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  • Letter to Editor, CRI
  • James Cahill

June 14, 2012

Editor, China Review International

Dear Sir:

I received my copy of your latest issue (vol. 17, no. 3) this morning and saw with excitement that the lead review is of my recent book Pictures for Use and Pleasure: Vernacular Painting in High Qing China. I read it, however, with something less than complete pleasure. It isn’t a negative review, and accords my book some polite praise, but it consists largely of quotations from my text, tied together with rather qualified and provisional comments, of the type: If we accept Cahill’s premises, then this appears to be justified … and so forth. It isn’t a review that tells the potential reader much of anything, really. I am writing to suggest, without meaning to criticize you or him, that you chose the wrong reviewer—a good scholar in his own right, but with little understanding of Chinese painting or how one should write about it. And one with little sympathy for its subject—which he tries to reduce, against its real, much broader content, to a new appreciation of the easily dismissable “beautiful woman pictures.” (It wasn’t I, by the way, who “dubbed them” meiren-hua; that’s an old and well-established term for them.)

Like so many Chinese historians, Professor Chang (whose Court On Horseback book I admire and have used) seems to be deeply doubtful of any scholarship that isn’t based in reading texts. “Specialists may wonder,” he writes, “whether internal evidence from paintings alone is sufficient support for such claims, but the idea is, nevertheless, intriguing.” And so forth. I’ve encountered that throughout my career, but could have hoped for better from a reviewer of my last major book in a journal like yours. What he should know—and you should have realized—is that the subject of the whole book, what I call vernacular painting, wasn’t respected by the Chinese literati who did most of the writing and publishing in China in traditional times, so that one doesn’t find much about it in searching the literature, as of course I did. One needs to (after doing the necessary book research as far as it takes you) read the paintings themselves, and the relationships between them, with a trained eye, and that’s what I also did—and wrote the book around what I saw. But those who are limited to text reading won’t accept that.

Imagine the reverse: a first book about an important historical event, based in textual materials sought out by the author and used to construct his account, and [End Page 307] it is assigned for review to someone who doesn’t believe textual sources can be trusted, we have to have paintings of the event—and you know, and he should know from reading your book, that there aren’t any paintings of this event extant or known. How would you, as author, feel about that review? That gives you a sense of how I feel.

I remember how, after I gave the first of my Compelling Image lectures at Harvard in 1978, in which I presented overwhelming visual evidence for something lots of Chinese didn’t want to believe—that some of the best late Mingearly Qing painters had adopted lots of “stylistic ideas” from European prints that they could see by then—I remember how K. C. Chang (Chang Kwang-chih) said to me: “Very interesting, Jim, but I can’t accept it until you produce evidence.” By which he meant, of course, evidence in texts of the time, and of course there wasn’t any, for reasons I could have explained to him if he had wanted to listen. I could also have pointed out to him how he, Karlgren, and all the other text readers had got the sequence of early Chinese bronze décor styles wrong, while my teacher Max Loehr, using his trained eye, famously got it right (in his 1953 article “The Bronze Styles of the Anyang Period”)—and was proved right by later excavations. And I remember arguing, as discussant for a panel of papers on Chinese painting...


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