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on 21 August 2013
How can there be no reviews of this book when it's one of the best introductions to Chinese art?! I am a former Lecturer on Chinese Religion & History, work in the field today, and thus have read virtually every overview book there is on Chinese art, including hundreds of specialty texts, and this is one of the best introductions available that covers the broad spectrum of Chinese art. Start here, then dive deeper into those topics of specialty interest to you and you'll have one of the best foundations there is.

Scandalous that there aren't hundreds of 5-star reviews!
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This is a very good introduction to the topic. It provides a critical survey of various art forms that were produced in China, putting it in context.He looks at the various places where art was produced such as tombs,temples,courts and market place. This is important as many times we see artworks from china displayed in museums and private collections without knowing who commissioned them or how they were produced. The book also look at art that is not classically thought of as from china. It also consider the art forms that the chinese people liked such calligraphy. It provide an updated review of the art up to the 20 century.
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on 24 December 2014
I have thoroughly enjoyed this book. It gives a clear introduction to the topic, is well set out and written in an engaging manner. I've come away feeling that I have learnt a lot, and am inspired to delve deeper into the topic. A great first book for anyone wanting to get a sense of art in China.
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on 17 March 2016
When this book's first edition came out, it must have been the best general history of Chinese art going. In a limited sense, it may still be, as its competitors are not general histories of art but focused more exclusively on painting, and as it is unusual in dealing well with religious art as well as 'high' art. Clunas has the merit of a relatively broad coverage of art forms, including some coverage of porcelain and statuary, and of a large chapter on religious art in particular, which is under-addressed elsewhere.

That said, anyone wanting a good introduction to Chinese Art history will be disappointed. Since my opinions here are strong, and contrary to the other reviews, I'm going to back them up facts and with quotes from the book, so you can make your own mind up.

It has three major flaws.

Firstly, the coverage of paintings in particular is lacking, so that you can see the same paintings better printed and much larger in other books. Many key artists and paintings in the development of Chinese painting are thoroughly ignored.

Secondly, it has a very idiosyncratic, faddish, and somewhat dated approach to art history, which means that Clunas refuses to cover many of the fundamentals - style and its development, aesthetics, content, and, in any real sense, the art itself.

Thirdly, he has a strong iconoclastic argument to make about Chinese art, which is, unfortunately not only wrong, but made by excluding most of the key evidence.

There are nonetheless good reasons to buy the book if you own and have enjoyed other books on Chinese art; I'll cover those last of all.

To take the first criticism, the book suffers on several fronts. Barnhart's Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting (The Culture & Civilization of China) is a much larger book, and shows far more paintings, better printed, and at a larger size. The paintings in this book are depicted well enough to understand Clunas' points; but the paintings in Barnhart are beautiful, and you can spend hours just gazing at them. Hongzing Zhang's Masterpieces of Chinese Painting: 700 - 1900, though not as gorgeous as Barnhart, is also immeasurably better visually than Clunas.

It's understandable that in a book seeking to depict the whole of Chinese art, and a shorter book at that, that Clunas doesn't show as many paintings; so the small range of art is forgiveable. But the principle by which Clunas selects his art is bizarre, and is the fundamental thing that cripples the book. I'll discuss it below: but it's enough to say here that many, many key paintings and artists are left out. The same is, I think, true of other art forms, to some extent, but I may be wrong on that. There simply isn't the range necessary to understand and enjoy the development of Chinese artistic styles. And, from my point of view, he has simply left out most of the really pretty pictures - and you get the distinct impression he thinks pretty pictures are beneath art historians.

The second criticism, Clunas' odd, modish and very nineties approach to art history, is the cause of this strange choice of artworks. In his own words, he selects paintings on the grounds 'that they should be capable of sustaining discourse about the contexts of what we now consider to be art in China'.

In other words, he is not interested in style, in subject, in depiction, or indeed in art itself - he is interested in the 'contexts' of the arts, in other words art patronage, commissioning, and payment for art. Further, the art must be capable of 'sustaining discourse' about this - which means he will generally show art about which we have enough written evidence to fuel discussion about how it was commissioned. Aside from anything else, that excludes much of the oldest Chinese painting, and it excludes the vast numbers of critical, great paintings about which the attribution is now unsure.

