Chinese art history paper
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27-01-2015, 03:01 PM
Chinese art history paper
I wrote the following piece for my senior art history capstone that helped design an exhibit on Chinese art which opens tonight and runs until early June. I intend to expand this at a later time.

A Verdant Paradise: The Garden in Chinese History and Art

By Jim R. McClanahan

"Scholars in a Garden (Leisure Pursuits for Gentlemen: Music, Painting, Calligraphy, and Chess)" (c. early 20th-century, ink and colors on paper, Miami University Art Museum) is a six-fold screen depicting scholars and servants in a typical Chinese garden (fig. 1). The screen includes thirteen figures in all, each engaged in an activity associated with their station in life. For instance, a figure located in the center of the piece is shown seated at an ornate wooden desk playing a qin (琴), a stringed instrument similar to the western zither, and resting his feet on a stool. He wears a bright red silk robe with a repeating gold pattern, a blue, white, and gold belt, and brown slippers. A brown scholar’s cap with two hanging flaps adorns his head. To his right, the gentleman is accompanied by a white-clad servant bearing a garment, possibly his master’s overcoat. Hierarchy of scale is employed to show the scholar’s importance by depicting his servant in a diminutive stature. His position as the main subject of the screen is indicated by a number of features that draw the viewer’s attention to his location. He is flanked on both sides by twisted pine trees. The conifers slant away from him, forming a V-shape. This configuration guides the eye to a screen located to the scholar’s rear. The wooden structure frames his entire body, the upper half of which is contained within the perimeter of a landscape painting. The contrast in colors between the dark brown frame and the light tan painting highlights his face. This draws the viewer’s eye to meet his, which are staring back at them. He is the only figure in the entire composition breaking the fourth wall.

The other eleven figures form an undulating wave-like pattern that flows across the lower half of the screen. From left to right, a young servant in blue attends to white peony flowers; a servant in green and white bears an ornate feathered fan while watching three scholars in purple, red, and white sitting at a table playing qi (棋), a game of strategy akin to chess; a seated scholar in white delicately strokes his beard while watching a beautiful woman—her back turned towards the viewer—playing a pipa (琵琶), a stringed instrument similar to the lute. She wears a floor-length green scarf, a blue jacket, a white under gown, a tan apron, and a belt from which hangs trinkets comprised of metal rings and knotted strings; a white-clad beauty standing beside her watches the spectacle while smoking a long red pipe. She wears a similarly adorned belt; a male servant in dark blue stands before a table attending to a small incense burner; a white-clad scholar washes his hands in a metal pan held by a servant in purple. Just as with the main subject, hierarchy of scale is employed to show the importance of the individual scholars by depicting their respective servants with smaller frames.

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Fig. 1 - The "Scholars in a Garden" screen (larger version).

The scholars sit amongst a collection of trees, flowers, and gnarled blue-green rocks, each confined to a specific space by either a stone partition or planter. This denotes an orderly world in which man has subjugated the elements. Yet, there was a time in the distant past when the ancient Chinese feared the wilderness. They viewed the mountainous regions as being the forbidden domain of primordial gods and inhuman monsters.[1] The rulers of the Zhou dynasty (1027–256 BC) were known to make regular sacrifices in order to buy the favor of these mountain deities.[2] This fearful reverence was tempered overtime, though, as man’s domain pushed further into the world of the “other”. Chinese philosophers came to associate mountains with self-cultivation since these areas were free from the distractions of urban centers. For instance, the Book of Changes (易经, Yijing, 9th-c. BCE), an ancient text of divination, states: “A man withdraws from contact with people of the lowlands, who seek nothing but magnificence and luxury, into the solitude of the heights”.[3] The ethicist Confucius (孔子, 5th-c. BCE) warned his students to retreat from the world if an emperor’s rule was plagued with turmoil.[4] The Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi (莊子, 4th-c. BCE) wrote of Divine Men (神人) who gained immortal, carefree lives and miraculous powers after practicing austerities in the mountains.[5]

