Craig Clunas on Chinese Painting and its Audiences

ClunasWhat is Chinese painting? When did it begin? And what are the different associations of this term in China and the West? In Chinese Painting and Its Audiences, which is based on the A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts given at the National Gallery of Art, leading art historian Craig Clunas draws from a wealth of artistic masterpieces and lesser-known pictures to show how Chinese painting has been understood by a range of audiences over five centuries, from the Ming Dynasty to today. Recently, Clunas took the time to answer some questions about the book.

There are lots of books about Chinese art, what’s the particular scope of this one?

CC: This book isn’t about the whole of Chinese art, but it looks at the important art of painting in China over the last five hundred years or so, from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to the very recent past. It does it not from the point of view of the creation of Chinese painting but through a history of looking at it, and a history of the types of viewers who have formed the very diverse audiences for it over those centuries.

If I don’t know much about Chinese culture, will I be able to understand this book?

CC: I hope anybody interested in art can get something from this book. It has its origins in a lecture series, the A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, held regularly at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, since 1953. In 2012 I gave these lectures (with the same title as the book); that’s only the second time in over sixty years that art from China has been the focus of a Mellon Lecture series. So I was very conscious of addressing a non-specialist audience, of people with an interest in the visual arts generally but without any specific expertise, and I’ve tried to keep the technicalities to a minimum in the main text, while still providing the evidence for other scholars to judge the strength of my arguments. When people say, ‘I don’t know anything about Chinese art,’ they often in fact already have a strong set of preconceptions, and I want to dispel some of these by showing the actual variety of painting being produced over a long time span, including work made in China in the past which tends to get left out of the category called ‘Chinese painting’ today.

How would you break down the main argument? 

CC: Obviously, back in the sixteenth century people in China who viewed a work by a famous painter of the day, or an old master from the past, didn’t think of what they were looking at as ‘Chinese painting.’ To them, it was just ‘painting.’ Today, whether in the Chinese-speaking world or outside it, the category ‘Chinese painting’ is the meaningful one we use to describe both historic painting and contemporary work of certain kinds. The book looks at how this came about, and shows how it was through the actions of viewers that this cultural category was formed, concentrating on certain kinds of pictures and marginalizing others. I’m claiming that the understanding of Chinese painting in some ways ran before it could walk, making big generalizations about the subject before much of the detailed work was done. These generalizations then fed into art history as a whole, where ‘Chinese painting’ stands as probably the major counter-example to the western tradition of art. I’m arguing here that the category ‘Chinese painting’ isn’t a timeless essence of Chinese culture, or an imposition on China from outside, but the result of a complex set of historical processes involving different types of audiences.

How does the book do this? 

CC: Firstly, by showing a fresh and broad set of images, you can’t write about pictures without showing them! The book is very heavily illustrated; it includes some familiar paintings which everybody already interested in the topic might recognize (though I hope they are talked about in a new way), but it also has lots of unfamiliar images, pictures which haven’t been widely reproduced before. I hope every reader will see something surprising and something beautiful. At the book’s heart are a sequence of what to me are really interesting paintings of different types of people – men and women, emperors and merchants, scholars and gallery-goers – looking at paintings. These pictures which take viewing as their subject can tell us a lot. They are at the core of a sequence of chapters which roughly speaking takes the topic from the fifteenth century to our own time, looking at a number of ideal audiences for Chinese painting; I’ve called these: the gentleman, the emperor, the merchant, the nation, the people. I’ve tried to balance analysis of the images themselves with the context in which they were produced, and to look at audiences both inside and outside China, which go back a lot longer than people might imagine. I’m obviously dependent on the specialist scholarship of other writers, and I’ve tried to pull together some of this work to give readers who might be interested in knowing more about a particular topic a sense of some of the great work being done now on Chinese painting. You can now read extensively in English about Chinese painting theory and criticism, and the lives of individual artists, over a broad time span. I’d be pleased if this book made people just a bit more aware of that great body of knowledge, and of the sheer scale of China’s artistic production.

How do you think this book might be received in China? 

CC: I’ve written other books on Chinese art, mostly of the Ming period, which have been translated into Chinese, and what I find interesting (and a bit surprising) is how some Chinese readers find contemporary resonances in books which I thought of when I wrote them as being ‘just’ about history. So I’ve come to accept that the history we write is never ‘just’ about the past. I’ve also learned (and this would be one of the main arguments of the book) that it’s wrong to imagine some homogeneous ‘Chinese view’ of painting or anything else, as if everybody in that huge country thought the same way. I hope some readers there might find it intriguing, and that even if they don’t like its way of arguing they would recognise the respect I feel for one of the world’s great bodies of art and human creativity.

