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Reviewed by:
  • Tradition and Transformation: Studies in Chinese Art in Honor of Chu-Tsing Li
  • Kate Lingley (bio)
Judith G. Smith, editor. Tradition and Transformation: Studies in Chinese Art in Honor of Chu-Tsing Li. Forewords by Marilyn Stokstad and Joseph Chang. Lawrence: Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, in association with the University of Washington Press, 2005. 502 pp. Hardcover $50.00, ISBN 0–295–98573–9.

Tradition and Transformation is a volume of collected essays by colleagues, friends, and former students of Chu-Tsing Li, founder of the program in Chinese art history at the University of Kansas. As such, the writings found within are united more by their intellectual heritage than by common themes of methodology or subject matter. The book contains twenty-seven papers, plus two brief introductory essays in appreciation of Li and a lengthy but still “selected” bibliography of his writings. The topics of the essays range widely in history, from the Northern Wei paintings of the attack of Mara at Dunhuang (in an essay by Sarah Blick that reaches even further back in time to trace the Indian origins of the iconography of this subject) through the “cybernetic sculptures” of contemporary artist Wen-ying Tsai (the subject of an essay by Siliang Yang). The majority of the works are painting studies, with a handful of essays that treat sculpture, seal carving, and Buddhist cave architecture, and yet even the painting essays range from close readings of individual paintings (for instance, Janet Louise Carpenter’s study of Taigu Yimin’s painting Traveling among Streams and Mountains) to assessments of the work of a particular master (Richard Edwards’ “The Search for Zhao Bosu”) to studies of theory (Hsio-yen Shih’s essay on Ming dynasty aesthetics).

In her introduction to the book, Marilyn Stokstad points out that Li was instrumental in establishing strong ties between the University of Kansas art history program and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, which is one of the best collections of East Asian art in the United States. Students from the Kansas program have benefited and continue to benefit from the opportunity for firsthand study of important artworks in the Nelson-Atkins collection. The legacy of this long collaboration may perhaps be seen in the strong reliance of many of the essays on close visual readings of objects as an investigative technique.

Similarly, Joseph Chang in his introduction, called “A Personal View,” points out that Li was among the first to build scholarly connections with mainland China after its reopening to the outside world in the 1970s: in 1979 he was among the first group of exchange professors invited to visit China, and in 1982 he led one of the first study tours of archaeological sites in Henan province. This early commitment to engage with scholars in both mainland China and the Chinese diaspora (and elsewhere in Asia) is reflected in this volume by contributions from scholars from Taiwan, Hong Kong, mainland China, Korea, and Japan. Four of the [End Page 230] essays are presented in Chinese, which is perhaps another sign of the commitment of Li and his students to international scholarship: it does seem to reflect a conviction that serious scholars of this material will undoubtedly be able to read them.

It is a testimony to Li’s wide-ranging influence as a teacher, scholar, and advocate of the study of Chinese art history that this volume covers a far greater range of subjects than any one person could reasonably claim as areas of expertise. Readers of this book will undoubtedly find some essays to be of more interest than others, depending on their individual background and concerns. Nevertheless, most of the essays seem to reflect an equally high level of scholarship and research, despite widely divergent aims. There are two exceptions. The first is Siliang Yang’s introduction to the work of Wen-ying Tsai, which lacks much in the way of a critical framework and sometimes devolves into effusiveness without substance (“Words cannot adequately convey the charm and beauty of Wen-ying Tsai’s work,” p. 401). The second is Tseng Yuho Ecke’s reminiscence of the changes in twentieth-century Chinese art (here...