Saturday, January 2, 2021

Allison R. Miller's "Kingly Splendor"

Allison R. Miller is associate professor of art history at Southwestern University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Kingly Splendor: Court Art and Materiality in Han China, and reported the following:
Page 99 features a map of the Shizishan (Lion’s Hill) royal mausoleum in Xuzhou, Jiangsu province, China, that indicates the location of the site’s six terracotta warrior pits, the principal burial, the queen’s tomb, the accompanying burial area for officials, and architectural remains. The Page 99 Test, in one sense, succeeds here, because the Shizishan mausoleum makes appearances in three of the book’s six chapters and is a prime example of the type of tomb that the book focuses on—the tomb of a relative of the Western Han (202 BCE-9 CE) emperor—a king—who governed a local province on the emperor’s behalf.

On the other hand, after viewing page 99, a reader may assume that Kingly Splendor is simply another book about the top 1%: an account of how the aristocracy used funerary art to support their own status and political authority. Yet what distinguishes this book from other treatments of court art is that it focuses on a group of ruling elites whose circumstances did not resemble those of elites in contemporaneous societies in other parts of the world. China was unique in world history in that the authority of aristocrats was questioned earlier than in other civilizations. This book documents how aristocrats, living in an age where it was no longer acceptable to justify one’s rule based on one’s birth, utilized funerary art as a political strategy to generate support for their rule. It considers how local kings, as critical links between the imperial culture of the central court and the local culture of the provinces, negotiated these two environments, commissioning works that carefully represented their relationships with the imperial court, other kingdoms, and the local polities that they governed.

Kingly Splendor problematizes the contemporary notion that the highly centralized administration of the mid- to late Western Han was the best form of government that the Han could pursue, highlighting the advantages of the unique center-periphery dynamic that we observe in this early period. The book begins with a revisionist account of the early Western Han administration that counters prior views that the system of rule by kings was inherently doomed. Chapter 1 contends that the multicentered system, stabilized during Emperor Wen’s reign (180-157 BCE), fell apart only because later emperors, favoring expansion and centralized rule, dismantled it. The remaining chapters consist of five case studies of local art produced during this early period. Chapters 2-4 study rock-cut tomb architecture, miniature tomb figurines, and jade suits—genres based on imperial precedent, which were significantly transformed when produced in the kingdoms. Chapters 5-6 focus on unique local products: wall paintings and purple textiles, which I propose may have been dyed with shellfish or “murex” dyes. Overall, the diverse topics addressed in the book will appeal broadly to readers interested in court art, burial traditions, archaeology, politics, and material history.
Learn more about Kingly Splendor at the Columbia University Press website. 

--Marshal Zeringue