The Collector, the Connoisseur, and Late-Ming Sensibility

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  • The Collector, the Connoisseur, and Late-Ming SensibilityAuthor(s): Wai-Yee LiSource: T'oung Pao, Second Series, Vol. 81, Fasc. 4/5 (1995), pp. 269-302Published by: BRILLStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4528669 .Accessed: 28/06/2014 19:04

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  • THE COLLECTOR, THE CONNOISSEUR, AND LATE-MING SENSIBILITYt

    BY

    WAI-YEE LI University of Pennsylvania

    In the Record of Famous Paintings Through the Ages (Li-tai ming hua chi tet*"e [847], hereafter LTMHC), the art historian and painter ChangYen-yuan W2 (ca. 815-after 875) justifies his pas- sion for collecting and restoring paintings: "Yet if I dc) not do that which is useless, how can I take pleasure in this life which does have a limit?''1 The phrase wu-i Q (useless, profitless) rings with echoes of the praise of non-action (wu-wei $$EA) and the "uses of uselessness" ( wuyung chih yung mS JM ) in Taoist writings. In the Chuang Tzu E f, uselessness represents disinterested self-contain- ment and the condition conducive to the freedom of the spirit (hsiao-yao Affi ). Only the category of the useless can establish the individual's freedom to define a private realm of significance, which is in its turn a response to mortality.

    This reference to the idea of "confronting mortality" may seem ironic, since in an earlier version on "The Fortunes of Paintings" ("Hsu hua chih hsing fei" i*2tM) Chang Yen-yuan describes how great imperial collections were assembled and destroyed. His own family's vast collection of calligraphy and paintings was ap- propriated by the emperor, and what remained was dispersed during his grandfather's exile, so that "only a few scrolls were left behind" (LTMHC, c.1.5-7). But if collections are perishable7 writ- ings about collections are deemed less so. Chang Yen-an ex-

    * I am grateful to Anthony G. Yu and Robert Hegel for their extremely he!lpful comments on this article.

    1 Chang Yen-yuan, Li-tai ming-hua chi, ed. Ch'in Chung-wen XApS, Huang Miao-tzu Agf (Beijing:Jen-min mei-shu ch'u-pan-she, 1983 reprint of 1963 edi- tion), c. (abbreviation for chuan) 2.35. Li-tai ming-hua chi is dated to 847 in a sec- tion of the first chapter. These two lines are often quoted, often by way of de- fence of writing and literary creation. See, for instance, Hsiang Hung-tso's :gAigt (1798-1835) preface to his manuscript (Ping-kao hsu Sg@;); Ch'en Yln-k'o's FWAX} (1898-1969) preface to LiuJu-shih pieh-chuan SPtn2.Mll#. I am responsible for all the translations in this article.

    (C) EJ. Brill, Leiden, 1995 T'oung Pao LXXXI

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  • 27Q WAI-YEE LI

    presses this idea in the chapter "On Discerning, Collecting, Ac- quiring, Appreciating" ("Lun chien-shih shou-ts'ang kou-ch'iu yueh-wan" "kE iStiMS lRE): "There are those who collect with- out being able to discern, discern while failing to appreciate, ap- preciate but lack the skill to frame and mount, frame and mount yet neglect to select and rank- all these are faults common among collectors" (LTMHC, c.2.33). Insofar as selecting and rank- ing are precisely what Chang sets out to do in his work, writing may be seen as a logical extension of collecting. More impor- tantly, writing is a means of repossession. Both writing and collect- ing are bound up with the anticipation of loss and the attempt to overcome loss.

    Selection and ranking draw attention to the criteria of evalua- tion and raise questions of public and private values. Chang uses the language of spiritual communion, which has become by his time conventional in aesthetic appreciation: "My passion becomes ever more intense, it is almost like obsession (p'i S ) ... As for what may become a burden beside my body,2 there are no superfluous things (chang-wu At ). Only with calligraphy and paintings have I not yet forgotten my feelings (yu-wei wang-ch'ing Zj\\). Oblivi- ous, I forget words, looking on in joy" (LTMHC, c.2.35). The lan- guage here suggests an intensely personal experience. But the cat- egorization and ranking Chang proposes elsewhere in the book claim a general validity. When he writes about the value of works of art, he shows an implicit antiquarian bias. In his periodization of art history into early, middle, late antiquity, and recent times, he ranks what he considers the three greatest painters of the T'ang dynasty (Yu-ch'ih I-seng k4tZfE, Wu Tao-tzu %Af, Yen Li- pen 1gv *) with the masters of middle antiquity (such as Ku K'ai- chih Wt and Lu T'an-wei 1@g), while the lesser ones are com- pared to painters of late antiquity (LTMHC, c.2.31). (Painters from early antiquity being known only by name, Chang elevates the masters of middle antiquity to a preeminent position: com- parlson wth them is thus the highest compliment.) Moreover, Chang is quite aware of the market value of paintings and calligra- phy as commodities. He goes into details about prices (LTMHC, c.2.31), thus confirming the double life of works of art as com- modity and anti-commodity.

