CLP 171: 1989 "Chinese Painting, the Court, and the Imperial Power.” Lecture, Ohio State U

Columbus Lecture
(in symposium "Art and the Emperor," held at Ohio State U. in conjunction with exhibition The Son of Heaven, April, 1989)

Chinese Painting, the Court, and the Imperial Power

Great exhib. (etc.) Ptg in one sense less strong than other kinds of objects included: can only bring later pieces (Sung-Yuan not allowed out.) But fine examples, never seen outside China before.

Someone doing lecture of course not limited in way organizers of exhib. were, can talk abt ptgs not in show. Nevertheless, I will emphasize ptgs in exhib., as kind of introduction to some of them. Will adopt someone artificial scheme like that of catalog, which sets up categories of imperial art under sections: the altar, the outer court, the temple, the inner court, the tomb. I'll use ptgs in exhib., wherever possible, to represent kinds of relationships that painters, and paintings, could have to imperial power.

But I'll begin further back than any of ptgs in exhib., with two well-known anecdotes. One from Chuang-tzu, 4th-3rd cent BC. A certain lord wanted to have pictures ptg, called together ptrs. They rec'd his commands respectfully, stood about licking brushes and mixing ink. One arrived later, unhurried, rec'd commands respectfully but didn't stand in attendance; found sitting with loose robes and legs spread out, half-naked., Lord said: He will do; he is a real painter.
Other: concerns Yen Li-pen, 7th cent. ptr active in court; held oficial rank, but also employed as painter. Conflict. (Story)

Both anecdotes, while pointing in different directions, raise issue that is inescapable when artists and rulers come together: that of subservient artist vs. artist of more or less independent status. Former raises fewer problems for ruler, but latter often turns out to be the better artist; so, at least, in theory.

Issue that is related to this, but broader, is that of power and prestige of court, hereditary aristocracy with emperor at top, vs. bureaucracy based (in theory) on merit, learning, virtues: judged by exams, recommendations. "Inner court" vs. "outer court", in sense slightly different from that of catalog sections. In ptg, can be seen loosely as dif. between court artists (highest level of professional artist tradition) vs. literati artists or scholar-amateurs.Now, to set up matter in this way is simplistic, admittedly; complexities. But useful set of distinctions to make at beginning, I think.

S,.S. Martin Powers's studies of Han art and society: in dec. arts (inlaid bronze) and mortuary art (Wu-Liang-tz'u engraving). Don't want to talk about this in presence of Powers himself (as I do more freely in class and public lectures), but: (etc.)Now, ptg done in & for court was mostly going to be of first kind: rich in materials & techniques, opulent.

S,S. In T'ang period, 7th cent., two famous court artists: Yen Li--pen, figure specialist (one anecdote was about); Li Ssu-hsun (det. from ptg later but in his style).) Ptgs that typically strengthened, legitimized imperial power. (Tibetan emissary).

S. Another attrib. Yen shows foreign emissaries bringing tribute. Ptr. of these works for definable purposes on order of emperor, subservient; except that when ptr had some status himself (as Li did, distant member of imperial family, or Yen, through official rank) caused tension.

S,S. Court artists also depicted rulers and ministers of former dynasties, other exemplary figures. Great examples were wall ptgs; none survive, except in copies, such as "Portraits of the Emperors" scroll in Boston MFA attrib. to Yen Li-pen (on right). Ptg. in exhib., of rulers of past, one of set executed ca. 1460, echoes that tradition.

S,S. Court artists also, of course, portrayed emperors themselves: one of Hsuan-te Emp., early 15c., by court artist named Shang Hsi (det. of large ptg in Palace Mus., Beijing, showing emperor & attendants on hunt); portrait of CL Emp. as young man by Lang Shih-ning (& others?) No question of ptr's independent status and personality being at issue here; ptr supposed to subdue his own temperament & indiv. style to produce work that fulfils clearly-defined purpose.

