissertation on the economic life of the artist in 18th century Yangchou, was able through a detailed investigation to establish that even these paintings, seemingly so independent of commercial considerations, were made to answer needs in Cheng’s clientele and to perform social functions in a variety of circumstances. Cheng was able, through ingenious manipulation of his highly restricted repertory of subjects, to suit them to a wide range of situations.

For instance, when he retired from his official post, he presented a painting of bamboo to the people of his district, indicating in an inscription that the slender stalk represented the fishing rod that symbolized the reclusive life he intended to lead. Bamboo could also stand for longevity, and so serve for birthday paintings. The vigorous growth of the plant made a picture of it (properly inscribed) suitable to congratulate someone on the birth of a son.

(S. Orchids by him.) the orchid had long been established as a metaphor for the talented and virtuous man; blossoming in the wilds, it stood for unrecognized talent; growing in pots, it could represent capable scholars who had been drawn into service. So pictures of orchids, suitably inscribed, could carry a diversity of messages to members of the Confucian bureaucracy, who made up a large segment of the artist’s clientele. Cheng even used a painting of a profusion of orchid plants to congratulate a woman on her thirtieth birthday and to wish her many children.

(S. Chin Nung plum.) And so forth. the blossoming plum stood for purity, because of its whiteness and fragility; it also stood for rejuvenation, since it puts forth flowers after surviving the long, cold winter. This is an example in the Freer Gallery by Chin Nung, another Yangchou painter active in the mid-18th century. Formerly, we would have read the conventional meaning into the image and paid little attention to the inscription. But when we do read it, we learn that Chin painted it to congratulate a friend who had acquired a beautiful new concubine, likening the red color of the blossoms, in his inscription, to her rouged cheeks, but also calling up the associations of the subject to felicitate his friend’s continuing virility.

It will be evident from these examples--and from a great many others that I have assembled and could introduce--that Chinese painting, seen in this way, proves to be far more closely interlocked with the everyday social practices and transactions of the real inhabitants of the real China, insofar as we can discern them, than with the ideal, unreal China of the myths that are being displaced. Such an adjusted view of Chinese painting is thus in close accord with the demythologizing direction of Chinese studies today, and perhaps in a broader way with the fading of China’s mystique. But we can be confident that what we gain through this process is a vision of China no less absorbing, no less admirable, than the one we give up; only humanized and made believable.

Thank you.

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