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Pictures and Visuality in Early Modern China
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What were the issues surrounding pictorial representation at the. What did it mean in Ming Dynasty China to 'look at a picture'? These questions may not be fully answered to the satisfaction ofall read-ers, but they are at least posed in a manner designed to draw historians ofChina into a consideration ofthe visual, and historians and art historians ofother parts of the world into perhaps a very necessary re-consideration ofsome of the certainties surrounding their own objects of study.
The term'early modern China' in the title of this book is thus a deliberate provoca-tion, above all a provocation to those who continue to ground accounts ofEuropean exceptionalism over the last years on a secure foundation ofignoring all other histories.
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For early modernity in its European sense israrely invoked except as an inevitable if implicit prelude to modernityproper, and while the boundaries between them may be a subject ofdebate, there is rarely any discomfort with the geographical specificity ofthe category. Whether the 'early modern' began in or or isdebated with more intensity than the silently accepted proposition that itis essentially a European phenomenon.
Where modernity was seems less ofa problem than when it was. This is a book about pictures in China at a particular period in the past. It is not just about painting. One strand of the received wisdom is thatmuch of Chinese art, sometimes defined rather narrowly as painting,reached a point 'beyond representation' at an early date, discarding anearly attachment to mimesis in favour of a self-referential attention topainting in and of itself.
This is indeed the theoretical position adoptedby most of the canonical artists and theorists and it is a distinctiveness ofthe Chinese situation that they are frequently one and the same people since the eleventh century. It is an account that has considerable strengths,not least those of taking seriously statements from within Chinese culture.
It is a necessary and salutary corrective to European accounts that view thediscarding of mimesis as one of the central pillars of Modernism, to bemade to realise that claims of this kind were being made in China manycenturies before Paul Cezanne. But the aim of the present study is defi-nitely not to position art in China as somehow 'really' winning the race tobe 'modern' with that of Europe, a race in which China is perceived asshowing great early promise only to fade in the crucial closing stages.
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In-stead it is my aim to cast doubt on the very existence of that single, globalrace to the modern. Rather this book seeks to deal with some of that vastbody of Chinese picture-making and picture-viewing practices for whichrepresentation remained a central issue, indeed the principal justificationfor picture making at all. Some of these engagements fall within the Chi-nese discourse of 'painting' as historically constructed and presentlysustained.
Many ofthem do not. All need to be considered as part ofa spe-cific historical visuality, Hal Foster's 'sight as social fact',3 although I have. This book might be seen broadly as part ofthe project described by IvanGaskell as 'historical retrieval the attempt to interpret visual material as itmight have been when it was first made, whether by the maker, his [sic]contemporaries, or both '. The historicist pitfalls of such an approach arewell spelled-out by the same author.
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To this end, I have tried to make thework accessible to the reader with no prior knowledge of the material,citing English-language studies to the widest possible extent. I have notcited all of the extensive body of work on the art and culture of the MingDynasty which I have necessarily engaged with in the writing of this book,and I hope for the understanding ofthose who will be aware just how manyelisions and skimpings there are, only partially compensated for in thenotes.
PerfOrmances and ErasuresThe absolute difference between 'painting' and 'Chinese painting' is one ofthe points oforigin ofWestern art history.
It is part ofwhat makes that arthistory possible. From the first systematic European description of thefield by Joachim von Sandrart in the seventeenth century, that differencehas been expressed as often as not as a lack.