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Screen of Kings. Royal Art and Power in Ming China.

Screen of Kings. Royal Art and Power in Ming China.

Martin Lavicka05 Jan 2015Leave a comment


Written by Jakub Hrubý

Clunas, Craig. 2013. Screen of Kings. Royal Art and Power in Ming China. London: Reaktion Books. ISBN: 978-1-78023-103-7. $ 57.

The reviewed book represents a highly successful attempt to revise our understanding of the role of the imperial kin during the Ming dynasty and the functioning of Ming society as a whole. Even though the volume seemingly focuses mainly on art-connected activities of the princes of the blood (wang 王) during the Ming, the main conclusions of the book are much broader and appeal to a much wider audience than just art historians.

Combining various rather less known textual sources of an unofficial nature, such as local gazetteers, miscellaneous jottings, art catalogues and private biography compendia with the evidence of art works, art patronage and archaeological findings, Clunas strives to bring the princes back into the picture of the social landscape of Ming China, which has been heavily obscured by the bias of both Confucian and Marxist historiographies. Sheer numbers of the royal aristocracy hailing from the imperial clan should alert us to their importance, for they lived dispersed all over the realm and were much more numerous than government officials entrusted with the administration of the regions. Yet, they are almost invisible in the official sources, either universally ignored as inconsequential in all matters essential to politics, the state and society at large, or pictured as an economic liability of the state finances and debauched weaklings, incapable and useless, whose moral decline parallels, and to a certain degree even undermines, the fortunes of the ruling dynasty. However, this misconception is belied by the actual visibility of the princes within the landscape of the empire. Their bad publicity notwithstanding, they maintained a “continuous and imposing presence” through their palaces, tombs, temples, monasteries and estates, which we can hardly afford to ignore.

Clunas concentrates on a couple of case studies of Shanxi and Huguang-based princely lineages, offering a reinterpretation of art-connected activities of the princely courts stemming from the notion that the ideas of “culture” and “power” are not antithetical but mutually compatible or interchangeable. The traditional ways of enjoying power through the running of the state may have been barred from the imperial kin but there were possibilities of a different kind of engagement through culture. Calligraphy, painting, music and ritual dance or the casting of bronze vessels transcended the culture-power divide because they were universally seen as the means of an ideal ordering of the society and the state. Through these cultural activities the princes were eventually able to assert their importance as a part of the greater court, setting models to be emulated by the rest of the Ming society.

The volume opens with a general reassessment of the role of the princes and their presence within the social landscape of Ming China (Chapters 1 and 2) followed by case studies devoted to different art-connected activities at various princely courts. Chapter 3 focuses on the princely pursuit of calligraphy and a detailed analysis of several projects of calligraphic compendia initiated and sponsored by the princes. The author stresses the importance of the princely courts of acting as agents of the greater centre for the establishment of calligraphic canons, and at the same time demonstrates how these activities affirmed the relationship of the princes with the imperial court. Chapter 4 explains how paintings were collected, discussed, produced and circulated in and by the Ming princely courts, and how these activities show the same pattern of “replication of the imperial presence in multiple sites” through the dissemination of the images from the court to the princely palaces. Chapter 5 documents the luxury and lavishness of the lifestyle of the princes and their consorts using archaeological finds, especially golden jewellery excavated from the tomb of a 15th century Ming prince. The author also pays attention to women of the princely lineages and marriage ties as a form of interaction between the kingly lineages and the military and official elites. Chapter 6 then re-evaluates the role of the imperial princes as publishers and patrons of the scholarly printed works and their contribution to the promulgation and reproduction of culture during the Ming.

