2006 Annual Meeting: Border-Crossing Sessions


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Art, History, and Asia: Challenging Established Canons

Organizer and Chair: Mary Louise Totton, Western Michigan University

Discussant: Sean McPherson, Wheaton College

Art historians of Asian cultures are often marginalized within the community of scholars of Asia. Visual culture, however, can no longer be ignored as a critical component to historical studies. Although Asian specialists are minorities within the art historical community, many are chipping away at the stodgy old canons and conservative rhetoric of their discipline and other scholarly imaginings--despite (or perhaps because of) these peripheral loci. This diverse panel reaches across disciplinary boundaries to challenge established concepts of "art" and "history" within the place we call "Asia". To begin this discussion our panelists will challenge the concepts of "China", "India", and "Islam" as socio-cultural monoliths; present an alternative reading of Meiji interest in festival arts; propose that Jesuits influenced the art of tea in Japan, and question the pedigree of the Tang dynasty.

Why Originality Can't Be a "Traditional Chinese Value," and Why It Is

Katharine Burnett, University of California at Davis

Recent research demonstrates that conceptual originality was a primary value in 17th-century Chinese aesthetic criticism, painting, and calligraphy. Though some of the most progressive Sinological intellectual historians accept these findings, others have responded more conservatively. This interesting schism bears examination.

For many in the United States, expectations about Chinese culture -- pre-twentieth century and otherwise -- are still under the sway of political rhetorics of the May 4`h Movement and the Cold War. As such, where "Western" artistic production has regularly been conceived as the result of genius explorers of the new, pre-twentieth-century Chinese artistic production is imagined as beholden to the past rather than innovative; unchanging and static rather than dynamically transforming in concert with shifting sociocultural values.

This paper articulates some of the various causes for this persistently conservative stance. It demonstrates how originality was, in fact, a paradigmatic value for Chinese aestheticians of the seventeenth-century and other times. It discusses some of the larger sociocultural implications of this research for us in the US of a changing worldview that more sympathetically considers and accepts the contributions of diverse global culture.

Tea Practice in Sixteenth-century Japan: Looking Beyond Zen

Joan O'Mara, Washington and Lee University

Tea practice in Japan is generally viewed through the lens of Zen Buddhism. Zen's paramount importance in the evolution of that practice notwithstanding, the influence of another variable should also be explored: the arrival of Catholic missionaries in Japan shortly after its "discovery" by the Portuguese, in 1543. Missionary successes lasted until persecutions, beginning in the 1590's, eradicated most fruits of those labors. The Jesuits, in particular, sought out the military elite, and their proselytizing deliberately used the tea ceremony so important to that elite. Jesuit residences included tea rooms, and acolytes trained in tea preparation and service. Seeing nothing superstitious or idolatrous (read, Buddhist) in tea practice, Jesuits encouraged its pursuit among their converts, and tea utensils bearing Christian symbols attest to their successes. Such objects speak to the influence of tea for the Jesuit mission, but do they also suggest influences coming from the Catholic liturgy, for the practice of tea? Evidence for that is more circumstantial, but telling, nonetheless. Sen no Rikyű is the tea master credited with completing the evolution of tea practice from a show of conspicuous consumption to a simpler, more richly spiritualized practice focused on relationships between tea practitioners, rather than on earlier ostentatious displays of precious utensils. While Rikyű is not known to have been a convert, his closest followers included Christians and others sympathetic to Christianity. Were such relationships a factor in the evolving spiritualization of tea practice? Were they also a factor leading to Rikyű's eventual forced ritual suicide?

Modeling the Limits of Indian Art: The Case of Clay Sculpture in 19th-Century Bengal

Susan S. Bean, Peabody Essex Museum

A group of life-size clay portraits from Calcutta in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum since 1823, silently, yet eloquently, contest the canon of Indian art that was under construction at the time of their creation in the early 19th century. The donor of the sculptures, Captain James B. Briggs, an American commander of vessels trading in India, recorded in the museum's accession book that the portraits had "been modeled from life by a distinguished native artist of Calcutta." This short comment contravenes the judgment, then gaining wide acceptance, that there was no such living thing as a `distinguished native artist' in India. At best Indian painters were admitted to be clever copyists, and Indian craftsmen received accolades for the design and color sense expressed in the so-called minor arts such as textiles, metal wares, and ivory carving.

The clay portraits in the Peabody Essex Museum collection are exemplars of a modeling technique that over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries rose to great prominence in Bengal, providing images for the popular festivals of Durga, Kali and Sarasvati. In the early 19th century, images of these deities were modeled according to stylized traditional forms, some of which remain standard. The Peabody Essex group in stark contrast, are modeled in a highly naturalistic Western manner as individual likenesses of ordinary Bengalis.

Dressing Turkic: Gender and Ethnic Costume at the Founding of Tangy

Kate A. Lingley, University of Hawaii, Manoa

This paper examines a series of sixth-century Buddhist monuments from Northern China, in which male patrons appear dressed in the costume of the ruling Xianbei, while female patrons are depicted in Chinese costume. By focusing on the figures of contemporary patrons rather than on the religious icons they sponsored, I treat these monuments and their attached inscriptions as historical evidence. Beyond reflecting forms of religious practice in the sixth century, these Buddhist images also document social change in that turbulent period.

Implicit in these images is a cultural logic that associates Central Asian (Turkic) identity with masculinity, and Chinese identity with femininity, providing an insight into the significance of claims to ethnic identity in the sixth century. This alone would be significant, given that the ruling families and upper aristocracies of several important sixth-century dynasties were of Central Asian origin. However, these images also testify to the changing significance of ethnic costume and identity at the end of the Northern Dynasties, since the basic difference between Chinese and nomadic costume in the late sixth century in fact became the basic difference between female and male costume in the seventh century (Sui and early Tang). Thus the images in question not only document the history of ethnicity in medieval China, but also give clues to the origins of the multiethnic, cosmopolitan society of Tang.