City of Marvel and Transformation: Changan and Narratives of Experience in Tang Dynasty China


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Late Ming moralists also realized that pictures could be read the wrong way, subverting whatever lofty intention had engendered them. In a dated commemorative inscription for a pictorial biography of Confucius displayed at the primordial temple in Qufu, Shandong, Shao Yiren js suggested that pictures were irrelevant or even misleading for transmitting the Way; instead, it was better to study the Classics.

In addition, as Carlitz has noted of late Ming books of illustrated stories about virtuous women, the pictures for instructive texts were made by the same people who illustrated works of drama and fiction, genres for which visually attractive or entertaining images were desirable and appropriate. Male viewers in particular might easily ignore the didactic content while looking at portrayals of women defending moral principles in circumstances that sometimes were entertainingly dire. The popularity of ostensibly didactic illustrations suggests that their allure owed more to their ability to provide visual entertainment than to their efficacy for encouraging moral introspection.

Moralists may well have had reason to worry that pictures could lead people astray.


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I begin by considering various ways to define narrative illustration more precisely, then examine methods and conventions that Chinese artists initially used for depicting stories. Despite my focus on pictures that conveyed or affirmed values associated with Confucian ideology, I include some discussion of Buddhist illustration in tracing the development of narrative sequencing techniques and modes of conceptualization, which owed much to the stimulus of Buddhist narrative traditions.

Chapters 2 through 5 survey the history of narrative illustration in China, exploring it as a component of early Chinese pictorial art and tracing the emergence of its classic forms.

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After the Han, the more discursive narrative techniques and approaches associated with Buddhism expanded the range of conventions, conceptual modes, and compositional structures available for didactic representation. Much acclaimed by critics, the styles and conventions of Tang narrative illustration became a classical standard. With the emergence of literati theories of painting as a medium of self-expression, however, narrative depictions gradually lost prestige in the critical discourse, although they continued to be produced.

Because I see the Song as a watershed in the history of narrative illustration, I end my chronological survey with this period and turn my attention in Chapters 6 through 8 to several types of pictures that promoted high ideals of conduct for rulers and officials in the Song through Qing periods. Even if later didactic illustrations were insignificant to the critical discourse of art and the most discriminating collectors took little interest in them as objects for delectation, many paintings and prints were made for stories about exemplary individuals and cautionary tales of conduct to avoid.

The production of such pictures highlights the fact that some members of the educated elite who were concerned about improving morality and governance believed that pictorial representation had the potential for making a strong impression on viewers and influencing their behavior.

Although some writers questioned whether pictures could be as effective as texts for stimulating moral cultivation, particularly among the literate, it is significant that they did not simply dismiss illustrations as aesthetically or formally deficient. Unlike aesthetes, these skeptics took representational images seriously and evaluated them as agents of moral transformation.

Colophons of the late Ming and Qing periods suggest that paintings of well-known narrative subjects also appealed to neophyte collectors. Such works often bore impressive but spurious attributions to famous artists, as well as fake seals and colophons of eminent connoisseurs and literati. Whether forged or genuine, the colophons attached to these pictures typically affirmed the didactic merit of the representations and validated them as works of art.

Between the Sacred and the Profane

The combination of accessible, familiar, and often venerable subject matter with such prestige-enhancing documentation suggests that many later narrative paintings were collected by people who believed them to be works of art, with the potential to establish the owner as a person of taste. Many narrative illustrations that originated in a genuinely instructive or admonitory context subsequently entered wider circulation, sometimes in significantly altered form.

In the late imperial period, such pictures achieved their widest circulation and greatest impact in the medium of woodblock printing. As people of different backgrounds appropriated didactic pictures, the images acquired new meanings, connotations, and functions. Viewers who were not particularly concerned about morality in statecraft undoubtedly found the illustrations of stories about model rulers and ministers entertaining.

Printed illustrations not only offered access to remote people and places, but also spread elite views of history and culture across a broader social spectrum. The sheer quantity of later narrative Chinese illustration on Confucian themes provides justification enough to study it as a social phenomenon. Furthermore, persuasive arguments can be made for recognizing certain pictures as masterpieces, whose high artistic quality makes them worthy of art-historical investigation.

In fact, recent scholarship has already expanded the canon of later Chinese painting beyond the literati tradition, creating a place for great works of narrative illustration. The diversity of later narrative illustration reflects the varied interests and needs of its patrons, collectors, and viewers. To gain insight into the ways that pictures expressed their concerns and functioned as historical agents, we must sometimes suspend our preoccupation with aesthetic excellence and look at a broader spectrum of pictorial works.

Taking this approach does not mean that artistic quality is unimportant or irrelevant; rather, it defines the high end of a large and diverse body of visual production.

Below this rarified level, however, there are many uplifting or engaging narrative subjects that held considerable appeal for a great variety of viewers. Rather than scorning their interest or using it as a foil to demonstrate the superior taste of sophisticated connoisseurs, we should explore the meanings and significance of such pictures. To begin to address this enormous topic, I examine numerous cases of Confucian narrative illustration whose patronage and reception challenge conventional views concerning the tastes and values of elite, literate men in the late imperial period.

Accordingly, even the most recent example was nearly five hundred years earlier. In fact, poems in other sections of his massive compendium also refer to paintings of ancient people engaged in some action. For example, the Human Affairs section renshi lei includes a poem about a painting of the legendary recluse Yang Pu moving house. There are even cases in which paintings on the same subject are divided between gushi and some other classification.

Such an overlap occurs between gushi and the Old Sites category guji lei. Both contain poems written for paintings of places that were made famous by the events that took place there.