What connects all of the individual case studies is the same pattern of devolution of culture within the “wider court”, that is the imperial centre and princely establishments in the provinces. The emperor sets a moral and ritual example which is received and emulated by the appanages throughout the empire, and the princes in their turn transmit this example further through literature and art. Thus the princely courts share in the grandeur of the imperial court and deploy culture to set the models for the world. Clunas claims that the princes of the blood felt a keen awareness of this responsibility to produce models and they not only transmitted the culture of the central court but also developed a certain “cultural newness”, contributing to the wider efforts of the imperial centre. Through the compilation and codification of aesthetic ideals the princes acted as agents of the imperial centre in the promotion of right culture and civilization. As such, they were symbolically fulfilling the role which the dynastic founder had envisaged for them. They were truly the screens of the imperial line, branches supporting the main stem, for their patronage of arts and culture-cultivating activities provided an additional moral support for the dynasty’s claim to the mandate of heaven.

A deep analysis of princely cultural enterprises also uncovers an unexpected degree of interaction between the elites, and the fact that the princely households often set an example for many cultural pursuits universally connected with the literati. While we often tend to think about Ming culture in terms of its official-dominated capitals or vibrant commercial hubs in the Jiangnan region, we don’t realize that there were many urban centres where the princes reigned supreme and their patronage was crucial to the cultural development of the area.

Moreover, even though the official historiography marginalized the imperial aristocracy to such a degree that they seem almost invisible in the day-to-day life of the government officials, the true situation was far from it. The princes did not live lives of seclusion. Not only did they meet on a regular basis with the officials posted to the regions where their domains were situated, but they also had their own officials serving in various offices connected to the princely households. Clunas rightly argues that the princes “were an inescapable part of the social landscape of the empire”. By pursuing art and acting as patrons of the men of talent in their services gave them an opportunity to interlink and engage with the other elite groups and helped to bridge the imagined conceptual gap between the officials and the princes.

The notion of princes acting as an outer part of the wider court is very compelling and very well attested by the analysed case studies, however, I do find certain ways of arguing their importance rather problematic. Even though the symbolic meaning of the princes as members of the dynasty sharing its power and glory is indisputable, I do not see the need to translate the term wang as a king instead of the more usual prince. (For this reason I have used the words prince and princely throughout my review even though the author uses king and kingly.) Clunas is quite deliberate in his choice of translation and he claims that by translating it as a prince, one “loses the deliberate aura of antiquity, its invocation of the Golden Age of the Zhou” (p. 8). If this might be true up to a certain point his further argument that the kings were the most senior lords within the Zhou polity (p. 8–9) is misleading to say the least. It is based on a misconception derived from the state of affairs during the Warring States period when the zhuhou lords usurped the title and authority of the rightful Zhou king and the order of “the Golden Age” vanished once and for all.

The wang title denoted the universal ruler of all under heaven and as such could never have been assumed by two different persons at the same time. However, once the title had lost its uniqueness, it could not have been used in the same sense again and the unifiers of the Qin and Han empires had to come up with a brand new title for the supreme ruler. Subsequently, the reality of sacral and political power behind the wang title underwent many changes throughout history and I would suggest a more cautious approach which would allow for a nuanced understanding of the title at different times and in view of different circumstances of its bestowal. The proper translation of the term probably calls for a detailed conceptual history of the wang title which would help to settle the problem. Without such a history I would still argue for the use of the more usual prince. It seems to me that it combines both the more generic meaning of a ruler, be him universal or not, as well as a more specific rank of rulers subjected to a higher authority. By using the word prince, the wangs don’t lose their centrality or ambiguity of their relative power (for example the Holy Roman Empire was also characterized by a plurality of centres of various degrees of dependence despite the fact that the majority of these centres were presided over by mere princes, dukes and even counts).

This minor disagreement over an issue of translation is but a marginal note which by no means diminishes the value of the book. Clunas offers a wonderful new insight into the social landscape of Ming China. Moreover, by doing so he raises important questions about the sources we use in our research and the dis-balance of known facts which seriously impairs our understanding of China’s past as a whole. We would be right to ask what else remains hidden from our view (and here the non-royal titled nobility of any historical period comes to my mind as a prospective research topic). Clunas’s book is at the same time an important reminder of this fact, and a refreshingly novel and well-argued remedy. His attempt to put princes in the centre of the study of the Ming dynasty is wholly successful and as such highly recommended.

Jakub Hrubý works at the Oriental Institute, Czech Academy of Sciences.

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