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Since last summer, the eyes of most China-watchers have been on the impact of Hong Kong’s transfer to mainland rule,but next month, a good number of them will be focusing on a book titled Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting. A joint publishing effort by Yale University Press and the Beijing-based China International Publishing Group (CIPG), the volume includes some of the best reproductions of Chinese artworks ever published, and some scholars are already calling it the most comprehensive reference available on the subject. But its greater impact may be in the opening it provides for a fundamentally new understanding of China as a whole.
Indeed, Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting is much more than simply an authoritative tome for the art historian or another eye-catching addition to the connoisseur’s coffee table. The volume marks the debut of “The Culture and Civilization of China,” an ambitious series of books that are being published through what John Ryden, director of Yale University Press, terms a “remarkable collaboration” between two countries that have not always been on the best of terms, and between scholars who have had to learn to work together despite substantial linguistic and cultural differences.
“Much about China is simply unknown in the West,” says Ryden. He explains that the two publishing partners hope that through their efforts, which will result in some 75 books over the next ten to 15 years, “we’ll be helping Western readers understand the oldest continuous culture in existence.”
Nor is this desired increase in understanding a one-way affair. Each volume in the series uses the collaborative approach exemplified by the volume on painting to explore various aspects of China—from architecture and calligraphy, to religion and the literary classics—and each will be published simultaneously in English and Chinese. As a result, says Ryden, “readers in China will be able to see how we understand them.”
Although this extraordinary undertaking now carries the Yale name, it began under the auspices of Random House and the distinguished China scholar James Peck. In the mid-1980s, Peck was recruited by Robert Bernstein, who was then president and chairman of Random House, to develop a publishing program that would “help explain China to the world and the world to China.” The publishing house that had brought out Edgar Snow’s 1938 classic Red Star Over China had failed in earlier attempts to get such a program off the ground. The reason, Bernstein believed and Peck affirmed, was that the company was “trying to do business in the normal, book-by-book, publishing way.” Peck, through his contacts with Snow and other “old China hands” such as Owen Lattimore and John Singer Service, had been impressed with their “humane and human understanding of the complexities of the country—a place where one’s personal history still counts for an enormous amount.”
Peck says he soon concluded that for the Random House endeavor to succeed in China, the company would have to “think long-term and establish a relationship with a Chinese publishing house.” Random House chose to work with the Foreign Languages Press, the largest division of the CIPG. Among the 20 or so joint projects the collaborators began was an Chinese edition of the Random House Dictionary of the English Language and a book of letters that both American and Chinese children had written to imaginary pen pals. According to Peck, it was the book of letters that showed the width of the gap between the two cultures with the greatest power.
The Chinese letters, for example, were notable for their graphic use of nature symbolism, something that was mostly missing in the letters from American children. In one of the American missives, a youngster described in poignant terms the experience of visiting an aunt in a nursing home. Peck had found the letter moving, but his Chinese counterparts refused to publish it. They found the idea of nursing homes so “incomprehensible” and “inhumane,” said Peck, that they concluded “Chinese readers would have thought the letter was pure anti-Western propaganda.”
As it turned out, neither that letter nor the book itself ever saw publication. In 1990, in a much-publicized corporate coup, Bernstein was forced to leave Random House. Peck resigned soon afterward, and the entire China books project—based as it was on personal, not corporate, ties—fell apart.
At the time, however, Bernstein, who was also chairman of Human Rights Watch, happened to be working with John Ryden to publish a series of books based on the work of that organization. Bernstein told his colleague about the collapse of the China project and wondered whether the Press might be interested in becoming involved. It was. “Here was a chance to do books that helped explain the four- to five-thousand-year-long culture of a billion people,” said Ryden. Such an endeavor, he felt, would “complement the Press’s publishing program and strengths—fostering an understanding and appreciation of the cultural heritage of the West.”
Peck was quickly brought in as both director of the book publications project and executive editor of the Culture and Civilization series. He subsequently introduced Ryden to Lin Wusan, an influential, Dartmouth-trained senior Chinese official who was head of the CIPG. “Lin Wusan is a journalist, a philosopher, and a man who can bridge two cultures,” says Ryden. “He saw the promise and opportunities of working with us and building something that would outlast the headlines and inevitable short-term disagreements between governments.”
It is a testament to the momentum of the discussions between the publishers that the project survived the bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators that took place in Tiananmen Square. Peck recalls the period as “extraordinarily bleak and dark” for contacts between the two countries, and says that it took a “very imaginative leap of faith” for both parties to contemplate a partnership, particularly a long-term one.
