#AsiaNow Speaks with Foong Ping

FOONG Ping is Foster Foundation Curator of Chinese Art at Seattle Art Museum and author of The Efficacious Landscape: On the Authorities of Painting at the Northern Song Court, published by Harvard University Asia Center and winner of the 2017 AAS Joseph Levenson Book Prize, Pre-1900 Category.

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

The book is about ink landscape painting, one of the most distinctive features of Northern Song dynasty culture. It addresses how these works fulfilled diverse functions at court during the late 11th century—as forms of decoration, as a medium of social exchange, and even as an integral element of this pivotal period’s political history. Through landscape’s unique ability to communicate through embodiment, they became potent symbols of imperial authority, and later became objects through which exiled scholars expressed disaffection and dissent. The first part of my study focuses attention on how and why the Song imperial establishment—emperors, empresses, and eunuchs—cultivated this particular genre and its iconography as a dynastic project. The second part builds on the implications of the Song court’s century-long investment, and deals with landscape’s subsequent role as artifacts that augmented group ties. I build my argument through the case of Guo Xi, one of the most important artists in history, and who straddled different political worlds. He was Emperor Shenzong’s favorite painter and commemorated his emperor’s most distinctive promulgations, but his small, private paintings also resonated with the exile experiences of disenfranchised officials. More broadly, I hope to dissolve the traditional distinction between professional and literati painting in order to suggest an alternative origin story of wenrenhua, scholar-amateur painting theory, which I believe emerged from a common artistic community of elite painters at court—of scholar-officials, professionals, and aristocrats.

What inspired you to research this topic?

It was an accident. My advisor, Professor Wen Fong, assigned me to work on the topic of Guo Xi in our graduate seminar. Yes, assigned. And I was reading and looking extensively at everything I was able to find. During a field trip with classmates to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, we were able to see a handscroll attributed to Guo Xi, believed to be painted in his style centuries after he lived. At that moment, I had a strong reaction to the imagery, causing me several nights of sleep: I was seeing the very poems about Guo Xi’s paintings, composed by Su Shi and his circle, that I just read. This discovery changed the course of my career, but it took the next decade to put that initial reaction into a framework that satisfied me. This area of international Chinese painting studies is an already well-ploughed field. I wanted to find out what it meant to make such a discovery, and what effect it had on our current picture of this all-important period.

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better/easier than you expected it would?

Undoubtedly it was a challenge to negotiate those seemingly intractable questions of authenticity surrounding extant early paintings. Also the textual sources that survive are considerably more limited than ideal for making claims with perfect certainty. In painting studies, one simply gets comfortable with uncertainty. I hope to impact our usual paradigms for painting study with an investigation founded upon questions that arise from the works themselves, followed with explications based on all available archival sources—poetry, biji “brush notes,” art historical texts, and historical documents—put into conversation together. Song period paintings, happily, have the kind of complexity that calls for this level of dense analysis. Indeed, my two key paintings led the way: Guo Xi’s Old Trees, Level Distance and Early Spring compelled the perspectives I’ve forwarded. But I don’t expect to have the last word. My intention was to explore that edge between speculation and plausibility in order to stimulate, to encourage, and maybe even irritate others to further discourse.

What is the strangest/funniest/most outrageous/most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

Nothing strange or funny, but the biggest revelation for me was the extent to which the female monarchy was involved in the Song court’s culture wars. With hindsight, I don’t really know why this was a surprise, actually. Of course they were! It was through the power and patronage of three empress dowagers, all of whom served as regent, that ink landscapes arrived on the main stage within the imperial city.

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you would recommend be read in tandem with your own?

This is obviously an incomplete list. Wen C. Fong’s Images of the Mind, and, along similar methodological lines, From Style to Meaning in Painting 從風格到畫意 by Shih Shou-chien, deeply influenced me. Books pertaining to the Song period are many, but the studies that I most admire and draw from are: Maggie Bickford’s Ink Plum, Ronald Egan’s Word, Image, and Deed in the Life of Su Shi, and Emperor Huizong and Late Northern Song China, edited by Patricia Ebrey and Maggie Bickford. For parallel reading, Martin Powers’ Pattern and Person, and an edited volume by David Knechtges and Eugene Vance, Rhetoric & the Discourses of Power in Court Culture.

What are you working on now?

Spatial imagination in the Song imperial city. I had many remaining questions about the status of artists, which first came from wondering how a mere painter like Guo Xi played such a central role at court. I decided to find out more about the types of titles that painters held or were awarded under particular situations. My questions required forays into earlier periods, from the Tang to 10th century, but the project is actually an extension of my initial proposal that the Song imperial city is a biased space that reveals cultural and political negotiations. Another aspect of this problem of negotiated status is how court artists—calligraphers and painters—are conceptualized hierarchically. Currently I am attempting to gain a fuller understanding of artists’ institutional location, at times positioned within the bureaucratic gray area somewhere in-between inner court and outer court. Usually, painters and other artisan-officers like doctors and astronomers, were members of the emperor’s establishment, but sometimes they enjoyed rewards that normally belonged to government officers. This being very curious indeed, I’ve now embarked on gaining more grounding in the highly challenging area of the Song bureaucracy and civil service.