This is a tour de force of concentrated historical writing, and among the most original in any field of history that I can think of. Equivalents of thThis is a tour de force of concentrated historical writing, and among the most original in any field of history that I can think of. Equivalents of the same vintage (1980s) and comparable method (micro history) that come to mind are Carlo Ginzburg's The Cheese and the Worms, or Robert Darnton's The Great Cat Massacre. Without being monumental in size, 1587 nonetheless achieves a sort of monumental significance, aiming for nothing short of an explanation of the decline of one of China's most splendid dynasties in little more than 200 pages. Instead of an abstract, bloodless survey, or a monograph of overwhelming detail, 1587 makes its argument within the framework of six biographical sketches, all intersecting around the pivotal year 1587. That it does this in elegant prose that effortlessly merges individual human experience with abstract historical forces, is all the more impressive. Huang sets up the lives of six late Ming notables, from the Wan-Li Emperor himself to the emperor's generals, grand secretaries, and renegade literati, in such a way that the frustrations experienced by each in attempting to fulfill their official responsibilities help to illustrate the limitations of the entire Ming social order. And these frustrations, which Huang attributes to the nature of the imperial bureaucracy itself and its inability to adapt to ever more complex social circumstances, point not only to the fall of the Ming, which is Huang's explicit concern, but to the eventual eclipse of China by the western powers. A beautiful, sophisticated book that looks at the way the best human talent can be stymied by the arrangement of inherited institutions, it is also not without relevance to anyone interested in how a society can chose to adapt, or be frustrated in adapting, to radically new challenges.
The Emperor Huizong presided over the collapse of one of world's most culturally brilliant and economically dynamic polities at the time, the Song, dyThe Emperor Huizong presided over the collapse of one of world's most culturally brilliant and economically dynamic polities at the time, the Song, dying a captive with his son and heir in a northern fortress, his capital city ransacked and his population brutalized, the ladies of his palace and his clansmen enslaved by the thousands, and half of his empire's territory commandeered by northern invaders. It is difficult to find equivalents in Western history to this kind of of brusque, cataclysmic transition, which in the longue durée of Chinese history is by no means unique. The fall of Rome was comparable in terms of causes and scale, but took centuries to unfold, and lacked the drama of that pivotal moment when sovereignty evaporates before a ruler's eyes, and one man experiences what Huizong himself tearfully called 'the abandonment of Heaven.' Hitler's bunker in the weeks before the fall of Berlin is perhaps the closest that Western history has come since the fall of Rome to the experience of complete collapse of a civilization, and the flight of near-absolute power from the hands of a single person as encircling armies approach.
Given the devastation of such an event so distant from us in time, it is a marvel that historians such as Ebrey are able to reconstruct the flow of events and the texture of daily life in fairly rich detail. At the level of high politics, the history of this period is well-documented. We are able to closely follow the back and forth of diplomatic missions between the opportunistic Song and their upstart Jurchen neighbors to the north, and follow the turn of the worm as Song's gamble to shift allies and regain former Tang territory turns against it, and the Jurchen rise from obscurity to besiege the richest empire on earth. Ebrey's primary challenge here, methodologically, is not how to fill in the gaps between sources, but how to sort out those sources that are reliable from those that are later embroideries. The result is a readable biographical portrait of an inadvertent emperor (a younger brother who only took power on the occasion of his older brother's premature death) who in imperial Chinese historiography has come to symbolize both the peculiarly Confucian ideal of power combined with the highest levels of culture, and the dangers to the state of an Emperor who is too fond of the latter.
One can't help but be sympathetic to Huizong, the greatest patron of the arts in Chinese dynastic history, and himself a highly talented painter and calligrapher. By most accounts he was more humane than most men of his rank, and initiated a raft of progressive social policies that for their time were revolutionary. Unlike so many of the polities that arose in the West after Rome, the Song was founded on the premise of civilian control of the military, and it was this prominence of a state bureaucracy that allowed for the organizational feats of a great agricultural and increasingly commercial civilization, but also made it vulnerable to the menace posed by societies organized around more strictly military lines. One is continually astounded to hear of the size of the armies fielded by the civilian Chinese states of this period: hundreds of thousands of men mobilized for any given battle are typical. And yet, these massive forces were frequently insufficient defense against better trained and more determined adversaries.
Despite the capacity for mobilizing great amounts of men and material, in the end smaller nations proved repeatedly capable of overwhelming their rich and sprawling southern neighbor. In part, as Ebrey suggests but does not attempt to demonstrate, this was due to the extractive nature of the imperial system, which tended to take ever more from the peasantry without itself greatly improving rural productivity. The Song might have held off the Jurchen invasion, for example, if it had not had to contend with the sudden and violent Fang La insurrection in its own southern heartland.
