When salt paid for plum blossoms

The flowering plum branches fanning out in a delicate openwork pattern over the surface of the hanging scroll by the 18th-century Yangchow painter Chin Nung (1687-1764) seem remote in the extreme from that common and widely used substance, salt. Yet salt was the vital ingredient in the economic success story that was Yangchow, so advantageously placed at the confluence of the Yangtze River and the Grand Canal. Yangchow was not only the headquarters for the national transport system of which the Grand Canal was the linchpin, it also served as the salt distribution center for all of China.

By the late Ming Dynasty, the government had turned over the distribution of salt, previously a state monopoly, to a small number of merchants who acted as wholesalers. These salt traders amassed such vast fortunes that by the 18th century they had become the wealthiest commercial group in China. Having acquired financial resources in abundance and desiring to achieve upper-class status for themselves, the newly rich merchants looked to the literati scholars and gentry to discover what the trappings of refinement were. These, they found, included collecting antiques and books as well as paintings and calligraphy, and they set about to procure these accouterments of refined taste for their own enjoyment.

Because of Yangchow's affluent society, a new kind of art patronage developed there. Traditionally in China, art patrons had belonged to literati and courtly circles. Now the Yangchow mercantile collectors surpassed them as major consumers of art, and the favorable cultural climate of the city drew artists from such centers of painting as Hangchow, Nanking, and Suchow.

The broadening of patronage to include the merchants led to a change of taste that influenced subject matter. While critical acclaim still depended upon literati endorsement, landscape, previously the main staple of their taste, played only a minor role in the production of the Yangchow artists. Birds and flowers as well as figures and everyday objects like vegetables were the favorite subjects of the merchant patrons.

Chin Nung was one of the most prominent of the so-called ''Eight Strange Masters of Yangchow'' or the ''Eight Yangchow Eccentrics,'' terms used to describe some dozen or so individualist painters who worked in amateur styles in a sort of protest against the professional Academy artists painting in orthodox styles. The amateur tradition was predicated upon the idea that painting, for educated gentlemen, was a leisure activity to be cultivated for its own sake and not pursued for monetary gain. But the Yangchow painters, who, for one reason or another, were not serving as officials and were without private incomes, were forced to paint on commission to make their living, as the professionals did.

A native of Hangchow, Chin Nung traveled around for years with a group of artisans who sold antiques, mixed inks, and carved seals and inkstones. He was a fine poet and calligrapher, who did not begin painting seriously until after the age of 50, when poor health forced his retirement to Yangchow. He was never financially successful and at one point even had to resort to decorating paper lanterns to support himself.

In contrast with the powerfully vigorous lines of his calligraphic styles, which he evolved from ancient models, the brushwork in his paintings of plum blossoms, in which he specialized, is characterized by subtle shadings that define space. Although he paid homage to Sung masters, his painting approach was highly personal. In this painting, dated to 1760, Chin used a boneless style of brushwork rather than outlining the branches. He has played with the forms to create a patterning over the surface reminiscent of the ''cracked ice'' motif symbolizing the advent of spring that is often found on blue and white porcelains of the Ch'ing Dynasty.

This hanging scroll was part of an exhibition entitled ''The Eighteenth Century Yangchow School of Chinese Painting and Calligraphy,'' on view at the University of California Art Museum, Berkeley, earlier this year, under the direction of Prof. James F. Cahill.

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