Module systems do not occur in China alone; comparable phenomena exist in other cultures. However, the Chinese started working with module systems early in their history and developed them to a remarkably advanced level. They used modules in their language, literature, philosophy, and social organizations, as well as in their arts. Indeed, the devising of module systems seems to conform to a distinctly Chinese pattern of thought.1
While I was in the UK I took the opportunity to pick up some new books, one of which is
Ten Thousand Things, by Lothar Ledderose. I hope to gain some insight into the art from this part of the world from this book, but the statement above troubles me. This setting up of “the Chinese” immediately enforces the relation of “otherness” between the author and the subject. Any utterance is liable to create this relationship, between author and subject, between knowledge and practice, between “now” and “then,” but it seems to me that in this case this relation is not a helpful one.
This book covers a spans thousands of years, a span which is itself intimately linked to Western history:
In roughly chronological sequence, the chapters cover a wide time span. The first case study deals with ritual bronze vessels of antiquity, particularly of the twelfth century B.C. Chapters 6 and 8, respectively, concern and encycolopedia of over one hundred million characters printed with movable type, and a series of bamboo paintings, both dating to the eighteenth century A.D.2
So who are these “Chinese” that the author sets up (or co-opts), that have maintained unique characteristics, deserving of a single name, over thousands of years? That’s many dynasties’ worth of people, with many groups coming and going in the history of the country, a country which has itself been geographically fluid.
Much of this relationship perhaps can be put down to the writer’s understanding of what is pragmatic in the face of his position: he reveals with these positioning statements that he writes for a Western audience.
I don’t deny that this categorisation can be useful and helpful, but what can we do when it becomes problematic? Is it a matter of explicitly positioning all our statements within their context (a potentially infinite task)? There can no absolute form to follow for this, no answer.
I’m perhaps making a small, pedantic point here, about a feature of the text that I have unnecessarily latched onto right at the start of reading this book. I know I will learn much about the objects it describes, I am just wary of how it will present the “whos” and the “whats” involved.
- Ledderose, Lothar (2000). Introduction. In: Ten Thousand Things: module and mass production in Chinese art (The A.W. Mellon lectures in the fine arts, 1998). Princeton: Princeton University Press. p.2.
- ibid., p.1.