Art and Political Expression in Early China

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Martin J. Powers

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Political expression is not a term generally associated with ancient china. Nonetheless, in this pathbreaking book Martin J. Powers examines the art and politics of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) and shows that both were shaped by the rise of an educated, non-aristocratic public that questioned the authority of the rich and royals at all levels.


Eager to avoid political challenges from feudal vassals, the Han emperors established a bureaucratic system based upon a meritocratic standard of performance. Under this new, more mobile system, commoners began demanding a greater share of society’s resources and prerogatives, including the right to criticize state policy in essays, in art, and even in student demonstrations. In this same period, new narrative and genre themes appeared in art in response to the demands of a new class of patrons lacking either noble rank or extensive wealth. These “middle-income” patrons commissioned decorated monuments that no longer declared the privilege of inherited rank, but instead advanced pictorial arguments about such things as the nature of legitimacy or the criteria of justice. Tracing issues of political expression in such monuments, Powers examines the design and construction of local tombs and shrines, their mural schemes, subject matter, and style. The author takes the reader through a close analysis of the rhetorical features of stone inscriptions, critical essays, and official memorials. Discovering similar strategies in the art of middle-income patrons, he relates features of style directly to issues of political expression. Placing major trends inartistic taste within a narrative of political rivalries, Powers here traces both the triumphs and the follies of a public that rejected the cultural standards of the feudal courts and established an alternative culture capable of challenging the status quo in politics, taste, ideology, and the visual arts.

"A major achievement in the scholarship on early Chinese art history. I highly recommend this remarkable study."—Wu Hung, Harvard University

"An exciting tale of wealth and power immorally gained and of staunch defiance . . . extraordinar[ily] important . . . both to students of Han art and history and to art historians interested in the integration of style and historical circumstance into meaningful analysis."—Patricia Berger, Journal of Asian Studies

"A complex, imaginative and most rewarding discussion of the society of Han China. . . . I recommend this work most warmly to any student or scholar of early China. Not only does it throw new light upon the whole history of Han, but it can surely be used as a model for others combining literary and archeological artistic sources."—Rafe De Crespigny, Asian Studies Review

"An innovative beginning to the study of the very rich period of the Han Dynasty. . . . [Powers's] argument is effectively presented in beautifully crafted prose. . . . This book is a must-read for all students of early China. . . . [Powers] must be applauded for his sophisticated and beautifully written text."—Katheryn M. Linduff, Asian Perspectives

"Art and Political Expression is one of those works that decisively and lastingly affect the way scholars will look at the material and intellectual heritage of an epoch; it sets new standards and parameters for analysis for the field, and there is justifiable hope that it will have repercussions far beyond the study of ancient China. Powers's book should be read critically by anyone with an interest in Chinese art, the theory of at history, or the history of early imperial China."—Lothar Von Falkenhausen, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies

Winner of the 1991 Joseph Levenson Prize in the Pre-Twentieth Century category
ISBN: 9780300047677
Publication Date: January 29, 1992
450 pages, 6 3/4 x 10
198 b/w illus.