    2 An allusion to Lao Tzu: "The reason I have great trouble is that I have a body. When I no longer have a body, what trouble have I?" See Tao-te ching, trans- lated by D.C. Lau (Hong Song: Chinese University Press, 1963), 181 a.

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  • THE COLLECTOR, THE CONNOISSEUR & LATE-MING SENSIBILITY 271

    Chang shows little unease in moving freely between the two as- pects of calligraphy and paintings as commodities and as objects of spiritual communion, partly because he is by then more or less unburdened of his family's vast collection. The anxiety of posses- sion is voiced instead by the emperor, who justifies his appropria- tion of Chang's family collection with customary moral homily: "Such (calligraphy and paintings) are treasures of all times and the prizes of the state. I gaze at them (yii-mu 9 H, literally, therein I lodge my eyes [temporarily]) in the leisure from imperial audi- ences - thus do I know that the wonders of paintings correspond to the works of Creation. My wish is for vigilant moral self-exami- nation (sheng-kung 'J) to come from the observation of images (kuan-hsiang R-*), this is no mere indulgence in love of wonders and curiosities (hao-ch'i ztW) and taking wanton pleasure in things (wan-wu it) " (LTMHC, c. 1.1I 1) .

    The emperor's pseudo-apology, just as much as Chang Yen- yuan's account of his passion, defines recurrent themes in the Chinese discourse on objects and ownership. First, the emperor identifies himself with the polity to justify the confiscation of his subject's property. As national treasures such works of art should become part of the imperial collection. The emperor thereby ad- dresses the social and political meanings of ownership. The issue of possessions proper to a person's estate in this world is a major concern, and partly accounts for warnings against excess and dis- play, for "the accumulation of things invites jealousy" (chi-wu chao- tU ~1~itBf).3 To own much and to flaunt wealth is often, at least potentially, a political liability.4 Second, to gaze ("lodge one's eyes temporarily") suggests measured, almost detached, appreciation and restfulness of spirit, so much so that aesthetic contemplation

    3 That is, the jealousy of other people, in some cases the ruler, and/or the jealousy of heaven. Craig Clunas discusses the status of sumptuary laws and the anxieties about extravagance, ostentation, and the transgression of social bounda- ries in the late Ming in his original and informative study, Superfluous Things: Ma- terial Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), 141-165.

    4The Ming writer Tien 1-heng FRR* (1524-1574?) devotes the entire chiian 35 of his book of "random notes" (pi-chi VE ) to accounts of ministers who over- reached themselves, their corruption presumably evident from their vast re- sources. The entry on Yen Sung Rt (1480-1565, Grand Secretary, 1542-1562) reads like a detailed inventory of his possessions. Liu-ch 'ing jih-cha W9 E Th, pref- aced dated 1573, Kua-ti an ts'an0 Ming-Ch'ing chang-ku ts'ung-k'an edition, 3 vols. (Shanghai: Sharnghai ku-chi ch'u-pan-she, 1982), c.35.1107-1136. Cf. Clunas, 15 7-158.