It’s important to point out that the very first reference to Chinese gardens appears in the Book of Changes. The aforementioned material also states that “Grace [can be found] in the hills and gardens” (賁于丘園).[6] Here, gardens are associated with the wilderness and not a plot in a private residence. The first unambiguous mention of gardens comes from the Songs of Chu (楚辭, Chu Ci, 4th-c. BCE), an anthology of poetry written during the latter part of the Zhou Dynasty. One famous verse known as “Summoning the Soul” (招魂, Zhao Hun) describes how a shaman (巫, Wu) struggles to entice the meandering spirit of an ailing king to return by reminding him of the beautiful women waiting for him “In your garden pavilion, by the long bed curtains”.[7] Such imperial gardens took on a new significance during the following Qin (221–206 BCE) and Han dynasties (206 BCE–220 CE) as certain emperors became obsessed with Daoist immortality and built microcosms of landscapes—rocks for mountains, ponds for rivers, and trees and plants for forests—within their palaces. The hope was to entice lofty immortals to settle there and teach them their secrets of longevity (fig. 2).[8]

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Fig. 2 - Winged immortals from a Han Dynasty tomb.

The first private pleasure gardens arose during the Han. There were two kinds, the extravagant park owned by the wealthy and the simple scholar’s retreat. The former was based on the great imperial hunting parks that served as a symbol for the emperor’s power since such spaces were stocked with exotic plants and animals gifted by conquered territories. Thus, the extravagant nature of these gardens served to broadcast the wealth and power of their owners. On the contrary, the latter were most likely born from privately owned vegetable gardens.[9] The Book of Odes (詩經, 11th–7th-c. BCE), the oldest known collection of Chinese poetry, suggests that scholars during the Zhou dynasty already viewed their simple food gardens as relaxing places of leisure.[10] The idea of a garden serving as a proxy for a mountain retreat was made popular by Tao Qian (陶潛, 365–427), a poet of the Six Dynasties period (220–589). His philosophy is best exemplified by poem number five of his “Twenty Poems After Drinking Wine” series:

I built my hut beside a traveled road
Yet hear no noise of passing carts and horses.
You would like to know how it is done?
With the mind detached, one’s place becomes remote.
Picking chrysanthemums by the eastern hedge
I catch sight of the distant southern hills:
The mountain air is lovely as the sun sets
And flocks of flying birds return together.
In these things is a fundamental truth
I would like to tell, but lack the words.

Here, shear concentration of will transports an individual to the mountains far away from the hustle and bustle of daily life. This implies that any setting can be one’s own personal Eden, even a garden. Tao’s most popular work, “The Peach Blossom Spring” (桃花源記, 421), tells the story of how a fisherman stumbles upon a garden paradise untouched by the hands of time (fig. 3).[11] Gu Mingdong notes that the term Peach Blossom Spring has since then come to mean a “utopia” in Chinese culture.[12]

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Fig. 3 - A depiction of the Peach Blossom Spring from the famous Long Corridor of the
Summer Palace in Beijing (larger version).

The scholar’s garden quickly became the epicenter for legendary gatherings of learned men. The most famous of these took place on April 22, 353 when the master calligrapher Wang Xizhi (王羲之, 303–361) gathered forty-one friends to hold a poetry writing competition. Each contestant had to compose an impromptu verse before a wine cup floated by them on a spring. Those who couldn't drank it as a penalty. The resulting twenty-six poems were compiled into a volume for which Wang wrote a prologue, the Preface to Collected Poems of the Orchid Pavilion (蘭亭集序, Lantingji Xu).[13] This assembly influenced scholars of later dynasties to pay homage to Wang by holding their own garden parties. One such gathering took place during the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127). Tradition states that sixteen individuals, comprising members from the upper echelons of society, congregated at the residence of Wang Shen (王詵, 1048–1122), a painter and royal son-in-law, to engage in scholarly activities similar to those depicted in the screen. This included playing music, writing calligraphy, painting, and intellectual discourses on the nature of being. This “Elegant Gathering in the Western Garden” (西園雅集) is said to have been painted by famous Song artist Li Gonglin (李公麟, 1049–1106),[14] though there is little evidence for this.[15] Another example took place during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). In April of 1437, nine high-ranking individuals gathered at the home of Yang Rong (楊榮, 1371–1440), an official of the Ming court, to write poems, appraise antiques and paintings, and play chess. The events of the “Elegant Gathering in the Apricot Garden” (杏园雅集图) were recorded in a painting by the artist Xie Huan (謝環, 1426–1452) (fig. 4).[16]

