Horsing Around: Performative Media and Yuan Art – Chris Rouse

Chris Rouse is Porridge‘s Non-Fiction Editor. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Birmingham, researching representations of East Asia in medieval European maps and travel literature. He has a keen interest in interdisciplinarity, global history and the history of ideas and ideologies. In his spare time he can often be found in old churches making bad jokes about Gothic Architecture. He tweets at @ChrisRouse1212 and one day aspires to be good at it.

In the history of texts, it perhaps seems natural that the book should have supplanted the scroll. The former is, for instance, easier to flick through, to browse, to reference. There is more room to display external meta data on a book, such as on its front and spine. At a pinch, you can look at a book – at a range of books – and see the title, the author, the date. Furthermore, as Frederick Kilgour demonstrates, a book can contain roughly seven times as much information than a scroll by volume. As receptacles of meaning, the codex far outperforms the scroll. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it’s really quite difficult to prop up a wonky cabinet using scrolls.

There are, however, several instances where the scroll is not necessarily inferior to the book. An advantage of the medium is that the revelation of information – textual and pictorial – can be controlled and staggered. Unwinding a scroll presents a fluid, continuous narrative and flow of information, but this is a flow which can be easily and usefully manipulated. Rather than being formed of discrete units – like books with their pages – scrolls represent a continuous medium where different facets of its content can be unveiled at different speeds and at different times. The scroll, therefore, flourishes as a performative tool in contexts where a text or picture is displayed to an audience, as it affords its owner great control over its revelation.

This is well demonstrated in a particular Chinese painting, which also attests to the complexities and functions of that culture’s art, as well as its underlying philosophical and political contexts. In medieval China, it was common practice, in social situations, for a host to invite his guests to regard a piece of art, often one which came in the form of a scroll. The painting would be inspected, interpreted and ruminated on; frequently, explanatory or didactic text accompanied the picture. After everyone had seen and considered the art, they would stamp it with their seal. The painting and its scroll were thus not static objects, but living artefacts, social documents, imbued with norms as well as shared memory and experiences. The function of art combined with the performative powers of scrolls made paintings powerful objects.

An excellent example of this is Two Horses (on silk with ink; currently housed at Beijing Palace Museum, it measures roughly 30cm by 140cm) by the thirteenth-century Chinese artist, Ren Renfa.

Image credit: Peter Zhang, Shine.cn, “One Hundred Horses”. https://www.shine.cn/feature/art-culture/1710275557/

Art can never be divorced from its socio-political context. Artists, in selecting their form, content, medium, style and messages, invariably draw – consciously or unconsciously – on what is happening around them. The politics and intellectual milieu of the day suffuse a work with motive and meaning. Here, two factors are key. The painting dates from 1280, when China was ruled by the Yuan Dynasty. The dynasty was formed by Khubilai Khan, grandson of the great Mongol emperor Chinggis (more popularly, Genghis) Khan. After a series of bloody wars which spanned the century, by 1279 China had been conquered and the Mongols had established themselves as rulers with Khubilai as its first Yuan (meaning ‘origin’) emperor. This was a devastating blow to the literati, the traditional scholarly elite of China. Their mourning following the collapse of the Song Dynasty expressed itself in several forms, including poetry and paintings.

And here, the message is abundantly clear: the emaciated horse on the left – with broken posture, with ribs showing, with defeat heavy in its eyes, bridled and constrained – gazes mournfully, longingly at the horse on the right, which is healthy, hale, proud, free. This is art as a political statement, a historical narrative of loss and regret distilled into a simple form. The China of today looks regretfully at the China of yesterday.

So far, so unsubtly metaphorical.

But then, the performative power of the scroll comes into its own when, after the first appraisal of the art, the textual coda is revealed with the force of a denouement in a detective story. Suddenly, the narrative of the painting is turned upside-down and the message is utterly subverted.

“…Some of the scholar-officials of this age are chaste and some are profligate, differing like fat and lean horses. If one remains lean yet fattens the whole nation, he will not be lacking in purity. But, on the contrary, if one seeks to fatten only oneself and emaciate the masses, how will he not bequeath a shameful reputation for corruption? So if you judge a horse only by its external appearance, you really will come to feel ashamed…”(quoted in Watt, 205).

Aside from the dynastic politics, the second of the two key contextual factors is the powerful, persuasive, pervasive Confucian philosophy which dominated China. Confucianism prized the ethics and morality of the individual; it was a conservative tradition, favouring good conduct and loyalty. Through proper moral structures and properly respected parallel relationships – lord and servant; father and son; husband and wife – society would flourish.

With this considered, the horses no longer represent – or rather, do not just represent – two dynasties. Rather, the horses depict two contrasting officials. A great moral dilemma following the Mongol conquest was whether officials and scholars should collaborate with the regime. The horse on the right has done so – it is fat because it is greedy; it is proud because it has achieved success through conspiring with an alien, conquering regime. It has prioritised itself over sound ethics and the good of the people. The horse on the left, meanwhile, is selfless – it has become lean as a result of its exile, its refusal to abet the invaders. This symbolic volte-face would have had a powerful, profound, provocative impact on its audience. The didactic impact of its true message would have been enhanced by the initial reading; this was morality heightened by the subversion of expectations and superficial appearances. There are multiple lessons – not only that shown by the horses, to serve your culture and not yourself; but also the fact that conclusions can and should be drawn only when the full picture is known.

The fusion of text and image, combined with the staggered revelation afforded by a scroll, make Ren Renfa’s Two Horses an incredibly powerful, evocative piece. It is simultaneously a historical and moral judgement, both mournful and rebuking. The power of art, of its message, is intimately tied with the nature of its performance. And, as the author makes clear, at the heart of its multivalent didactism is one clear message: don’t be too quick to judge a book by its cover; nor a scroll by its nature; nor a horse by its appearance. With one extra little bit of knowledge, meaning can be turned on its head.

Select Bibliography

Keith Houston, The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016).

Frederick Kilgour, The Evolution of the Book (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

James C. Y. Watt, The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010).

Zhexin Xu, The Perceptions of Horses in Thirteenth-and-Fourteenth-Century China (MA Thesis at Central European University, Budapest, 2015. Available online.)

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