For those familiar with the later fall of the Ming, the combination of domestic revolt and northern invasion recounted in Ebrey's book displays an uncanny symmetry with later dynastic downfalls. One might argue that the later incursions of the West during the Qing were not only viewed by the Chinese as the latest round of such barbarian invasions, but reinforced on one final occasion the vulnerability of a largely non-militaristic, agricultural state dominated by a civilian bureaucracy to determined antagonists with military superiority....more
Where did the massive and seemingly perpetual poverty of "Third World," or global south, come from? This is the core question of Davis's ambitious andWhere did the massive and seemingly perpetual poverty of "Third World," or global south, come from? This is the core question of Davis's ambitious and disturbing book. His answer is both as old and as new as his question is perennial. For Davis the Third World came into existence quite specifically between the years 1877 and 1902, the high points of the two greatest famine-droughts of the 19th century, and possibly of the previous 500 years. But nature was not unassisted in these developments. Their baleful impact was immeasurably amplified through their coincidence with the integration of the largest and most affected societies in question - China and India - into the newly-global capitalist economy, and their submission to colonial and semi-colonial regimes.
On one hand, this is an old argument, first formulated by Indian nationalists intent, as Davis puts it, on turning the statistics of the British against them. They first made the case for colonial underdevelopment in the late 19th century - in the aftermath, it is no coincidence, of the epochal famines that Davis revisits. It was the very implementation of British rule and its program of classic Smithean-Benthamite economic reform, they argued, that served to transform what had been one of the richest civilizations on Earth in the 17th century into one of the poorest by the 1920s. Britain, in a crude simplification of the argument, skimmed the surplus from the Raj, whisking it away for two centuries in order to to balance the Empire's books and to fund its border wars. The result was a per capita GNP in the Raj that by the 1920s had not changed since 1757.
On the other hand, it is an eternally new argument. The history of capitalism has until quite recently concentrated on what went right with Europe and, to quote the title of a related book by Bernard Lewis, "what went wrong" with everyone else. The tradition stretches back to Marx and the post-Enlightenment critiques of "Oriental despotism", and was given its 20th century social scientific chops by Max Weber. More recent thinking, along the spectrum of which I would situate Davis's book, sees the decline of Qing China and post-Mughal India as to a great extent a product of their encounter with Western conquerors and institutions, rather than any preordained internal decay. All the elements of progress that Locke had theorized and Marx had described in the experience of pre-Modern England turned out to be deeply destabilizing when exported elsewhere: the privatization and enclosure of communal lands, the switch to export cash crops, the breakdown of the village commune, the burden of state taxation in the absence of paternalist reciprocities. When combined with intensely racist structures of economic exploitation that knew no equivalent in the Europe of the time, the picture emerges of civilizations that were strategically maimed.
The force of the argument rests with Davis's gruesome and often heartbreaking portrayal of the climate disasters that exacerbated these political developments. The demographic destruction, greatest in China and India, but felt as far away as Morocco and Brazil, and as great in its death toll as any of the Holocausts of the 20th century, was a blow to economic resources from which these nations were not to recover until well into the last century. Davis points out that it was from the epicenter of the 19th century Chinese famines, in the northern plains of Shanxi province, that Mao's army marched out to communist victory in 1949; it was not until 1953 that the population of the province reached the pre-famine level of 1870.
Davis is most ambitious in his attempt to reconstruct the climate history of the period. In doing so he takes a step closer to a type of interdisciplinary history that allows nature an active role in the story. El Niño is the culprit, and we learn much about it. Perhaps most interesting, and eerily harmonious with the thesis of the book, is that the same forces of global integration that were destabilizing the societies falling under European influence were allowing, for the first time, a truly worldwide climatology. It was the infrastructure of empire that provided the data with which early climatologists first noticed the simultaneity of the weather events of the 1870s and after.