Painting garden scenes rose to prominence during the Song dynasty (960–1279). They were offshoots of the figures in a landscape genre that had become popular during the preceding Tang Dynasty (618–907). Two schools of painting developed during this time, the Northern and the Southern. This refers not to geographically distinct areas, but differences in time, technique, and philosophy. The Northern School (北宗画, beizonghua) developed during the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127). It was represented by professional court painters trained in the imperial art academy. These artists “employed a style that is academic, detailed, delicate, precise, colorful and decorative”.[17] The Southern School (南宗画, nanzonghua) developed during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) after the north had been conquered by border tribes. It was represented by untrained scholar-amateurs who dabbled in painting as a hobby. Southern painters were known for their spontaneous style of expression, which influenced Chan (Zen) Buddhist artists of the day. This dichotomy between North and South did not exist during the Song, however. The distinction was created by Dong Qichang (董其昌, 1555–1636), a painter and cataloger of art, during the Ming Dynasty.[18] These schools were the inspiration for opposing painting factions during Dong’s time known as the Zhen (浙) School, which represented the Northern style, and the Wu (吳) School, which represented the Southern Style.[19]

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Fig. 4 - Detail from "Elegant Gathering in the Apricot Garden" (c. 1437).

The Northern School of painting was transmitted to Japan during the late Heian period (794 to 1185). The Southern School was transmitted much later during the middle of the Edo Period (1603–1868). The latter, called Nanga (Southern School), a transliteration of the Chinese Nanzong (南宗), became hugely popular with the newly established cadre of Japanese Confucian bureaucrats. The school was also known as Bunjinga (文人画, literati painting) due to its association with scholars. This expressive style of art was hardily adopted by people of all social classes, including the samurai, monks, merchants, physicians, and professional painters.[20] While all of these groups adopted the style because of a shared admiration for Chinese history and culture, the latter group relied on the popularity of the genre to make a living. Producing art for money conflicted with the spontaneous, carefree philosophy of the Southern School, and so such artists wrote treatises to “clarify a set of imported [Chinese] values and practices, not always fully understood by the artists themselves”.[21] The main purpose of these treatises, however, was to record lineage techniques for posterity. This is because the tumultuous political environment of the Edo period threatened the future of the school.[22] Owning art becomes less of a necessity during times of war.

Despite its overtly Chinese style, the "Scholars in a Garden" screen is a prime example of the Nanga School of painting. It is unknown exactly when the piece was produced as it lacks an accompanying inscription listing a year. The signature indicates that it was painted by Sakuma Tetsuen (佐久間銕園, 1850–1921), an artist from Oita prefecture in southern Japan. One source states that Tetsuen is the artist’s nom de plume, and that his actual first name is Kenju (研寿).[23] Searching for “Sakuma Kenju” turned up two Japanese language books published at the turn of the 20th-century. The first is Comments on China’s Famous Paintings Through History (支那歴代名画論評, Shina rekidai meiga ronhyō, 1900).[24] The second is Tetsuen’s Talks on Painting (鐵園畫談, Tetsuen gadan, 1907).[25] Sakuma may have gone by his penname after this time; therefore, I suggest that the screen was painted around the time that these books were issued.