S,S. Fine technique, in this kind of ptg, enhanced functional value of work, as preserving likeness (like photograph--not really, but that's another issue I don't mean to go into here), or ptg. as source of information, or as making some argument through kinds of visual rhetoric. Two masterworks of chieh-hua manner (describe) have this character. In some ways, like objects in early China with inlaid precious metals and complex designs, which Powers writes about: these sent message of imperial power (or princely power) by displaying amt of time and skill required to make them; also implied leisure to read them. (develop).

S,S. A whole category of imperially-sponsored ptgs. I'm going to mention only briefly, since they are best-studied (notably in writings of Julia Murray), are ptgs done early in So. Sung period, to legitimize rule of new emperor Kao-tsung after his re-estab. of capital at Hangchou, or to urge virtue of loyalty on subjects. Court artist Li T'ang ptd his famous picture of two brothers, Po-i and Shu-ch'i, who withdrew at beginning of Chou dynasty (11th cent. BC or so) and starved to death rather than switch their allegiance to new ruler who had committed unvirtuous acts. Acc. to a colophon, meant as criticism of Chinese who switched allegiance to Chin.

Another, series of ptgs attrib. to Li T'ang's disciple Hsiao Chao, depicts auspicious omens sent by heaven to proclaim Kao-tsung as rightful ruler. Several others of this type.

S,S. Auspicious pictures also done by court artists under previous ruler, Sung Hui-tsung, also belong to trad. of ptgs that have rhetorical force somehow supportive if imperial institution. When, in year 1112, flock of cranes flower over palace, some of them alighting on roof, Emp. Hui-tsung had some court artist record this highly auspicious event, wrote long insc. to accompany. (Ptg. attrib. to emperor himself, but unlikely.) In following year, 1113, 18-yr-old artrist named Wang Hsi-meng ptd long LS handscroll in meticulous, highly colored blue-and-green style; insc. by Prime Minister, Tsai Ching, and others. Altho rep. 10,000 Miles of Yangtze, in fact gives ideal vision of rich, prosperous empire under rule of Emp. Hui-tsung. Heavy mineral color assoc. w. Taoist paradise scenes, enhances this message.

S. Great ptg in Palace Mus., Beijing, attrib. to Chao Po-chü, court artist active under Emp. Hui-tsung and Kao-tsung, presum. intended to carry same meaning. This style of LS originated, or at least popularized, in T'ang, espec. in hands of Li Ssu-hsun (seen at beginning); continued to be assoc. with court, auspicious wishes. This ptg presented to first Ming emperor by group of mounters who discovered it; no doubt with this meaning, wishing him long and prosperous reign. Also done by court artists in Ming, etc.

S. At same time as Wang Hsi-meng & Chao Po-chü, something very dif. was going on among group of scholar-amateur or literati ptrs. Mi Fu (etc.) No fine detail, no color, no show of skill; whole dif. set of values (not our main concern today, but still worth introducing.) Also has auspicious meaning, but of dif. kind (describe). Corresponds to inner & outer court dichotomy again, roughly; issue that continues thru rest of Chinese dynastic history, in various forms. Both style and imagery involved here in generating meaning: blue-and-green color, visually rich character of Wang Hsi-meng's ptg, suggests opulence, assoc. w. paradises, etc., as mentioned before. Mi Fu's ptg, prob. done for some high official, sort of person Mi assoc. with. Inscription (etc., spell out.)

S. Su Shih, or Su T-p, Mi Fu's friend, was central figure in this new mvt of ptg by scholar-amateurs; he himself had political career w. much ups-and-downs, varying relationships to imperial power. Becomes ideal model for scholar-official who is also cultured, artistically creative man. His ptgs amateurish, in some part deliberately so. Complicated issue; again relates to arguments made by Martin Powers for Han, in which people aspiring to positions in bureaucracy would present themselves as simple, unostentatious people, produce or sponsor art that had same character, to convey idea that they were without pretentions and ambitions, just sincere people devoted to their jobs.

