Maung Shwe Yon was a highly acclaimed 19th-century master silversmith from Rangoon. Harry L Tilly, the aforementioned British expert on Burmese art, was effusive in his praise for Maung Shwe Yon. He described one of his pierced bowls as ‘the best example of this kind of work ever produced’ in his 1902 monograph, The Silverwork of Burma.
For my generation, born after the “Renovation” reform of Đổi Mới in 1986, “The War”—as most Vietnamese call what almost everyone else calls the Vietnam War—only exists in history books.
It’s a well-worn assertion, even a cliché, that art and spirituality are inextricably linked. A concrete representation of the subject for religious meditation is, we could say, a visible aid to devotion: not so much the object itself, but what it symbolizes, which is important to the viewer (or listener if it’s music).
In 1865, the eminent American journalist and abolitionist Frederick Douglass delivered a lecture called “Pictures and Progress”, in which he discussed the role of photography in exposing the evils of racism and slavery. Referring to Louis Daguerre, he pointed out that “men of all conditions and classes can now see themselves as others see them, and as they will be seen by those who come after them,” and that “man is the only picture-making animal in the world. He alone of all the inhabitants of earth has the capacity and passion for pictures.”
In a 1975 review of Marius Jansen’s Japan and China: From War to Peace, 1894-1972, Chalmers Johnson wrote, “One of the long-standing defects of Western scholarship on eastern Asia is its compartmentalization. China and Japan are usually studied in isolation from each other.” An accomplished scholar of both countries’ histories by then, Johnson knew of what he spoke, and praised Jansen’s exception to the academic rule. Were he still alive and reviewing, Johnson would surely similarly praise China and Japan: Facing History, the most recent work by another eminent scholar of east Asia, the soon-to-be-90 Ezra Vogel.
The global rivalry between China and the United States dominates the geopolitics of the 21st century. The world’s two largest economies armed with an impressive array of military capabilities are engaged in a struggle for power in the Asia-Pacific region, and the outcome of that struggle will determine the 21st century’s world order.
Very few people (other than Anthony Janson in his monumental History of Art, published in 1968) would attempt to write a history of an entire country’s art, and even fewer could do it in one volume and cover a period from 15,000 BCE right up to the present day. Professor Tsuji does this for Japanese art with ease, elegance, humor and consummate erudition in an attractive volume printed on first-class paper and packed with quality color and black-and-white illustrations. What’s more, it isn’t a large format coffee-table book like Janson’s, which means a reader can actually curl up on a chair and read it quite comfortably. As Tsuji says, though, “to survey the vast sweep of Japanese art history was a great challenge and a daunting task;” but we are lucky that he also tells us “not only did no such book exist, but I needed one myself!”