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Mirror of Morality

Chinese Narrative Illustration and Confucian Ideology

Julia K. Murray

Publication Year: 2007

Mirror of Morality takes an interdisciplinary look at an important form of pictorial art produced during two millennia of Chinese imperial rule. Ideas about individual morality and state ideology were based on the ancient teachings of Confucius with modifications by later interpreters and government institutions. Throughout the imperial period, members of the elite made, sponsored, and inscribed or used illustrations of themes taken from history, literature, and recent events to promote desired conduct among various social groups. This dimension of Chinese art history has never before been broadly covered or investigated in historical context. The first half of the study examines the nature of narrative illustration in China and traces the evolution of its functions, conventions, and rhetorical strategies from the second century BCE through the eleventh century. Under the stimulus of Buddhism, sophisticated techniques developed for representing stories in visual form. While tracing changes in the social functions and cultural positions of narrative illustration, the second half of the book argues that narrative illustration continued to play a vital role in elite visual culture.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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pp. v

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-ix

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pp. xi-xii

For almost as long as I have studied Chinese art, I have been intrigued by pictures that illustrate stories and by the issues that multiple versions raise. Early on, as a graduate-student intern looking through the Chinese painting collection at the Metropolitan...

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Introduction - The Social Status of Narrative Illustration in China

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pp. 1-6

In traditional China, as in many other cultures, the visual representation of stories served as a medium for creating, expressing, disseminating, and affirming cultural values. Starting around the second century...

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Chapter 1: Redrawing the Concept of Chinese Narrative Illustration

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pp. 7-26

Chinese narrative illustration is an elusive concept. In modern Chinese the term most often used to mean “narrative illustration” or “narrative painting” is gushi hua, which literally means “ancient-matter painting” or “story painting,” depending on which...

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Chapter 2: Early Narrative Illustration and Moral Suasion

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pp. 27-36

The practice of displaying pictures based on didactic narratives reflects a belief, promoted by followers of Confucius, that historical events embody moral lessons. Properly interpreted, the past could...

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Chapter 3: New Strategies for Narrative Illustration in the Post-Han Period

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pp. 37-49

The introduction of Buddhism from India brought a wealth of ideas and cultural forms into China, including a large body of stories and new kinds of visual representation.1 Although the first signs of Buddhist presence in China date to the first century BCE, many...

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Chapter 4: Institutionalizing Narrative Illustration under the Tang Dynasty

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pp. 50-59

The period from the late sixth century to just after the middle of the eighth has long been considered a “golden age” of Chinese history and civilization. The reunification of the Chinese empire by the Sui and Tang dynasties...

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Chapter 5: Turning Points and Competing Values

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pp. 60-73

Because stories require protagonists, changes in the cultural prestige of figural representation directly affected the status of narrative illustration. Traditional and modern accounts, both Chinese and foreign, agree that the Tang dynasty marked the zenith of figure...

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Chapter 6: Later Narrative Illustration at Court: Legitimation, Remonstrance, and Indoctrination [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 74-93

After the Northern Song period, critics and historians of painting rarely had much to say about narrative illustration. Traditional and modern writers alike have tended to focus on paintings that are presumed to embody the superior character of a literatus...

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Chapter 7: Later Narrative Illustration Outside the Court: Persuasion, Pleasure, Prestige, and Piety

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pp. 94-118

For a variety of reasons, narrative illustrations on Confucian themes became exceptionally widespread and popular during the last century of the Ming dynasty. Social and economic forces supported a thriving consumer culture and encouraged an upsurge in storytelling genres...

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Chapter 8: Epilogue

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pp. 119-124

The foregoing discussions amply demonstrate that narrative illustration continued to hold a significant place in the elite visual culture of late imperial China. Illustrated stories offered highly educated male viewers admonition and guidance, as well...


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pp. 125-157

Chinese Character Glossary

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pp. 159-167


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pp. 169-183

Credits for Figures and Plates

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pp. 185


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pp. 187-194

E-ISBN-13: 9780824863647
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824830014

Publication Year: 2007