|A study that sweeps away the stereotypes of the dynasty of "Great Brightness"
The Victoria and Albert Museum
| 1.10.07 | Issue 184
In popular imagination and assumptions, Chinese art often appears insular and,
by European definitions of modernity, quaint and antiquated.
In other words, it has the veneer of belonging to a distant and impenetrable
world, shrouded sometimes in wonder and mystery.
In Empire of Great Brightness, Craig Clunas traces the origins of the thinking
and assumptions that contributed to such stereotypes and takes on the role of
myth-buster in this extensive survey of the visual and material culture of China
during the Ming Dynasty period (1368-1644).
Empire of Great Brightness is the latest in a series of books by Professor
Clunas on various aspects of culture of the Ming dynasty.
In a way the book may be seen as a consolidation of the discussion begun in
Superfluous Things: Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China,
(1991), Fruitful Things: Garden Culture in Ming Dynasty China (1996), Pictures
and Visuality in Early Modern China (1997), and developed from a series of lectures
delivered in the intervening years.
This new publication extends from Professor Clunas's earlier books by explicitly
drawing our attention to parallels between the developments of Ming China and
those of early modern Europe (while at the same time never disregarding the
realities of differences and the risk of oversimplification).
Empire of Great Brightness is, however, more than a book about Ming art history,
moving beyond an analysis of artisanal and artistic output, to consider the
broader social and historical context behind this output.
The book describes the Ming Weltanschauung-the cosmos (Heaven), the environment
(Earth) and the actions and behaviour of man; social and international mobility;
textual sources (eg novels, advertisements, publicity posters); Ming Chinese
nomenclature and taxonomy of the world of nature and created objects; leisure
activities and consumption
for pleasure; contemporary attitudes towards war, age
Throughout, a picture of a Ming-styled "modernity" is presented.
The final chapter discusses attempts to preserve or revive semblances of this
modernity by the succeeding Manchu ruling house of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911),
Ming loyalists and even 20th-century Republican nationalists.
These attempts, Professor Clunas suggests, ironically propagated the imagery
of the Ming dynasty as a cultural monolith.
In pursuing the various aspects of Ming social and material perception and consumption,
Professor Clunas vividly depicts a lifestyle in a society where social statuses
and moral attitudes were shifting, patterns of material consumption changing,
and where global contact was lively and active.
In drawing the connections the Ming had with the preceding Yuan dynasty and
the Qing dynasty that followed, this book is a rich reference that provides
the context with which to approach and evaluate Ming art history.
The contextual information will aid the scholar in "reading" Ming
paintings as an expression of individuality, and as commentaries about the values
of society; or Ming ceramics and other objects of decorative arts as evidence
of global contact and increasing mercantile influence.
The book's title derives from the dynastic name of the Chinese state founded
by Zhu Yuanzhang after defeating the Mongols, Da Ming (great brightness).
In concluding, Professor Clunas reiterates his purpose, to challenge perceptions
of this dynastic period as "brilliant but immobile", and he succeeds
in making a very strong case.
It is interesting to note that Craig Clunas recently took up the post of Professor
of the History of Art at the University of Oxford, a position traditionally
associated with modern Western art history.
Although we must bear in mind that he raises questions of equal modernities
as a proposition, it is perhaps very timely that this book proposes that its
readers think about the culture of Ming China in the light of "modernity"
that has often been the preserve of European cultural historians.
The book is an excellent companion for the study of Ming art, as well as giving
established scholars food for thought and engaging in Ming Chinese culture.
The Victoria and Albert Museum
Supplied by The Art Newspaper