In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Xieyi in the Zhe School? Some Thoughts on the Huai’an Tomb Paintings
  • James Cahill, Emeritus (bio)


This is an article that I wrote more than twenty years ago, I believe it was in 1989, that has somehow escaped publication until now, at least in English. Originally intended as my contribution to a festschrift volume for a colleague that was never completed, the article was later to be included in a festschrift volume for myself—but that too encountered difficulties that have prevented it from ever appearing. A Chinese translation of it was published, and I posted it on my website, jamescahill. info, but it has not been easily accessible to English readers.2 Some kind of curse, perhaps placed on it by adherents to the very way of thinking about Chinese painting that it argues against, has delayed proper journal publication. I am grateful to Jerome Silbergeld, who championed its publication here, and to Stanley Abe, the editor of Archives, who agreed and enabled it.

What, then, was this way of thinking about Chinese painting with which my article took issue? It was (and is) simply this: Chinese painters were free souls able to paint whatever and however they pleased. Advocates of this belief included my teacher Max Loehr, who would never grant that the artist’s practical circumstances had to be taken into account in order to comprehend his work. But the idea dominated the thinking even of most of my contemporaries: when in 1976 I gave at a symposium my paper on “Life Patterns and Stylistic Directions: Tang Yin and Wen Cheng-ming as Types” (readable as CLP 64 on my website), it aroused far more opposition than agreement.3 I challenged the nonbelievers to find exceptions to the correlation I pointed out between the socioeconomic positions of the artists and the kinds of paintings they did; none ever has.

I was arguing also against the idea that paintings in the sketchy manner called xieyi should be thought of as truly spontaneous, one-time expressions of the artist’s thoughts and feelings. That idea, the very basis of literati painting theory from its beginnings to the present, is a myth that most Chinese artists fiercely defend—the angriest response I have ever received to a lecture came from an audience of artists in Shanghai to whom I presented my lecture on “Xieyi as a Cause of Decline in Later Chinese Painting.”4

I am confident that the situation has changed. Most young art historians will, I hope, have read Michael Baxandall, who points out somewhere (I quote from memory) that the artist who paints whatever he pleases and then looks around for a buyer is to be found only in very recent times. My Painter’s Practice book of 1994 dispelled some of the myth by documenting, in scraps culled from many sources, some of the realities of (in my subtitle) “How Artists Lived and Worked in Traditional China.”5

All this explains why, when I read or heard about the responses of Chinese scholars to the discovery of the Huai’an tomb paintings, responses that could be summarized as “Now we see that these early Ming Academy masters, whom we knew through their large works of high technical finish, were also doing small and sketchy pictures as xieyi self-expression”—I responded with this article, which argues in a very different direction.

I should point out that this old article should be read together with a later one of mine, “Continuations of Chan Painting into Ming-Ch’ing and the Prevalence of Type-images.”6 I recall that, when presenting that paper in Chicago, I showed the well-known small orchid picture by the early Yuan master Zheng Sixiao and pointed out that the inscription with the date in it was not written with a brush but impressed with a stamp that left spaces in which to insert the month and day—not, as I remarked, a practice that accords well with the idea of a spontaneous burst of self-expression. That paper, and this one, together attempt to lay out a large vision of how Chinese painting was produced quite different from the one...