Now I am very interested in art patronage and the context of its creation - indeed it is the only area of art history in which I have undertaken formal study - but even for me this is thoroughly insipid and disappointing.

For instance, he suggests that the style of a painting by the great T'ang Yin was 'probably secondary to the social role of the painting'. He somehow misses the point that those who give, receive, or pay for art tend to think that the style is pretty important! No-one who commissions art by great painters thinks that the style is irrelevant to the 'social role' the art will play. If they did, they'd get cheaper art. And I would send blank pieces of paper at Christmas instead of attractive cards.

So Clunas dismisses the very thing about art which those who created and viewed it valued most. That makes understanding its 'contexts' impossible.

This is not an isolated example. Clunas several times makes dismissive allusions to older art historians, saying that because they did not have the documentary evidence to study 'contexts' they were forced instead to study the style - brush strokes, development, and so on. But surely studying the actual paintings should not be below the art historian? The result is that he does not attempt to explain why Chinese art changed and developed, why later painters painted in a different manner to earlier ones, or how new techniques and approaches were brought to bear. This is a great disappointment in a book on art history!

The third criticism is that much of the book is driven by an argument which is fundamentally wrong and poorly made. Clunas, understandably, wants to get rid of the silly stereotype of cultivated, disinterested scholars producing true, beautiful, morally superior Chinese art, while hack professionals produced technically accurate but morally empty art.

But this isn't all he does. He essentially denies that there were substantially separate styles, does all he can to minimise the reality of elite scholars painting without payment, and suggests it's all an invention of Su Shi (1037-1101). He does make a superficially convincing case, but he does it by excluding the bulk of the evidence and instead using marginal cases to skew the picture.

To take it from the beginning, his chapter on elite art, which covers scholar-painting, doesn't even mention any painters until the Song - making it seem, as he says it is, a late invention. But what about Wang Wei, the very model of the scholar-painter, who painted during the T'ang dynasty hundreds of years before? He is essentially the founder of Chinese landscape painting! And he's the archetype of the government servant who paints beautiful landscapes and writes marvellous poems. That's also a strong blow to Clunas' argument that despite the ideal hardly any decent painters could write decent poems - Wang Wei is widely considered China's third-best poet.

Indeed, when Clunas says Su Shi was inventing the idea of the gentleman-artist, Murasaki Shikibu had already depicted her hero Genji in this role, as a superlative artist whose great taste and moral superiority made him much greater than the skilled professionals. If the idea had already spread from Japan to China, then how on earth can it be a new idea in China?

Clunas writes that even by the Ming anyone from the upper class who painted 'constantly had to negotiate areas of contested meaning surrounding visual images which decorated the walls of temples or were bought'. This is bizarre. He shows a number of examples of people who had this problem - particularly those artists who, after the fall of the Ming, or in money-difficulties, had to paint for profit, and therefore had difficulty painting and negotiating status.

But a quick skim through the paintings in any other textbook will rapidly show the whole idea is nonsense. The artistic canon of China is full of great paintings by people who held high government office, who were socially prestigious, and indeed painted as part of the whole package of being the cultivated scholar-gentleman. Their painting added to their prestige. And just because paintings in the 'scholar-painting' style might be painted for sale by later periods, this doesn't mean that there wasn't a clear style in which they could paint without encroaching on the area of the trained professional artist.

Again, Clunas makes the argument by avoiding many of the key examples that would dismiss his argument - absolutely critical painters like Ni Zan, whose cultural prestige, and financial disinterest, could not be greater.

Despite all this, there are good reasons for buying this book. The main one is that there are still remarkably few good books on Chinese painting, and this, therefore, does fill a gap. You do come away understanding art patronage and social context somewhat better, especially in the earlier eras (though Barnhart also covers this rather well). And the coverage of non-painting religious art is quite good (the religious paintings in Barnhart are again better here). I'd choose Barnhart ahead of this any day - better pictures, better essays (by a multi-national team of top scholars, including many Chinese) and a more balanced argument. But this is readable, and it presents a broad range of Chinese art even if it is oddly chosen. So if, like me, you own the books above and want more, go ahead!
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