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With the generous support of the Lo Kwee Seong Foundation, the OCS is delighted to welcome Professor Martin Powers, Sally Michelson Davidson Professor of Chinese Arts and Cultures at the University of Michigan, as our speaker for the Annual K. S. Lo Memorial Lecturer for 2018. 

In this lecture Professor Powers will discuss Xiaoyao (逍遥) and its legacy in Chinese Art. In example, on a Song period painting in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, nine dragons emerge and disappear while writhing among swirling clouds. (illustrated in detail above) In China, dragons had the power to disappear as cloud and mist, or reappear at will. The artist’s inscription refers to two prominent Song writers who saw dragons as exemplars of xiaoyao, a state of free wondering unconstrained by custom or convention. Just as dragons move freely in all directions, an open-minded man can break free of conventional views, thinking outside the box, letting his mind wander “beyond the four seas.” Ideas of this sort were common among Song intellectuals, but what is less well known is that these notions hark back to classical times and the philosopher Zhuangzi. From the beginning, Zhuangzi’s notion of xiaoyao took inspiration from images of dragons and “spirit men” that could be seen on bronze and lacquer objects in early times. In fact, on the backs of ancient mirrors in the same Museum of Fine Arts, we again find dragons disappearing or reappearing depending on how you hold the mirror in the light, or how you focus your vision. From the time of Zhuangzi right through to the Song, the philosophy of free thought in China was closely bound to fleeting images of clouds and dragons. What, in the end, was the connection? This lecture explores the subtle dialogue between image and idea from ancient bronze mirrors through to the runaway ink splatter on a Song dynasty handscroll.

Professor Martin Powers is Sally Michelson Davidson Professor of Chinese Arts and Cultures at the University of Michigan, and former director of the Center for Chinese Studies.  In 1993 his Art and Political Expression in Early China, Yale University Press, received the Levenson Prize for the best book in pre-twentieth century Chinese studies.  His research focuses on the role of the arts in the history of human relations in China, with an emphasis on issues of personal agency and social justice. His Pattern and Person: Ornament, Society, and Self in Classical China, was published by Harvard University Press East Asian Series in 2006 and was awarded the Levenson Prize for 2008. He has served on numerous national committees, including NEH, ACLS, and the advisory board of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts. He has taught at Tsinghua University, Peking University, and Zhejiang University, and has published articles and essays in multiple venues in Chinese, including an editorial series in the journal of culture and current affairs, Du Shu. In 2009 he was resident at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton writing his recently published book entitled China and England:The Preindustrial Struggle for Justice in Word and Image. This book explores the role of “China” in the cultural politics of the English Enlightenment. Together with Dr. Katherine Tsiang, he has co-edited Looking at Asian Art and the Blackwell Companion to Chinese Art.

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