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Poetry and Painting in Song China

Poetry and Painting in Song China

The Subtle Art of Dissent

Alfreda Murck

ISBN 9780674007826

Publication date: 04/01/2002

Throughout the history of imperial China, the educated elite used various means to criticize government policies and actions. During the Song dynasty (960-1278), some members of this elite found an elegant and subtle means of dissent: landscape painting.

By examining literary archetypes, the titles of paintings, contemporary inscriptions, and the historical context, Alfreda Murck shows that certain paintings expressed strong political opinions—some transparent, others deliberately concealed. She argues that the coding of messages in seemingly innocuous paintings was an important factor in the growing respect for painting among the educated elite and that the capacity of painting's systems of reference to allow scholars to express dissent with impunity contributed to the art's vitality and longevity.


  • In late eleventh-century China, a group of disaffected government officials, their careers in disarray and their lives sometimes at risk, found ways to express political dissent and personal grievances through the use of literary allusions. Expressing dissatisfaction could be dangerous, so these allusions had to be oblique...Circulating among like-minded people, these coded expressions of protest and discontent were relatively secure from outsiders' scrutiny. They are even more difficult to access today—or have been, I should say. This impressively researched, deeply ruminated book opens the door to their meaning.

    —Susan E. Nelson, College Art Association Reviews


  • Alfreda Murck is an independent scholar living in Beijing.

Book Details

  • 440 pages
  • 8-1/2 x 11 inches
  • Harvard University Asia Center