The result, says Ryden, was “a trusting and productive relationship,” and an outline of the kinds of books that would be part of the series. The Reference Library will include encyclopedic volumes on both the literature and the art of China, as well as works on Chinese philosophy and language and, in the future, multimedia reference tools similar to the Press’s Perseus Project, a CD-ROM archive on ancient Greece. Another segment of the Culture and Civilization series is a collection of new translations. “Many of the Confucian classics have never been translated, and others exist in wholly inadequate form,” says Ryden. “It’s as if we were still uncovering material by Sophocles and Aeschylus.”
Finally, there are books on the “Treasures of China.” The volume on painting falls into this category, as do others being prepared on Buddhism, sculpture, jade, ceramics, embroidery, woodblock printing, bronzes, archaeology, and folk art, among other topics.
In dealing with material and sensitive archaeological sites that had long been unavailable to outsiders on a collaborative basis, the publishers and their associated authors had to learn to “speak” a new scholarly language. “Explaining the most basic things in any culture is often the most difficult task,” notes Peck, whose job frequently involves working with the more than 150 scholars in the project to help them “translate” elusive concepts. Peck is aided by his ability to speak Chinese, but that can be of only limited help when even the most fundamental notions are not necessarily shared.
In the introduction to the painting volume, for instance, co-author James Cahill, professor emeritus of the history of art at the University of California at Berkeley, recalls “the experience of emerging from a great loan exhibition of European oil paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to enter its Chinese painting galleries and being shocked at how small and flat and hard to penetrate the Chinese pictures suddenly appeared, even to someone like myself who knew them well.” But he is quick to point out the reverse, as exemplified by “the experience of taking a noted Chinese artist and connoisseur who had recently arrived in the United States through the European painting galleries of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., from Italian primitives to Picasso, and hearing him complain that the paintings all looked more or less alike!”
To help the reader understand how to appreciate Chinese art from its inception to the present day, Cahill, along with the University of Chicago’s Wu Hung, the Harrie A. Vanderstappen Distinguished Service Professor in Chinese Art History, and Yale’s Richard Barnhart, the John M. Schiff Professor of the History of Art, are providing a Western perspective. Their colleagues Yang Xin, who is deputy director of the Palace Museum in Beijing, Nie Chongzheng, a research fellow at the Palace Museum, and Lang Shaojun, director of the Fine Arts Research Laboratory in the Institute of Fine Arts in Beijing, are responsible for the corresponding Chinese view. “It turned out to be a good collaboration,” said Cahill, “but there were a lot of headaches.”
There was, of course, the scarcity of participants who spoke both languages. But there were also problems obtaining the best reproductions of artworks, the rights to which were in the hands of a sometimes bewildering variety of ministries. Perhaps the biggest problem in developing the book was the very different way each culture approached the art at hand. “Art history as it is taught in the West does not exist in China,” says James C.Y. Watt, the Brooke Russell Astor Senior Curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a member of the project’s editorial advisory board. In fact, stylistic analysis, which Watt calls the “great strength” of the Western art history framework, is almost antithetical to the holistic approach favored by Chinese scholars. According to Watt, the Chinese view is “that if you don’t have a complete grasp of poetry, literature, history, and all the other cultural manifestations, you can’t begin to approach Chinese painting. There are limitations to both approaches, so to gain insight, you have to bear in mind the differences and then you have to synthesize.”
James Peck played a major role in making a synthesis possible. “In the early days of the painting book, I’d hear that the Chinese writers weren’t explaining enough, so when we spent several days together, I sat down with them and asked them to work with me, scholar-to-student,” says Peck. “We went back and forth, and they explained things to me they simply wouldn’t have thought to spell out to a scholarly audience. Our exchanges encouraged a degree of collaboration that is truly unprecedented.”
But the collaboration was also, Peck admitted, “expensive,” especially in travel and phone bills. John Ryden is more forceful. While he describes the costs as “essential,” he says that they were “vastly beyond the resources of the Press and the University.” He estimates that completing the Culture and Civilization project may require as much as four million dollars from outside sources.
Raising that kind of money has presented an interesting problem. “A great deal of American scholarship is underwritten by foundations and universities,” Ryden says, “but there’s no infrastructure to support this kind of collaborative work, which involves both Chinese and Western scholars. We’ve had to create one from scratch.”
An important part of the infrastructure was a partnership formed between the Press and the American Council of Learned Societies. Equally critical has been major funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Henry Luce Foundation, as well as from corporations and individuals such as Richard Ellsworth, an authority on Chinese art who is also a special consultant to the editorial advisory board. To date, more than $1 million has been raised, and amid festivities that will take place in Beijing on October 21 and New York City on November 19, this accomplishment, as well as the debut of Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting and the launch of the Culture and Civilization series, will be celebrated.
“This is a gallant effort,” says James Watt of both the book and the project. Of course, the work has only just begun.
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