The Essence of Chinese Painting

By Roger Goepper | Go to book overview

Landscape

When Petrarch retired to the solitude of Vaucluse around the middle of the fourteenth century and experienced -- being perhaps the first European ever to do so -- the new and exciting charm of standing on the summit of a mountain which he had climbed for no practical purpose and gazing out over the broad sweep of the countryside, this sort of experience of nature and of life in close contact with nature as a means of counterbalancing or neutralizing everyday life in the city had a tradition that was over 1,000 years old, indeed it was already in the process of congealing into an aesthetic convention. Whereas nature rushed in upon Petrarch like a bewildering, chaotic adversary, from which he sought refuge in his own soul and its foundations in the Christian faith, the Chinese had from earliest times been open to nature and ready to fit into its fabric.

It is not easy to trace the roots of the typical Chinese attitude to nature. They may perhaps be sought on the one hand in the primitive natural religion of a peasant people who have condensed their feeling of dependence upon the fertility of the soil and the incalculability of natural events into a notion of supernatural powers and divinities, upon which, however, they seem to have bestowed only sketchy and vague anthropomorphic features. Alongside such notions originating in a practical viewpoint stand the more poetically tinged conceptions of the national religion, which visualized free nature, that is to say nature which did not serve peasant existence, as alive with dragons and beings resembling nymphs and dryads.

Characteristics of the Chinese attitude to nature

A second component is no doubt also to be sought in the equally ancient Chinese notion of the world as an ordered cosmos. The 'world' in this archaic view was the nation's own territory, in a broader sense the 'kingdom' inhabited by the Chinese as the centre of the world, the 'Middle Kingdom', round which lay the countries of the 'barbarians', still uncivilized and hence not yet incorporated into the cosmos. Sacred mountains, grouped at the four points of the compass round a central mountain as a 'navel' or axis furnished the fixed pivotal points in this view of the universe. The way in which this intellectual heritage continued to act as a ferment for the theoretical speculations of landscape painters will be discussed in greater detail below.

The third essential factor which helped to give the Chinese feeling for nature its characteristic flavour was the evolved natural philosophy in all its aspects and with all its effects. It was this natural philosophy above all which construed man's emotions as also being part and parcel of nature's organism and subordinate to it; as a common, animating, vegetative energy present in all elements of the cosmos this philosophy identified a force called ch'i, to which we have had several occasions to refer, and as a moral postulate it demanded man's subordination to the equally universal principle of order li, or the more broadly conceived notion of the tao.

As the ideal realization of life in harmony with nature there developed, mainly under the influence of Taoist ideas, a philosophy of anchoretism, a kind of positive flight from the world which, while it was not entirely opposed to everyday life in an official position, nevertheless posited a neutral, not a passive attitude to it. If one only conformed correctly to the cosmic law immanent in all things, and expressed in its purest form in the

Chinese anchoretism

-140-

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The Essence of Chinese Painting
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 3
  • Contents 5
  • Introduction 7
  • The Creative Forces 23
  • The Human Figure 76
  • Landscape 140
  • Conclusion 226
  • Notes 227
  • List of Plates. 233
  • A Survey of the Development of Chinese Painting 238
  • Index 240
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