Already Davis has accomplished much. By seeking to describe a set of complex feedback loops that involve peasant societies, colonial states, and extraordinarily complex global weather patterns such as El Niño he is taking a step towards a new kind of socio-ecological history that is badly needed in the age of climate change. Where I find fault with his book is that he does not push ahead to make this connection, and to refer to the contemporary irony that, if climate helped make nations vulnerable to the depredations of colonialism in the 19th century, today it is climate change that threatens to affect the poorest nations most severely....more
A short and solid monograph that makes a persuasive case for the centrality of official rainmaking rituals to the consolidation of local authority inA short and solid monograph that makes a persuasive case for the centrality of official rainmaking rituals to the consolidation of local authority in imperial China. Where the book takes a critical position is on the question of whether this authority was exclusively Confucian; Snyder-Reinke argues that official authority was much more ecumenical in practice than state ideology or local gazeteers would lead one to believe. Confucianism never became, as the leading historiographic convention would have it, the integrative glue that bound Chinese society together from top to bottom. In a sense, Confucianism was always in play, and never free of competition from Daoist, Buddhist, or other local belief systems. Rainmaking ritual, as colorfully described in 'Dry Spells', makes clear the eclecticism of its ritual sources, so much so that to someone more familiar with Western traditions the pragmatism of the practices, however bizarre, approach something like the experimentalism of modern science.
Most interesting, apart from the descriptions of ritual rainmaking itself, are the discussions of contested rituals, when officials or their representatives find their practice mocked, challenged, or supervened by local traditions or skeptics that the Empire could never fully silence or co-opt. These are powerful details, shocking in the picture they give of popular dissent just below the surface of Qing imperial authority.
Yet, to a non-specialist reader, the image that one takes away is of a polyvocal heterodoxy with an arbitrary center that managed to only superficially deploy a unifying ideology throughout a vast domain. There is a certain echo here of the premodern European state, typically imperial, asserting a universalist culture across an ethnic hodge-podge, one that is powerful and compelling but not until the modern period succeeds in laying its foundations deep in the soil of local, popular culture - at the expense of the latter.
What would have been interesting, though admittedly beyond the scope of this monograph, would be a study of the ritual and religious relations of all hydrological practice - both rainmaking and rain *stopping*, and these with the array of concrete policies for water management in times of both famine *and* flood. Sima Qian related that the first emperor of the unifying Qin Dynasty was associated with the water principle; a similar effort of conceptual unification on this all important topic would be welcome.
Lastly, it would be interesting to see some of the same material treated by Snyder-Reinke, a historian, treated by an anthropologist. When it comes to systems of meaning ('cultures'), historians can be at a methodological disadvantage, whereas those trained to tease out patterns might be able to harmonize what seems like disparate material. Snyder-Reinke states repeatedly that Chinese rainmaking ritual was an eclectic mess. Perhaps, but would someone more ethnographically oriented come to the same conclusion?
I liked this book quite a bit, but suspect that my response has such a personal basis that I can't review it objectively. I have family roots in Kiev;I liked this book quite a bit, but suspect that my response has such a personal basis that I can't review it objectively. I have family roots in Kiev; like Némirovsky's they fled Ukraine in the early 20th century, but to America rather than France; and as with Némirovsky France stands for me - rightly or wrongly, it doesn't matter at a certain level - as a symbol of freedom and civilization. The book hits all those notes and so for me it was a beautiful, meaningful read. I hadn't been terribly impressed with Némirovsky's short stories when I picked them up, nor was I able to get too far into another of her books, I forget which. Her style shares with the literature of the interwar period an open, unencumbered breeziness that is best at glancing evocations but less so with direct confrontation of deeper subjects; it strikes me as a sort of American-style, lyrically journalistic sort of French. But her life is what attracts me, being as she was an émigré Jew and as a writer working in France, and it is clear when her lived experience bubbles up through the narrative in vivid scenes that pass like landmarks: the sunsets in Kiev, the fog in St. Petersburg, the execution of communists in Finland, sleigh rides across the Finnish ice fields, and physical descriptions so contemptuous of their subjects that they come close to being literary equivalents of George Grosz or Max Beckmann paintings. Her treatment of the historical background is very well done; there is nothing researched or sensationalistic. In a way, however, even the world-historical settings of the Russian Revolution and the approaching Great Depression are secondary to what is at its root a psychological tale of the abusive relationship between a neglectful mother, Bella Karol, and her daughter, Hélène. There is little development of this element of the story, however, until the last quarter of the book, and so the passing scenery of European decomposition does in fact play a structuring role, paralleling the decomposition of the Karol family and its failure, even in the protected environment of interwar Western Europe, to retain the stability they had known before the war. All the money in the world isn't enough - and they have plenty until the very end, riding high through the inflationary boom of the early 20's - but when it ends I couldn't help but read the tale as an allegory of the European interwar crisis itself. Némirovsky probably had no intention of making this kind of critique, though it is most certainly in the novel in a latent form. The critique of money and high finance which drives some of her most cutting descriptions could just as well have evolved into Marxism as into bourgeois anti-Semitism. The latter inclination seems to have been Némirovsky's fate....more
The Ambassadors is not a charming book, though it is full of charm. The syntax is notoriously difficult in places, though not beyond the pale of whatThe Ambassadors is not a charming book, though it is full of charm. The syntax is notoriously difficult in places, though not beyond the pale of what was being done by more emotionally direct authors like Proust. The plot is simple and almost classical in its staging, with an elegance that is absent in the stereotypically sprawling, 'loose, baggy monsters' of 19th and early 20th century fiction. From one angle, this simple, almost predictable story (a predictability that James addresses in one of his characteristically rich but baffling prefaces) is a fault, and could be said to rely on the progressive contrasting of cliches in the form of characters that ultimately stand in for entire civilizations. From another angle - the one I see things from - the elegant simplicity of the plot allows the narrative to take on the enormous weight of James' psychological observations, while the risk of cliches is surmounted by his ability to portray the ambiguity of emotional relationships.
