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  • A Rejoinder to Cahill’s Letter
  • Michael Chang

June 26, 2012

Editor, China Review International

Dear Sir:

First and foremost, I would like to thank James Cahill for sharing his thoughts regarding my review of his most recent book. Many thanks to you as well for providing a forum in which to express our respective views.

Dr. Cahill’s skills in formal and stylistic analysis are both well known and well respected, and I have admired and learned much from him and his work over the years. However, after reading Cahill’s letter, I found myself respectfully questioning his assumptions that I might be “deeply doubtful of any scholarship that is not based on reading texts” and that I implicitly “refuse to credit visual evidence for arguments about art.” Here I would simply refer readers to the original review, which, I hope, speaks for itself.

Most of us can probably agree that formal analysis of visual sources is and must be a central element of any history of art. Few would deny a legitimate place for visual evidence in making arguments about art. However, when advancing specific claims about the socio-historical contexts in which artists and artisans, patrons, dealers, and critics as well as members of heterogeneous audiences and publics engaged in the production, distribution, circulation, and, equally important, in the interpretation, reception, and practical use of images, it seems fair to ask, “Are formal and stylistic analyses of visual evidence sufficient?” At the heart of this question is the more complicated problem of how exactly to tease out and substantiate the dialectical and highly mediated relationship(s) between history and art—a problem that has preoccupied cultural and art historians for several decades now.

As Cahill indicates, he has been deeply involved in such methodological and evidentiary debates throughout his long and distinguished career. His latest book reflects this and is full of fresh and bold ideas about a range of previously neglected topics. As such, it is bound to elicit healthy amounts of both intellectual excitement and scholarly skepticism and, I might add, to inspire future research. This is precisely what innovative works should do, and I would urge anyone who is interested in the aforementioned issues to read Cahill’s most recent study. Indeed, all historians of China and its visual cultures would undoubtedly benefit, as I have, from doing so.

Best regards,
Michael Chang [End Page 309]



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