- Art by the Book: Painting Manuals and the Leisure Life in Late Ming China by J. P. Park
Cultural analysis has long been a part of the discipline of art history. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, writers as diverse as Aby Warburg (1866-1929) and Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968) pursued interdisciplinary approaches to the study of art, placing objects in relation to philosophical or religious symbolic systems to demonstrate, respectively, their continuity or the congruence of their signification. Today, efforts to reconstruct the past in such a holistic manner may be viewed with skepticism, as writers such as Mieke Bal prefer to focus instead on the fractures within a culture; a concomitant anti-essentialist stance throws into doubt the enterprise of defining "culture" and "context." Nonetheless, traces of holistic thinking are still evident in interdisciplinary cultural studies more often than might be expected. Art historians who attempt to reconstruct the historical circumstances under which objects were produced, circulated, and consumed, as well as those who attempt to draw causal relationships between object and society, inevitably run against the sheer difficulty of finding a balance between the analysis of the object and the larger vision of finding relations among the disparate aspects of a fleeting, incomplete historical moment.
In Art by the Book: Painting Manuals and the Leisure Life in Late Ming China, J. P. Park steps into the arena of cultural analysis, or, as he puts it, "the field of play wherein artistic discourse meets social history" (p. 29). Specifically, he attempts to explain why a genre of printed books-the so-called "painting manual" (huapu 畫譜)-emerged between 1570 and 1620. His explanation centers on a link he finds between huapu and contemporary trends in literary criticism, philosophy, and fashion. He emphasizes, however, that the proliferation of huapu at this historical moment is attributable to the peculiar social and economic conditions of the late sixteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries. For Park, cultural analysis is an exercise in defining causal [End Page 164] mechanisms by which the publication of huapu prospered in late Ming society. He is largely indifferent to the skepticism with which scholars have received similarly holistic views of historical cultures.
To date, there are few detailed studies of huapu in English, which makes Park's book a welcome addition to the literature. His book serves to introduce an important and still controversial aspect of late Ming artistic theory and production. In Chapter 1, Park begins by considering huapu produced prior to the Ming, notably Song Boren's Meihua xishen pu (Register of plum blossom portraits) and Wu Taisu's Songzhai meipu (Pine Studio plum painting manual).1 Turning to early and middle Ming times, he introduces Huishi zhimeng (Apprenticeship in the painting business), "China's earliest multi-genre painting manual" (p. 38), published some time around 1473, as well as Zhou Lüjing's Huilin (Forest of paintings) and Huasou (Grove of paintings), published around 1579. Park's presentation of huapu from the late Ming ranges widely, encompassing works derived largely from Zhou Lüjing's manuals, manuals published by regional princes of the Ming royal family, and the unusual Chuanshen miyao (Secrets of portraiture) published with a preface dated 1592. Park dedicates the rest of the book, Chapters 2 through 5, to an investigation of the two works compiled by Zhou Lüjing mentioned above, and pays particular attention to Huasou. Each chapter draws attention to a different painterly subject explicated in the two manuals-landscape, male figures, female figures, and, finally, birds, plants, and flowers. Two appendices provide helpful guides to the whereabouts of the books. An extensive bibliography seems to be derived from his doctoral dissertation, on which the book is based, "Ensnaring the Public Eye: Painting Manuals of Late Ming China (1550-1644) and the Negotiation of Taste."2
Park initially asserts that huapu, like early modern Dutch writings on art, were "printed aids contrived to teach readers the execution of painting practice" (p...