The satisfaction of the novel is to be had in the appreciation of these relationships, and the uncertainty as to what they are based on, what they amount to, and where they are going. As with much of James' other fiction, he is escorting us into a world inhabited mainly by women, in which the male characters do their best to find their way. Unless you find yourself falling in love with Madame Vionnet, or Maria Gostrey, and hoping that Strether will, too, your interest will probably not carry through to the conclusion. And if you don't admire the fact that at the height of the Gilded Age, James made his main character an unsuccessful middle-aged has-been, or that in a deeply sexist period he chose for his heroine an older, unhappily married woman who loves a younger man, you probably just won't get James.
From the start, James' book comes across as a sort of a deliberate experiment, almost a formalist exercise. His intent from the beginning is to tell his tale of an older man's late blooming solely through the mind of the man himself as recounted by an unobtrusive narrator. That imposes restraints, which ultimately generate some impressive results, but which are also constraining. While the first scene of the more conventional Portait of a Lady employs more conventional Victorian prose to describe an inviting English setting, The Ambassadors begins with one man wondering if he wants to meet another man when his ship docks in port: not particularly sexy. As the story progresses, however, James can't help but generate interest, partly because he begins to run lines of erotic tension between almost all of the characters, and partly because he can't help but charm the reader with loving depictions of a rainy night in London, or a cafe table in Paris. What is there not to like? That is precisely what James asks both his characters and readers throughout the book. Lambert Strether does his best not to succumb to these charms, but James sees to it that he does, and gives ample evidence for why he ultimately should.
James' rigor in keeping within the bounds of Strether's skull, however, exacts a price. Though an enormous amount happens in The Ambassadors, it happens in thought bubbles that have become so large, in effect, that for long stretches of the narrative they block out the scenery. The lyrical moments on Parisian boulevards, the masterful evocations of private spaces or the French countryside, charged moments of dialogue between characters who sense that their mutual feelings extend well beyond what they are willing to express, all of this is frequently squeezed to the margins of what often reads like the self-conscious chatter of college roommates. It's useful again to draw a contrast here with The Portrait of a Lady, where by admission James spent much more time building out a world of concrete description with which to surround his characters. Here, much of that description is gone, and instead we are in the mind of Lambert Strether and his lady interlocutors as he tries to comprehend the irrepressible emergence of his inner slacker.
There is some precedent for this: the book is a story of persuasion, as exercised primarily by ladies upon the men in their lives, as concerns the delicate interrelations of money and marriage. Jane Austen hovers like a muse through all the pages of the book, a muse disavowed by the author, but determined to trespass. As with Austen, this muse is verbal. It is preoccupied with social nuance and the constant jostling of relationships. It is, fundamentally, feminine. Whatever 'happens' will not be concrete; it will probably be a new arrangement of social relationships. Hemingway said stories end with either death or marriage. The Ambassadors can be credited as original for ending with neither.
That may be, in fact, the source of its modernism, and James' success. Beyond the offbeat characters and the unseemly relationships, the novel offers little resolution other than the unraveling of a number of lives. The freedom they achieve comes with a large dose of uncertainty. Yet I would argue that the conclusion is unworthy of the characters it treats, and that Maria Gostrey in particular is woefully neglected, if not shamefully used as a narrative device. We never learn about Maria, Strether's confidant and fellow psychological ruminant; she simply humors him with her wit and moderate bohemianism. Her promising personality is the most tragic victim of the confinement of the story to Strether's head. And by turning away from Maria's ever-more explicit declarations of affection, Strether not only strains credulity, he approaches the Puritanical, New England stereotype that James has supposedly spent 500 pages criticizing.
