Between painting proper and visuality in general, “things” lie in between. They exist in material forms, in discourse, in imagination, and in mobility. Drawing from Zhangwu zhi by Wen Zhenheng, Clunas depicts a general picture of things in mainly late Ming China.
Chapter 1 introduces books about things. From 說郛 in the Song to Essential Criteria of Antiquities in 1388, books about things had obtained a pattern: 1) a concern with authenticity; 2) the author’s self-presentation as a person of detachment and indifference to worldly affairs; 3) an anxiety about forgery. Later, Gao Lian(1573－1620) produced Eight Discourse on the Art of Living 遵生八箋, followed by Wen(1585-1645)’s 長物志.
Chapter 2 further explores “Ideas about Things”. A major theme of things in this book is that things are social actors, serving as medium of distinctions between people. Citing Boudieu, he writes, “The constant assertion of difference between things in the Treatise is nothing more nor less than an assertion of the difference between people as consumers of things.” The grounds of distinction include gender, geographical origin, name of craftsman---trademarks, etc.
To elaborate on this theme of distinction, Clunas summarizes some terms, categories, and concepts in thinking about things---the general contours of the terrain for thing appreciation. They include: Things: wu and qi Antique and old: gu and jiu Elegant and vulgar: ya and su Lovely and refined: jia and jing Use and pleasure: yong and wan Rarity and skill: qi and qiao Connoisseurs and dilettanti: shangjian and haoshi Objects as commodities: gudong Qu
Grading, ranking serve as means of distinction.
The following two chapters respectively focuses on the use of the antique in Ming material culture, and Ming luxury objects as commodities. The books ends with a chapter on the anxieties about things: an agricultural society’s suspicion over the thrive of material, in particular, commercial culture. This relates to Brook’s Confusions of Pleasure.
It is nothing novel to explore things in daily use, but this never counted as serious scholarship in China until very recent times. What has Clunas, Hay, Cahill, Brook brought to us in revealing Chinese people’s production, consumption, and appreciation of things as ordinary objects? Do they provide us more than “sensuous surfaces”?