Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 6, 2000
Lothar Ledderose Ten Thousand Things: Module and Mass Production in Chinese Art Princeton University Press, 2001. 304 pp.; 16 color ills.; 275 b/w ills.; 50 ills. Paper $24.95 (0691009570)

This is a book about how works of art are made, how images and design motifs originate, and how artists think. By grappling with these issues, Lothar Ledderose performs a great service to the field of Chinese art, which has come to focus most of its energies on problems of reception, socio-economic factors, and historiography. Although Ledderose makes no such claim, his book can be read as a radical reorientation, a shifting of the focus of study away from the audience/receiver to the producer/artist. And although it is completely free of the jargon of critical theory, this is a profoundly theoretical book. What Ledderose offers is a theory of how the invention and manipulation of modular units in everything from writing to decorated porcelain made possible the production of huge quantities of artifacts in China and shaped the nature of Chinese thought and society as well. The elegance and originality of his arguments recall similar qualities in the work of E. H. Gombrich; and like Gombrich’s Art and Illusion, Ledderose’s book will be influential and controversial.

Ledderose uses Chinese writing as a paradigm for understanding the logic of modular systems, noting that the largest Chinese dictionary contains close to 50,000 characters, each a different semantic and graphic unit. He argues that devising this system “in which it is possible to produce distinguishable units in a mass of such breathtaking dimensions is the single most distinctive achievement of the Chinese people” (9). The Chinese were able to invent, write, and recognize a huge number of characters by organizing a limited number of elements—in standard script these consist of lines, dots, and hooks—into components, which Ledderose calls modules, and by combining these to form individual characters. Characters, which Ledderose calls units, are combined in series to form texts drawn from the mass of all existing characters. The hierarchical logic of these five categories—element, module, unit, series, and mass—underlies all the other forms of production that Ledderose studies.

In his chapter on ritual bronze vessels, Ledderose argues that the eyes, jaws, horns, tails and other anatomical parts of real or mythic animals that formed the basic vocabulary of Shang dynasty bronze decor, like the modules of written characters, were combined in endlessly varied configurations, fitting into compartmentalized units. Also like handwritten written characters, no two examples of Shang bronzes are exactly the same; in the Eastern Zhou period, however, vessels bearing identical decor are evidence of a “cloning” process based on the use of pattern blocks.

Essential to the success of mass production are “standardization, coordination, and predictability” (48). These principles made possible the most complex feat of mass production in ancient China, the world famous terra-cotta army, comprising some seven thousand life-sized figures, buried to the east of the tomb of the First Emperor. Although most scholars who have written about the figures acknowledge that some kind of modular process was used to make them, Ledderose offers the most complete and the most compelling account of the production of this “magic army.” The key to the process was the use of modules—legs, torsos, hands, and heads fashioned from molds, fitted together, and painted. The portrait-like effect of the faces, which misled some scholars to believe that these were likenesses of individual soldiers, is the result of something that recurs again and again in Ledderose’s account of modular production: multiple, standardized units generated by molds or stamps are given individualized finishing touches by hand.

The production of the terra-cotta army was a triumph of political and social organization, replicating in the domain of material culture the administrative genius, and ruthlessness, that allowed the Qin state to conquer and unify all of China. The names of workmen that appear stamped on 249 of the figures were not signatures marking objects as the creations of individual artists but a means through which quality control could be maintained by tracing inferior workmanship to the person responsible. Techniques of quality control through the use of identifying names and serial numbers also appeared in what Ledderose terms “factory art,” which includes lacquer, bronzes, silk, and ceramics. In his analysis of porcelain production at the Jingdezhen kilns, an example of factory art on a grand scale, Ledderose argues that modular systems facilitated the production and decoration of vast quantities of objects for domestic and international markets. To demonstrate his point, he studies the recently salvaged cargo of the eighteenth-century Dutch freighter Geldermalsen. The more than 150,000 units of porcelain carried from China by the ship were manufactured in series, such as dinner services and teacups with saucers, and were decorated in underglaze blue designs made up of modules such as peony blossoms, garden rocks, and willow trees. Like the modules of Chinese characters, these pictorial motifs were combined in endlessly varied patterns to produce decorations that were both lively and visually coherent when viewed in series.

In a chapter titled “Building Blocks, Brackets, and Beams,” Ledderose applies his theory of modular production to the hierarchical relationship of the elements of traditional Chinese architecture: bracketing, bays, individual buildings, courtyards, and cities. His detailed examination of the pagoda at Hokkiji, a temple in Japan, and the Yingxian Pagoda in Shanxi province are among the clearest explanations in a Western language of how traditional East Asian timber structures were built. Printing, the subject of another chapter, is by its very nature a means of mass production. Originating in China no later the seventh century, printing from carved wood blocks was prefigured, Ledderose demonstrates, by earlier modular technologies that also transferred designs from one surface to another—bronze casting, stamped decorations on clay and textiles, and seals.

A chapter on paintings of the Ten Kings of Hell produced by Lu Xinzhong and his workshop in Ningbo during the thirteenth century draws on Ledderose’s many years of research on these works. He shows that these large, complex depictions of the bureaucratic administrators of the underworld were produced through the use of stencils and pouncing sheets that allowed painters to produce large numbers of paintings by assembling standardized pictorial modules. Iconographic modules and compositional schema appropriated from other genres, such as secular and religious portraiture and representations of scholars in their gardens, collectively signified the authority and status of the infernal judges presiding over the hell scenes.

If, as Ledderose compellingly demonstrates, art in China depends so greatly on the replication of modular units, what role is played by the creativity of individual minds? In a final chapter, “Freedom of the Brush?,” Ledderose returns to calligraphy, the art most valued by China’s educated elite, and discusses also types of paintings associated with this class. In these arts, shaped by “aesthetic ambition,” what is most valued is the artist’s ability to transcend the limitations of modular production and to create unique, inimitable forms unwanted and unacceptable in mass-produced objects. But to a greater extent than Ledderose acknowledges, even a work as seemingly spontaneous and unfettered as Huaisu’s Autobiography in “mad cursive script” depends on the same logic of repeatable graphs apparent in calligraphy by anonymous scribes expected to replicate texts faithfully, not to indulge in artistic self-expression. Although Huaisu displays astonishing powers of invention in his brushwork, his abbreviations of characters are based on calligraphic conventions that yield a series of legible graphs, not a field of improvisatory abstract shapes.

What will make Ledderose’s book controversial is his attempt to establish connections between modular production in art and what he sees as modes of political and social organization unique to China and “a distinctly Chinese pattern of thought.” He acknowledges that modular production and decor appear in other cultures and cites examples such as the use of stencils in fifteenth-century Timurid painting; many other examples ranging from the classical orders of European architecture to patterned African textiles readily come to mind. It may be that the capacity to create standardized units that can be adapted to a multiplicity of functions is a characteristic not just of all cultures but of human culture itself from its very origins. The archaeologist Stephen Mithen sees in the systematic blade production of the Upper Palaeolithic evidence of standardized ‘blanks’ that were modified to form various multicomponent tools—an approach to fashioning objects that distant human ancestors apparently shared with the Chinese potters at Jingdezhen or the painters who made the Kings of Hell scrolls. The greatest contribution of Ledderose’s brilliant book may lie in the clarity and precision with which he helps us to see how the Chinese harnessed with matchless ingenuity and efficiency a fundamental human capacity to keep doing the same thing over and over, perhaps in the hope that eventually we will get it right.

Robert E. Harrist, Jr.
Jane and Leopold Swergold Professor of Chinese Art History, Department of Art History and Architecture, Columbia University