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280 × 210 mm
232 pages
98 illustrations, 63 in colour
01 Jun 2004

Elegant Debts The Social Art of Wen Zhengming Craig Clunas

Elegant Debts takes an innovative approach to one of the major figures of Chinese culture, the writer and painter Wen Zhengming (1470-1559). Renowned as one of the great ‘scholar painters’ of the Ming dynasty, Wen was enmeshed in a complex web of social obligations – his ‘elegant debts’ as he called them – which led to many of his most celebrated works.

Using an unprecedented quantity of primary sources for his life and work, Craig Clunas looks at the ways in which social obligation and gift exchange were central to personal and individual identity in the Ming period. He also examines Wen’s family relationships, his friends, mentors and pupils, his sense of a distinct local identity, and the interplay of national and regional politics with the achievements of his long life.

The author uses the insights of a range of scholarship – art history, social and literary history and anthropology – to show how ‘self’ was constructed in Ming China. In doing so, the book makes a major contribution towards a more diverse art history that is less dependent on European conceptions of artists and their work.

‘This book . . . tries to look at the entirety of Wen’s extant output, refusing to dismiss Wen’s writings as products of social obligation peripheral to Wen the “artist” and seeing this social obligation as an integral part of Wen’s self-perception in Ming society.’ – The Times

‘Clunas has written a far-ranging survey of the forms and discharge of social obligations among the Chinese gentry of the time . . . we are indebted to Clunas for retrieving an expanded life of Wen Zhengming.’ – Association of Art Historians

‘Each of the “fields” that Clunas demarcates is densely and minutely detailed . . . I do appreciate the work Clunas has accomplished in assembling the wealth of information contained within Elegant Debts.’ – Artibus Asiae

‘A mine of information on Wen Zhengming and the elite culture of his period, Elegant Debts enriches in substantial ways our understanding of China and what art is in general. It sets a new standard, and it will probably serve as a model for similar studies on artists in China and elsewhere.’ – Lothar Ledderose, Chair of East Asian Art, University of Heidelberg

‘Without studies in depth of this kind, it will never be possible to comprehend the role of painting or artists in Chinese society. Craig Clunas provides an illuminating and fascinating account for this most important artist of the sixteenth century.’ – Jessica Rawson, University of Oxford

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Craig Clunas is Percival David Chair of Chinese Art at SOAS, London, and the author of Superfluous Things (1991), Fruitful Sites: Garden Culture in Ming Dynasty China (Reaktion Books, 1996), Pictures and Visuality in Early Modern China (Reaktion Books, 1997), Art in China (1997) and Empire of Great Brightness (Reaktion, 2007).