Blindness and Oversight: Some Comments on a Double Portrait of Qianlong and the New Sinology

Article excerpt

. . . if an interpretation is not untrue to the facts, the only criteria by which it is to be judged are its originality, suggestiveness, and plausibility.

(Carrier 1990: 666)


One tangible effect of contemporary debates within the humanities, broadly construed, is that formerly rigid and clearly demarcated disciplinary boundaries have become increasingly mutable and permeable. Art historians, for instance, now routinely look to other fields, such as anthropology and literary theory, for methodological and theoretical guidance; at the same time, scholars from other disciplines are increasingly incorporating the study of images, formerly the almost exclusive preserve of art history, into their own interpretive practices. An example of the latter is provided by a recent work entitled "Silk and Skin: Significant Boundaries" (Zito 1994). This essay, written by a historian of religion who is interested in investigating "the relationship of signification and subjectivity in eighteenth-century China" (Zito 1994: 103), has at its core an analysis of a double portrait of Qing Gaozong, the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-95) [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED],(1) that usually goes by the title "Is It One or Two?"

In many ways, "Silk and Skin" is timely in its desire to historicize the imperial portrait and to situate it within a broad, intertextual context. Such practices are characteristic of what has come to be called New Art History, and they also mimic an important recent critical turn in textual studies.(2) Indeed, the essay's emphasis on discursive practices and interpretive procedures that configure "context" globally and that approach the subject of China from a variety of disciplinary viewpoints might be viewed as representative of a New Sinology. Nonetheless, while the overall discussion of the Qianlong portrait in "Silk and Skin" is full of literary charm, its analysis turns out to be based on several fundamental errors both of fact and interpretation, as a consequence of which the formal, iconographic, and historical sources of the portrait are seriously misrepresented.

Since the volume in which "Silk and Skin" appears carries a catchy title (Body, Subject and Power in China), bears an arresting cover illustration (a striking selfportrait by the nineteenth-century painter Ren Xiong [1820-57]),(3) and is being widely promoted by a major university press (Chicago), it will likely attract a large - and, in some measure, largely unsuspecting - readership. If for no other reasons but these, the following brief corrective notes would seem to be in order; however, this volume also positions itself as the first book to "bring to the study of China the theoretical concerns and methods of contemporary critical cultural studies,"(4) and, as such, Zito's essay certainly warrants further scrutiny in the light of these goals. While the "theoretical concerns and methods" of this New Sinology may well have a legitimate claim on our scholarly attention, what I will suggest below is that they are ultimately thwarted, rather than advanced, by "Silk and Skin."


The crux of the analysis of the Qianlong portrait in "Silk and Skin" is stated briefly enough that it may be quoted here in full:

Qing literati enjoyed picturing themselves as famous people of the past. "Is It One or Two?" was painted after a number of earlier versions. Art historians generally point to the self-portrait of Ni Zan (Yuan dynasty, 1279-1368) [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED] as the model: the Qianlong emperor has replaced the landscape artist on the couch and has dressed himself the same way. But there is an even earlier Song version of a painter on a divan that is quite similar. Thus Qianlong was also imitating Ni Zan's own gesture to the past. We might think of this as the topoi [sic] of historical time spatialized.

Thus three painters have been displaced from the portrait: the emperor is pictured as a painter (something he was not) of a self-portrait (that he did not paint) in a painting he did not make. …