The Newsletter 86 Summer 2020

Visual and material cultures in middle period China

Hang Lin

Patricia Buckley Ebrey and Shih-shan Susan Huang (eds). 2017.
Visual and Material Cultures in Middle Period China
Leiden: Brill
ISBN 9789004348981

In the dynastic history of China, the period from 800 to 1400 is conventionally remembered as a discreditable age of political disunity and intricate interstate relations, bracketed by the mighty Tang (618-907) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties. It was also a time when ‘barbarian’ incursions from the north intensified again as the Khitan, Jurchen, Tangut, and Mongol successively established their regimes and conquered parts or all of China. On the other hand, this period has witnessed a dramatic upsurge of visual and material sources that significantly deepen our understanding of the vitality and prosperity of the time, as well as the specific multi-state and multicultural contexts. Consisting of in-depth case studies of various forms of sources, this volume, which originates from the grand Conference on Middle Period China held at Harvard in 2014, represents a collective effort of scholars at the forefront of Chinese art history, archaeology, and history to illuminate this pivotal age in Chinese history. Through examinations of a multiplicity of visual and material cultures, it aims to show the numerous connections between these visual cultures and politics, literature, trade, religion, class, and region (p.12).

The eight essays contained in the volume are divided into four pairs – ‘Making Art in Funeral and Ritual Contexts’, ‘Setting a Scene’, ‘Appreciating the Written Word’, and ‘Cross-Cultural Transfers’. Relying on a meticulous study of 12th-century decorated tombs in Henan and Shanxi, Deng Fei tackles “who made these […] tombs” and “how were they built and decorated” (p.42). By taking a look at the brick makers, clay carvers, and painters, Deng labels these decorated tombs as ‘modular construction’ that testify the emergence of ‘moderately wealthy families’ that did not follow the cultural lead of the literati (p.75). Focusing on three late 12th-century paintings depicting the Buddhist saints of arhats, Phillip Bloom interrogates the specific approaches adopted by the painters to show the mediation between the mundane and supramundane. In particular, these paintings render that otherwise hidden aspects of internal ritual visible, thus mediating and enacting Buddhist belief.

Fan Jeremy Zhang sets out to examine the popular culture of the 13th century by linking paintings, bronze mirrors, ceramic pillows, printed illustrations, and poems and plays of the period. By scrutinizing the complex interconnections between the performing arts and visual arts, as Zhang cogently argues, secular theater exerted different influences on viewers of different walks of life and it also provided venues for the spread of the Quanzhen Daoism, thus “constitut[ing] a crucial development of Jin and Yuan visual culture [and] heralding the full blossom of theatrical imaginary in the subsequent Ming dynasty” (p.147). Drawing on poems, maps, and paintings about the Ten Views of West Lake, Duan Xiaolin investigates the interplay and tension between text and image and their influences on the viewers “to capture ephemeral moments and to associate them indelibly with this cultural landmark” (p.183). Rather than solely illustrating the scenes, that paintings provide a particular way of describing and representing the landscape and function as an effective medium to enhance people’s attachment to certain locations around the lake with the lake.

The third pair of essays center around the educated literati during the Southern Song (1127-1276) to demonstrate how intellectual values and market forces combined shaped the viewing process. Hui-Wen Lu begins with a study of a brick epitaph that was attributed to the 4th-century eminent calligrapher Wang Xianzhi (344-86) to analyze the fierce debate upon its authenticity in the early 13th century. Relating the brick to Wang Xizhi’s (303-61) Orchid Pavilion Preface (蘭亭序), Lu forcefully argues that although it was a fabricated work, the circulation of its rubbings and imitations reflected Song literati’s enthusiastic endorsement of calligraphy and connoisseurship, displaying the creation story of the tradition that elevated the Wangs to the position of gods of calligraphy. Patricia Buckley Ebrey focuses on some 200-odd colophons written by Zhu Xi (1130-1200) to show the Southern Song literati’s interest in antiquities and collecting of art and books. From these colophons, modern readers are able to grasp the “social world in which educated men found meaning and pleasure in showing others pieces of writing that they carefully preserved” (p.250). Thanks to the development of woodblock printing and neo-Confucian academies, this world further expanded the audience for handwritten documents and facsimiles of them.


