2001-03-31: The Chinese Theory of Art

The Chinese Theory of Art

Translations from the Masters of Chinese Art (1967)

by Lin Yutang (1895-1976)

This is one of the books recommended by Raymond Smullyan in The Tao Is Silent. After several years of looking for it, I found it in the county library system. The most interesting part to me (also identified by Smullyan) is the section on Shih-t’ao (1641-c.1717). Smullyan quotes a comment by Yutang (on section 18 below): “This is the strangest discourse I have ever translated. In this whole section, the artist identifies himself with the universe and its various manifestations.”

In his introduction, Yutang says:

Shih-t’ao’s real name was Chu Yüan-tsi; he also signed himself ‘Blind Abbot’, ‘Great Wash-Stick’, ‘Friar Bitter-Melon’. Once he was asked why he called himself ‘blind’ since he had good eyesight. He replied, ‘This pair of eyes cannot see money when it is there, which everybody sees clearly. Am I not blind?’ …

The following essay by Shih-t’ao, dated around 1660, may be called an ‘expressionist credo’. It is completely original and shows a psychological insight into the process of artistic creation not found elsewhere in Chinese literature. In style, it is archaically beautiful, terse and taut with meaning, and very difficult to render into English. But of all Chinese essays on art, this is the most profound ever written, both as regards content and style. …

All in all, the ‘Great Wash-Stick’ says some unheard-of things.

Following are some of Shih-t’ao’s comments:

1.  The One-Stroke Method.  In the primeval past there was no method. The primeval chaos was not differentiated. When the primeval chaos was differentiated, method (law) was born. How was method born? It was born of one-stroke. This one-stroke is that out of which all phenomena are born, applied by the gods and to be applied by man. People of the world do not know this. Therefore this one-stroke is established by me. The establishment of this one-stroke method creates a method out of no-method, and a method which covers all methods.

All painting comes from the understanding mind. If, then, the artist fails to understand the inner law and catch the outward gestures of the delicate complexities of hills and streams and human figures, or the nature of birds and animals and vegetation, or the dimensions of ponds and pavilions and towers, it is because he has not grasped the underlying principle of the one-stroke. Even as one makes a distant journey by starting with a first step, so this one-stroke contains in itself the universe and beyond; thousands and myriads of strokes and ink all begin here and end here, waiting only for one to take advantage of it. A man should be able to show the universe in one stroke, his idea clearly expressed, the execution well done. If the wrist is not fully responsive, then the picture is not good; if the picture is not good, it is because the wrist fails to respond. Give it life and lustre by circular movement and bends, and by stopping movement give it spaciousness. It shoots out, pulls in; it can be square or round, go straight or twist along, upwards or downwards, to the right or to the left. Thus it lifts and dips in sudden turns, breaks loose or cuts across, like the gravitation of water, or the shooting up of a flame, naturally and without the least straining effect. In this way it penetrates all inner nature of things, gives form to all expressions, never away from the method, and gives life to all. With a casual stroke, hills and streams, all life and vegetation and human habitations take their form and gesture, the scene and the feeling connected with it caught hidden or exposed. People do not see how such a painting is created, but the act of drawing never departs from the understanding mind.

For since primeval chaos became differentiated, the one-stroke method was born. Since the one-stroke method was born, all objects of the universe appeared. Therefore I say, ‘This one principle covers all.’ …

3.  Development.  The ancients furnish the means for insight, recognition. To ‘develop’ means to know such means and spurn them. I seldom see people who inherit the bequest of the past and can further develop it. Those who inherit but do not develop fail because of their limited insight. If the insight or recognition is limited to being like the past, then it is not a broad insight. …

Again it is said, ‘The perfect man has no method.’ It is  not that he has no method, but rather the best of methods, which is the method of no-method. For there is expediency besides the principle, and flexible development besides the ‘method’. One should know the principle and its flexible adaptation in expediency, as one should know the method and apply it flexibly. For what is painting but the great method of changes and developments in the universe? The spirit and essence of hills and streams, the development and growth of the creation, the action of the forces of the yin and the yang, all are revealed by the brush and ink for the depiction of this universe and for our enjoyment. People nowadays do not understand this. They always say, ‘The texture strokes of such-and-such an artist can be the foundation of art. One’s art will not have permanent appeal unless it is like the landscape of such-and-such an artist. …’ …

People who talk like this forget they have a self (‘me’) too, besides the ancient models. I am as I am; I exist. I cannot stick the whiskers of the ancients on my face, nor put their entrails in my belly. I have my own entrails and chest, and I prefer to twitch my own whiskers. If sometimes by chance I happen to resemble someone, it is he who happens to come to me, and not I who try to be his death. This is the way it is. Why should I model myself upon the ancients and not develop my own forte?

