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  • The Efficacious Landscape: On the Authorities of Painting at the Northern Song Court by Ping Foong
  • William Ma
Ping Foong. The Efficacious Landscape: On the Authorities of Painting at the Northern Song Court. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2015. 318 pp., 63 color illustrations, 12 line illustrations, 7×10 in. ISBN 9780674417151 (hardcover).

The word authorities in the title of Ping Foong's book The Efficacious Landscape: On the Authorities of Painting at the Northern Song Court is a critical term in several ways. It is a reaffirmation of the importance of "pictorial turn"—a reorientation toward visual materials in the humanities—that began several decades ago. Foong has demonstrated that in the Northern Song (960–1127) culture, especially visual culture, was central to the understanding of political and social histories of the time. Summarizing this argument in the book, she sees that "ink-monochrome landscape acquired new meanings during the Northern Song as an integral part of court ritual, culture, and politics" (233). The genre has become "a medium of negotiated relations" (233) between the various members of the court and the state, including emperors and ministers, court academy painters and literati scholars, reformers and antireformers, each deploying the medium for their own rhetorical legitimization.

The painters and their paintings examined in the book were authoritative to the discipline of Chinese art history. Guo Xi 郭熙 (act. 11th c.), Fan Kuan 范寬 (act. 10th–early 11th c.), Li Cheng 李成 (919–967), Li Gonglin 李公麟 (1049–1106) were not just familiar names to any students of Chinese art but were foundational for the canon and tradition of painting in China. Foong's work demythologizes these august sages in the art historical pantheon and pinpoints the moment when the painters and their works achieved such status by solidly situating them in the particular sociopolitical context of their time and place.

The period under consideration is roughly the second half of the eleventh century, from the reign of Emperor Shenzong 神宗 (r. 1067–1085) and Emperor Zhezong 哲宗 (r. 1085–1100) to the first years of Emperor Huizong 徽宗 [End Page 476] (r. 1100–1126). This period has been the subject of intense historical studies, mainly devoted to the political debates and consequences of the Wang Anshi 王安石 (1021–1086) reforms; Wang's new policies play a crucial role in the book. Beyond the political, the period under scrutiny was "a new era in art" (187) because it was during this period that landscape painting was transformed into its lofty status in the subsequent dynasties as a symbol of literati culture. Though art historical studies exist on individual artists and paintings, sustained and comprehensive investigation on this period is sparse. Much of the current art historical studies on the Song have focused on the period after the eleventh century during the reign of Huizong and the court of the Southern Song at Lin'an 臨安 (present-day Hangzhou). Similar to the central argument in the Foong's book, such scholars as Patricia B. Ebrey and Hui-shu Lee have also observed the closely linked relationship between paintings and court politics in the Song after the eleventh century.1 Thus Foong's meticulous study highlights the origin of this culturally driven political behavior in the eleventh century that would continue until the end of the Song dynasty in 1279.

The book is divided into two parts. In part 1, landscape painting is contextualized within the political and architectural settings of the Northern Song court. Chapter 1 pays close attention to the original architectural and spatial placement of the landscape paintings, many of which were originally mounted on screens or painted directly onto the walls in specific buildings in the Northern Song palaces at Bianliang 汴梁 (present-day Kaifeng). The propagandistic significance of the painting's symbolic subjects is evidently instrumental in the reification of the imperial rule under Shenzong. The centralization of power is maintained through proper rituals, and any changes to these rituals become an important gesture that would signal the changing ties of political fortune. In chapter 2, the rituals depicted in Li Gonglin's handscroll Xiaojing tujuan 孝經圖卷 (The Classic of Filial Piety; ca. 1085) are carefully examined, leading to the conclusion that the subtle but visible...


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