Preface - Way - Principle - Idea - Method - Synthesis - References
[Wong, Wucius. The Tao of Chinese Landscape Painting, Principles & Methods. New York: Design Press. 1991.]
Appearance and Spirit
Reality and Truth
Sight and Scene
Feelings and Emotions
Cultivation of Personality
Scholarship and Experience
Materiality and Immateriality
Idea and Spontaneity
T E X T: - [NOTE: The visuals from the original text are not yet provided]
Part One: Way
Chinese painting represents a unique part of Chinese civilization, which, while absorbing external influences and making necessary adjustments at certain times in its long history, has remained remarkably continuous. The evolution of Chinese painting over many centuries has established a strong tradition of general independence and self-generating force. Although Chinese painting today bears the influence of ideas and techniques from the West, it remains a distinctly different kind of art, maintaining the essence of its tradition.
That essence rests, first of all, in the persistent employment of brush and ink on absorbent paper, with monochromatic linear elements and voids, and in artists' preference for subject matter derived from nature. Less apparent but perhaps more deeply rooted is the adherence to a specific attitude towards nature. This attitude accounts for the development of a unique landscape vision distinguishing Chinese painting from that of other cultures.
For thousands of years a majority of the Chinese people have been farmers, relying on changes of weather and the seasons for their harvests. Struggles with nature gradually became efforts to seek attunement with nature, a view of life preoccupying the Chinese mentality. The notion of Tao, or the Way, permeated ancient thoughts and is central to Chinese philosophy, establishing the fundamental notion that nature and humanity are one.
This belief has diminished somewhat the Chinese people's need for religion. Chinese painting has never been of direct service to religious practices, with the exception of certain mural works in caves and temples, which play only a nominal role in the history of Chinese painting. Artists' aspirations to attain oneness with nature resulted in the rise of landscape painting as early as the eighth century, with the landscape soon superseding figure painting in the mainstream.
The beauty of Chinese painting has an undeniably universal appeal. The particular aesthetic values of the form are not easily understood by contemporary Westerners, however, and pose considerable impediments to full appreciation. Such values reach back to ancient Confucian and Taoist thought, and have been greatly shaped by a society dominated over the centuries by scholars of the ruling class. Most of these values retain their validity and their relevance for artistic thinking today. They largely determine what makes a painting Chinese.
Some characteristics of Chinese landscape painting are easy to identify. Artists generally present mountains and water as they are seen from above and from a great distance, and yet they employ no stationary viewpoint and no fixed horizon, with many miles encompassed by just a few inches. What appears in the painting thus differs considerably from ordinary human vision, which is restricted by the position, angle, and scope of the eye and by the moment of seeing. Instead, the artist realizes his vision directly from his heart, where the entire universe dwells. As he paints, the artist arranges his mountains and water in accordance with a guiding principle of nature, and he frequently identifies himself with elements in the landscape, or the entire landscape that forms the painting.
The artist intends the landscape not just for viewing but for a more spiritual journey. That is, the viewer should not merely see, but should read a painting, starting and ending his reading at any chosen point each time he views the painting. Each landscape painting reveals a microcosm representing some aspect of nature in its wholeness. Being drawn into the painting, the viewer can ascend the peak of a mountain, look down at the clouds veiling part of the valley, approach a terraced cliff to watch a waterfall, descend to the foot of the mountain, walk along a river bank, and finally rest on a large piece of rock surrounded by rushing water. To tour the landscape again, the viewer might wander amidst trees and shrubs, tracing a small footpath into the deep mist. Numerous alternatives of lingering interest provide different experiences within each painting.
In another way, the landscape is an expression of rhythms of the universe. The artist accomplishes this less with his ability to realistically represent his subject matter than through asserting the presence of the artist's self in conformity with the working principles of nature. With spirited brush and ink articulations, and with compositions that animate the movement of the elements and achieve harmony of the opposites, the artist transcends a literal landscape.
It seems imperative to overcome the problem of jargon and to define the key terms relating to Chinese aesthetics in order to grasp the basic concepts of Chinese landscape painting. Many of these terms are rather ambiguous and not easily explained. They have multiple layers of meaning, with varying interpretations and without exact equivalents in other languages. What I shall try to do in this part of the text is to explain these key terms and concepts as plainly as possible, making comparisons and contrasts with Western art theories and contemporary modes of thinking. In a world of instantaneous electronic communication, which has shrunk distances and minimized cultural gaps, the Chinese painting tradition becomes part of the world art tradition, and it should serve as one of the active forces in present and future artistic developments. [p. 13]
Nature, in our common understanding of the word, means the entire material world and, more specifically, the part not changed by human beings. In this narrow sense, nature stands apart from the human race, which sees nature as an environment in which it resides and struggles for survival. We might regard the environment as friendly when conditions seem agreeable, or call it hostile when conditions threaten our existence. We see and feel this material world through our senses. It exists outside the inner world where our passions, desires, imaginations, aspirations, fears, and dreams are nested, and it ranges from the celestial bodies of the universe to subatomic activity.