For all that, The Ambassadors is a brilliant achievement....more
A useful, comprehensive, and decently illustrated survey of one of the world's greatest artisanal traditions. The illustrations are drawn from the colA useful, comprehensive, and decently illustrated survey of one of the world's greatest artisanal traditions. The illustrations are drawn from the collections of the British Museum. Throughout, the author manages to balance detailed discussion of ceramic technology, the evolution of style, and the larger social, economic, and political conditions that worked to drive the production of Chinese ceramics over thousands of years. Two themes emerge, though the author does not emphasize them, that are striking to the contemporary reader: in ceramics, perhaps more than any other material object, one may read the history of China, and through the exchange of ceramics, one can chart some of the most advanced sections of the global economy prior to the 18th century....more
History occasionally delivers up the record of an extraordinary witness whose voice grants us entry into a vanished world. Just as rarely, the historiHistory occasionally delivers up the record of an extraordinary witness whose voice grants us entry into a vanished world. Just as rarely, the historical profession delivers a talent capable of capturing that voice and exhuming it both from the historical past and the obscurity of scholarly writing. This is what Jonathan Spence has done with the late Ming dynasty ne'er-do-well, aesthete, and leisured gentleman Zhang Dai.
Zhang Dai, by his own account, failed at everything he attempted. By the yardstick of his time this may have been true, but it was the collapse of such measures that activated his truest talent and led him, in the aftermath of personal loss and dynastic collapse, to pen the collection of anecdotes on late Ming life by which he has won fame, the Dream Recollections of Tao'an.
From this collection of nostalgic essays and other of Zhang Dai's biographical and historical writings, Spence surveys the affluent world of the urban, coastal elites at one of the high points of Chinese civilization, prior to the Manchu invasion and before the parity with recently arrived Western barbarians shifted to destabilizing exploitation at the hands of colonial powers.
Zhang Dai's life is a glittering fantasy of lantern festivals and tea connoisseurship, sexual and literary pleasures and the collection of antiquities, familiarity with and connection to the channels of state power and bureaucratic achievement. Shaoxing, Zhang Dai's native city in the southern hinterlands of Hangzhou, was a Chinese Venice of waterways, and Spence describes lantern-lit canals and several of Zhang'z excursions on Hangzhou's West Lake - in the snow, to chase the moon, reciting poetry, in pursuit of famous courtesans, trailing off in drunken slumber as he is safely punted back to shore. Incidental scenes and inconsequential moments make up these dream recollections which might have vanished forever had Zhang Dai not sought them out, hungry and dispossessed, living in mountain hideouts, as a link to his past after all of the others had been broken.
Zhang Dai is perhaps more of a historian than anything, though his historical writings, made use of by Spence, are less well-known or captivating than his essays. In his biographies and historical work he attempted to document the decline of the Ming and its parallel in the decline of his family, both of which he ultimately attributes to moral failures stemming from excess - whether of power, avarice, ambition, or any of the petty obsessions nurtured by affluence. Zhang Dai tells of the extreme behavior and occasional undoing of a number of uncles as a result of eccentricities pursued unchecked, whether art collecting, feasting, and gardening. His diagnosis of the ills affecting the dynastic house is similar: with the Emperor Wanli's extreme aversion to his ministers, and Emperor Chongshen's extreme fiscal conservatism, eccentric fixations block common-sense actions. The result is disaster, and the moral is best summed up by Zhang's Great-great-grandmother, Lady Liu: "Our fortune is now excessive, our fortune is now excessive." It was crucial to "know when enough [success] is enough."
Zhang Dai's is a very modern voice. His experiences are immediate to a Western sensibility. The downfall of the Ming was not simply a political upset, it was what we would think of as a revolution, with all the attendant complications of loyalty, resistance, collaboration, and destruction. Elsewhere Spence compares Zhang to Michel de Montaigne for his questioning, self-probing mentality. He might also be compared to Stephan Zweig, chronicler of the pre-World War One apogee of bourgeois Europe, a troubled but dazzling world lost in the flames of war and revolution. ...more
Elephants and rhinoceroses once roamed the plains of what is now Beijing. The Yellow River was not always yellow. And the modern Chinese landscape wasElephants and rhinoceroses once roamed the plains of what is now Beijing. The Yellow River was not always yellow. And the modern Chinese landscape was not always the barren, treeless expanse that much of it is today. Accounting for how these things came to be is the aim of Elvin's pioneering synthesis. It is a story that builds in the costs of progress, not from a late moment in the history of industrialization, but from the very beginning of one of our oldest civilizations, and by implication, all civilization.
Similar stories of human society expanding at the expense of megafauna (such as elephants, rhinos and tigers) and environmental degradation could be told for virtually any area or period of organized human activity. What makes Elvin's study interesting is its treatment of so great a span of history within one region, and the relative richness of resources available to us for its investigation. What makes his perspective urgent is the widespread contemporary sense that we are entering upon an era of heightened environmental unpredictability, in which the dynamic interaction between human and natural systems is shifting radically.
