Intimacy and Painting in Ming China

Craig Clunas considers what we can learn of the society of Ming China by looking at how paintings were used as gifts.

Does a work of art reflect social experience, or does it have a role in making it? This is an issue which has been of dominating interest to art historians for the last thirty years, and which has increasingly attracted historians too, as visual sources of all kinds come more and more to be seen as part of the historian’s resources in an investigation of the past.

It seems particularly important as they engage with parts of the past that are poorly represented in the more formal written record; with the history of the emotions, of the passions, of like and dislike, friendship and social obligation. Things like this are part of the practices of everyday life which people know how to negotiate, but which are rarely written down. At a distance of centuries approximate proximity between people can easily come to look to the historian like intimacy, and nuances can be obscured. It seems as if everybody in the historical record knew everybody else, as in the Hollywood films where Beethoven is introduced to Chopin by Schubert, while George Sand looks on and Liszt tinkles the ivories. Works of art can help us reintroduce some of the necessary complexity into this kind of ‘mispicturing’ of the past. This essay will look at two instances of how pictures do not reflect social networking but actually enact it, in a specific historical context. This is the China of the Ming period (1368-1644).

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