How do you see the story of Chinese painting and its audiences developing in the future? 

CC: Painting, whether in brush and ink or oil on canvas, is only one of the practices of the visual arts in China today, but it remains an extremely important one. This is not least because the boom in the art market in China makes works of both past and present hugely valuable commodities. It seems pretty unlikely to me that the significant collections of Chinese painting outside China (whether in museums or in private hands) will grow very much in the future, the gravitational pull of the Chinese market is now just too strong. But the digital reproduction of artworks, which is proceeding now at a terrific pace, may mean that the physical location of paintings will matter less and less, their audiences will become more global and the composition of these audiences will get more and more diverse. That’s perhaps going to make it harder and harder for a restrictive definition of ‘Chinese painting’ to sustain itself, and maybe in time it will just be part of something called ‘painting’ again, or – who knows – even the dominant strand within it.

Craig Clunas is the Professor of History of Art of Oxford University in England. His books include Screen of Kings: Royal Art and Power in Ming China, Empire of Great Brightness: Visual and Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China, and Art in China.

An interview with Tonio Andrade, author of Gunpowder Age

To what degree do times of peace impact military power and precision? In his new book, Gunpowder Age, Tonio Andrade shows how throughout Chinese history, powerful enemies have inspired periods of intense military innovation and technological advancement. Andrade recently took the time to answer some questions about his book, China’s fascinating military past, and its potential emergence a modern day superpower.

Gunpowder AgeChina is fast becoming a military superpower now. Your book claims to find a “pattern to the Chinese military past.” How do current events fit into this pattern?

TA: China under its current leader, Xi Jinping, has become increasingly assertive, for example by building artificial islands in the South China Sea to buttress China’s claims to jurisdiction over the vast majority of the sea. These claims are disputed by many nations, including the USA, and analysts wonder whether China would really go to war to defend them. Some believe that it inevitably will, because rising powers tend to use their muscle to overturn the status quo, while existing powers tend to defend the status quo. Others, however, argue that China has traditionally maintained a defensive perspective on military power and is typically uninterested in waging aggressive wars. If we look at China’s deep history, however, we find numerous occasions when China used its overwhelming military power for aggressive warfare. Intriguingly, many of those occasions occurred at times analogous to today, when the dynasty in question had consolidated power after a difficult period, often spanning generations, and had reached a position of overwhelming regional power.

So you believe that China will likely use military force to assert itself over surrounding areas?

TA: China will use the most effective means to achieve its ends and maintain its security. Xi Jinping has said that war between the USA and China would be disastrous at present for both countries, and I believe China will try to avoid direct confrontation. Typically, in the past, when China has waged aggressive war, its power was overwhelming (or perceived as such) vis-à-vis its enemies. Today, however, China is in a situation less like the early Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) or Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), in which China was far more powerful than any surrounding country, than like the Song Dynasty (960-1279), which faced enemies that matched it in power, or, indeed, outmatched it. The Song fought many wars, but usually these were defensive wars, not wars of expansion.

You argue that when China faces powerful enemies it tends to be stronger and more innovative, and when it is overwhelmingly powerful its military power tends to atrophy. Is its current military power due to the fact that China faces an unusually strong rival in the USA?

TA: China’s military past seems to follow distinct patterns. We have to be careful to distinguish what we mean by “China,” however, because much Chinese warfare has typically been against other Chinese, and/or against other states occupying parts of what is today China. In any case, for much of its history, China has shuddered between periods of intense warfare and periods of relative peace, and during times of frequent warfare it has tended to have state-of-the-art military technology, techniques, and organization. During periods of extended peace, on the other hand, it has tended to fall behind, simply because it had fewer reasons to invest in military innovation. China’s current military power has been stimulated by more than a century of war and geopolitical insecurity, and there’s no doubt that China’s current military innovation and expansion is stimulated by competition with powerful rivals, most importantly the USA.

What were other periods of strength and weakness in China’s history?

