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  • Sensuous Surfaces: The Decorative Object in Early Modern China
  • Ellen Huang (bio)
Jonathan Hay. Sensuous Surfaces: The Decorative Object in Early Modern China. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2010. 440 pp. Hardcover $63.00, ISBN 978-0-8248-3361-9.

Readers will be familiar with the decorative objects that are the focus of Jonathan Hay’s scholarly monograph. They are the exquisitely glazed vases, intricately carved blackwood (hongmu) cabinets, and attention-inducing jades frequently on view in exhibitions of Chinese art today. During the late nineteenth century, these luxury goods became the cornerstones of English and American connoisseurship of Chinese artworks and the foundations of the first Chinese art collections in early twentieth-century museums. Given their physical portability and presence in the twentieth-century art market, general audiences will not be strangers to the aesthetic appeal of these objects. Indeed, a quick perusal of present-day art auction catalogues will reveal the extent to which such artworks yield increasingly profitable sales of Chinese art. Auction catalogues, complete with their high-gloss pages, reinforce the dynamics of pleasure and sensuality at work in the experience of these artworks.

To the extent that Chinese decorative art from the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries has occupied auction sales of the past century, there has not been a proportionate degree of historical art scholarship published about these same artworks. They remain underanalyzed and, thus, objects without history. Jonathan Hay’s challenging book, Sensuous Surfaces, rectifies this scholarly dearth and brings decorative art to the front and center of cultural practice in Ming- and Qing-dynasty China. Focusing exclusively on secular luxury objects for domestic consumption between 1570 and 1840 (as opposed to works of ritual decoration and of the luxury export market that was its contemporary), Hay examines the [End Page 185] importance of surface in decorative art. His thesis is that luxury decoration, much more than static objects of desire, in fact, act upon humans and even “think with us” (p. 78). Decoration’s agency, as the book contends, lay in its surface. Specifically, surface contains the ability to evoke a conceptual space through multiple metaphoric resonances and pleasure-producing affects. Thus, by the sixteenth century, decorative art informed consciousness and subjectivity as much as the hallowed arts of calligraphy and painting.

Having established the book’s major conceptual assertions in part 1, the next seven chapters, which make up part 2, substantiate the argument by providing analytical descriptions of Ming and Qing dynasty decoration across material and genre. Each chapter describes a particular strategy of surface treatment deployed by Ming and Qing decoration: monochrome smoothness, material patterning, formal pattern, depiction, inscription, fictive surface, and diversified surfaces. Rather than follow in the steps of previous studies and standard museum practice, Hay’s formal analysis of surface treatments across medium enables readers to see objects normally considered separately in relation to each other as existing in a shared experiential realm.

Since decoration was never experienced in isolation, the final part of the book considers the function of decorative art in its original spatial contexts. The emphasis here is on the way in which objects’ surfaces interacted in architectural interiors, including palaces, study halls, bedrooms, and various display units. Employing the analytical concept of object landscapes (or simply objectscapes), Hay demonstrates how decorative art functioned with their environments and owners. Evoking sensuous and affective responses, various object surfaces resonated with their architectural surroundings — for instance, decorative surfaces could be extended beyond single objects when viewed through openwork walled partitions. By extension, surface relations across a multiplicity of objects in space produced the object landscape that imparted pleasure to the room’s inhabitants and users.

Sensuous Surfaces is a densely written book whose narrative avoids resorting to the dominant portrayal of Ming and Qing material culture as social acts of consumption (see, for example, Craig Clunas, Superfluous Things [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991]). While existing studies have helpfully applied a socioeconomic reading to luxury decoration and interpret them as commodities or as evidence for China’s early commercialization, this book’s focus on aesthetic pleasure as integral to decoration’s ability to function as a social connector is welcome and refreshing. Furthermore...