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Republic of China
Chronology of China



The Meaning of Art

 Herbert Read [British]

 42 - Chinese art

 The history of Chinese art is more consistent, and even more persistent, than the art of Egypt. It is, however, something more than national. It begins about the thirtieth century B.C. and continues, with periods of darkness and uncertainty, right down to the present century. No other country in the world can display such a wealth of artistic activity, and no other country, all things considered, has anything to equal the highest attainments of this art. It is an art which has its limitations; for reasons which we will presently consider, it has never cultivated the grandiose, and has therefore never had an architecture to compare with Greek or Gothic. But in all other arts, including painting and sculpture, it achieved, not once but repeatedly, a formal beauty as near perfection as we can conceive.

       To the average Westerner, the East has always been the land of mystery, and though modern means of communication and modern methods of transmitting information, especially the camera and the cinema, are making him familiar with the external features of Oriental civilization, its inward spirit still remains strange and remote. When we are concerned with specifically spiritual things - a religion like Buddhism or a philosophy like Taoism - we are generally content to remain outsider, perhaps sympathetic but essentially passive spectators of way of thought and life which is beyond us. But when we are concerned with material and objective things like works of art - statues and paintings, pottery and textiles - we do not have the same humility. Art, we feel, is an international language, appealing directly to the senses, and we ought to be able to appreciate Eastern art as easily as the art of our own civilization. There is a good deal of vague speculation about the universality of art which encourages this easy confidence, and from the seventeenth century down to the present time Oriental art has periodically been a popular craze, and has even inspired our own artists and craftsman.

Crying deer under the red maple tree


       There can be no doubt, however, that these fashions has been based on a complete misunderstanding of the art of the East, not only imitating merely the superficial features of that art, but selecting for imitation and enthusiasm the worst periods and the worst styles. We are slowly learning to discriminate more in accord with the best Oriental taste, and in our museums those ornate and ingenious curios which our fathers admired are being quietly relegated to the background, or buried in the cellars, and the authentic art of the East is being acquired and displayed. But it yields its secret slowly, and one may say that in order to appreciate these works of art to the full, one has to acquire new eyes and a new way of looking at the world. For it may be said that, without exception, the Oriental artist is never looking at the world from our point of view. 

       To come near to his point of view, we may approach his art from two directions. The first, and perhaps the most difficult direction, is that of technique. European painting, of course, has its technique, and though it has nothing like the historical consistency of the Chinese technique, it is a difficult discipline to learn. It involves a knowledge of the theory of colors, of the mixing of paints, the preparation of grounds, the difficult effects that a brush can secure - a complex assembly of practical facts. By comparison with the Chinese technique is amazingly simple: it involves the knowledge of the use of one brush and one color—but that brush used with such delicacy and that color exploited with such subtlety, that only years of arduous training can produce anything approaching mastery. As is well known, the Chinese normally write with a brush, and a brush is as familiar to them as a pen or pencil is to us. The first fact to realize about Chinese painting is that it is an extension of Chinese handwriting. The whole quality of beauty, for the Chinese, can inhere in a beautifully written character. And if a man can write well, it follows that he can paint well. All Chinese painting of the classical periods is linear, and the lines which constitute its essential form are judged, appreciated and enjoyed, as written lines. 

Early Autumn in Beijing by Zhu Wei

       Now, just as we affect to judge a person’s character by his handwriting, the Chinese, with much more science and practice, judge the quality of an artist by the refinement of his line - its infinite expressiveness. So much is fairly easy to understand of the art of painting. But from this art of painting we must proceed to the other arts - sculpture, pottery, bronzes, lacquer - and in each of them we shall find a similar technical quality - a quality of infinite subtlety which reflects the personality of the artist. In pottery, for example, it is found in the galbe or outline which the pot makes and in the relation of this outline to the thickness and volume of the pot. As the clay passes through the potter’s fingers on the revolving wheel, it is expressing his sensibility as surely and as subtly as the brush charged with ink expresses the sensibility of the painter. In every work of art there is the personal signature of the artist - not a vulgar self-conscious scrawl, but the well-mannered product of centuries of tradition.


       So much for the technical approach to Chinese art. The other approach can only be called the metaphysical approach, and what is difficult to understand and appreciate is the fact that so personal a technique as we have described has to be combined with a content of extreme impersonality and abstraction. It is sometimes said that the Chinese artist attempts to express in his work the harmony of the universe, and some such cosmic phraseology is necessary to describe his aim. In any case, that aim has nothing in common with the usual aim of Western art, which is to represent the particularities of natural appearances. The Chinese painter will, of course, paint representations of natural phenomena: he is famous for his landscapes, and they are never merely the particular landscape and nothing more; behind the particular is the general -

a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean, and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things.

Those lines of Wordsworth’s express more nearly than anything in the whole range of Western culture the spirit of Eastern art. Naturally, that spirit undergoes transformations during the long history of Chinese art; to the early Tang artists the spirit that impelled all things was a terrible spirit, to be enclosed in forms of brutal energy, whilst to the later and more sophisticated artists of the Song period that same cosmic spirit was tender and lyrical.

       Throughout its history, then, Chinese art conceives nature as animated by an immanent force, and the object of the artists is to put themselves in communion with this force, and then to convey its quality to the spectator. Such an aim in Western art would lead to all kinds of dubious romanticism and mysticism, but as if by a miracle the Chinese artist is always saved from such troughs of sentimentality. This may be partly due to the highly philosophical nature of the Chinese religions, though artists are not necessarily given to the intellectual discipline which saves the philosopher from sentimentality. But the Chinese artist is given to the technical discipline which I have already described, and in that discipline we must seek an explanation of the integrity and probity of Chinese art even at its most cosmical. If a Chinese artist departed from the intellectual dignity of his tradition, his handwriting would betray him.

       In its long history Chinese art was submitted to various vicissitudes. Barbarians invaded the country from the north and west, and introduced for a time an element of their geometrical style. But the most distinctive variations are due to religious influences, to Buddhism and Confucianism. No doubt, as always, these religions gave a tremendous impetus to artistic activities of all kinds. But they also did a lot of harm - Buddhism by its insistence on a dogmatic symbolism, always a bad element in art; and Confucianism by its doctrine of ancestor worship, which was interpreted in art as crude traditionalism, requiring the strict imitation of ancestral art. But in spite of these limitations, perhaps in some sense because of them, Chinese art maintains its vitality, reaching its highest development in the Song period, a period which corresponds roughly in time, and even more strikingly in mannerism, with the early Gothic period in Europe.




[英] 赫伯特.里德 著 王柯平 译
















在西方文化的全部领域中,再也找不出比华兹华斯[W . Wordsworth(1770—1850),英国浪漫主义诗人。——译者注]的这几行诗更合适的词句来表达东方艺术的精神了。自然,这种艺术精神在漫长的中国艺术史中经历了许多变化。对于初唐的艺术家来说,推动万物的精神是一种可怕的精神,它包含在冷酷无情的形式之中,但在晚唐和宋朝更为成熟的艺术家看来,这同一种宇宙精神却是温情脉脉的了。