I WITNESSED a miracle. On November 22, 2013, Berkeley held the last symposium in honor of James Cahill to be given during his lifetime. I was invited to speak alongside two of Cahill’s former students, now all eminent scholars in the field: Richard Vinograd (Stanford) and Patricia Berger (Berkeley). The person who crashed the party was the honoree himself. Before the symposium started, Cahill showed up in a wheelchair, attended by his caretaker. With his unflagging vigor, he had largely mocked the ruthless law of nature throughout his retirement years. But in the final months of his life, Father Time finally caught up with him. I greeted him, and it was only after I pronounced my name loudly that he recognized me. Never, however, count Cahill out. He surprised the organizers with a modest proposal: He wished to present. And present he did. The wheelchair-bound man, advanced in age and now cognitively struggling to recognize faces, spoke in his tenor voice, crisp, sharp, uncluttered, with an eloquence that was unadulterated vintage Cahillian. What I witnessed was a clinical case of how a great mind works. Other cognitive faculties tethered to his large physical frame had begun to forsake him. However, the robust engine driving a distinct part of his mind, fueled and loaded with a lifetime dedication to Chinese art, throbbed on, unimpaired. The voice that filled the hall came across as a disembodied, soaring spirit, unburdened by the flailing body, as if it had emanated from the recorded tape of one of the lectures Cahill had delivered on so many occasions. That mind attached to Chinese art lives on. It is still with us, alive.

It was fitting that on this occasion Cahill spoke on seventeenth-century Chinese topographic paintings. His magisterial trilogy on Chinese painting ends with the seventeenth century. The Norton Lecture he once delivered at Harvard also focuses on this dynamic period, a subject that had consumed a good part of his intellectual energy. The master narrative he fashioned therein is a tale of two impulses: a literati mode long on self-organizing forms and short on observation-derived verisimilitude, and a professional mode the other way around. The literati won. It was largely due to Cahill and his generation of scholars that the Western readers learned and bought into that story. However, wary of seeing his master plot hardening into an overweening orthodoxy that overwhelmed other impulses, Cahill sought to erode the foundation of the edifice he had successfully built by deflating the loftiness of the literati ideal, weighing in on the losing side of his plotline, and calling attention to the vitality and validity of the professional craftsmanship and practice. The topographic illusionism of garden paintings and well-wrought portraits of female beauty executed in the professional mode preoccupied him in his final years. So it was that he gave his last lecture on topographic paintings of country estates. Later Cahill took on early Cahill. We thus see the self-renewal of a great mind capable of exalting both sides of the story. It is a win-win situation. Cahill shall be at peace with himself in his afterlife: He remains a winner, as always.

Eugene Wang is the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller professor of Asian art at Harvard University.