For instance, both sections have entries for the Orchid Pavilion Lanting , where the calligrapher Wang Xizhi c. Conceptions of narrative representation in recent scholarship on Chinese art in European languages are equally confusing. Not only is the term applied to a great variety of pictures, it is used in both a narrow technical sense as well as in a broadly metaphorical one. In other words, moral narrative is associated with an instructive function, literary narrative with expressive qualities or rhetorical devices, and genre narrative with a particular subject matter.

Because function, expressive quality, and subject are three different kinds of criteria, the categories are not mutually exclusive, and the same painting may well fit into more than one. The depicted action belongs to a specific place and time and stays within the bounds of the picture. Narrative poetry is conceived in terms of empathy for rather than integration with [italics hers] the experience described in the composition.

No matter how sympathetic or enthralling the subject matter [of narrative poetry] may be, the reader cannot, finally, preserve the illusion of having participated in its events. For example, Wen Fong contrasts the ostensibly objective depictions of an observable human world, often by anonymous artisans, with paintings that embody the private thoughts and experiences of the scholar-artists who made them. He and others emphasize the role played by Li Gonglin in developing painting into a vehicle of personal expression almost as elevated as poetry.

Nonetheless, the emergence of literati painting did cast narrative painting into sharper definition, clarifying the latter as a functional art that is made to serve the need to document, show, explain, teach, affirm, or assert something. In a comparative study of Chinese and Japanese handscrolls, Kohara Hironobu offers some provocative generalizations about narrative illustration, focusing on storytelling as the defining element of the category.

Instead, he argues, Chinese artists preferred to symbolize the story in a single sometimes long scene, a conceptual approach he does not find among Japanese handscrolls. Kohara attributes this fundamental difference to a Chinese emphasis on Confucian morality and a disdain for fiction and fantasy, which discouraged the production of illustrations that provided only action and entertainment. Moreover, he maintains that narrative paintings in China were made by and for a learned elite, who did not require detailed pictorialization because most themes were based on written texts.

The writings would have been familiar to the highly educated viewer and could also be transcribed to accompany the painting. Although Kohara does not discuss the possibility that a painting might illustrate an orally transmitted story, the familiarity of an oral tale might also make a detailed depiction unnecessary. In Japan, by contrast, Kohara claims that not only were fiction and inventiveness more highly esteemed, but also that the audience for handscroll illustrations included the uneducated.

Both conditions favored the development and continued use in Japan of techniques to pictorialize action sequences in a vivid way. However, without a more precise, common definition, it is difficult to make meaningful distinctions among various types of narrative illustrations or to trace their evolution. This body of work offers some insights that are useful for defining visual representations of narrative. In drawing upon it, I am not suggesting that the pictorial repertoire is necessarily dependent upon, secondary to, or explained by verbal narration.

Moreover, literary scholarship does not exhibit consensus on a definition of narrative or its technical qualities; thus the art historian cannot simply adopt and apply literary paradigms.


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Nonetheless, a brief consideration of literary analysis will set the stage for definitions that I will propose later, as well as introduce certain points to which other chapters will return. Literary Theories of Narrative Most writers agree that a fundamental marker of narrative is action some would say conflict , which results in change, thus distinguishing narrative from a description of a state of being.

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Some writers emphasize the role of a teller who presents the events. Depending on the value system that underlies the narrative, the events may be endorsed, censured, or presented neutrally. As Sheldon Lu demonstrates, Chinese historical writing purported to be simultaneously objective and normative. Traditional Chinese historians believed that Confucius himself, in editing the Spring and Autumn Annals Chun qiu , had selected and carefully worded its entries to illuminate the function of this morality.

Surprisingly enough, Chatman explicitly excludes painting from the group of media that he considers to be capable of communicating a sense of time.

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This oversight is remedied by Goodman, who demonstrates the variety of relationships that may exist between the order of events in a story and their representation in paintings. He points out that a painting may present its events simultaneously to view, without disclosing any obligatory or obvious order of reading. However, Goodman proposes that if a picture illustrates a single moment of the story, then the telling that is, its representation in painting takes no discourse- time, ignoring the fact that the viewer requires time to scan the image.

Arguing that the ideal of a one-to-one correspondence is a false premise, Smith proposes that the story itself is an ever-changing entity; there is no Platonic core underlying all the manifestations of a narrative. None of these retellings is more basic than the others. Poetry was for the lyric expression of inner experience, although on occasion a lyric vision might be presented within a narrative framework. Historiography and fiction were not sharply separated in Chinese conceptions, unlike in Western theory.

Instead, historical fact and invented fiction form two ends of a spectrum, along which lie works that have common conventions of structure, rhetoric, authorial stance, character delineation, and so forth.

City of Marvel and Transformation: Changan and Narratives of Experience in Tang Dynasty China City of Marvel and Transformation: Changan and Narratives of Experience in Tang Dynasty China
City of Marvel and Transformation: Changan and Narratives of Experience in Tang Dynasty China City of Marvel and Transformation: Changan and Narratives of Experience in Tang Dynasty China
City of Marvel and Transformation: Changan and Narratives of Experience in Tang Dynasty China City of Marvel and Transformation: Changan and Narratives of Experience in Tang Dynasty China
City of Marvel and Transformation: Changan and Narratives of Experience in Tang Dynasty China City of Marvel and Transformation: Changan and Narratives of Experience in Tang Dynasty China
City of Marvel and Transformation: Changan and Narratives of Experience in Tang Dynasty China City of Marvel and Transformation: Changan and Narratives of Experience in Tang Dynasty China

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