Little known Truths About Chinese Art Reproduction

Copying can also be done to make something imperishable, but then one has to turn to special techniques. To understand this, it is perhaps enough to tell a story, that of the most famous Chinese paintings, to which connoisseurs today still devote articles by the dozen.

In 353, forty-one scholars met in a place called the “Orchid Pavilion” in Zhejiang province. While enjoying a pleasant drink they composed poems for which Wang Xizhi (307-365), the most famous paintings of the age, wrote a preface: a text of 324 characters set out in 28 lines, drawn in a superb semi-cursive with a rat’s hair brush on very beautiful paper.

Wang Xizhi (E. Jin), Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Manuscript, in Wang Jingxian, ed., Zhongguo meishu quanji, Shufa juanke pian 2: Wei Jin Nanbeichao shufa (Beijing: Renming meishu chubanshe, 1986), plate 54, p. 90-91, detail. 24.5 x 69.9 cm. Collection National Palace Museum-Beijing.

Three centuries later the Tang emperor Taizong, who ruled from 626 to 649, employing ruses that were certainly not very commendable but being convinced that the end justified the means, ended up getting an old monk to hand over the original kept in his monastery. Beside himself with joy, the ruler ordered the text to be engraved on stone from which he would have paintings made which he would give to those around him; but as soon as he had handed a few copies to his close friends, he had the stone destroyed; the mold thus disappeared. Did it appear to him unseemly to distribute such a masterpiece so widely? When Taizong died, his son Gaozong (649-683) had the original sealed in a jade casket and placed in the tomb of the dead emperor.

The story is one of those always taught to poets and novice artists. If it gives credence to the idea that an inspired art reproduction–in the present case, one that was engraved on stone–can have practically the same value as an original, there remains a technical constraint which precludes equality: epigraphy lends itself to only a limited number of art styles; so, from the manuscript to the stele, there is a loss of emotional impact–that tremulous feeling which only ink can convey–even where the meaning remains intact, since the latter depends on words and not on the beauty of their delineation. That is perhaps the reason why Taizong came to suppress the stone.

On the other hand, engraving on xylographic plates, which represented the most common form of Chinese art before the nineteenth century, made possible the wide distribution of didactic or recreational narratives in pictures: from scenes in the life of Confucius to illustrations of sentimental or cloak-and-dagger novels, the multiplication of paintings became a reality as early as the fifteenth century and became a veritable torrent from the sixteenth century onwards.This did not fail to have an impact on the meaning of the images itself: the artist did not necessarily copy what he saw, but what his client suggested he should see. What is more, certain themes were readily transferable from one object to another–the illustrated books inspired, for example, the painters on porcelain–but the meaning of the subject changed, not only because of the material nature of the object (wood, silk, and porcelain do not produce identical effects), but also in accordance with the use of the latter.

Prints and novels in pictures that reproduced paintings and enabled them to be diffused nonetheless contributed largely, under the Ming dynasty, to the creation and development of a spiritual community–in the vast entity that was China–between individuals who, because they came from different backgrounds, had no chance of meeting each other. On the other hand, it became clear to the authorities and to moralists that the copy, or the paintings reproduction, was not innocent and had to be controlled. The hunting down of heterodox oil painting–especially erotic ones–from about 1600 onwards soon resulted in the marked impoverishment of the artists’ repertoire: nearly all the narrative elements found themselves being gradually eliminated from the best-known art painting genres, so suspicious were the elites of the paintings, of their evocative power, of their secret language, and of their repercussions, which could not easily be controlled. This hue and cry over the mechanical techniques of copying ended up affecting the very way in which the copy was perceived, though the latter existed in other forms which did retain their value.

Copying Objects of Ritual Value: The Archaic Bronzes

From the middle of the eleventh century onwards it became a mark of good taste among scholars to take an interest in certain, very ancient remains–bronzes–discovered at the time and thought likely to confirm the information in the canonical texts underpinning the organization of society and of the imperial state. At the end of the nineteenth century this tradition was to provide a springboard for the early discoveries of modern Chinese archeology: for eight centuries, the studio of every scholar worthy of the name had already contained at least a small art reproduction of an archaic bronze.

Now, by definition a bronze work combines the qualities of the original and of the copy, indeed of the multiple. In order to create a bronze, it is of course necessary to make a molding first–a mother work–from which the sculptor and the bronze-founder build a mold, from which in turn one or more specimens are taken, depending on whether the artist or the craftsman uses a one-off mold of disposable wax or a sectional mold that can be dismantled and reused to cast multiples that, apart from the odd accident of manufacture, are all identical.

It so happens that casting in sectional molds was favored very early on by the Chinese artist, who usually had at their disposal–thanks to the geological nature of the country–excellent heat-resistant clays and ingenious high-temperature kilns perfected by their Neolithic potter ancestors at least three thousand years before Christ. Sectional molds allowed the rapid manufacture of a fair number of replicas, and the craftsmen got into the habit of keeping the one-off mold for pieces that were small in size or had a rare iconography. So how is one to situate, in such a context, the original and its copy?

