This course, which assumes no prior knowledge of Chinese art or culture, looks at the cultural role of painting as a practice in one specific historical period, that of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). It will look at painting, long sanctioned by the Ming period as one of the four canonical leisure pursuits of the elite (along with calligraphy, music and a board game of strategy) from the point of view of both its production and its consumption, and will be based on readings of the extensive literature of the period in translation, along with a wide range of surviving pictures. These include not only the culturally sanctified monuments of so-called ‘literati’ painting, associated with named elite figures for whom painting was part of a total cultural persona, but also the work of anonymous artisan painters, working for the imperial court and for clients drawn from a wider range of social statuses.
The Ming Empire was created out of the collapse of the Mongol hegemony in East Asia in the mid-14th century, and was often seen in older secondary literature as a period of nativist reaction and concomitant cultural conservatism. This stereotype is now giving way to a better understanding of the internal dynamics of the period, and their connection to a wider world. The massive commercial expansion experienced by parts of China at this period, related to the influx of New World silver to pay for Chinese luxury commodities shipped to Europe and elsewhere in Asia, caused the Ming period to be an era of considerable social and cultural change. The huge expansion in the production of art forms such as ceramics and textiles, and the growth in literacy and the publishing industry (including the production of great numbers of printed illustrated books), was the background against which developments in the art of painting in the Ming need to be understood. The range of functions for which pictures were intended, including public and private religious ritual, elite gift exchange, commemoration and the expression of group and individual identities, is inseparable from issues of the style and technique in which they were executed. It is inseparable too from consideration of the range of audiences for painting and the sites in which painting was displayed. Consideration will therefore be given during the course to understanding the ways in which those audiences were stratified and segmented, in terms of gender, of locality and region, and social and occupational status, with attention being given to the ways in which painting did not merely reflect such segmentation but acted to structure and support it in the practice of everyday life. Painting in the Ming will not be seen in isolation but as part (albeit a privileged part) of a world of visual images and material culture