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Poetry and Painting in Song China: The Subtle Art of Dissent , by Alfreda Murck

Poetry and Painting in Song China: The Subtle Art of Dissent - Alfreda Murck

Though it may appear to some that the history of Song (Sung) China is of limited interest, permit me to mention, among other matters, that people living in today's increasingly bureaucratized societies(*) can well find imperial China to be a fount of instructive and admonitory examples. Forget the well worn stories about the palace eunuchs in Ming China; here in Song China you will find firmly entrenched bureaucracies fervently defending and expanding their turf. You will find apparently well intentioned law and regulation making life unlivable for millions. Nearly every reform develops into a burden for the people and a further source of power for the bureaucracy. And this occurs because either the seeds of this negative outcome were inherent in the reforms or the reforms were deformed in the hands of the bureaucrats until the outcome desired by the latter was attained, and be damned to the rest.


Poetry and Painting in Song China: The Subtle Art of Dissent is based upon Alfreda Murck's Princeton Ph.D. dissertation, and it reads like it. Nonetheless, the primary thesis is interesting: the long and hallowed Chinese tradition of poetry of protest and dissent written largely by members of the elite who were condemned to exile (or death) for their criticism of the emperor (or other untouchables) was adopted in the 11th century (during the Song period) into landscape painting, and this new role for landscape painting became one of the primary motives for the heightened respect accorded it by the elite. (It also provided the impetus for a large number of very poor paintings by scholars who had no idea of the basic craft of painting.) The intense interaction between poetry and painting in China prior to the Song (beginning as early as the 4th century) has already been well established, but it appears that this change in the role of painting had been overlooked heretofore, at least among Western scholars.


When the Emperor Song Taizu (Zhao Kuangyin) reunited most of China in 960 after nearly a century of warfare and decreed that he was going to emphasize civil affairs and neglect military concerns, millions of people sighed with relief as hope welled again into their breasts. And the first few emperors of the Song dynasty were good for their country. But when Shenzong (ruled 1063-85) ascended to the Dragon Throne, he decided it was time to reconquer the regions in the northeast and northwest once ruled by the T'ang. For this he needed money, and his chief minister, Wang Anshi, implemented reforms to arrange that this money flowed into the imperial treasury. To make a long story short, this did not go well. And the policy of free criticism permitted by the first Song emperors soon fell by the wayside. Wang Anshi swept out of the governing bureaucracy all but his own creatures, and banishments to far away places increased apace. His successor's implementation of discipline was draconian.


Murck identifies this as the moment in which landscape painting began to supplement poetry as a medium in which dissent and criticism could be subtly expressed in a manner that would not directly lead to exile, or worse, causing the prestige of painting, previously a side occupation of the well rounded literatus, to rise in the esteem of the elite.(**) And she makes a detailed argument to support her claim, providing the lay reader with a fair amount of historical and cultural background and then examining carefully the literature and painting of the time for corroboration. 


However, this lay reader's interest was aroused less by her central thesis than by the rich material of Song era history, literature and painting with which she supported her thesis. Much poetry in translation graces her pages, and the book is richly endowed with reproductions of wonderful paintings.(***) And from her bibliography wafts such alluring scents...


Murck also brought to my attention a number of interesting persons whose lives and work I hope to look into. To whet your appetite, I briefly summarize one incident from the book. After making several attempts to bring to the emperor's attention the devastating consequences of the new policies, the scholar Zheng Xia (1041-1119) produced in 1074 a painting of refugees and of government officials brutalizing merchants who had defaulted on state trading fees. This and a brief covering letter he sent by mounted courier to the emperor. "The Song shi records that Shenzong repeatedly examined the picture, sighing deeply time after time." After a sleepless night, the emperor acted briskly the next morning, eliminating many of the new laws and regulations and providing grain to the starving. Wang Anshi was dismissed, but the bureaucracy rallied, and soon all laws and regulations were reinstated (along with Wang Anshi in 1075). Zheng was summoned before a court for unauthorized use of a mounted courier. (!) He was banished to the outermost provinces and was not reprieved until 1085, after Shenzong's death, every attempt at reprieve having been crushed by a vengeful bureaucracy. They clamored for his death, but at least the emperor declined that extremity. 


(*) Lest you believe I'm referring solely to governmental bureaucracies, I am also thinking of those of entities such as the "health industry" in the USA (now cooperating with a new governmental bureaucracy founded with the very best of intentions) as well as of the expanding layers of bureaucrats put into place by the politicians, lawyers and businessmen now running American and European universities. Just to mention two. Oh, and just in case you're wondering, I wouldn't vote Republican even if they managed to resurrect Abraham Lincoln. Of course, they wouldn't do that, since Lincoln was clearly a big government socialist...


(**) Indeed, the arrest, trial and initial condemnation to death of the leading poet of the age, Su Shi (Su Dongpo, Su T'ong-po), for "great irreverence" to the emperor made it clear that dissent in poetry had to be encoded more deeply than it had been in the past.


(***) Please see my post




for one of the Song era paintings discussed at length in this book.