Arts and Culture
In imperial Chinese political thought, calamities such as flooding and famines were often interpreted as signs of heaven’s displeasure with the emperor. Some outspoken officials made this message even more powerful by using documentary paintings to record the suffering of the refugees. The underlying logic for these seemingly realistic representations was that the emperor should not only listen to but also need to look at the happenings. Towards the end of the imperial period, however, proto-philanthropic communities and entrepreneurs appropriated this genre and addressed these issues to different audiences. This paper examines how drawing was appropriated as an effective tool in Ming-Qing (1368-1644) China to subtly subvert the power dynamic between the emperor and his officials, and the legacies of such a genre when a new consciousness of citizenship was produced in the early twentieth century. I propose two paradigms for documentary paintings of refugees, each exemplified by one painting. First, Memorial on the Illustrations of the Hungry Refugees drawn by Yang Dongming (1548-1624) in 1593 was successful in securing relief funds from the court. Through the reprinting and circulation of his drawings, Yang’s descendants made him an exemplar official and his drawings a model for later officials. Second, a large number of the Illustrations of the Refugees leaflets were distributed by the first women society in China in 1907. Such an event foretold the breakdown of the lasting emperor-subject relationship in imperial China and the emergence of a new social relationship based on the realization of citizenship.