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Tsing Hua Journal of Chinese Studies
ISSN 0577-9170; DOI 10.6503/THJCS


Learning How to See Again: Describing Visuality and Imagining Vision in Eleventh-Century Chinese Painters’ Biographies

Vol. 51 No. 1  3/2021



Learning How to See Again: Describing Visuality and Imagining Vision in Eleventh-Century Chinese Painters’ Biographies


Ari Daniel Levine











Key words

Northern Song literati, Liu Daochun 劉道醇, Guo Ruoxu 郭若虛, painters’ biographies, visual experience, visual memory


This article seeks to reconstruct the implicit epistemic assumptions that shaped descriptions of visuality and vision in three mid-eleventh-century collections of painters’ biographies—Liu Daochun’s 劉道醇 (fl. 1050-1060) Shengchao minghua ping 聖朝名畫評 (c. 1057) and Wudai minghua buyi 五代名畫補遺 (1059), and Guo Ruoxu’s 郭若虛 (c. 1041-c. 1098) Tuhua jianwen zhi 圖畫見聞志 (c. 1074). Through a close reading of these texts, which record how these two Northern Song literati viewed and recalled paintings both lost and extant, this article will explain how they imagined the processes of visual perception and memory to function. Liu and Guo’s written descriptions of the experiences of observers viewing paintings, and of painters viewing and painting pictorial subject matter, provide evidence of two distinctive understandings of visuality that involved both optical visualization in the present and mentalized visions in memory. For Liu and Guo, writing about viewing paintings re-activated the experience of seeing for themselves, which involved reconstituting images from their own visual memories, or describing other observers’ visual experiences from a further remove. By analyzing these corpora of painters’ biographies, we can understand more than just the critical apparatus of connoisseurship at its formative stage. More important, we can reconstruct how Liu and Guo represented these acts of seeing, and what kinds of visual experiences and qualities they chose to remember and record. Liu and Guo articulated three types of visuality: the experience of viewing paintings firsthand, the mimetic abilities of painters to convey the life-likeness or form-likeness of painted subjects, and the capacity of painted images to induce mentalized visions of augmented realities. By revealing how textuality, visuality, and materiality were interconnected, this article demonstrates how these two writers presented distinctive and divergent conceptions of the visual experience of viewing and creating paintings.

Author: Ari Daniel Levine
Genre: Article
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