Guo Xi and the Great Emptiness – in Times of the Collapse of the West - II
by Nora Hoppe and Tariq Marzbaan on 20 Aug 2022 1 Comment

The Philosophical Aspects: Chinese landscape painting unites Confucian philosophical concepts with Taoist and Buddhist thinking about nature.


According to the French philosopher and sinologist François Jullien, the dual Chinese term for landscape shanshui (“shan = mountain”/ “shui = water”) is reflective of the interaction between complementary dualities (yin and yang). Jullien writes: “We have what tends toward heights (the mountain) and what tends toward depths (the water). The vertical and the horizontal, High and Low, at once oppose and respond to each other. We have, too, what is immobile and impassive (the mountain) and what is in constant motion, forever undulant and flowing (the water). Permanence and variance are at the same time confronted and associated. We have, moreover, what possesses form and presents a relief (the mountain) and what is by nature formless and takes the form of other things (the water). The opaque and the transparent, the solid and the dispersive, and the stable and the fluid blend together and heighten each other.


“Instead of the unitary term “landscape”, China speaks of an endless play of interactions between contrary factors that pair up, forming a matrix through which the world is conceived and organized. Here there is no governing, dominating Subject (the Renaissance subject of Europe), no individual to hold the world from his vantage point and to develop his initiative freely within it, as if he were God. There is no ‘object’ held in vis-à-vis, nothing to be ‘cast’ ‘before’ the individual’s eye, nothing to spread out passively for his inspection and cut itself out differently with his every step. Against this monopolizing power of sight, China offers the essential polarity through which world-stuff enters into tension and deploys. No human-stuff detaches from this. The human remains implicit, contained within these multiple implications, because the vis-à-vis thus established lies within the world; it is between the ‘mountains’ and the ‘waters’.”


How does a Song dynasty Chinese landscape painting envision humanity’s relationship with the cosmos? The Tao sees the human being in the vastness of the cosmos as a minor presence. The tiny scale of humans relative to the mountains in a typical Chinese landscape painting suggests that we humans coexist with many other living things. Humans are integrated into a larger whole rather than celebrated as a towering presence. The Neo-Confucian philosophy, developed during the Song dynasty, cultivated a profound respect for all living things and emphasized humanity’s interconnectedness with a wider universe.


Chinese classical landscape painting, as a whole, unites Confucian philosophical concepts with Taoist and Buddhist thinking about nature. For example, the life force in both Taoism and Buddhism is represented by water. According to the Tao Te Ching, “the highest good is like water, because water excels in benefiting the myriad creatures without contending with them and settles where none would like to be, it comes close to the Way.” Waterfalls or river streams in Chinese landscape paintings evoke a sense of possibility and opportunity because water’s fluidity pierces through rocks and opens space for manoeuvring. Buddhists also revere the thunderous downpour of a waterfall and the attendant vapour spiralling upward. In Buddhism, the flow of mist and water suggests the circulation of wisdom through the body, mind, and universe achieved through meditation. In Tibetan thanka paintings, for example, the clouds pictured above waterfalls represent the enlightened essence shared by all living beings.


François Jullien argues that the Chinese placed central importance on the activity of breathing as the defining characteristic of life. Whereas the Greeks “privileged the gaze and the activity of perception”, the Chinese conceived of reality in terms of qi, or breath-energy. The activity of breathing out and in unites humans to the alternating rhythms of heaven and earth. In the Taoist classic Tao Te Ching, the universe is pictured as a great bellows engaged in a cosmic process of respiration.




Because Chinese painters put “spirit” (qi) in the most important position for painting, they gradually let the spirit of nature, the human spirit and the spirit of brush and ink be displayed in the picture. This is to make the initially apparent “empty space” in the painting become the main feature for expressing aesthetic spirit. The ancient Chinese painters often said that they did not seek similitude to that which their eyes perceived, but pursued the spirit of the reality before and around them.