7.  Cloudy Forms.  Where the brush and ink blend, cloudy forms are produced. Undifferentiated, such cloudy forms represent chaos, and to bring definition out of chaos, there is inevitably the single-stroke. For with the stroke, the hills come alive, the water moves, the woods grow and prosper and the men are given that carefree atmosphere. To be able to control the mixture of brush and ink (stroke and wash), disperse the cloudy forms and create the universe and thus become a good artist on one’s own and be known to posterity – this comes from intelligence. One must avoid laborious details, flatness, or falling into a set pattern, being woolly, lacking coherence or going against the inner nature of things. Stand firm in the sea of ink, seek life in the movement of the brush-tip; create a new surface and texture on the foot-long material, and give forth light from the unformed darkness. Then, even if the brush and ink and the drawings are al wrong, the ‘me’, the ‘self’, remains there. For one controls the ink and is not controlled by it, handles the brush and is not handled by it. One gives form to the embryo, the embryo does not assume its own form. From one, it divides into tens of thousands, and from the ten thousand shapes of things, one attends to the One, transforming the One into the primeval cloudy forms – this is the height of artistic ability.

10.  Dividing Sections.  The practice of dividing a picture into ‘three levels’ and ‘two sections’ seems to ascribe a fault to nature. It is true that on some occasions the natural scene is so divided. Such dividing lines seem to exist as when the Yangtse leads into the sea, and the many mountains of Chekiang rise up on the opposite bank across a river. But often when we see landscapes with such perfunctory divisions, we feel at a glance that they are made to order. The three levels say that the first level is the ground, the second level contains the trees and the third level the mountains. How is one to distinguish the distances? Do they not look like stereotypes? The so-called two sections say that the mountains are on top and the immediate scene is below. In the centre some clusters of cloud cut the picture sharply in two. But to paint a picture one should not stick to the arbitrary three levels and two sections, but should give the whole picture a sense of cohesion. There should be unexpected break-throughs to show the strength of the artist’s conception. Then wherever the brush leads it will be not show the common tricks. If this sense of cohesion is established, minor faults may be forgiven.

15.  Keep Away from the Hustle-Bustle.  A materialist attends to the affairs of the world. A man enslaved by the material world lives in a state of tension. He who is tense labours over his paintings and destroys himself. He who moves among the hustle and bustle of the world handles his brush and ink with caution and restraint. Thus the environment impinges upon a man, can only do him harm and in the end make him unhappy. I meet the world as it comes, yield superficially to the hustlers, and thus achieve peace of mind. With peace of mind comes a painting. People know about paintings, but do not understand paintings of one-stroke. For the important thing in art work is contemplation. When one contemplates the One (unity of all things), one sees it and that makes one happy. Then one’s paintings have a mysterious depth which is unfathomable. I believe nobody has said this before, and therefore touch upon it again.

18.  Maintaining Function.  The ancients were able to express forms through brush and ink and by means  of hills and streams, the actions without action and transformations of things without [visible means of] transformation. They left a name for posterity without being well known in their lifetime, for they had gone through the awakening and growth and life, recorded in the work they left behind, and thus had incorporated into themselves the substance of hills and streams. With regard to ink, the artist has received the function of awakening and growth; with regard to the brush, the function of life; with regard to mountains and rivers, the function of understructure; with regard to contour and surface lines, the function of spontaneity. With regard to the seas and oceans, he has received the function of the universe; with regard to the low backyards, the function of the moment; with regard to no-action, that of action; with regard to the one-stroke, that of all strokes; with regard to the responsive wrist, that of the tip of the brush.

The artist who takes these functions on himself must maintain such functions and know what the several functions are before he commits them to paper. If not, his mind is limited and superficial and cannot carry out the functions he undertakes.