The two essays in the last section turn to the aspects of cultural contact and material exchange of the period. Inspired by the motif of ‘bird and basin’ in two late Tang tomb murals, Liu Jie links them to the Tang practice of setting small pools in gardens, which she traces to the influences of Persian products. Although being a quite popular theme in the Tang, in later times it gradually became rare due to “the fading of interest in foreign gold and silver objects” (p.280). In contrast to these Chinese paintings appropriated Persian artistic traditions, Li Yiwen shows in her chapter how Japanese users added inscribed Buddha images to Chinese bronze jars and mirrors and made them serve new ritual purposes. While these Chinese objects landed at Japanese ports, their social and cultural contexts changed accordingly so that their perception was mixed with both the Chinese makers’ craftsmanship and the Japanese users’ imagination of China, thus revealing “the unwritten interactions and exchanges among different groups of people from different regions” (p.313).

Visual and material sources have been traditionally extensively utilized by art historians and they together depict a vibrant artistic world of China between 800 and 1400. The essays in this volume show, however, that visual and material cultures are being more widely studied by scholars across the disciplines, because they “reflected, adapted to, and reproduced the culture and society around them” (p.18). Through analysis of paintings, ceramics, tomb bricks, and bronze mirrors, many previously obscured aspects of the cultures and societies became more visible and accessible. Thanks to the visual and material cultures, we are now able to have a stronger appreciation of the richness of the period, ranging from theater, travel, trade, ritual practices, to life of commoners and cross-cultural exchanges, of which extant textual sources are limited whereas visual materials are relatively abundant.

More importantly, this volume represents a rapidly advancing trend of the field to go beyond conventional dynastic periodization of Chinese history. As the title of the volume suggests, the essays are devoted to the ‘Middle Period’ instead of the Eurocentric designations such as ‘medieval’ or ‘Middle Age.’ Covering approximately six centuries from the second half of the Tang to the early Ming, ‘Middle Period’ is far broader than a dynasty or a century, thus enabling a better understanding of the linear narratives of Chinese history. In doing so, the contributors collectively remind the readers to shift away from periodizing visual and material cultures on the basis of dynastic changes but to pay more attention to this “grey zone in transformation, where old and new ideas overlapped and converged” (p.1).

For someone whose interest rests more on the non-Han peoples of this period, I am pleased to see that two essays (Deng’s and Zhang’s) touch upon the question of non-Han ruling houses, including the Khitan, Jurchen, and Mongol. Yet in both cases we can detect only little impact in the change in the ethnicity of the ruling house on tomb design and decoration. In many respects, this resonates with Li Qingquan’s insightful study of the Liao dynasty (907-1125) tombs at Xuanhua, as locality comes through as more important than political legitimacy to the development of visual and material cultures.1 Li Qingquan 李清泉, 宣化辽墓: 墓葬艺术与辽代社会, (Liao Tombs at Xuanhua: Burial Art and Society of the Liao), Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 2008.  However, if our focus of our observation is shifted further north, we may acquire a more lively picture of the visual and material cultures marked by indigenous traditions of non-Han peoples and trans-regional interactions.2 See, among others, Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt, Liao Architecture, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1997; Dieter Kuhn, How the Qidan Reshaped the Tradition of the Chinese Dome-Shaped Tomb, Heidelberg: Edition Forum, 1998; Wu Hung (ed.), Tenth-Century China and Beyond: Art and Visual Culture in a Multi-centered Age, Chicago: The Center for the Art of East Asia/University of Chicago, 2013.

This minor caveat aside, this volume is a timely addition to the existing scholarship about visual and material cultures of China from 800 to 1400, extending our understanding of the cultural and economic dynamism during the period. Full with intriguing observations and thought-provoking syntheses, it is bound to an indispensable book which will definitely inspire future researchers on the perennial topic in Chinese and Asian history.

Hang Lin, Hangzhou Normal University, China