Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Working Stiff in Art: China

Shang Dynasty Chariot Burial, c.1500 - 1050 BC, photographed in the 1930s shortly after excavation.

Human beings counted for very little in ancient China. This chariot, complete with horses and driver, was buried to accompany a dead king in the afterlife. It is likely that the driver counted for about as much as the horses, and less than the chariot itself, in the eyes of his superiors.

During a long period of Chinese history tellingly named "The Warring States," a minor official of the principality of Lu proposed the novel idea that human beings were more important than property, and that perhaps people are what mattered most of all. Rather than argue or proclaim doctrine, the virtuous should persuade through example. Social and political rank should be determined by merit and virtue even more than birthright (a very radical idea in the ancient world). People have certain duties and obligations to each other. The lower ranks have their obligations to their superiors, but the superiors had their obligations to those under them. Children had duties to parents and likewise, parents had duties to children. Everyone had certain obligations to the ancestors and to Heaven. Master Kung (known to us in the West as Confucius) was promptly ignored and died in his 70s still a poorly paid minor government bureaucrat in a small state.

Anonymous artist, Welcoming the Emperor to Wangxian Village, painting on silk, Southern Song Dynasty, late 12th century.

Master Kung, who died in obscurity, laid the foundations for Chinese social ethics illustrated here in this painting of the peculiar relationship between the Emperor and the rural peasantry. The subject is an episode from Tang Dynasty history. The Emperor Xuanzong returns from exile after being deposed by rebels. He is greeted by loyal villagers in a painting that shows the full spectrum of rank in traditional Chinese society. It is a lively painting showing dignified court officials, soldiers, prostrating village elders, and mothers with babes in arms.
It is significant that the emperor makes his first appearance to a peasant village and not to a group of nobles or wealthy merchants. Mao Zedong was certainly not the first Chinese ruler to claim a special relationship to the country's peasantry, to see in them a national virtue rooted in nature and tradition. The peasants likewise saw the Emperor as their champion against unjust and rapacious local lords. They also saw him and the guarantor of the "iron rice bowl," the promise that they should never starve, through government policy and religious rituals; intervening on their behalf with the state and with Heaven.

Above are small sections of an amazing painting by an artist named Zhang Zeduan from the early 12th century, his only known painting. It shows in great detail all the business and activity of a great city by a river in spring. The city may be the Northern Song capital of Bianliang (modern Kaifeng). All kinds of trades from carpenters to fortune tellers are shown in great detail in this painting.

Here is the entire painting.* It is meant to be viewed in sections from right to left. We move from countryside to suburbs to the middle of the city itself, a masterpiece of continuous composition.
We look down on all this activity from above. We may dwell on incidents, like the wonderful drama of the cargo boat with its crew struggling to lower the mast before it passes under the arch shaped bridge, but never on individuals. What matters is all the activity. This painting was probably made for a high government official as testimony to the success of government policies in a busy prosperous city. The river and boats play a prominent role in this picture. It was a Song dynasty project to restore and extend China's waterways to facilitate commerce.
This is a bureaucrat's view of people's work in a prosperous city.

Above are 2 sections of a remarkable painting titled Refugees from 1943 by an artist named Jiang Zhaohe. He was from a short-lived school of Chinese artists who wanted to incorporate Western figurative art with traditional Chinese formats and techniques. This painting was made at the height of the Second World War, which began early in China with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. Jiang Zhaohe, with his family, friends, and students, experienced the horrors and hardships of those years directly. Some of his friends and family posed for this picture. He travelled around the country drawing many refugees from the fighting from life before making this picture. Its battered state speaks a lot about its history over the past 60 years. With a restrained eloquence, Jiang Zhaohe looks with great sympathy at people from all classes thrown together by circumstance. Without melodrama or special pleading this painting shows us those who must suffer history.

This kind of sympathetic eloquence would not survive the ideological turmoil of the reign of Mao Zedong. Within less than a decade, ordinary people would become that abstraction called The People. They would always appear smiling as they drove that tractor and fed those chickens, gleefully exceeding their production goals.

*This is a fine reproduction, and it works great as a jpg on Mac Preview, not at all on Safari, and should work on Firefox, but so far doesn't for me. You should be able to use the "zoom" function under the "View" heading on the toolbar to enlarge the image, and then use the navigation bars to move from right to left. If there is anyone who can make this work, please let me know.


Göran Koch-Swahne said...

I particularily like "The Refugees".

It's very beautiful and very moving. And human the faces are human.

Julia Morton said...

Hi, I'm in the process of studying Chinese history, and was looking online for images of early art when I came across your site. I'm an art critic and lived in the East Village for many years. I often covered Williamsburg's galleries and love the spirit there. A year and a half ago I was forced to move out, I could no longer afford the city. It is an odd and pleasant surprise to find you this way. I'm interested in figurative and historical art too. This is the first time I have ever heard of or seen the work of a mid 20th century Chinese artists.
Thanks for showing the work and for your comments.
I still write for city papers and websites at, and on youtube under the name Cytosavant. I will bookmark your blog and follow your art. Please feel free to send me updates when you exhibit, Thanks, - Julia Morton

Anonymous said...

Pretty cool site you've got here. Thanks for it. I like such themes and everything that is connected to them. I definitely want to read more on that blog soon.

Avril Hakkinen