For heaven has invested the mountains with many functions. The body of the mountain comes from its location; its spirituality from its spirit; its changes of mood from growth and change; its first awakening and growth from its clarity; its stretching across vast areas from movement; its hidden potentialities come from silence; its bowing and curtsying features from courtesy; its rambling manner comes from a peaceful disposition; its grouping together from caution; its airiness from wisdom; its beauty from delicacy of spirit; its leaping and crouching from the military spirit; its awe-inspiring aspect from its dangerous shapes; its reaching out to heaven from its height; its massiveness from its generosity; and its superficialities come from what is small in it. These are the functions of the nature of the mountain itself, not what it receives from others to thrust upon Nature. Man can take these functions from Nature and maintain them and not because the mountain thrusts them upon man. Thus it is seen that the mountain takes up these functions and maintains them and they cannot be changed or substituted. Therefore the true man never leaves his manhood and enjoys the mountains.

It is the same with water. Water does many things. These are things that water does. It reaches out in vast rivers and lakes to spread its benefits – such is its virtue. It seeks the lowly humble places – such is its sense of courtesy. Its tides ebb and flow ceaselessly – such is its Tao. It breaks out in crashing waves – such is its strength. It swirls about and seeks its level – such is its law. It reaches out to all places – such is its far-reaching power. Its essence is clear and pure – such is its goodness. It turns about and reaches toward the (East China Sea) – such is its goal. For water carries out these functions from the primeval damp chaos. Unless it were able to carry out these functions, it would not be able to circulate to all parts and be the arteries of the world. To know the functions of the mountains without knowing the functions of water is like a man sinking in a sea without knowledge of its shores or standing on its shores without knowledge of the vast expanse beyond. Therefore the wise man knows the shores and watches the water passing by and his spirit is pleased.

For the immensity of the world is revealed only by the function of water, and water encircles and embraces it through the pressure of mountains. If the mountains and water do not come together and function, there will be nothing to circulate with or about, nothing to embrace. And if there is no circulation and embracing, there will be no means of life and growth. When the means of life and growth are under control, then there is the wherewithal of circulation and embracing, and with circulation and embracing open and possible, the functions of the mountains and water are fulfilled.

As for the painter, the value lies not in the vastness of mountains and water, but in their controllability, not in their number and quantity, but in their flexibility in change. Only flexibility in change enables one to paint like a great master, and only control can manage their vastness. The function of the brush is not in the brush, but in something of value created – the function of ink is not in the ink but in its receptivity and response. Likewise the functions in mountains and water lie not in themselves, but in their respective silence and mobility. The proper functions of the ancients and the moderns are not in themselves but in their respective primitiveness and freedom. Thus each has its proper function clearly defined, and the ink and brush-work last for ever, for their functions are adequately fulfilled.

So in speaking of these functions, one sees that they are laws of growth and life. The One controls All, and All are controlled by One – not by mountains, not by waters, not by brush and ink, not by the ancients, nor by the moderns, nor by the sages. Such are the functions when they are properly maintained.

A postscript from 1728 collects some of Shih-t’ao’s inscriptions on various paintings.

In this business, one who understands merely lets his brush go and soon a thousand hills and valleys appear, looking like dashing clouds and striking lightning, leaping out of the paper. Is it in the style of Ching Hao and Kuan T’ung? Of Tung Yüan and Chü-jan? …  Let everyone attend to his own business. What is all this talk about?

The picture in a poem comes from the writer’s own feelings. It follows that the picture in a poem cannot come from imitating Chang or imitating Li. The poetry in a picture is born of a certain moment and surroundings. It follows that it cannot be produced by a tour de force. A real inspiration comes to the mind like an image upon a mirror. It is never deliberately thought out. People nowadays do demean and defile the arts of poetry and painting.

I don’t believe that my paintings will be particularly valued. But I value them myself. I am lazy and often ill, and give them away to few people, only to some real friends. And even then, I don’t make it easy for them; at most I give only one or two. If they ask for some more, I delay and delay. This is good for both the giver and the receiver. I have seen collectors who keep a painting for their own enjoyment. They really appreciate it. The painting is kept on the desk, and slowly enjoyed with the help of a cup of tea and a stick of incense. Those who value a painter by hearsay, get it in by one ear and lose it by the other ear. Therefore I value my own. After my death, perhaps there may be more admirers than at present. I don’t know. My real admirers will smile when they see this.

Lin Yutang added the following note at the end of the section on Shih-t’ao.

It is clear from Shih-t’ao’s own description of his method that his theory of one-stroke means the following: the artist dips his brush in ink and is ready to paint, like the creator about to create forms and shapes out of chaos. He then follows the inspiration of the moment, and lets the picture grow out of his brush, following the momentary demands, governed by its own harmonies, changing and making adjustments according to its own inner necessity, so that from beginning to end it is one continuous act of creation.

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