- Mirror of Morality: Chinese Narrative Illustration and Confucian Ideology
Mirror of Morality is the culmination of Julia K. Murray's more than two decades of intellectual curiosity and careful research on the subject of Chinese narrative art. It is a welcome addition to a growing corpus of books using new approaches to Chinese art. Murray's extensive experience with objects, familiarity with Chinese texts, and knowledge of published works yields delicious fruit for the reader and plants seeds that other scholars can use for years to come.
The introduction, "The Social Status of Narrative Illustration in China," summarizes the prevailing concept that traditional Chinese scholars dismissed post-Tang narrative pictures as less noteworthy and gives evidence through short case studies that members of the educated elite in fact made, sponsored, and enjoyed illustrations of didactic texts. The book asks and answers the questions: What is the story? How is it presented? And why was it presented that way? Murray considers the wide array of narrative art in Chinese history, and then judiciously sets the parameters of her book to focus on the illustration of one type of text, Confucian didactic literature.
Chapter 1, "Redrawing the Concept of Chinese Narrative Illustration," is a thorough analysis and lucid presentation of scholarly contributions, both ancient and current, to the definition of narrative illustration in Chinese art. The importance of establishing definitions becomes particularly clear if one reads note 9, page 126, in which Murray points out that among the many geographic areas covered, China is missing from the "Narrative Art" section in both the 1996 and online editions of The Dictionary of Art. Murray's working definition for narrative art is "pictures whose content can be related to an oral or written story in which something happens, and whose representation evokes that story to produce some kind of transformative effect on the viewer" (p. 12). This definition is particularly well suited to Chinese narrative illustration in that both art and literature in China so often speak to ideals of behavior. Beyond definition, Murray also discusses "aspects of the visual presentation of narrative," namely, "conceptual approaches," "compositional structures," and "formats." The last section describes "conventions of visual presentation" (pp. 14–22; 23–26). Murray makes excellent use of available sources for writing this [End Page 523] preliminary chapter, bringing together and interpreting previously published works, while at the same time forging new ground. This is immensely helpful to both the discipline and the reader.
After establishing a definition of narrative art and the parameters of the book, Murray places her discussion of art works in chronological order. Chapter 2, "Early Narrative Illustration and Moral Suasion," further elucidates the thesis that Chinese narrative art presupposes the intent to effect a change in the viewer. The author identifies the composition of pre-Buddhist narrative art as primarily "monoscenic," and discusses important features of various examples that include bronze mirrors, stone rubbings, painted tomb tiles, and copies of early handscrolls.
The third chapter, "New Strategies for Narrative Illustration in the Post Han Period," highlights the impact of Buddhism on Chinese narrative art. The new religion furnished both new stories to tell and new methods of pictorial presentation. In this chapter, Murray identifies Indian themes and compositions that crossed over to art made in China. Those making the accommodations were not necessarily unknown artisans. For example, Murray points out that Gu Kaizhi (ca. 344–ca. 405), recognized today for his illustrations of both didactic and lyric poetry, was well known in his day for Buddhist narrative paintings. She demonstrates that once new methods were used in Chinese Buddhist art, the more creative artists adapted them to the illustration of non Buddhist art as well. As she discusses these issues, Murray sheds new light on familiar narrative works and introduces lesser known or unpublished works. For most works she not only identifies stories but also gives specific information on the details and points out...