Notes

[1] Such beings are detailed in the Shanhai Jing (山海經, Classic of Mountains and Seas), a bestiary and cosmography complied between the 4th-c. BCE–4th-c. CE. It’s interesting to note that one modern Chinese commentator referred to the Classic as “the garden of Chinese mythology”. See Richard Strassberg, A Chinese Bestiary: Strange Creatures from the Guideways Through Mountains and Seas (University of California Press, 2002), 3.
[2] Kiyohiko Munakata, Sacred Mountains in Chinese Art (Champaign, Ill: Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1991), 5-7.
[3] This is mentioned in the analysis of the twenty-second hexagram “Grace” (賁). See Maggie Keswick, Charles Jencks, and Alison Hardie, The Chinese Garden (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 42; Hellmut Wilhelm and Cary F. Baynes. The I Ching or Book of Changes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 498.
[4] Confucius, Roger T. Ames, and Henry Rosemont, The Analects of Confucius a Philosophical Translation (New York: Ballantine Books, 1999), 123.
[5] Stephen Little and Shawn Eichman, Taoism and the Arts of China (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2000), 36.
[6] Ibid. For the characters, see "22 Grace (易經 Yi Jing - I Ching, the Book of Changes)." Wengu Chinese Classics and Translations. Accessed December 8, 2014. http://wengu.tartarie.com/wg/wengu.php?l=Yijing&no=22 .
[7] Keswick, 42. For a complete translation, see Cyril Birch and Donald Keene, Anthology of Chinese Literature (Vol I): From Early Times to the Fourteenth Century (New York: Grove Press, 1965), 73-78.
[8] Ibid, 50.
[9] Ibid, 51.
[10] See, for instance, "Shijing II. 4. (186) (Shi Jing Introduction – The Book of Odes)." Wengu Chinese Classics and Translations. Accessed December 8, 2014. http://wengu.tartarie.com/wg/wengu.php?m...ing&no=186 .
[11] Richard M. Barnhart, Peach Blossom Spring: Gardens and Flowers in Chinese Paintings (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1983), 13-16.
[12] Gu Ming Dong, Chinese Theories of Fiction: A Non-Western Narrative System (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006), 39.
[13] Richard Strassberg, Inscribed Landscapes: Travel Writing from Imperial China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 63-66..
[14] Marsha Smith Weidner and Patricia Ann Berger, Latter Days of the Law: Images of Chinese Buddhism, 850-1850 (Lawrence, KS: Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, 1994), 433-434.
[15] Ellen Johnston Laing, “Real or Ideal: The Problem of the "Elegant Gathering in the Western Garden" in Chinese Historical and Art Historical Records”. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 88 (3) (Jul. - Sep., 1968), 419-435.
[16] Craig Clunas, Fruitful Sites: Garden Culture in Ming Dynasty China (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996). For the painting, see "After Xie Huan: Elegant Gathering in the Apricot Garden (1989.141.3)." Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed December 8, 2014. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1989.141.3 .
[17] Dorothy Perkins, Encyclopedia of China: The Essential Reference to China, Its History and Culture. (New York: Facts on File, 1999), 361.
[18] Ibid, 482-483.
[19] Hongxing Zhang, Lizhong Ling, Masaaki Itakura, Charles Q. Mason, Shane McCausland, Camille Schmitt, Clarissa Von Spee, and Roderick Whitfield. Masterpieces of Chinese Painting, 700-1900 (V & A Publishing, 2013),.46-48.
[20] Joan Stanley-Baker, Japanese Art (London: Thames & Hudson, 2014), 172-173.
[21] Hugh Wylie, Nanga Painting Treatises of Nineteenth Century Japan: Translations, Commentary, and Analysis (Thesis (Ph. D.)--University of Kansas, 1991), 10-11.
[22] Ibid, 415.
[23] Nihon bijutsu gahō Tōkyō: Gahōsha, 1894.
[24] Dōshin Satō, Modern Japanese Art and the Meiji State: The Politics of Beauty (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2011), 172. Scans of the book are available here: “支那歴代名画論評.” 近代デジタルライブラリー. Accessed December 11, 2014. http://kindai.ndl.go.jp/info:ndljp/pid/994006/19.
[25] Rosina Buckland, Jonathan Hay, and Melanie Trede, Traveling Bunjin to Imperial Household Artist: Taki Katei (1830--1901) and the Transformation of Literati Painting in Late Nineteenth-Century Japan (Dissertation Abstracts International. 69-08. Thesis (Ph.D.)--New York University, 2008), 328. A scanned version is archived on the Hathi Trust Digital Library. See "Catalog Record: Tetsuen Gadan." Hathi Trust Digital Library. Accessed December 8, 2014. http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/011737314 .