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  • 272 WAI-YEE LI

    shades easily into political education and moral self-cultivation, which in its turn supposedly contributes to the harmonious inte- gration of self and world. The language of balance, moderation, and spiritual cultivation recurs in the discourse on objects and possession. It signifies an attitude of "simultaneous attachment and detachment" (pu-chi pu-li T 'TN), which provides for inten- sity of experience while keeping the potential dangers of intensity at bay. Third, the proleptic denial of indulgence and wanton pleasure suggests the latent force of such allegations. When Chang writes about "the fortunes of paintings", the connection between dynastic decline and a ruler's excessive interest in art and/or collecting is implied. The vast collection of Emperor Yuan of Liang 7Wt (r. 552-555), who ruled toward the end of the Liang dynasty (502-557), was burnt by the rebel Hou Ching I1 e. When another crisis overtook the country and Emperor Yulan had to burn whatever remained of the imperial collection, he almost threw himself into the conflagration and was only restrained from doing so by his consorts. The emperor's impulse to perish with his collection seems to unveil in the most dramatic fashion one of the reasons behind the doom looming over himself, his collection, and the country. Chang Yen-yiian also describes how Emperor Yang of Sui PMV (r. 605-618), often represented as a stereotypi- cal pleasure-loving last emperor, brought his collection along dur- ing his pleasure tour to Yang-chou. When the boat containing his prize possessions sank, we are given to understand that it might have been a providential warning against excessive attachment to objects.5 The idea that "taking pleasure in things undermines the

    5 The epitome of the pleasure-loving last emperor surrounded by superfluous things is realized some three centuries after Chang Yen-yuian in the person of Em- peror Hui-tsung of Sung 5/ (r. 1101-1126). Himself a gifted painter and callig- rapher, Emperor Hui-tsung amassed an enormous collection of art treasures, part of which was recorded in the Drawings and Lists of all the Antiquities Stored in the Hsiian-ho Palace (Hsiian-ho po-ku tu-lu 'iiDf*tA ). Probably completed in 1123, this is a catalogue of the forms and inscriptions of some 840 bronzes in the impe- rial collection. The frequent reprints of this book in the late Ming testifies to its importance in that period. (Clunas discusses the frequent reprints of the great texts of Sung archaeology and antiquarian studies in the late Ming in Superfluous Things, 97.) The Ming writer Ho Liang-chuin fJR , in a volume of "random notes" dated 1569, praises the book for transmitting knowledge about institutions and rites of the Three Dynasties. At the same time he feels the need to defend the emperor's labor as a collector: "For the emperor is a lover of antiquity, and could not escape the pitfall of 'taking pleasure in things'. But the real cause of his disastrous northern captivity (the enmperor was taken captive by the Chin tribe

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  • THE COI T SCTOR, THE CONNOISSEUR & >-MING SENSIBILI 273

    will" ( wan-wu sang-chih iut&,> ) and the injunction "against servi- tude to ears and eyes" (pu-i erh-mu T;QF g ) first appear in one of the canonical Confucian classics, the Documents (Shu ching**).6 Against such excesses the Confucian philosopher urges a proper balance attained through "taking pleasure in things and thereby accommodatingfeelings" (wan-wushih-ch'ingisthi).7

    in the north) was his misplaced trust in the wrong people. As T'ung and Ts'ai took control over the government, unrest erupted in the empire. Thus the origin of calamity was actually not in this (i.e., Emperor Hui-tsung's interest in collect- ing and connoisseurship)." Ssu-yu-chai ts'ung-shuo gEti;WtS (Beijing: Chung-hua shu-chu, 1959), 256.

    6 Shu-ching tupen S*; (Taipei: Cheng-wen shu-chu 1974), c.4. 125 ("Book of Chou" 1|3, "Lu-ao" St). The context is the Lord of Shao's petition to King Wu of Chou (r. 1122-1115 B.C.) that the latter should refuse certain tributes from a tribe to the west of China. The argument is based on a distinction between i-wu At7 (extraordinary things) and yung-wu St (useful things) and the warning against the baleful consequences of enjoying the former. The Documents is a col- lection of documents supposedly from the time of the legendary emperor Yao (3rd millennium B.C.) to the early Chou (1111-249 B.C.). Most modern scholars accept only the Chou documents as authentic; the present version contains for- geries from the Snd to Sth century.

    One Ch'ing writer, Yao Chi-heng tKlgSi:, charges that the "Lu Ao" chapter comes from the ancient script tradition of the Documents and is a forgery; he then maintains that appreciating calligraphy and painting should not in any case be mistaken as instances of "taking pleasures in things": "According to that passage [from the Documents], 'using people for one's pleasure undermines one's virtue' (wanjen sang-teiGA(e) and 'taking pleasure in things undermines the will'. The word 'things' is parallel with 'people' and actually refers to dogs, horses, and the like. As posterity has mistaken calligraphy, paintings, and ancient vessels for play- things (orinstances of 'takingpleasure in things', wan-wug...