The uses of the past

I have been thinking about public history and the uses of the past a bit lately, and reading Craig Clunas’ Superfluous Things: Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China. Like all of his work it is very good, but I was interested in his discussion of the uses of the antique in Ming culture. He quotes Matteo Ricci, who was impressed with the level of interest in the antique, but pointed out that the Chinese were not interested in “statues nor medals” but rather in bronzes, jades, and paintings. Ricci was of course an Italian, and was aware of the role of antiquities in the Renaissance relationship with the past, but that relationship was centered on marble statues and coins (nuministics was an important field of study in a way it never was in China.) The difference is in part because the past society produced different things, but more importantly because the uses of past things have as much more to do with the present society than with the past. The Ming connoisseurs were pretty knowledgeable, and had been generating knowledge about old items for a long time at this point. They had managed to connect existing bronzes to the bronze types mentioned in the (unillustrated) classics, and they were aware that these vessels were windows to the past. Many of them were inscribed, and some scholars, like Zhao Mingcheng understood their value

When archeological materials are used to examine these things, thirty to fourty per cent of the data is in conflict. That is because historical writings are produced by latter-day writers and cannot fail to contain errors. But the inscriptions on stone and bronze are made at the time the events take place and can be trusted without reservation Clunas p.95-6

Clunas points out that Ming collectors were, unlike Song and Qing scholars, mostly uninterested in inscriptions as historical sources. Inscribed bronzes were considered more valuable, but most people could not read the inscriptions and did not care to. They also had the chronology all wrong. It was assumed that since the Xia dynasty was the oldest, and thus the best, the vessels inlayed with silver and gold must be Xia, whereas in fact they were much later. This error is in part due to lack of scholarly work, but in part also because nobody cared. Bronzes got their value from being collected, not as historical documents, and thus while the fact that they came from the past mattered, the exact way that they fit into the past did not much matter, at least in the Ming. Clunas points out that in forging paintings the collectors seals, identifying past owners, were more important than the paintings themselves. The collectors’ seals connected you, the buyer, to men of taste and disctinction in the recent past or the present, and this was the point in buying things. The things relationship to the past mattered less
All this is interesting to me at present because I have been cleaning out my office to get ready for the new semester. (This semester I am going to keep everything neat and organized all the way to graduation.) Needless to say there are a lot of precious antiques in there. Well, I do have some real antiques. I have a cheap Qing edition of Mencius, that even a poor person could have bought to study for the exams. I have some possibly “genuine” Shanxi shadow puppets. A land reform land deed. A brick of tea. Oddly, no opium pipe. I also have lots of things I know are fakes. Bound foot shoes. A silver tael. A really cheap copy of the painting Qingming on the River Of course the fake/real distinction matters in a different way here because I have these things primarily to show to students. Actually, fakes are better for that. I don’t care so much if they get damaged, and if I really did bring in a nice copy of Qingming on the River that cost thousands of dollars it would create distance between the students and the object (and between the students and me) that would defeat the purpose.

1 Comment

  1. Zhao Mingcheng (the husband to Li QingZhao) should belong to the late Song dynasty. Your articles gave it the impression that he was Ming.

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