Bibliography

“支那歴代名画論評.” 近代デジタルライブラリー. Accessed December 11, 2014. http://kindai.ndl.go.jp/info:ndljp/pid/994006/19 .

"22 Grace (易 經 Yi Jing – I Ching, the Book of Changes)." Wengu Chinese Classics and Translations. Accessed December 8, 2014. http://wengu.tartarie.com/wg/wengu.php?l=Yijing&no=22 .

"After Xie Huan: Elegant Gathering in the Apricot Garden (1989.141.3)." Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed December 8, 2014. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1989.141.3 .

Barnhart, Richard M. Peach Blossom Spring: Gardens and Flowers in Chinese Paintings. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1983.

Birch, Cyril, and Donald Keene. Anthology of Chinese Literature (Vol I): From Early Times to the Fourteenth Century. New York: Grove Press, 1965.

Buckland, Rosina, Jonathan Hay, and Melanie Trede. Traveling Bunjin to Imperial Household Artist: Taki Katei (1830--1901) and the Transformation of Literati Painting in Late Nineteenth-Century Japan. Dissertation Abstracts International. 69-08. Thesis (Ph.D.)--New York University, 2008.

"Catalog Record: Tetsuen Gadan." Hathi Trust Digital Library. Accessed December 8, 2014. http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/011737314 .

Clunas, Craig. Fruitful Sites: Garden Culture in Ming Dynasty China. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996.

Confucius, Roger T. Ames, and Henry Rosemont. The Analects of Confucius a Philosophical Translation. New York: Ballantine Books, 1999.

Gu, Ming Dong. Chinese Theories of Fiction: A Non-Western Narrative System. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006.

Keswick, Maggie, Charles Jencks, and Alison Hardie. The Chinese Garden. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Laing, Ellen Johnston. “Real or Ideal: The Problem of the "Elegant Gathering in the Western Garden" in Chinese Historical and Art Historical Records”. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 88 (3) (Jul. - Sep., 1968), 419-435.

Little, Stephen, and Shawn Eichman. Taoism and the Arts of China. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2000.

Munakata, Kiyohiko. Sacred Mountains in Chinese Art. Champaign, Ill: Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1991.

Nihon bijutsu gahō. Tōkyō: Gahōsha, 1894.

Perkins, Dorothy. Encyclopedia of China: The Essential Reference to China, Its History and Culture. New York: Facts on File, 1999.

Satō, Dōshin. Modern Japanese Art and the Meiji State: The Politics of Beauty. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2011.

"Shijing II. 4. (186) (Shi Jing Introduction – The Book of Odes)." Wengu Chinese Classics and Translations. Accessed December 8, 2014. http://wengu.tartarie.com/wg/wengu.php?m...ing&no=186 .

Stanley-Baker, Joan. Japanese Art. London: Thames and Hudson, 2014.

Strassberg, Richard. Inscribed Landscapes Travel Writing from Imperial China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

----------. A Chinese Bestiary: Strange Creatures from the Guideways Through Mountains and Seas. University of California Press, 2002.

Weidner, Marsha Smith, and Patricia Ann Berger. Latter Days of the Law: Images of Chinese Buddhism, 850-1850. Lawrence, KS: Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, 1994.

Welch, Patricia Bjaaland. Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Pub, 2008.

Wilhelm, Hellmut, and Cary F. Baynes. The I Ching or Book of Changes. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Wylie, Hugh. Nanga Painting Treatises of Nineteenth Century Japan: Translations, Commentary, and Analysis. Thesis (Ph. D.)--University of Kansas, 1991, 1991.

Zhang, Hongxing, Lizhong Ling, Masaaki Itakura, Charles Q. Mason, Shane McCausland, Camille Schmitt, Clarissa Von Spee, and Roderick Whitfield. Masterpieces of Chinese Painting, 700-1900. V & A Publishing, 2013.
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