2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 82

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Place, Memory, and Visuality in Chinese Painting

Organizer and Chair: Juliane Noth, Free University, Germany

Discussant: Elizabeth Kindall, University of St. Thomas, USA

The panel examines places as sites of personal, collective or cultural memory and their depiction in Chinese painting. In the process of representation, memory is being appropriated, invented and (re-)constructed. These interventions become especially evident in moments of cultural, political and religious change. Therefore the panel considers how actual places become sites of an imaginary topography; how topographies are translated into iconographies that establish identity, be it political, cultural or religious; and finally how changing notions of memory rely on traditional modes of representation or rather employ changing concepts of visuality. The papers discuss these issues in case studies from different moments in history that are marked by individual or political transformations. Commemorative painting as site for the blending of different religious concepts of death and personal memory in the early Qing dynasty will be addressed alongside the evocation of place, personal memory and concepts of an ideal life in still-life paintings from the same period. In the discussion of case studies from around 1911 and the early 1950s, the focus will be on how changing or newly constructed political identities engender a reconsideration of cultural topographies. The vagaries of personal memory and the configuration of a new collective memory constitute different modes in the representation of place, which are closely linked to the establishment of a modern visuality in twentieth-century Chinese painting.

Earth and Vision in Bian Shoumin's (1684-1752) Still Lives
Birgitta Augustin, Detroit Institute of Arts, USA

The early Qing dynasty (1644-1911) painter, poet, and calligrapher Bian Shoumin, is mostly known for his bird and flower paintings and especially for his paintings of wild geese. His few still lives of tarot roots and beans, self-inscribed with poems, however, reveal a different and apparently distinctly critical side. The art of complementing paintings with autograph poems can be traced back at least to the early Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). Bian's autographed poems written in a style reminding of that of the Song dynasty intellectual Su Shi (1037-1101) appear to add a very personal note to an otherwise perhaps rather innocuous sujet of field crops. This combination of observation and memorizing seems to express Bian's country life and his critical awareness of the hardship of many of his contemporaries. In this talk I intend to show that it is especially the prominence of the tarot-roots that can be understood as an expression of the earthiness of Bian's life: The roots may stand in for his place of existence, not only restricted to his real world life in and around Suzhou, but more generally his conviction of the importance of naturality and of a well-founded life. This becomes even clearer when reading his poems. Not only does he point out the very concrete places of obtaining these crops, but also how to properly process them. It is these few lines that seem to establish a manual, to express Bian's vision of authenticity, fairness and of solidity.

Death and Absence: Wu Li’s (1632-1718) "Remembering the Past at the Xingfu Chapel"
Ning Yao, University of Heidelberg, Germany

Wu Li’s (1632-1718) handscroll "Remembering the Past at the Xingfu Chapel" (1672) is a commemorative painting in memory of the Chan Buddhist monk Morong (hereafter referred to as Xingfu scroll). It is a landscape painting with the depiction of a place – the Xingfu chapel at first glance. A chamber without a human figure is depicted on the right side of the Xingfu scroll. Unlike the empty pavilions in Ni Zan’s (1301-1374) paintings, which tend to invite the viewer to come in, this is a place belonging to somebody else, a place where somebody has just left: A scroll is still on the small table, in front of which a mat can be seen. It is an empty place marked by the absence of its owner. Here we are dealing with a very unique case in Chinese painting of representing death through the absence of human figures in a place. This paper attempts primarily to provide visual and textual evidence to show how death is represented in the Xingfu scroll. Indeed, representing death with the help of an empty place can hardly be found in Chinese painting. This paper will then examine where this concept comes from. Possible evidence can be found in early Japanese raigo paintings with the idea of Pure Land Buddhism. It then will argue that the Xingfu scroll is not only a commemorative painting of the deceased Morong but also for his dead soul.

Why the Bloodbath Needed the Moonlight? – Xunyang River in Double Duty
Eugene Y. Wang, Harvard University, USA

Xunyang River evokes at once lyricism and violence. As a section of the Yangtze River north of Jiujiang, it provides the proverbial setting for two well-known literary scenes. It is where the ninth-century poet Bai Juyi encountered, in his Song of Pipa, a pipa-playing woman with whom he shared a sense of displacement. It is also where Song Jiang, the chief outlaw in the fourteenth-century fiction, On the Water Margins, wrote his avowal on the river-side tavern wall that he would one day turn the river into a bloodbath. The physical place matters little. The site exists in collective mind as an imaginary topography conjured up by both popular texts. Evocation of the site, however, rarely mixes two literary sources at once. It was around 1911 that both literary associations of the site gained equal currency through their shared feature of moonlight. Parsing the moonlit scenes in pictorial works reveals special dynamics and sensibility in the tumultuous years in the early 20th century. The case prompts an unsettling larger question: why a scene shadowed by a vow of violent vengeance requires the lyrical serenity of a moon-lit night?

Place and representation: Li Keran’s "Model Workers and Peasants at Beihai Park"
Yan Geng, University of Connecticut, USA

Li Keran’s ink and color painting "Model Workers and Peasants at Beihai Park" of 1951 is an exceptional work, but has so far received little scholarly attention. It was recognized as a model of propaganda and won the third prize in the New Nianhua (New Year’s Picture) Competition in 1952, issued by the Ministry of Culture. This painting exhibits a unique style compared to other works of the artist and is also composed differently from other paintings rendering this motif, the All-Nation Congress of Model Workers, Peasants and Soldiers in 1950. Instead of portraying individual deputies, Li Keran represented workers and peasants visiting a significant place, Beihai Park. Beihai was originally built as part of an imperial garden in 1166 during the Jin dynasty and construction projects continued to be undertaken in the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. The park was opened to the public in 1925 and it served as a site for important events after the founding of the People’s Republic. Li Keran’s painting of Beihai commemorated the congress and also celebrated the establishment of the Communist state. This paper examines the way in which Li Keran represented this historical site and registered the social change in contemporary China. It raises the issue of how visual representation transports the past into the present and becomes one focus for cultural memory construct.

Remembering past travels: Place, vision and representation in Huang Binhong’s paintings around 1953
Juliane Noth, Free University, Germany

In 1953, ninety-sui old Huang Binhong underwent eye surgery after he had almost lost his eyesight due to cataracts. The high degree of abstraction and the dissolution of forms into dense brushwork that are characteristic of his works from the early 1950s can be linked to his failing eyesight. Yet the inscriptions on several paintings that he painted in 1953 as well as their pictorial language indicate that his disease led him to reflect on issues of vision and representation. These reflections are closely linked to the depiction of specific places, which are often referred to as having been visited in the past. The paper will discuss how the depiction of places, their topography, their flora and their cultural layers is interrelated with the exploration of different modes of visuality at a moment in Huang’s life when vision became endangered. Based on a discussion of his earlier paintings recording sites he had visited, I will argue that Huang Binhong invokes personal experience and memories of his travels in past decades to link the representation of places and of a blurring vision. The paper will also examine how brushwork is employed by Huang to negotiate these issues.