As it was 4,000 years ago, China is at the center of this story today, though readers should not take up this book expecting a review of China's current environmental challenges. Elvin's aim is broader than any possible catalog or indictment of contemporary ecological woes. In fact, the Chinese exposure to environmental catastrophe was much greater only several hundred years ago, when floods of epic proportions and famines affecting millions of people followed closely one upon the other. What Elvin narrates is the struggle to bring stability to naturally fluctuating environments - especially its great rivers, wetlands, and estuaries - and the trade-offs that inescapably accompanied them. Our present predicament, as pressing as it is, is the latest episode in a very long drama.
There is no better example of this than the efforts at hydrological engineering that in some sense made Chinese civilization possible to begin with, and have been seen by some as leaving an indelible imprint on it in the form of 'hydrological despotism.' So great has been the need to control water for the sake of agriculture, the argument goes, and so extensive has been the mobilization of resources required to do so, that an authoritarian and highly bureacratized Chinese state has been almost a geographical necessity from the beginning.
Elvin doesn't go this far, but in telling his tale, through an impressive, moving, and often delightful assemblage of historical sources, he makes clear the Faustian bargains that were made to establish the earliest lineaments of the state and society in China. The implications carry far beyond the twin valleys of the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. Urban, agricultural settlement in China was a response to the practical needs of continual warfare. The needs of warfare drove an agricultural expansion that targeted the temperate forests of East Asia and the species it supported. The archaic states of China were conscious of their antagonism to elements of the natural world; Elvin cites several pangyrics to the Shang and Zhou Dynasties that equate the destruction of forests with the consolidation of power, the establishment of cities, and the spread of civilization. Elvin highlights this sentiment as it reappears in various texts in later centuries.
The wealth generated by this new form of human settlement enabled more sophisticated states to arise, which in turn acquired the capacity to implement enormous irrigation works to better serve their agricultural needs. Human population swells, and the buffers of ecological protection - mainly forests inland, and marshland along the coasts - from extreme events become dangerously thin as a result. The idea of extreme events caused by anthropomorphic activity thus long precedes carbon-induced climate change. The leading example of this feedback loop, which is the leitmotif of the book, is deforestation. It was clearance of forests along the middle reaches of the Yellow River in the ancient Qin Dynasty that led to the erosion of loess soils from cultivated fields which gave the 'River' its 'Yellow' character. Agriculture sent soil down the rivers, soil which settled as farmland elsewhere, at the price of more frequent flooding. From this point on, as Elvin documents, the increasing rate of floods and dike failures along the Yellow River corresponded to deforestation all along the river's course, and ever greater efforts to control its power.
Elvin argues that the efforts to control the Yellow River, especially under the 'river tamer' Pan Jixun in the 1570s, and the centuries-long battle against the East China sea in the Bay of Hangzhou, represent respectively the greatest single human impact and program for action upon the environment in premodern times anywhere in the world. Debunked, in consequence, is the notion that only the West sought to comprehensively control nature.
The book suffers from a few flaws, chief among them the absence of maps, which is galling in a book that pays such close attention to geography. It is long, and in places burdened with taxonomic cataloging of flora and fauna. Some readers may feel that Elvin dumps long excerpts of historical text whole cloth into the narrative, when a shorter gloss would do just as well.
For my part, I appreciated Elvin's method of textual citation. It accounts for one of the book's greatest successes: providing the reader an opportunity to envision, and almost in some places to hear and smell, now vanished worlds of the senses. We see how Elvin extracts the picture of a landscape, its economy and technological landmarks and color and flora and fauna, from a grab bag of classical poems. The same is as true, if not more so, of the human experience of all of these: what it is like to be stalked by a tiger, or a python; how one might possibly have sold off one's wife or children in time of famine, or gnawed on the bark of an elm tree out of hunger; a world populated by dragons and goblins and non-Han peoples who viewed their wooded environments more charitably than their Han neighbors.
Elvin does not romanticize the efforts of millions over the centuries to survive in the face of countless threats. But he does, at each point at which the evidence allows, account for the trade-offs and costs for each gain in security, and for the epic loss resulting from the trade of ecological richness for human riches.
A nice example of comparative history taking two familiar topic areas - the history of optics during the Arab 11th century, and the invention of perspA nice example of comparative history taking two familiar topic areas - the history of optics during the Arab 11th century, and the invention of perspective in Renaissance Italy two to three centuries later - and bringing them together in a way that puts both subjects in a new 'perspective.' The crux of the comparison is the image, or picture, and why it emerged as the focus of Italian art in the 14th century, but not in the Muslim world.
