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A Bushel of Pearls: Painting for Sale in Eighteenth Century Yangchow

March 22, 2010

Ginger Cheng-chi Hsü. A Bushel of Pearls: Painting for Sale in Eighteenth Century Yangchow. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001.

Patrick Deegan (2004)

Intending to debunk certain general myths about the status of amateur painters in China, Ginger Hsü presents four case studies in Yangzhou during the eighteenth century. In order to achieve her ends, Hsü departs from traditional art historical narratives, presenting instead studies on art objects as the products of social history. As a result A Bushel of Pearls is both a welcome antipode to the overly canonized English resources on Chinese art history, as well as a difficult project not without problems.

Hsü begins her argument by addressing the common belief that wealthy Yangzhou salt merchants were the primary patrons of artists, and that the general spirit of consumption and commerciality that seemed to reign free in Yangzhou also affected artistic production.(13) While there is some truth to this position (as Hsü points out in the patronage of the Ma brothers and in the convergence of expenditure alongside a merchant inferiority complex), Hsü argues that this ignores the wide range of socioeconomic levels and their interests present at this time in Yangzhou. In addition, these same general beliefs also belie the commercial interaction between artists and consumers, thus confronting the polemic of literati amateur versus professional craftsman. Ultimately Hsü argues that both of these types – the amateur and the professional – are embodied in the four artists she presents, and that each of these artists negotiates this cultural contradiction in novel ways.

By establishing the power of wealthy salt merchant patrons and their reputation for ostentatiousness, Hsü demonstrates how the Ma brother’s support of various scholars and artists (degreed or otherwise) was a part of a system that depended upon affiliation and association. While not a new thesis in itself, what Hsü offers is the conscious mythmaking of a Literary Gathering at Hsing-an on the Double Nine (by Fang Shih-shu), that joins in symbolic association important figures for an event that never occurred. This patronage of Fang by the Mas demonstrates for Hsü the beginning of a shift between an established system of patronage and the emerging market for various kinds of amateur style painting.

It is with Cheng Hsieh that Hsü’s thesis reaches a most interesting point: unlike the other artists presented, Cheng provided callers with an non-negotiable pricelist. Cheng’s attainment of the highest degree according to Hsü enabled him to have all of his creations, commercial or not, engender symbolic capital. Apparently Cheng ameliorated his price list’s base associations by claiming that it reduced the number of social obligations made upon him, while proving his Confucian incorruptibility through the apparent lack of wealth that only a corrupt official could possess. Lastly, the asking prices for Cheng’s pieces (a large hanging scroll costs 6 taels) suggested that the majority of buyers were from a vague middle income-bracket that was, most importantly, neither the lowest earning class nor the wealthiest of patrons.

Throughout these case studies Hsü tries to stress the way each artist bent the ideal rules of cultural interaction by taking advantage of cultural loopholes. However, her arguments seem largely predicated on inference and generalization instead of with careful induction. While one wants to believe that Hsü is onto something, her research does not move deeply enough into social inquiry, pushing too gently at the edges of the art historical canonical edifice. Her reviewers are quick to point out her shortcomings, especially Clunas (American Historical Review, 107.4), whose unforgiving review praises her briefly for undertaking the necessary venture, before taking her to task to numerous shortcomings. Nonetheless, in some small way, Hsü’s effort should be viewed as one small step towards the reevaluation of this important topic.

© Copyright 2004. All rights reserved.

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