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Antiquity and Rusticity: Images of the Ordinary in the “Farmers’ Wedding” Painting

From: Journal of Song-Yuan Studies
Volume 41, 2011
pp. 67-106 | 10.1353/sys.2011.0031

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An educated Song dynasty collector would have viewed a painting of a farmers’ wedding as a representation of tianjia fengwu 田家風物 or tianjia fengsu 田家風俗 (farm scenes and customs), terms referring to the lives of ordinary rural folk. When used in contemporary Song writings to describe a subject of painting, tianjia fengwu (or fengsu) includes representations of farmers or villagers performing their daily work, doing seasonal activities, and participating in special festival occasions.1 Modern scholars place paintings of farmers’ activities, along with other subjects such as city street scenes, commoners’ lives, and festivals, into the category of “genre scenes.”2 An observation from studies of this category is that the naturalistic style developed during the Song dynasty (960–1276), whose excellence is in detail-oriented depiction, facilitated the flourishing of the “genre subject.” From this we may assume that such painting served as neutral “visual documentation” of ordinary people’s lives.3 However, the so-called naturalism in Song dynasty painting was never simply about capturing or documenting the exterior form-likeness of things, but was invested with deeper meanings—for example, the manifestation of inner truth or order in universe.4 More recent studies have taken into account related social and political rhetoric.5 One painting from this category of “genre scenes,” whose reputation as a naturalistic depiction of commoners has yet to be carefully examined, is Farmers’ Wedding (Tianjia jiaqu tu 田家嫁娶圖)6 from the Kyoto National Museum collection. This painting, the focus of this study, is possibly a late-thirteenth- to early-fourteenth-century copy that preserves the original design of a Song painting in the style of Li Song 李嵩 (1166–1243) that no longer exists.7

Seemingly a naturalistic representation, the painting depicts a simple, rustic wedding scene—a wedding procession involving only a small group of villagers, set in the countryside (Fig. 1). But with an anonymous groom and bride, the painting does not represent or document a specific wedding event; it is apparently not an image of personal subjects but rather a generic scene. The painting does not even show a wedding involving the painting’s owner or someone of the viewing class, since villagers such as those depicted were not potential patrons of art.8 The original Song painting, exhibiting the style of the professional painter Li Song, was most likely associated with imperial patronage, the style and taste of which was imitated in the relatively open Song collectors’ market.9 The format of the painting, a handscroll, suggests that the work was likely enjoyed on casual occasions of private viewing, common among Song elite. Assuming these contexts of viewing, the painting invites a reconsideration of the ways in which it constructs its depicted subjects from the perspective of intended viewers. This essay proposes to read Farmers’ Wedding as an image that engages with Song scholarly discourses on rusticity and antiquity. The image could be taken to incorporate a certain realistic depiction of villagers, drawn upon rural wedding activities of actual contemporary Song

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Fig. 1. 

a–b Li Tang, attributed, Farmers’ Wedding (Tianjia jiaqu tu 田家嫁娶圖), 13th–14th century copy. Handscroll, ink and colors on silk, 24 × 102.7 cm. Kyoto National Museum, Kyoto.

society, but, more significantly, the image should be recognized for its close thematic connection to the representation of the Zhu-Chen Village wedding (Zhu-Chen cun jiaqu 朱陳村嫁娶), based on a Tang dynasty poem titled “Zhu-Chen Village” (“Zhu-Chen cun 朱陳村”). Written by Bai Juyi 白居易 (772–846), the poem describes an idealized wedding custom that underlines the purity of villagers’ minds and the simplicity of their lives.10 Thus, there is more to this painting than a “natural” representation of villagers’ activities.

During the Song dynasty, artistic patronage by nonaristocratic, educated scholar-officials, who had become one of the major groups collecting paintings aside from the court, played a crucial role in making this village wedding theme a part of the discourse about the rural customs. These officials reinvented and gave new layers of meaning to the image of the village wedding, relating it closely to contemporary Song explorations of the imagery of rustics and of the discourse on ancient ritual. In this essay, I interpret the Farmers’ Wedding...

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