Already this language does not do justice to Belting's project, however, which is less to pursue an art-historical analysis à la Weber of why the Muslim world failed to produce this conspicuous feature of modernity, than to demonstrate the concrete influence of Arab optical research on Renaissance mathematics and painting, and to set beside that the little-known (in the West) elaboration of a Muslim geometric art that rejected representational images.
Where the Renaissance used perspective to give us portraits of people, likenesses that appear to gaze out at the viewer, Muslim art and architecture remained faithful to the iconoclasm of Islam and used the study of light and optics to develop an amazingly sophisticated non-representational art. The muquarnas carvings of ceilings in the Alhambra and elsewhere, the complex arabesques and geometric patterns that decorated mosques and volumes of the Koran, all derived from Arab-Muslim development of classical Greek mathematics, in particular Euclid.
Though the subject matter is fascinating, the book itself suffers from several flaws. Above all, Belting's preoccupation with certain jargon concerning 'the gaze' can be plodding and difficult to understand. This is tied to a failure to substantially present the mathematics underlying the Arab and Renaissance developments. There are plenty of lovely illustrations of muqarnas, and the 'blueprints' that craftsmen worked from, but the reader is never fully apprised of how this unique form of decoration is laid out and fabricated. Likewise with perspective: "the gaze" stands in for what would more helpfully be a concrete presentation of how perspective was thought to work. Much of the latter portion of the book is concerned to legitimate this category of 'the gaze' by using it to treat later works of the Renaissance, perhaps most interestingly in the case of Baroque theater.
The book's strength is without a doubt its exposition of the Arabic scientist Alhazen and his optical researches, and how these were assimilated and altered by Western artists and natural philosophers, or developed in Islamic lands with such spectacular results. As long as Belting keeps these twin, comparative foci in view, the reader is swept along. Unavoidably in such an approach, Belting often speaks of Islamic "culture" and Western "culture" in a way that always seems dated and perhaps even somewhat German (kultur and kulturkreis of course being well-worn concepts of German origin).
None of this should discourage a reader, however; the illustrations alone and the treatment of Alhazen and his impact are well worth the time....more
In the lifetime of the French King Louis XIV, Chinese painting reached its apogee. Well over two centuries before the appearance of European modernismIn the lifetime of the French King Louis XIV, Chinese painting reached its apogee. Well over two centuries before the appearance of European modernism, Chinese landscape painters challenged the limits of their ancient pictorial tradition, pursuing degrees of abstraction and naturalism that represented as decisive a break with the past as any innovation that was to occur in late 19th century European art. In the early 1700s, all of this came to an end, once and for all. The legacy of this period of innovation, in the body of paintings produced in the late Ming and very early Qing Dynasties, represents some of the strangest, most disorienting, beautiful and oddly familiar works that have come down to us from that or from any other century.
Their odd familiarity, according to Cahill's most intriguing and powerful argument, arises from their subtle incorporation of compositional techniques absorbed from Western models, very likely the mediocre oil paintings and secular engravings brought to China by the Jesuits from the late 17th century. The disquiet in the images arises from their use of these and other techniques to convey the irrationalities and turmoil of late Ming decline and collapse in the wake of foreign invasion. By a remarkable irony, the commonplace art and illustrations of early modern Europe melded with venerable Chinese traditions of painting to engender works that, to our eyes, have all the modernity of early Impressionism. In a further irony, the influence upon the latter by Asian, and primarily Japanese, art represents the circling back to Europe in the late 19th century of techniques and styles that grew out of Europe's own earlier contact with Asia.
Beginning with a study of two paintings by two contemporary artists of the mid-17th century, Cahill escorts the reader into what must be for many the deeply unfamiliar work of Chinese landscape painting, demonstrating through close analysis how the slightest variations in formal style are full of meaning. Almost as if recreating the cosmological order instilled in the great landscapes of the early Song Dynasty, Cahill proceeds from the very small to the world of momentous political and social transformations as if moving from the miniscule figures in such paintings to the tops of the massive bluffs that tower above them. Cahill never shies from making these connections. The reader who is following along will feel her powers of discernment magnified as Cahill unpacks the forms of each composition and ties these together with the technical choices available to the artist and how he responded to the limits and opportunities provided to him by his heritage, his social context, and by the passing historical moment.
