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Artistic Forms and Conceptions: Part I

Decades ago, it took a long time for information to spread or be recognized. Nowadays, people quickly absorb large amounts of information. Positive and negative opinions help people to view the world more comprehensively and make correct judgements. Even topics as controversial as aliens, UFOs, the human soul, and divine world of deities are widely known and becoming accepted by people. Ancient China used to be called the divine land, whose history of civilization was similar to that of theology. Chinese people take pride in the unexplainable and undefinable quintessence of Chinese culture. This part of culture has the mark of theology on it. From the winding river of multi-millennia civilization, researchers can only seize sprays of water even with decades of research and desperate efforts. The Chinese culture
Calligraphy on fan by Mo Shilong, China, Ming dynasty, 16th century.

Decades ago, it took a long time for information to spread or be recognized. Nowadays, people quickly absorb large amounts of information. Positive and negative opinions help people to view the world more comprehensively and make correct judgements. Even topics as controversial as aliens, UFOs, the human soul, and divine world of deities are widely known and becoming accepted by people.

Ancient China used to be called the divine land, whose history of civilization was similar to that of theology. Chinese people take pride in the unexplainable and undefinable quintessence of Chinese culture. This part of culture has the mark of theology on it. From the winding river of multi-millennia civilization, researchers can only seize sprays of water even with decades of research and desperate efforts.

The Chinese culture of cultivation involves various accounts of cosmology and nature. Daoist research on I-Ching believes the world is the unity of opposing, yet mutually dependent, elements that can be transformed into one another and recycled. The opposites of yin and yang are hidden in the regularities of nature and the basis to trigger natural movements and changes as well as the momentum for creation, development, maturity, and death of beings. In an environment with the belief in divinities, people tend to believe in the continuously moving cycle of yin and yang, which gives rise to endless prosperity in nature.

However nowadays, when people talk about ancients worshipping heaven and earth and feeling awestruck in front of nature, they are usually considered to be superstitious, unbelievable, or even foolish. With advances in technology, modern people feel a sense of loss as they are no longer superstitious but capable of changing nature. Such a sense of loss reminds them as human history progresses to the presently contemporary stage, human civilization actually declined. To revive the past’s untainted civilization, wise people unanimously think of the forgotten heritages of Chinese culture, like the concepts of “ying and yang” or “deficiency and excess.”


Deficiency and Excess Explained

The unity of opposites is the central category of dialectics, said to be related to the notion of non-duality in a deep sense.[1] It defines a situation in which the existence or identity of something, or a situation, depends on the co-existence of at least two conditions that are opposite to each other, yet dependent on each other and presupposing each other, within a field of tension.

First suggested by Heraclitus (535–475 BC), a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, philosophers had for some time been contemplating the notion of opposites. His fellow pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaximander, said every element is an opposite or connected to an opposite. Namely, water is cold and fire is hot. Thus, the material world is composed of some indefinite, boundless apeiron from which the elements (earth, air, fire, and water) and pairs of opposites (hot/cold, wet/dry) rose. There was a continual war of opposites according to Anaximander. Anaximenes of Miletus, a student and successor of Anaximander, replaced this indefinite, boundless Arche with air, a known element with neutral properties. According to Anaximenes, there was not so much a war of opposites, as a continuum of change.

In traditional Chinese culture, martial arts movements, traditional Chinese medicine formulas, and Chinese brush painting skills are considered to be a part of the yang culture that is visible and touchable. A large proportion of the yang culture has been passed down. However, the yin culture in comparison is invisible, untouchable, forgotten or abandoned which has, in turn, upset the balance between yin and yang that is recognized as a miniature of the cosmos.

For example, in martial arts the focus was only on “techniques” instead of upgrading one’s mind nature. This way, the limits of physical capacities cannot be significantly exceeded. Besides its four methods of diagnosis, like inspection, listening and smelling examination, inquiry, and palpation, the essence of traditional Chinese medicine was taught through the interaction between master and disciples without ever being recorded in books or passed down.

Likewise, besides basic painting techniques, craftsmanship and the essence of Chinese paintings were not passed down. When people enjoy advantages from material interests, the invisible and untouchable part in life, which was referred to as ying and “deficiency” in ancient culture, is ignored and deserted. Yet it is the “ying” and “deficiency” that helps to maintain the normal regularities of society, humans, and the cosmos. Today’s human society, whether in the East or West, suffers from restlessness, impatience, and intolerance. To make a difference, psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists turned to “morality” in ancient China for future hope.

History seems to advance forward at a faster speed. It is easier for those aged 50 or above to accept the invisible and untouchable part of our culture, since they had previously experienced it in their process of growing up.

In the past hundreds of years, the destruction of traditional human culture and faster pace of history has also sped up the loss of memories from ancient culture. The gap between different generations is widening; the world and individual behavior are being viewed from significantly differing perspectives. Things people used to believe are gradually considered to be mythology or nonexistent legends.

For instance, in the mid-1970s I saw a person pointing at a brick with his index finger in an attempt to turn it around. In no time the brick turned around. In 2003, I painted inside a temple on a small island in the Yellow Sea. As I was leaving the temple, one person over 100 nautical miles away from the island knew it and hurried back to the temple. Afterward, one of my local students told me one man in his 50s started shouting in the temple, saying that someone had touched his stuff, and he would summon back his belongings again. Later when I was still on the ship bound for the temple that man left in a hurry. Many supernatural phenomena have gradually become unbelievable illusions or mythology. For example, one could defeat his rival without touching his body; another could pierce a willow leaf with an arrow from the distance of 100 yards; a third could make his body as invulnerable as the golden shield and iron cloth. A traditional Chinese medicine doctor, on the other hand, could diagnose a patient’s ailment based on a thin red thread attached to a patient’s wrist, and Chinese painters could express artistic implication based on the forms of objects while not limited by forms alone. Compared with lifelike depiction of photography and realistic paintings, Chinese paintings bear another kind of artistic conception. However, these have gradually been categorized as mythology.

Those with proficient traditional Chinese arts and crafts are respected as masters. Such masters passed down not only their craftsmanship but also methods to cultivate one’s mind. Sometimes, even when a master imparted knowledge, he had to be responsible to his followers. While imparting professional knowledge, the master had to teach the students moral standards, behind which were strict regulations followed by all followers. Such regulations informed people of the dos and do nots in moral dilemmas. If a follower should cross the line, the master had the power and capacity to deprive the follower of his craftsmanship or even his or her life.

Some professions in modern China, like martial arts, dramas, paintings, traditional Chinese medicine, music, and cooking, are also marked by the tradition that masters impart professional knowledge to followers. On the other hand, in Western colleges, those who impart knowledge are called teachers, while those who acquire knowledge are called students. This way, teachers are responsible for propagating knowledge and students’ academic performance. If a student should violate a regulation, the teacher will leave him to society.

Author: Cao Zuimeng
Translator: Amy Hsu


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