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China’s Literati Painting

China’s Literati Painting

Prose translation:

Alone, the lotus on the side of the winding pond opens in flower — wisps of broken mist, wafts of faint fragrance: too visionary to portray!

The wild geese are gone now, gone with the reflections of the sail; but the dragonfly, chasing the emerald waves, still comes.

(Translation by Ben Wang)

China’s Literati Painting

By Ben Wang, Senior Lecturer
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No discussion of Literati Painting, unique to the Chinese culture, can be conducted without taking a good look at how poetry, calligraphy and painting came into being and ripened in China through the centuries, before they finally came to join forces to give birth to a new genre that is Literati Painting, an ideal blending of poetry, calligraphy and painting.

Since antiquity an intimate relation between Nature and the mostly farmers on the vast land of China has led the people to believe that Heaven and the sun, as one, is their father and Earth, the moon, their mother, and the myriad things in between, their alter egos or doppelgangers. A classical Chinese poem is a rich tapestry woven with the poet’s observations of Nature and the myriad allusions to the lives and events of his parents and his own, often with the poet assuming the personae of Nature and the many allusions to natural elements. Artists of classical Chinese art and literature seem incapable of separating themselves from Nature and the lives of men of yore, all of which serve as literary metaphors in their compositions. In no other literary and artistic form is this phenomenon more evident than in China’s Literati Painting, unique to the Chinese culture, yet universal in how it can be appreciated by all those interested in beauty and art in this human world.

The Chinese culture first flowered in great profusion during the Zhou Period, from 1,100 to 500 B. C., when all cultural genres were created, invented and flourished, one major genre being the written language based on pictograph, which led to songs and then to the composition of poetry. Attempts to make these pictographic written images more elegant and special became the art of calligraphy, which, along with poetry, is held in the highest esteem by the Chinese.

Since poetry is inseparable from music, this is where the sounds and the 4 tones (tonal pitches) come in to be an integral part of poetry. There are more onomatopoeia sounds in Chinese than in any other languages. Different tones are set to these sounds. Two of the tones are in the high and the other two in the low, set to sounds/characters that represent all things. The 2 high tones are set to pictographic characters that should belong in the world of Yang, the masculine force, while the other 2 low tones set to words that should be in the world of Yin, the feminine force. A perfect union and balance between the high and low tones are essential in poetry composition. By the Tang dynasty the Chinese poets and other members of the intelligentsia had already had more than 2,000 years to work out a perfect scheme of tones in composing a fine poem.

As for calligraphy, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest that the written characters are the soul of the Chinese culture. As all characters were created based on pictographs, they all underwent different linear changes and developed into 4 calligraphic styles: the Seal, the Clerical, the Kai or Running, and the Cursive: Seal for somberness, formality and ceremony; Clerical for scholarly learning; Kai or Running for mind of ease and appearance of panache; Cursive for poetic abandonment and bravura spirit. As how different moods these four styles can express respectively, lines on a Chinese painting are often painted with the same technique as maneuvering a brush when practicing the four calligraphic styles. These different calligraphic styles can also represent different moods of the artist or the spirits of the different paintings the artist is trying to create, and thus became the spine-bone of Chinese painting.

As Sun Guoting, a Tang dynasty calligrapher and theorist on calligraphy of the 7th century, pointed out how calligraphy carries with it the imagery of nature by remarking, “When you write with a brush forcefully, the strokes can look like heavy clouds; when lightly, like the wings of a cicada. When the brush is pulled, the strokes can resemble a falling cascade; when the brush is pushed down, the strokes can resemble a majestic mountain standing still.” The best description of calligraphy, however, is perhaps the one provided by one ancient Chinese scholar when he commented, “Calligraphy is images without real features, music without real sounds.” And by now it is a famous statement by Picasso that if he had been Chinese, he would have instinctively become a calligrapher, not a painter.

