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.
Chinese paintings feature specific brushes, ink, paper, and colors. In particular, traditional Chinese paintings follow strict theories. Despite a century of havoc, Chinese paintings still maintain their typical purity, free of any outside disturbance. Of course, certain painters and scholars have attempted to change the nature of Chinese paintings. For instance, they proposed to abandon the basic techniques of using painting brushes and ink, and to introduce Western painting techniques, like rendering light and shadow as well as perspective into Chinese paintings. The results are ugly, hellish objects, or organ-like lines and colors that look like a gang of starving wolves encircling lambs.
If acrylic paint is applied to canvas with the use of multi-point perspective or, if oil paints are applied to rice paper with an ink brush, the result will never be the same as authentic Chinese paintings. Without the concepts of Chinese paintings, Western masters will not successfully create genuine Chinese paintings even with Chinese painting tools. For example, Giuseppe Castiglione, a missionary who lived in China for over 40 years since 1715, painted in a style that was a fusion of European and Chinese traditions. Of all his numerous works, pure aesthetic beauty of Chinese paintings is missing.
In the past two or three decades, Chinese traditional culture has been doubted. Even native Chinese also doubt or oppose their ancestral culture that Westerners worship. For instance, failure or victory of martial arts are used to examine the value and truth of taiji, the medical inspection criteria of certain U.S.-based institutions, is employed to inspect the effectiveness of traditional Chinese medicine, depicted objects, and artistic value of Chinese paintings assessed on the theories of Western paintings. More phenomena like these are having an impact on the essence of Chinese culture. Of course, traditional culture involves both essence and dregs. Without a doubt falsity and deception still existed in the name of traditional culture. These disturbances also cause havoc for traditional culture. Yet wise people can distinguish between true and false and discern the essence from all the disturbing phenomena.
As for the accuracy of depicted objects in Chinese paintings, many have their own understanding. Any kind of art relies on an object’s form to express subjective intent. Lifelike depiction is the basic element of all paintings and also the first step toward professionalism, and Chinese paintings are no exception. However, Chinese people give lifelike depiction another interpretation. Numerous masterpieces are housed in Taipei’s National Palace Museum. Of them, Autumn Colors on Qiao and Hua Hills by Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322) as shown in Photo I, a Chinese painter during the Yuan Dynasty, is a rarity. On the left of the painting is the cone-shaped Qiao Hill, located on the northern shore of the Yellow River in Jinan City, Shandong Province. On the right is the pointed Hua Hill, located on the southern shore of the Yellow River.
There is a considerable distance between the two hills. However, in 1295 Zhao Mengfu painted the two hills on a scroll measuring 28.4cm by 90.2cm, adopting a certain approach to make them look close to each other. This kind of image is neither created out of imagination nor due to the painter’s failure to draw lifelike objects. Viewers will neither doubt the accuracy of objects or geographic locations depicted, nor will they doubt artistic values of the painting. The rivers and hills are unlikely to be found in reality. Such a kind of artistic approach is commonly adopted in Chinese paintings including figure paintings.
Consider the murals in the Chunyang Hall of Yongle Palace, located in Ruicheng County, Shanxi Province, as an example. Painters in Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) illustrated important events in the lifetime of the immortal Lü Dongbin in one mural, with the figure of Lü Dongbin repeatedly painted in the same mural. Besides, the painted figures are not based on the proportion of Asian people: A standing figure exhibits the 1:7 (head:body) ratio, sitting figure is 1:5 proportion, and crouching figure 1:3.5. In reality, a human head’s height would fit about seven times into the man’s height. If judged based on the Western perspective, the painted figures are out of proportion.
Actually, the core of Chinese paintings is in the use of multi-point perspective. Since Xu Beihong (1895-1953), Wang Shikuo (1911-1973), Jiang Zhaohe (1904-1986), and other painters who studied abroad had consistently tried to apply Western rendering of light and shadow as well as perspective to Chinese paintings and thus created many works. Yet their works were not very convincing.
Likewise, if Chinese herbs were sterilized before being cooked, the effectiveness of herbal medicine would be affected. If a green turnip were added to Chinese medicine as an efficacy-enhancing ingredient in the place of a carrot rich in vitamins, the effectiveness of the Chinese medicine would be reversed. If Baroque vocal music were added to Chinese Kunqu Opera, residents in Suzhou City, Jiangsu Province would not consider it Kunqu Opera.
Author: Cao Zuimeng
Translator: Amy Hsu