Most of the thousands of archaic Chinese bronzes discovered today are not sculptures, even if connoisseurs admire the monumental balance of their proportions and the beauty of some of their decoration in the round; they were cast to form the tableware needed at the ancestors’ banquet, the chief ritual in funeral ceremonies. Nowadays, as the poor have been doing for centuries, the feast is limited to a few dishes laid out on the graves, accompanied by gifts of paper and imitation silver that are burnt to enable the dead to pay their way in the next world. But in former times the great and the good got themselves buried with an impressive array of funeral furniture and even–as everywhere in the bronze age–with human and animal sacrifices.

These antique bronzes possessed a strong political significance: Sima Qian (145[?]-86[?]), the creator of the Chinese dynastic histories, told of the existence of such receptacles in ancient China, every sovereign possessing nine and each of his representatives a lesser number according to a descending hierarchy; he also explained how these cauldrons had disappeared, for lack of debauched and bloodthirsty rulers.

Their almost miraculous reappearance around 1050 at the Anyang site in Henan province, where the kings of the Shang period (ca.1700-ca.1100 BC) were buried, shook scholars and politicians to the core: in it they saw the expression of a blessing bestowed by heaven on the reigning dynasty, and they promoted the compilation and distribution of the first catalogs. These rapidly became prescriptive for the manufacture of innumerable copies–the ancient bronzes found at Anyang remaining in the imperial collections.

The Kaogutu and the Bogutulu thus established at the beginning of the twelfth century the traditional morphology of the archaic pieces whose forms they carefully indexed, making a distinction, still employed to this day, between vases (used for keeping food and alcoholic drinks) and miscellaneous objects (musical instruments, weapons, tools, utensils, and small items of furniture).

On the other hand, the iconographical data covering the decoration of the bronzes gave rise to few in-depth studies before the scientific excavation of the site in 1928. Traditional scholars read in that ancient figures, whose complexity they grasped poorly, only various forms of dragons, cicadas, and masks of protective gluttons (taotie), all being motifs mentioned in the texts having a strong symbolic value: they alone were endlessly copied, so much so that their multiplication ended up pushing into the background all other forms of animal representation–a good example of the influence reproduction can exercise over creation.

Finally, the connoisseurs of bronzes pondered at length the question of fakes. Of course painters of forgeries had long since been cheating fools whenever the opportunity arose, but the debate raged only within the relatively small circle of buyers of expensive paintings, and they could refer, if they were true connoisseurs, to the writings and treatises of collectors who did not disdain–whatever was claimed by scholars cloaking themselves in their principled disinterestedness–to give precise expert advice, even attaching approximate figures to it.

The bronzes posed a quite different problem, if only because no one, apart from the emperor and a few privileged people, could boast of owning authentic archaic bronzes; this was not in any case a serious consideration since what had to be passed on once again was the form, an echo of the past, and not the molecules themselves. Provided it was well made–which was not always the case–and so long as it was not sold as an original, the copy then came legitimately into its own.

Under the Sung dynasty many copies were made, but few deliberate fakes. Under the Yuan, forgerers suddenly proliferated, whereas under the Ming and the Qing there was a return to obvious copies and to “in the manner of” pieces embellished with gold and silver inlays; the inscriptions were most often incised and not cast in the mass. It was around those bronzes, openly inspired by antiquity but not claiming to be a substitute for it, that there developed by predilection an approach that partook of connoisseurship.

To Conclude: The Copy Today

The copy is as alive as ever in China, for better and often, too, for worse. In the name of the education of the masses, the pedagogical services of the cultural administrations reproduce in quantity and deposit in local museums replicas of all the archeological treasures discovered in the last half-century: the original remains in the provincial capital it comes from and copies are distributed elsewhere. The advantage they offer in theory is to replace simple photography, not vivid enough for the masses of adults whom successive cultural revolutions (1966-1976) deprived of all education during a crucial period of their development, but the copyists are not always very inspired, and besides do not in all cases have–for common economic reasons–the time, the materials, or the necessary technical knowledge to produce a work of very great quality.

What is more, how are they to copy? By artificially reproducing the patina? Or by not taking that into account and reconstructing the work in its supposed original shininess? These issues crop up in all civilizations where people think about chinese art reproductions and where an art reproduction market exists; in the rich and the rapidly developing countries the new cultural forms of tourism and of leisure give such debates an added and highly topical urgency. In China, an immense country the size of a continent, the problems raised take on, as always, a connotation which they do not necessarily have elsewhere.

Finally, a general conceptual bias, as old or even older than the Empire, gives the problem of the copy and of the multiple in China a particular flavor: the aims and the outcomes of acts have always interested Chinese thinkers more than dogma. Connoisseurs were only mildly interested, for example, in whether a ceramic object–a field in which fakes and copies have long proliferated, but in the framework of a huge market, which poses other problems–was made of clay or kaolin paste; all that counted were the look of the finished product, the thinness of the surface, the subtlety of the color, even, in the last resort, simply the presence or absence of a glaze, because, depending on its existence or non-existence, the use of the object changed: the one kept liquids, whereas the other, being porous, let them escape. The intrinsic nature of the piece mattered little. It is the same with the copy: the material authenticity of the flask is of little consequence so long as there is intoxication of the spirit!