Chinese Painting -- the Painter's Practice by James Cahill / Ma Henzi and the Illustration of the Book of Odes by Julia K. Murray / Learning from Mount Hua by Kathlyn Maureen Liscomb / Transcending Turmoil by Claudia Brown and Ju-Hsi Chou

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James Cahill. The Painters Practice: How Artists Lived and Worked in Traditional China. Bamption Lectures in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. 202 pp.; 2 color illus., 117 b/w $32.50

Julia K. Murray. Ma Hezhi and the Illustration of the Book of Odes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. 272 pp.; 10 color ills., 144 b/w; 4 diagrams and 8 tables. L55.00

Kathlyn Maureen Liscomb. Learning from Mount Hua: A Chinese Physician's Illustrated Travel Record and Painting Theory. RES Monographs on Anthropology and Aesthetics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. 244. pp.; 8 color ills., 46 b/w. L50.00

Claudia Brown and Ju-hsi Chou. Transcending Turmoil: Painting at the Close of China's Empire, 1796-1911. Phoenix: Phoenix Art Museum, 1992. 368 pp.; 21 color ills., 140 b/w. $49.95 paper

Like his previous book, The Compelling Image: Nature and Style in Seventeenth-Century Chinese Painting,(1) James Cahill's book has its origins in lectures delivered as part of a distinguished series. The Painter Practice: How Artists Lived and Worked in Traditional China originated as the Bampton Lectures in America at Columbia University; other art-related lectures in the same series were given by such luminaries as Lewis Mumford, Lionello Venturi, Sir Anthony Blunt, and Sir John Summerson, while the earlier book was originally delivered as the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures in Poetics at Harvard University and won the Charles Rufus Morey award of the College Art Association.(2) Thus with these two books Cahill succeeds in placing Chinese art history in the company of other more established humanistic disciplines in the West. Perhaps due to their origins as lectures, both books are written in an accessible style.

While The Compelling Image, with its focus on the seventeenth century, defines a critical period in the history of Chinese painting, the book under review coven a time span from the Six Dynasties period to the late nineteenth century and attempts to establish the contexts of creation of Chinese painting. With its strong emphasis on the socioeconomic aspects of this context, Cahill's new book is in many ways a continuation of the methodology of two of his earlier books, Parting at the Shore: Chinese Painting of the Early and Middle Ming Dynasty, 1368-1580 and Three Alternative Histories of Chinese Painting.(3)

The Painter's Practice; How Artists Lived and Worked in Traditional China, however, is bound to be more controversial, for one of its main purposes is to demystify. For Cahill, the mythmakers in the history of Chinese painting were the Chinese literati who were the creators of their own history. As the author puts it, the book contains "some of the most interesting recent scholarship" that has explored ways to sidestep the myth created by Chinese writers and artists. He has done it by bringing together diverse information about the "unmentionables" of Chinese painting (p. 3). Cahill's approach in this book is clearly indebted to recent contextualist trends in Western art historical scholarship as well as other humanistic enterprises, as indicated by his references to Western art parallels to artistic practice in China and his citations of the writings of Svetlana Alpers, Michael Baxandall, Pierre Bourdieu, Norman Bryson, Michel Foucault, and others. At the same time he is clearly aware of the pitfalls inherent in this approach and carefully states his reservations:

Without undervaluing the self-revelatory capacity of art one can play against other more earth-bound and socially conditioned functions and try to understand how the one impinged on the other. Without slipping into a reductive approach, one can aim at a more clear-eyed recognition of the true situation, sometimes the predicament, of the artist behind the work (p. 11).

One can certainly appreciate the author's goal in "looking for a more real-world China behind the partial or deceptive vision," which, he believes had been created by the Chinese literati and perpetuated by many Sinologists and historians of Chinese art who tended to accept unquestioningly what they read. …