Cahill's book is a masterpiece, a tour de force of art history that can hold its own beside accomplished works in other fields of humanist research. The writing is lucid and rich, and the structure of the analysis draws the reader along with the power of a fictional narrative. We are introduced to paintings that appear nondescript, we learn how to read them, and learn that they are anything but. From there we are off on a tour of images produced by several generations of painters for whom the experience of European contact and Ming collapse were catalysts for one of the greatest periods of painterly accomplishment in Chinese art. Artistic innovation is the driver that propels the story forward, in a contest between a tradition pulling painting towards orthodox formalism, and an impulse to experimentation which pushes it towards abstraction and naturalism. We are able to share the excitement of bold accomplishments all along. We also regret the failure of those innovations that dazzle us today, but had no sequel in their own time. And finally, in the key of tragedy, we come to the end of the period, at which point the powers of tradition win out over novelty, and Chinese painting sinks into a decadence from which it is only now recovering....more
Cahill here presents four lectures on the economic and social aspects of Chinese painting from the Song to the Qing dynasties. The first chapter introCahill here presents four lectures on the economic and social aspects of Chinese painting from the Song to the Qing dynasties. The first chapter introduces the problem confronting modern criticism of Chinese painting, which is to find a framework of interpretation that does not reproduce the classical, Confucian aesthetics which developed in the late Song and became predominant for the remainder of the Imperial period. This aesthetic, which Cahill hints was part of a larger political ideology, was defined by several characteristics, which are detailed in the subsequent three lectures.
Chief among these is an understanding of ideal painting as the product of an unstudied but cultivated amateur of high status, whose techniques are less concerned with the representation of reality than with the display of wisdom and mastery of the painterly tradition. Although the emergent phenomenon of literati-painters at the beginning of this period was real enough, the new type did not represent the whole of painterly activity, much of which continued to be carried out by professionals selling their art on the market.
The emphasis on painting as a reflection of eternal principles and inner states, conveyed with disinterest and in an effort to rise above material concerns, has led to a neglect of the daily activities of Chinese painters. The ideology of the Confucian literati-amateur would have it that the masters never worked for hire, nor had to, and that styles other than those associated with it (the "dry brush" technique, the use of stock forms and spare landscapes) were lesser commercial products designed to please rather than edify. Cahill argues that in fact the majority of painters were inescapably engaged in market relationships, that painters were constantly navigating intricate client-patron relationships, and that they relied on painting for their livelihoods.
Not only does the Confucian aesthetic of the literati-amateur conceal the historical reality of painterly activity, but it began to act upon painterly production itself, as certain themes and styles were valued and others derided, the long-term consequences of which being that certain paintings were collected and preserved while others have simply disappeared. Some of Cahill's most tantalizing findings are along these lines, which suggest the ways in which a cultural preference for a certain aesthetic can act to level a more heterogeneous artistic output.
For example, evidence of high-volume, low-value, souvenir sketches sold to travelers are preserved only thanks to archeological findings or to Japanese monks who returned with them from China and hung them in their temples. Likewise with an entire genre of early Song dynasty paintings of a naturalistic and observational style, also preserved by Japanese collectors. It is in Japanese painting, too, that we see continued interest in a range of subjects that disappeared from Chinese painting from the 12th and 13th centuries on - acts of violence, nature studies, and the close observation of social organization and economic activity. "Underlying this change," Cahill writes suggestively, "is the well-studied decline in China's engagement with technological innovation in this same period, and one can write, as I have, of a corresponding loss in the Chinese painter's involvement in the project of describing or exploring the physical world." Realism in painting, a Chinese invention of the first millennium, was displaced for centuries, reemerging only in the 17th century under the influence of Western examples.
The book, being a series of lectures, does not synthesize its material in a satisfying way, although it is strewn with rich empirical observations and interpretive suggestions like the ones above. The final lecture deals a blow to the myth of the isolated Confucian master painter - while underlining the long-standing practices of forgery that pervaded the art market. At the root of the issue was the tension between the ideal of painting as a vehicle for individual expression, and the reality of the burgeoning art market from the mid-Ming dynasty forward, and the inability of the literati-amateur complex to satisfy the demand for paintings. Studios cranked out works "in the style of" the master, while forgers were quick to capitalize on stylistic innovations that would allow them to pass their work off as that of a famous painter. Master professionals themselves had works "ghostpainted" for clients; guidebooks on the collection of antiquities allowed a rising merchant class to acquire status through the practice of connoisseurship.
Cahill clearly views the hardening of the literati-amateur aesthetic as a long-term detriment to both Chinese painting and to art criticism. It betrayed what had been a diversity of expression by valuing only one style, and over the long run acted to smother styles that did not conform to it. It was the strength of the Chinese market itself, in the Ming and Qing periods, that forced the ideology into greater and greater contradictions with painterly practice....more