Such ptgs of course stood in sharp contrast, even opposition, to court ptg that was contemp. with it; and contrast mirrors, I think, the same separation of imperial power--hereditary, absolute--from bureaucracy made up of people who came to power (in theory) through merit, indiv. ability.

S. Raising issue of amateurism reminds us that Emp. Hui-tsung was himself a painter, amateur; why didn't he paint like Su T-p and Mi Fu? He was dedicated to fine, representational style, courtly tradition; his values, quite apart from success with which he could realize them w/in limits of his technical skill, were those of court ptg. A few ptgs attrib. him in looser, ink-monochrome style; but never anything like Su T-p etc., intentionally amateurish. Not concerned, in his position, with projecting that kind of message.

S. Emp. Hsuan-tsung of Ming, rep. in exhib. by this ptg of 1000-year-old pine, done for mother, wishing her longevity, must have thought of self as reborn Hui-tsung; revival of court ptg on Sung models carried out in his regime. This not for public display; gift (prob. birthday) for mother. Unlike Hui-tsung, doesn't try to match court artists on their own ground, but works in "amateur" style himself. Interaction of status of ptr + status of recipient made certain styles & subjects suitable, others unsuitable; complex set of questions we are only beginning to answer.

S. Ptg supposed to be by Wu-tsung (= Cheng-te Emp.) less convincing as work of imperial hand; looks like court artist at work; emperor signs, presents to some minister to reward him for something, perhaps, wish him happiness (two mynah birds = shuang-hsi, double happiness), long life (pine).

S,S. Ptgs. in exhib. by Wang Yuan-ch'i, Chang Hao. In Ch'ing (Manchu) court, as earlier, two kinds of artists working in court, rep. by these two: (describe). Recent essay by Howard Rogers on Ch'ing court ptg, after making this distinction, argues that ptrs of both kinds were all subjects of emperor, vastly below him in station, so that from his pt. of view, differences in status irrelevant. This true as far as it goes, but: emperor obliged to treat people acc. to station, to command and hold their loyalty. Also, had differing expectations of dif. kinds of artists. Problem of how artists related to Emp., and to imperial power, as I said earlier, only special instance of larger problem of how people in general did. Ideal relationship was like that of spirited horse & master (etc.) Horse often depicted as visual metaphor for this relationship. K'ang-hsi Emp. presumably respected Wang Y-c in this way; wouldn't have given him demeaning assignments that would misunderstand nature of his abilities as ptr. K'ang-hsi, on advice of Chinese ministers, promoted Orthodox style of ptg, of which Wang Y-c was leading practitioner, at court as part of program to persuade Chinese that Manchus were adopting Chinese institutions and values; part of program of legitimizing Manchu dynasty, making it more acceptable to educated Chinese.

Chang Hao, by contrast, was person of much lower status but great skill as ptr, kind of skill that permitted him to produce such a picture: when CL Emp. wanted ptg to commemorate imperial banquet given on island in Western Garden, Chang was one commissioned to do it (no doubt with some assistance--such works were ordinarily studio productions. Hand of artist wasn't crucial element. Ptg valued as visual document, t'u rather than hua in distinction made by Kung Hsien (etc. )

S,S. A few cases to be found in hist. of Ch ptg in which nature of artist's gifts misjudged, unsuitable things asked of him. Notable one is that of Chao Yuan, active at end of Yuan and early Ming. WAs moderately good ptr of LS, following WM and other greater masters; no ability in figures, judging from extant ptgs. But after Ming dyn. founded, summoned to court, ordered to paint portraits of notable men of antiquity. Hung-wu Emp. Chu Yuan-chang, displeased with Chao's pictures, had him executed. Kind of ptg Emp. presumably wanted rep. by another of ptgs in exhib., anon. work of about a century later, "Former Confucian Worthies and Sages." Artist who did this must have been figure specialist, perhaps specialist in temple ptgs; prob couldn't have ptd good landscape in literati style, as Chao Yuan could.

