Chinese Art and Dynastic Time

Xue Xuan

In his book Chinese Art and Dynastic Time, Wu Hung takes the reader on a ten-chapter journey that reconsiders Chinese art within dynastic history. As a professor of art history at the University of Chicago, Wu Hung reflects on the globalized writings on Chinese art history and points out two gaps confronting Chinese art history research. First, there is a need to connect Chinese art with other regional art to form a broader narrative. Second, there is a need to reconsider the contextualization of key concepts which are mostly loanwords from European art studies. To address this, Wu Hung sees the necessity to develop a new, three-dimensional art historical knowledge system that may link regional art histories on both historical and conceptual levels. The book reconceptualizes Chinese art history based on this system. The author connects historical discourses on art with contemporaneous art practices so as to understand Chinese art in its changing historical context. Theoretically, he reexamines the key concept of dynastic time, which has been used uncritically as a prior temporal framework to narrate Chinese art.

Ten case studies are presented chronologically in tetramerous themes: Models and Patterns, Politics and Religion, Past and Present, Rupture and Revolution. Each case takes place at specific moments in the history of Chinese art, from the fourth century BCE to the early 20th century CE. These instances are chosen, according to Wu Hung, because they have generated sizable collections of visual and textual materials that are connected to the concept of dynastic time.

The first part (“Models and Patterns”), encompassing Chapters 1-3, looks into the period from the late Eastern Zhou to the Han dynasty, when dynastic time emerged in the historical discourses on art and manifested in special ritual artifacts and monuments. Wu Hung starts with the concept of San dai (‘Three Dynasties’). Then he connects the texts of Confucian ritualists with King Cuo’s tomb of the state of Zhongshan, which verifies a retrospective pattern of dynastic time with the aim to reconstruct ritual customs of the Three Dynasties. He then continues this discussion by looking at the founding of imperial China during the Qin and Han, when artistic practice and discourse amalgamated with the aim to legitimate the emperor’s governance. Qin Shi Huang conceptualized dynastic time as an origin of an everlasting political tradition and constructed huge monuments like the Twelve Golden Men, the Palaces of the Former Six Kingdoms, and the Lishan Necropolis to mark it. The following Han introduced the concept of dynastic renewal and the Mandate of Heaven and produced an entire visual system centered on xiangrui (“auspicious signs”).

The second part (“Politics and Religion”), composed of Chapters 4-5, focuses on the middle period of Chinese history from period of Division (4th-6th centuries) to the Tang dynasty, when forces of politics, religion, and dynastic ritual affairs come together to reshape artistic practice and discourse. The first half discusses the rapid development of Buddhism and Buddhist art during the period of Division and the rise of a new visual system centered on rui xiang, or “miraculous icons” of the Buddha. Wu Hung connects the two successive biographies of the monk Huida accounted by Huijiao and Daoxuan with the murals and sculpture in Dunghuang Cave 323, which showcases how the concept of dynastic times experienced complex negotiation between religious and political authorities. The second half focuses on the history and formation of the Five Yue system, especially investigating how its deeply rooted patriarchal system is challenged by the woman emperor Wu Zetian.

The third part of the book (“Past and Present”), consisting of Chapters 6-8, turns to focus on the beginning of art historical scholarship and antiquarianism. Wu Hung begins by studying the book Famous Paintings of Successive Dynasties by late Tang art historian Zhang Yanyuan. Within it, the history of painting was periodized as “Three Antiquities” based on aesthetic development in relation to dynastic time. This linear pattern based on dynastic succession to narrate Chinese art history has a great influence on later generations, among them the Song dynasty art historian Guo Ruoxu’s book Paintings Seen and Heard. It was compiled as a sequel to Zhang but eschewed the complexity of multi-regional centers of art after the fall of Tang for the sake of a unilinear, dynastic art history. Wu Hung concludes that the linear sequence of successive dynasties has its limitation and further employs a group of recently excavated Liao mortuary paintings to demonstrate it. Apart from a critical reflection of the linear pattern based on dynastic succession through the lens of geographical space, Wu Hung further probes its temporality by focusing on a variety of fugu projects and the interrelation between the past and present within it. In this way, an alternative narrative of Chinese art history has gradually surfaced, one that challenges the linear pattern of dynastic time.

The last part (“Rupture and Revolution”) discusses the two liminal points of dynastic transitions. First is the fall of Ming in 1644, and the second is the victory of the Republican Revolution to end the imperial history in 1912. Both have catalyzed subjective responses to the traumatic dynasty times in the form of artistic and literary works.

Due to the dual historical and theoretical mission, the ten cases present great complexity and diversity. In the closing chapter, Wu Hung reevaluates the ten cases and refines four basic patterns as the manifestations of ‘dynastic time’. The first is the pattern of fugu, which initially appears in the Three Dynasties, and then subsequently reappears in Wang Mang’s ritual reforms around the Common Era and the fugu movement during the Song dynasty. The pattern of fugu is retrospective and conceives the past as ideal while fusing it with the present. Within the second, the pattern of ‘dynastic succession’, history advances in a diachronic sequence through a succession of dynasties. China followed this pattern from the third century BCE to the 20th century CE, in which each new dynasty claims its political legitimacy through inventing a new visual system that serves as the Heaven’s mandate. The process of dynastic renewal might be strengthened suddenly and give rise to a significant body of political art projects, summed up in the third pattern of ‘temporal compressions’. This pattern is related to personal ambition and initiatives and in the end accelerates the process of dynastic transfer. The last, the pattern of ‘post-dynastic ruptures’, is related to the dynastic upheavals, which provoked subjective responses with strong emotions of loss and trauma and were expressed in their artistic and literary works.

This book frees us from the long-held belief that Chinese art could only be read through the lens of successive dynasties. It also displays a novel paradigm of regional art history research, which will be of interest to scholars of art history.