Nature appears to us in three-dimensional space, with length, breadth, and height. Normally earth-bound, affected by our own weights and gravity, we see from specific locations, and are aware of what is high and what is low, what is near and what is far. We measure with our bodies to determine what is large and what is small. We are free to move in space, and as we move we recognize changes in distance and probably altitude, and we see differently with the changes. All changes incorporate time, an additional dimension. Movements mark the passage of time, but time proceeds without any noticeable movement, irrevocably.
As human beings in front of nature, we are well aware of our shortcomings. We see only to the extent of the capability of our eyes, which can recognize objects within a finite range of sizes, distances, and colors under suitable illuminations. When we see from one position, we cannot see from another position. When we see at this moment, we cannot see at a previous moment or a forthcoming moment. We are trapped in space and in time, and our experience of this material world outside ourselves is based on fragmentary information gathered here and now, there and in the past, and sorted out to make sense. Our limitations contrast greatly with nature, which stretches well beyond space and time.
In a broad sense, nature stands for the totality of things and phenomena, visible or invisible, tangible or intangible, known or unknown, including human beings. Although a human being might regard his or her existence as a separate entity, nature in its wholeness asserts a continuum of self-being, a naturalness with a definite order and harmony. As a matter of fact, the Chinese characters standing for the word nature are tsü, and jan, meaning respectively self and being, and the two characters together mean naturalness [Fig. 1]
Nature represents all-encompassing existence, with changes and movements, without beginning or end, and without boundaries. Humanity, as part of nature, is just one among myriad kinds of living creatures. Predetermined to have the ability to think and feel, and to effect minor diversions within the great changes and movements, humans remain slaves to basic drives, incapable of escaping from the life cycle of birth, aging, sickness, and death.
The concept of nature in the narrower view differs considerably from that of the broader view. In terms of artistic expression, the narrower view stresses the role of the observant human eye, which occupies a point in space and a moment in time, as a receptacle of all information outside it, adjacent to it, and within its scope of sensibility. The human mind filters, organizes, and interprets such information, which is modified by feelings and moods and visualized by the human hand with available tools and materials. The work of art communicates this information to another human eye and mind, which reinterpret the visualized results. When the narrower view prevails, an artist might present, a tree close to the eye of the observer as larger than a far mountain [Fig. 2], following rules of perspective.
In the broader view, nature exists both outside and inside the observer who, seeing and taking in visual clues, is only an extension of what is before and around him or her. The observer as artist does not have to rely on the act of seeing, restricted in space and time. As he is fully fused with nature, all of its elements exist within him, ready for realization, and ready to be shared by another person as viewer. When the broader view prevails, an artist might depict a mountain as larger than a tree, maintaining to some extent their natural size relationships [Fig. 3].
Pictorial representation of three-dimensional space and volume on a two-dimensional surface inevitably requires a kind of dimensional transformation, a method of creating form that can be communicated on the human level. With the narrower view, the artist depicts nature as though it is observed on a stage or through a window, with parallel lines merging towards a vanishing point in the distance. This view is most effectively communicated through a system of scientific perspective, and is further modeled with stylized lighting that enhances solidity of the objects with clear reference to space and time. With the broader view, the artist depicts nature in a less personal manner, as though it has always been there. Although it generally appears as what would be seen by the human eye from a considerable distance and altitude, nature is not observed simply from one particular location. Rather, its realization conforms to an underlying principle that guides the visualization of the elements. [p. 14]
Tao. Nature has a visible and tangible aspect that can be seen and felt. The Chinese give this the name wu [Fig. 4], which means matter, substance, thing, object, or the entire material world. Nature also has an invisible and intangible aspect, beyond the direct experience of the senses. This relates to sequential changes in cyclic patterns, which suggest a purpose or a definite way behind the occurrrences of different phenomena. The Chinese call this aspect of nature, of which human beings are a part, Tao [Fig. 5], which can be translated literally as the Way. Wu, pertaining to appearances in space, and Tao, pertaining to manifestations in time, are actually inseparable, for humans recognize Tao only through the perception of wu.
The notion of Tao proccupies Chinese philosophical thinking and has shaped much of Chinese culture. This notion is perhaps best explained in the words of Lao Tzu, regarded as the originator of Taoism:
There is wu mysteriously formed,
Born before Heaven and Earth,
Existing in silence and void,
Independent and unchanging,
Perpetually present and in motion.
It can be regarded as mother of all things.
I do not know its name,
Except by calling it Tao,
Or inadequately calling it great.
Great means fleeting,
Fleeting means going far;
Going far means returning.
