The Cult of Completing/Contemplating the Past: Chinese Art History in/with Time

Wei-Cheng Lin, University of Chicago


“Contemplating the past,” or huaigu, refers to a mode of dialogue in pre-modern China with the past in which the temporal dislocation of the past evokes its remembrance and significance in the present. While the irreversible passage of time is key to huaigu, as Wu Hung argues, the remains and traces of a former material existence, or lack thereof, maximize the economy of the huaigu sentiment. Interestingly, modern museums, while being a depository of the former historical remains, seem to have been instituted to discharge their capacity of doing so through restoration and preservation. By freezing them in the present and by reconstructing a “context,” the former artifacts are again complete in their historical times. To a great extent, art history as a discipline has aimed precisely to historicize art and retrieve its history as it was in time, though recent scholars, such as Wu, have begun to unfreeze art of the past and take into account its historical trajectory since its making in our understanding of art. Following this scholarship, the present study will explore the tension and conflicts between the modern preservation and restoration and the lives of artifacts as most of them were destined to be perishable or ephemeral and not intended for eternity or being fossilized. In particular, the so-called cultural relics, or wenwu, and the definition of it, are conceptualized only in modern times and more often than not involved issues (e.g., state politics) beyond their historical values. I shall argue that the belief in restoration back an artifact’s origins, or what I call the “cult of completing the past,” so often seen in the museum practice and scholarly inquiries, seems to have undermined rather than diversified the complexity in regard to our thinking of Chinese art history with time.