S,S. Wang Hui, rep. in exhib. by LS at left, ptd in 1703, fared better at court--in fact, was great success, altho person of lower social standing than Wang Y-c. He was also LSist in Orthodox manner; because of his great fame, brought to court and given job of supervising series of hs, done in 1680s, rep. K'ang-hsi Emp's Southern Tour (or imperial progress). Two? more? in Met, others China etc. Wang quite versatile artist, prob. could have done figures & architecture etc. himself; but prob. restricted his hand to LS setting, leaving rest to specialists. (Unclear how much of LS he did either.) Done by team, with some suppression of individual styles. Not work of very high quality--

S,S. By CL period, in later 18c, academy style better established, done on higher level of refinement. CL Emp. made Southern Tour in 1751; ptgs done in 20 years following that, mainly by court artist named Hsu Yang, but again, prob. as workshop production.

S.S. Returning to question of dif. kinds of artists (social positions) and relat to kinds of ptgs they did: one can also note anomalous or "crossover" patterns, in which artist of one type undertakes ptgs of other type. Ptgs of particular places, topographical ptgs, often map-like, done ordinarily by profes. masters; artists of Orthodox school, as matter of prestige, ordinarily ptd. only generalized LS. Absence of specific ref. to place saved their ptgs, in their view, from any taint of functional or utilitarian. But emperor could, as we noted earlier, command an artist to do ptg of type not "natural" to him. Wang Y-c did at least one topographical ptg (in Liaoning Mus., handscroll) for emperor. Here (right) is ptg by Tung Pang-ta, high official, member of court acad. (Hanlin); held ministerial posts in late years. Followed Wang Y-c as landscapist (typical ptg by him at right). Here, given job of ptg 16 Views of Pan-shan, hills east of Beijing where imperial retreat located, to accompany poems by CL Emperor. Prestige of style important here; not just a portrayal of place, but an investiture of place with certain special status through representation of it in this style.

S. Very interesting precursor for this phenomenon was series of 8 Views of Environs of Beijing ptd in 1414 by Wang Fu. Yung-lo Emperor, 3rd Ming emperor, was planning to move capital to Beijing, from Nanjing; did so in 1421. Seven years earlier, took with him, on one of his trips to north, group of scholar-officials & poets along with painter Wang Fu. Their job, as I would understand it, was to invest city of Beijing with some cultural coordinates through their poems & ptgs; and so render it more suitable for becoming imperial capital. Wang Fu chosen because he worked in prestigious styles inherited from great Yuan masters; educated man himself, with some official status. If emperor had wanted functional depictions of place, would have brought artist of quite different kind.

Ptgs we've shown generally present positive view of serving emperor and regime, court service. Waht of ptgs that express opposite ideal, that of living in retirement, avoiding involvement w. officialdom, bureaucracy, "public life": what of them? Many such in Chinese ptg, including imperial collection; very common theme. Might seem at first antithetical to interests of emperor and court; but clearly weren't. How to reconcile?

S,S. Shen Chou, "Enjoying Chrysanthemums," 1480s-90s; Wen Cheng-ming, "Thatched Hut at Hu-ch'i," mid-16c. Both in exhib. They were both ptrs active in Suchou, great center of culture in mid-Ming, very rich city. Ptgs of this kind, done by Suchou artists, celebrate elegant pleasures of life there, and espec. of living in retirement in one's rustic retreat, engaging only in aesthetic pursuits, escaping contaminations of great world. Again, highly idealized images; but dif. ideals from others we've been looking at. Done for members of Suchou gentry-literati, as well as members of merchant class living there. Yet these men also tried, in many cases, for official careers; Wen c-m himself attempted for years to pass exams, have official career; finally did, briefly, in period 1523-26; altho scarcely a success as official, enhanced his reputation greatly; he became "retired scholar", having had some government service to retire from.