To further elaborate the close relationship between poetry and calligraphy, let’s contemplate on this: As it is inconceivable for a Westerner to decorate a garden with boards on which poetic lines are carved or written – can anyone imagine a board with “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” carved on it in an English garden? – it is natural and common to find in a Chinese garden a large number of wooden or bamboo plates on which poetic lines in calligraphy are engraved, providing the viewer gratified emotions humans feel while being close to nature, a harmony between humans and their surroundings. And through this the Chinese artists blend Nature with man-made nature, the characters, with one complementing the other. Nature itself comes to meet art works portraying nature: art works that combine music and poetry. Now a few words on painting: Chinese painting is derived from drawing lines directly from wall paintings during the Han dynasty. The conception of the traditional or classical Chinese painting is based primarily on Taoism, whose central theme is ‘detachment,’ in that Tao exists everywhere, and that humans are only part of the universe, a Chinese painter paints with more than one perspective. This may help explain the most noticeable characteristics of a Chinese painting: the non-existence of shades, blank spaces, and mostly black or black-toned brushwork. The non-existence of shades render a delicate line between likeness and unlikeness in how the painted objects resemble the real objects; the blank space suggests a perfect balance between heaven and earth; black and black-toned ink to the Chinese artists can “blossom to 10 shades,” so what’s the point of using other colors?

Back to the Chinese artistic perspective: With the fore-mentioned conviction, lines and dots are drawn with brush and ink on flat paper, from different perspectives, whether from the earth level or from mid-air, as if the painter has detached himself from any point of spot he is painting to express his appreciation of Nature, an appreciation derived from the belief of the Taoist teaching that “Tao (the Way) is everywhere in the universe.” An idealized Nature, rather than a mere likeness of nature, gives the artist’s ultimate hope and comfort of reaching Tao, the Way, through painting with flowing motions, but without a close likeness in proportion and anatomy. As corporeal beauty has never been part of the Chinese artistic tradition, the Chinese artists have never been interested in the detailed study of the likeness of things, including the human body parts. Essentialism as opposed to realism, on the other hand, is the ultimate reach of a Chinese artist. It is in this spirit that Literati Painting was born and flourished in China. As Su Shi of the Song dynasty commented on the poetry and painting by Wang Wei of the Tang dynasty, “While reading and chanting Wang Wei’s poetry, one sees in one’s mind exquisite landscape painting; conversely, while watching his painting, one enters the realm of poetry.” This observation makes it abundantly clear that during the late Tang Period that painting was approaching maturity.

Yes, it all happened during the Tang dynasty, from the 7th through the 10th centuries, that both poetry and calligraphy reached their ripe and glorious heights, and the twilight years of the Tang saw the gradual ripening of painting, which led the Chinese artists and men of letters to come to fantasize and deem that paintings could complement literary works to offer a more rounded and more appreciation to a reader, viewer and listener at the same time. And so it was: With this newly found and uniquely literary and artistic realization, a new literary and artistic genre was born: Literati Painting, a genre that embodies the 3 aspects: poetry, music and painting!

An artist of Literati Painting paints mostly natural elements, which often serve as the artist’s alter-ego. A great Literati Painting work shows the artist’s eyes, heart and brush on clouds, petals, mountains, river, rain drops, breezes, seasons, among other natural elements, joining forces to express the painter/poet’s inner emotions. More important, on a fine piece of literati painting, a poem must be composed of lines with elegant characters which are selected for their poetic meanings and visual beauty written out in a properly chosen calligraphic style, according to the artist’s mood and to provide the viewer/reader with a joy at once visceral and cerebral. And when the poem is recited, resonant sounds and balanced tones would contribute to the pleasantness. As a viewer is enjoying the poem in fine calligraphy, in ears would ring the pleasing sounds set to the pictographic characters. While the poetry and its characters provide visualized thoughts to the viewer, their tonal sounds make up for what the eyes cannot see and where only the mind or imagination can reach – and thereby the acquisition of a total and rounded enjoyment of a union of poetry and art.

Another fascinating point as regards the genre is that the poem on a literati painting enjoys a special literary title, Poem That Thematizes the Painting (ti hua shi, in Chinese). Is it not clear what significant role a poem plays on the painting, as a Chinese poem – itself pictographic symbols with music, already a kind of musical painting – is a thematic part to the whole work, and the picture serves merely as a humble (superfluous, to certain extent) co-star in this art form?

This extraordinary genre flourished from the 13th century and came to its full blossoming in the late Ming dynasty through the dawning years of the Manchu dynasty in the 17th century and lasted until Mid-20th century.