TA: Probably the most significant period of relative weakness was the nineteenth century, when China found itself spectacularly vulnerable to western power, as first made clear in its humiliating loss to Great Britain in the Opium War (1839-42). Many Westerners explained China’s stunning weakness at that time by recourse to its cultural conservatism, to what they felt was a deep resistance to new ways or foreign ideas. These sorts of ideas are still very much around. But in fact, China’s resistance to innovation was a pretty short-lived phenomenon, and it can be explained by looking at the incidence of warfare experienced by China. Starting in the mid-eighteenth century, China’s Qing Dynasty had a position of such overwhelming strength and authority both within and beyond its borders that for nearly a century its inhabitants faced fewer wars (both external and internal) than ever before in the historical records. China was, in a sense, too strong for its own good, because this overwhelming power removed the stimulus for military improvement. Meanwhile, the British and their neighbors were fighting huge wars and innovating furiously. When China and Britain went to war in 1839, the British had military capacities that were far beyond those of China: Congreve rockets; light and powerful cannons; light, mobile howitzers; percussion cap muskets; explosive shells of unprecedented precision; and artillery tables that allowed the calculation of trajectories with extraordinary accuracy.

After the Opium War, why did it take so long for China to catch up with the west?

TA: Actually, Chinese officials, military and civil, carried out quite a bit of innovation right after the Opium War, studying Western guns, steamships, and sailing ships, and that innovation sped up during the intense military conflagrations that beset China starting in the 1850s. Many historians (I am one) now believe that from a technical standpoint the Qing were catching up quite effectively by the late 1860s and early 1870s. Indeed, it seems likely that up to that point their modernization attempts were even more effective than than those of Japan. But by the late 1880s, the trajectory changed, with Japan’s innovations becoming more effective. The reason is not technological or cultural but political. Japan’s old regime fell in 1867, replaced by a newer, centralized government that modernized its political structures. The Qing, however, held on, and its political structures failed to adapt. In fact, it’s a curious coincidence of history that the Qing and Japan’s old regime lasted exactly the same number of years. It’s just that the Japanese regime, which was founded first, also fell first. Japan had a clean slate and could sweep away old, unproductive aspects of its old regime. China couldn’t, so the Qing, although it effectively added new military structures – huge factories, innovative new armies, powerful new navies – couldn’t get rid of old ones, and so it was burdened and inflexible.

Your book starts with the invention of gunpowder and traces the evolution of the gun in the period 900-1280 or so, but one of the great questions of world history is why, if the Chinese invented the gun, they didn’t use it as effectively as the West?

TA: Most people know next to nothing about early gunpowder weapons, and I was no different when I started writing the book. In fact, even experts in China’s military history knew very little about early guns until recently, but what we’re learning is causing us to question some deep narratives in world history. Guns were tremendously important in China, used highly effectively. By the mid- to late-1300s, some 10% or so of Chinese infantry soldiers were armed with guns, meaning there were probably more gunners in Chinese armies than there were troops of all kinds in Western Europe (excluding Iberia). By the mid-1400s, the proportion of gunners in China had reached 30% or so of infantry forces, a level Europeans didn’t reach until the mid-1500s. And Chinese soldiers used guns more effectively as well, deploying them in advanced and highly-disciplined formations by the mid-1300s. Similar disciplinary techniques and formations didn’t spread in Europe until the 1500s. So you can see that Chinese gunners were highly effective, more effective than westerners during this period. This early history of Chinese gunnery is almost entirely unknown, but it is a key part of world history.

That’s very interesting, but of course Europeans did eventually get better at gunpowder technology. When and why did this happen?

TA: During the early gunpowder Age, from around 900 or so (when the first gunpowder weapons were used in battle) to around 1450, East Asians led the world in gunpowder warfare. Starting around 1450, however, Europeans pulled ahead. Why? I believe the answer has to do with levels of warfare. From 1450 or so, the Ming dynasty entered into a period of relatively low warfare, which contrasted with the previous century of intense warfare. This period of relative peace (emphasis on the word relative) in China contrasted with a period of tremendous warfare in Europe. So Europeans, fighting frequently, developed new types of guns – longer, thinner, lighter, and more accurate – whereas Chinese guncraft stagnated. This period lasted only a short time, however. By the early 1500s, Chinese were innovating furiously again, and the period from 1550 to 1700 or so was a time of tremendous warfare in China. China stayed caught up with the west from a military perspective – ahead in certain respects, behind in others – until the mid-1700s when, as I said before, it entered into a great period of relative peace (again, emphasis on the word relative), during which it fell behind, a situation that lasted until the Opium War.

Tonio Andrade is professor of history at Emory University and the author of Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory over the West (Princeton) and How Taiwan Became Chinese. His most recent book is Gunpowder Age.