Ten Thousand Things: Module and Mass Production in Chinese Art

By Hay, Jonathan | The Art Bulletin, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Ten Thousand Things: Module and Mass Production in Chinese Art


Hay, Jonathan, The Art Bulletin


LOTHAR LEDDEROSE Ten Thousand Things: Module and Mass Production in Chinese Art The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, 1998, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Bollingen Series xxxv: 46 Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. 272 pp., 14 color ills., 261 b/w. $75.00

Published in 2000 on the basis of his 1998 Mellon Lectures, given at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and 1992 Slade Lectures, given at Cambridge University, Lothar Ledderose's wide-ranging study of the mass production of art in China over four millennia is a rare attempt at a systematic general discussion of a fundamental dimension of art making in China. It exposes structural analogies among numerous different media and shifts attention away from the more familiar terrain of representation and expression toward the process of art making. Ten Thousand Things is a most welcome addition to the general and specialist literature, stimulating engagement with the author's argument on its own terms and sparking further thinking on the neglected question of the role of systems in art. Ledderose's book is not the first work of Chinese art history to identify a single fundamental principle operative in different media and different periods. An earlier work in the same vein is Wu Hung's Monumentality in Early Chinese Art and Architecture (1992), which covers a shorter time period-only (!) a couple of millennia-but is no less ambitious in its intellectual scope. Combining the postmodernist use of heuristic concepts with a Chinese tradition of philological inquiry, Wu sought to define a specifically Chinese concept of monumentality that would provide a key to early Chinese art on an interpretative level. This approach thus emphasizes consciously constructed meaning, embodied in thematic programs. In contrast, Ledderose directs our attention to a level of meaning that is not self-consciously constructed but, rather, is embodied in the transmission of unquestioned principles of manufacture shared by a wide range of media.

Ledderose's focus on the way objects are made has traditionally been more common among European scholars of Chinese art, so it is also instructive to note the differences between Ten Thousand Things and two earlier European attempts at wide-ranging synthesis, Ludwig Bachhofer's A Short History of Chinese Art (1946) and William Watson's Style in the. Arts of China (1974). Different as the narrow Wolfilinian formalism expounded by Bachhofer is from the idiosyncratic style history elaborated by Watson, for both scholars the master concept of style needed only to be specified culturally in order to reveal the deep structural patterns of Chinese art history's development. Bachhofer identifies a deterministic succession of stylistic paradigms; Watson, reacting against this very determinism, identifies paradigms that he sees as recurrent throughout history. Ledderose, of course, has written widely elsewhere in a style history vein, but here he turns away from style. Bringing to his argument a constant concern for the ways in which formal decisions of making are socially embedded, he proposes instead a principle from within Chinese artistic practice-modular production-as the key to a different kind of deep-structural pattern that does not so much inform the historical development as it reflects a fundamental cultural orientation. From this point of view, Ten Thousand Things, like Wu Hung's Monumenlalily, can be said to participate in the anthropological turn taken by historical studies of China in the last twenty years. Yet it should be pointed out that the essentializing undertones of the argument hark back to a previous era of Sinology, just as similar undertones in Monumentality evoke the ghosts of Chinese Hanxue philology.

Like the earlier works by Bachhofer and Watson, Ten Thousand Things is not aimed at an academic audience alone. In its address to the interested general reader, it serves as a marvelous introduction to Chinese visual and material culture (again the anthropological turn), ranging far and wide over the landscape of Chinese art media and beyond. …

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