S,S. Tu Chin, "Lofty Scholars of Bamboo Grove," T'ang Yin "Eight Immortals of Wine Cup: also images of idealized reclusion, men who withdrew from world to escape its pollutions in Wei-Chin period, or who spent time drinking and composing poems in T'ang (Li Po and friends). Always a tension between ideals of service and retirement. In principle, Confuc. scholars preferred to live quietly and devote selves to study of classics, self-cultivation, etc.; but impelled by their sense of responsibility to enter public life, when circumstances suitable and seemed to require their participation. From ruler's p.v., such men were ones he most wanted, those reluctant to serve, free of personal ambition, motivated only by public-spiritedness. This was usually, of course, a polite fiction, used by people seeking power and wealth to mask their real motivations. But preserved carefully by all parties concerned; reflected in poetry and ptg. assoc. with scholar-official class. (Dissertation by Scarlett Jang). We should respect these ideals, I think, living in time when disinterestedness in government scarcely respected even as ideal; better to have such ideals, even when not completely realized, than to be without them.

S,S. This myth of reclusive man who comes out of seclusion to serve virtuous ruler lies behing many ptgs, espec. by court artists in Ming dynasty, which depict ruecluses of antiquity, exemplars for this practice; invited to court by rulers of time; either refused indignantly, or accepted, depending on virtue of ruler, other circumstances. Ptgs of this subject could be presented to some high official to honor him, carrying message: You are really like the famous hermit so-and-so.S. One of these ptd by Hsuan-te Emp. himself, for presentation to (fill in)

S,S. Tung Cc, rep. in exhib. by ptg on right, "White Clouds Over the Hsiao and Hsiang Rivers," held high official positions at dif. times in his life, including that of tutor to crown prince. But, like others of his time (time when service at court could be not only unrewarding but highly perilous) followed strategem of "advancing and retiring" acc. to circumstance, and his judgement of what would best further his interests. "White Clouds" painted in 1627 when he was just back from some years of govt. service, presumably done for some other official to praise the man's effectiveness and benevolence as an administrator--same visual metaphor as in Mi Fu ptg seen earlier, and same subj. and style; Mi Fu the model for this kind of ptg. Other ptg by Tung, at left, done in 1611, "Calling the Hermit at Ching-hsi": acc. to Tung's inscription, ptd for man who was, like Tung himself at that time, living in retirement after period of govt. service. Tung and this man both express, in their inscriptions attached to scroll, their determination to avoid govt. service in future. Neither held to his resolve. But issue of serving vs. retiring underlies subjects & styles of these two ptgs. In loosest way, dry, dessicated styles convey idea of disengagement, for which great model was ptg of Ni Tsan; used most often in ptgs that carry that kind of message. Wet, rich styles the reverse.

This may seem, to some of those here, over-reading the ptgs, or over-simplifying the issues; and I would plead guilty of that, while saying in self-defense that limits of time, and state of our studies, partly dictate such simplifying. But the ptgs did have such resonances, as we begin to see more and more clearly, for the people who ptd them and people who received them; these must be "read" with great subtlety, more than I've used today. Understanding these implications of the ptgs, even imperfectly, will enhance our own experience of them, not (obviously) by making them aesthetically any better, but by allowing us to interpret their meanings in richer ways than we have tended to do in past.

Thank you.

Dear Judyl
Maybe you can help my failing memory. Trying to resurrect some very old files, I find a lecture text labeled "Columbus Lecture" and titled "Chinese Painting, the Court, and the Imperial Power." Columbus could only be you. It was on the occasion of an exhibition--in Cleveland?--that must have consisted of court objects, the paintings only Ming-Qing (i.e. no Song-Yuan). Paintings in the show that I talk about include:

. Shen Chou, "Enjoying Chrysanthemums," 1480s-90s; Wen Cheng-ming, "Thatched Hut at Hu-ch'i," mid-16c. Tu Chin, "Lofty Scholars of Bamboo Grove," T'ang Yin "Eight Immortals of Wine Cup". It was a show from the PRC. Have you any memory of such? My text doesn't include a date.

Wll appreciate any clue; ideally with date (at least year)


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