Therefore, Tao is great,
Heaven is great, Earth is great,
And man is also great.
These are the four greats of the universe.
With man being one of them.
Man follows Earth;
Earth follows Heaven;
Heaven follows Tao;
Tao follows naturalness.
Tao comes naturally into being. It is well beyond the dimensions known to human beings. Its effects, however, can be sensed in the alternation of days and nights, in the recurring sequence of the seasons, in the growth, decay, and rebirth of every level of organic life, and in the inescapable cycle of birth, aging, sickness, and death. All things, including humans, as constituents in the wholeness of Tao's manifestations, must follow a pre-established way to be and to become in the space-time continuum. [p. 15]
Yin and Yang. Although self-existent, Taoconsists of Wu-chi [Fig. 6], the Ultimate Nothingness, leading to T'ai-chi [Fig. 7], the Ultimate Beginning. T'ai-chi engenders yin [Fig. 8] and yang [Fig 9], two configurations that seem dichotomous opposites, but which are really complementary aspects. This is an ancient concept contained in I Ching [Fig. 10], or Book of Changes, a Confucian classic of philosophical significance associated with ancient practices of divination, with commentaries by Confucius himself [in the sixth c. B.C.] and annotations by other, unknown writers.
Yin and yang constituting T'ai-chi can be graphically presented in a diagram called the T'ai-chi T'u[Fig. 11], which features yang as a bright shape on the left, expanding at the top and contracting at the bottom, and yin as a dark shape, expanding at the bottom and contracting at the top. Within the bright yang, a small dark dot occupies the center of the expanding area, and likewise a small bright dot occupies the center of the expanding area of the dark yin. The two shapes are identical, arranged in rotational symmetry to form an overall circular shape. The T'ai-chidiagram shows that yin is intrinsic to yang and vice versa. The expansion of one beyond fullness activates the emergence of the other, in an eternal cycle.
Yin and yang basically stand for femininity and masculinity, but their meanings extend to various seemingly opposing concepts such as passiveness and activeness, submissiveness and aggressiveness, weakness and strength, softness and firmness, retrogression and progression, concavity and convexity, inwardness and outwardness, resting and moving, receiving and giving. They also stand for woman and man, moon and sun, Earth and Heaven, or the shady side and the sunny side of a mountain. [p. 16]
Li. The interactions of yin and yang give birth to all things, and all things, their formations, changes, and interrelationships, conform to Li [Fig. 12], the Principle. The idea of Li is the main issue of neo-Confucian metaphysics of the Sung Dynasty [960-1279 A.D.]. As Taorefers simply to the what, Li is the how or the why. The reason behind things taking shape, things changing, things being affected by or affecting other things can be traced to an all-pervading constant principle. Also, Li imposes a particular order upon the occurrence of one thing, and a general order upon all things, to be followed without exception.
In a way, Li provides the laws governing the operations of nature, so the artist who paints representational subject matter based upon the themes of nature should be aware of such laws and be fluent with their applications. He should know how and why a mountain rises above the plain, forming peaks and terraces, linking to other land formations, with particular textures and vegetations; how and why water flows downhill, filling the crevices of the earth's surface, running as creeks and streams into lakes and rivers, and finally pouring into the ocean.
An explication of the notion of Li appears in the following passage from an essay by Tsung Ping [375-443 A.D.], considered the earliest important treatise on landscape painting:
There are the k' un-lun mountain ranges. Here is the eye. The eye cannot apprehend the shape within an inch but can encompass it a few miles away within the tiny pupil. Size diminishes with distance. Viewing through sheer silk, we can have the whole mountain range confined in a square inch. A vertical stroke can represent the height of one thousand fathoms. Ink marks stretching only a few feet wide can stand for the scope of a hundred miles . . . . As the eye sees and the heart responds to the landscape, visualized with skillful techniques, other eyes and hearts should see and respond in a similar manner. Seeing and responding lead to the feeling for the spirit which is transcended with Li established. In this way the actual landscape offers no more satisfaction than the painting. Moreover, the spirit is intangible but assumes appearances and makes associations, and Li can be subtly revealed among shades and marks of a superbly done painting as ultimate realizations. [p. 18]
In realizing nature in a painting, the artist strives not to re-create the appearances but to re-establish a vital breath in the forms, marks, textures, and spaces. This vital breath refers to a self-generating life force, which the Chinese call ch'i [Fig. 13], the Chinese character literally meaning air. Showing the presence of a vital breath, a painting is no longer a dead thing, but has acquired a life of its own.
A viewer cannot simply point out the presence of ch'i in a painting; it has to be sensed. Ch'i is a manifestation of an animated spirit and is usually linked with Li, which provides the integrating relationships of the elements working together to constitute wholeness. Chu Hsi, a Sung philosopher, explains the ch'i and Liconcepts as follows:
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