After Conquest, Subtle Emblems of Protest

In the New York Times, Holland Cotter reviews an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,“The Art of Dissent in 17th-Century China: Masterpieces of Ming Loyalist Art from the Chih Lo Lou Collection,” and points out subtle echoes of today’s China:

Only one scroll, hanging in the center of the first gallery, hints at disturbance. Unusually long in format — you have to crane your neck to see the top — it has no human figures, just an image of two fantastically tall, thin pine trees standing side by side, with one tree twisting around the other as if on the verge of collapse. To the left, barely visible at the picture’s edge, is the profile of a high rock cliff.

The painter, Huang Daozhou, lived toward the end of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). He was one of countless artists to take state-sponsored scholarly exams, earn an advanced degree and qualify for a career in civil service. His rise was swift; he was soon appointed minister for education. But the times were inauspicious. Non-Chinese forces were poised to invade the country from the north. A rich rural gentry within China had created a power elite to rival the Ming court.

Peasant rebellions were erupting across the land. The imperial response to all this was slack and inept, and Huang, fulfilling his duty as a public intellectual, said so directly to the emperor. Abruptly his government job ended. He found himself shuttled in and out of jail and ended up spending the bulk of his time teaching and writing far from the court.

Such was the situation in 1634 when he painted “Pines and Rock,” slightly undercutting the traditional emblem of steadfastness and endurance with a rueful, go-with-the-flow inscription: “Even if I turned into rock, I wouldn’t be obstinate.”

Yet as it turned out, he was morally obstinate, and that cost him his life.


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