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  • Pattern and Person: Ornament, Society, and Self in Classical China by Martin J. Powers
  • Ian M. Sullivan (bio)
Martin J. Powers. Pattern and Person: Ornament, Society, and Self in Classical China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2006. 374 pp. Hardcover $49.95, isbn 978-0-674-02139-6.

Martin J. Powers undertakes an ambitious project in Pattern and Person, and his accomplishment is nothing short of inspiring. He aims to analyze the role of graphic paradigms in the changing construction of personal identity from the Spring and Autumn period to the Warring States (771–221 b.c.e.), thus problematizing the stock interpretation of Chinese society as one of “interdependent persons” juxtaposed to Western “independent individuals.” He argues persuasively that “the epistemological problem of certifying social identity is one with the visual problem of determining pictorial identity” when considered in terms of the figure/ground relationship informing their shared graphic paradigm (p. 213). To make his case, he analyzes not only ornamental artifacts but also a broad range of texts dealing with religious, philosophical, and historical dimensions of both Chinese and European culture. Given the enormity of this project, the present summary is best provided by dividing the text into three sections, each corresponding to a particular historical period and ornamental style. I will follow this summary of the book with a few comments on the work as a whole. [End Page 166]

Powers’s project begins with the observation that ornament prompts inquiry along three lines—difficulty of design, difficulty of production, and difficulty of possession. He argues that an analysis along these lines can uncover particular graphic paradigms that arise from contingent historical conditions and shape a culture’s construction of personhood and social order, as well as its understanding of the natural world. Through a study of design and production procedures, Powers pieces together particular macrostyles (general styles that persist over centuries and encode the dominant scale of value in an epoch of a particular culture), and by analyzing the production and possession of ornamental objects, he reveals the corresponding social orders. Powers argues that the graphic paradigms these visual and social orders share account for the enduring characteristics of a culture that have previously been attributed to atemporal essences, identities, or mentalities.

Beginning with the Spring and Autumn period, Powers introduces the reader to the modular macrostyle (chaps. 1–4). Taking a bronze hu as his example, Powers articulates four procedural rules that were necessary for this style of design: closure, consistency, rectitude, and alternation. In other words, bands and lines terminated quickly upon other bands and lines rather than in open space as loose ends; the width of bands and lines varied little within segregated portions of the design; vertical and horizontal lines dominated the designs with curved and diagonal lines occurring rarely, if ever; and finally, bands and lines alternated direction. These design procedures produced the visual effect of modularity, where the design itself could easily be broken into discrete, segregated parts to streamline the production of ornaments in a craft workshop. The value of ornaments of this style was determined quantitatively in terms of density, a measure of how much physical labor and material was necessary for the ornament’s production.

Through close textual analysis and attention to historical details, Powers provides the reader with an image of this period’s ceremonialized social order in which nobility and personal worth were inherited along family lines and political authority was ultimately sourced externally in a relationship with the supernatural order. In this sort of social order, ornament served as an external demonstration of one’s fixed social position, which determined one’s identity and agency. By possessing a more complex ornamental design, one demonstrated that one had the social status to command such labor and material. The significance here is that the underlying geometry of both the visual and social order followed a compartmental logic. The modular macrostyle and the ceremonial social order were boundary-oriented, aiming to define discrete parts and fix their positions within the overall order. This social order was challenged at the end of the Spring and Autumn period, and there was a corresponding shift in ornamental...


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