Whether from a historical perspective or a logical perspective, the aesthetics of Lao Tse, principal author of the Tao Te Ching and founder of philosophical Taoism, should be taken as the starting point of the history of Chinese aesthetics. Even though there are substantial differences between Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, they all have a wide and long influence on traditional Chinese culture and values. The aesthetic thoughts of each express a unified artistic conception that combines tangible and intangible, solidness and emptiness, and limited and unlimited, thus giving birth to this unique form of artistic expression of the intended blank.


20th century Chinese aesthetician Zong Baihua believes that Chinese painting attaches the most importance to “blank space”. “The blank space is not really blank, but the place where the spirit moves. If you take the emptiness as whiteness then it becomes complete nothingness; if you take the solid part as concrete completely, then the object will lose its liveliness; only by putting emptiness into solidness and turning solidness into emptiness, there is space for endless imagination.” The void is undefined, undifferentiated and, therefore, with infinite possibilities for transformation.


The space in Chinese painting is constructed with association and imagination, and the method of combining being and non-being is an essential technique to create a vast and far-reaching space. Just like the core content presented by the precepts of ancient Chinese Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, reality and nihility, being and non-being are closely linked, and they are a unity that is both conflicting and indivisible. Without the exchange between existence and nonexistence, there would be no rhythm and spirit in art.


And indeed, Lao-Tse never ceased to advocate the inexhaustible resource of emptiness: “The thirty spokes converge in a hub: where there is nothing, there is the use-functioning of the chariot. Without the void in the hub, the wheel would not turn; without the void in the clay, the vase would not contain water…” The void proceeds from the hollowing out of the full, and the full is, in turn, hollowed out by the void. Neither opposed nor separated from each other, these two states, the empty and the full, “are structurally correlated and exist only through each other”. All that remains for the Taoist painter or poet, instead of freezing and reifying, is to accomplish through his or her gesture this breathing that will fill the void and desaturate the full.


The distinguished scholar specialised in Buddhism and East-West comparative philosophy Professor Kenneth K. Inada stated: “For the Buddhist, it is the ‘discovery’ of emptiness (sunyata) in the becomingness of things or emptiness in the beings-in-becoming. For the Taoist, it is the ‘discovery’ of nothing (wu) in the Tao of things.”


The Tao has no name, nor can it be determined. Still, it is a cosmic force, the mystic process of the world, the inner nature of everything that exists, nature, which is not discovered, but revealed. It is the ruling force of the eternal change that inspires all, acts by non-acting (wu-wei), creates, not by making, but rather by growing, it creates from within. Taoism is an affirmation of the unconventional knowing by developing of the so-called peripheral or non-self-aware seeing, unintelligible penetration into everything, into the nature of things. Both Taoism and Buddhism are philosophies of the experience. Both are holistic schools. Things are not opposite, they are One. Yin and Yang are only the energetic models of its occurrence. There is no dichotomy.


The Chinese philosophical point of view, which implies a perception of the things in their wholeness and eternal movement, as integral parts of a functional whole of the existence, and not as separate fragments. Chinese painting can thus be understood as a visible realization of what is in the process of being thought. “The Eastern view of things prevented any dichotomous treatment of anything from the outset and in turn fostered exploration into the fullness of the becoming process.” (Inada, 1997)


“Is not the space between Heaven and Earth like a great bellows?” asks Lao Tse. “Empty, it is not flattened, and the more you move it, the more it exhales; but the more you talk about it, the less you grasp it…” It is not surprising, therefore, that the Chinese conceived of the original reality, not according to the category of being and through the relation of form and matter (the Chinese did not conceive of “matter”), but as “breath-energy”, as qi (“becoming”).


Jullien writes: “All landscape apprehended in this play of correlations is the entirety of the world in its vibrancy: not a world that beckons from Elsewhere but a world perceived in the to-and-fro of its respiration. This same tension of living is what Chinese painting captures in landscape.”


N. Hoppe:  New York City; Suriname; lived and worked in London, Rome, Munich, Paris, Rotterdam, St. Petersburg, Berlin, Southeast Asia; researcher, writer, filmmaker.

T. Marzbaan: Born in Kabul; researcher of Persian literature, geopolitics, colonialism and history and culture of Central Asia and Germany; documentary filmmaker


(Concluded …)

Courtesy The Saker

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