Arts and Culture
In premodern East Asia, the ruler’s legitimacy largely depended on his ability to effect a stable and prosperous realm by harmonising heaven and earth as a benevolent ruler. Images provided tangible evidence for the effectiveness of benevolent rule. As such, they were powerful aids for demonstrating the alignment of ideal rule and historical realities. However, the consensus between images and political power was fragile, and it could be raptured by the very medium that was meant to support it – documentary painting. Documentary paintings were produced repeatedly to visually record demonstrations of the ruler’s benevolence, such as annual court events of harvesting and sowing rituals, thereby forming a historical archive that connected past, present and future as one continuous stream of benevolence. However, documentary painting was malleable and could be appropriated to suit other political and individual agendas. Between 1500 and 1900, a time of transitions in East Asia that saw growing urbanization but also major famines and civil war, documentary paintings started to draw attention to the discord between ideal rule and historical realities. This panel investigates through detailed case studies how and for what reasons documentary painting was used to show this discord. In doing so, this panel uncovers the neglected function of documentary paintings as sites for producing contested views of history in East Asia at a time when old ideals such as benevolent rule were being renegotiated. Gunji’s paper demonstrates how the Tokugawa house of military hegemons in seventeenth-century Japan used the historical theme of civil wars to pictorially forge a history in which they were predestined to rule the nation. Lin’s paper examines how the ideological and emotional meanings of images of famine in sixteenth-century China acquired diverse meanings over a period of three-hundred years, firstly, as a petition for imperial support, and secondly, as a lasting legacy of the painter. Mueller explores how the ideologically charged style of court documentary painting was used in nineteenth-century Japan to construct famine as dark heritage that was considered emblematic of the failings of the recent past.