Screen of Kings
Royal Art and Power in Ming China
University of Hawaii Press 2013
Craig Clunas‘s new book explores the significance of members of the imperial clan, or “kings” in Ming China. A king was established in a “state” (guo), and mapping the Ming in terms of guo‘s is a way of mapping Ming space in units that had centers, but not boundaries. (In having many guo‘s, the Ming thus had many centers.) A wonderfully and productively revisionist account of Ming history and its artifacts, Screen of Kings: Royal Art and Power in Ming China (University of Hawaii Press and Reaktion Books, 2013) explores this poly-centric kingly landscape as evidenced by documentary and archaeological traces of material production, while paying special attention to the history of practices that did not leave abundant traces. In doing so, Clunas shifts our attention in several ways. In addition to reorienting our focus to kingly figures in the Ming (an often-overlooked but deeply significant historical group), Screen of Kings also moves us away from the oft-trod historiographical territory of the Jiangnan region and toward regions that boasted a significant kingly presence but don’t usually earn a significant place in our histories of Ming China. The kingly cityscapes in Clunas’s beautifully-written book are full of buildings, gardens, tombs, calligraphic texts, paintings, jewelry, poems, bronzes, and musical instruments. The book situates these objects in an innovative way, emphasizing the importance of Ming kingly courts as sites of cultural innovation, production, and reproduction, and of kings as producers, collectors, and patrons of the arts. This is a must-read for anyone interested in Ming history, the history of the arts in China, histories of locality, or the history of relationships between art and power more broadly conceived. It is also an absolute pleasure to read.