Painting and poetry

Francois Cheng [tooltip content= “Chinese Poetic Writing: With an Anthology of Tang Poetry (Indiana Univ Press, 1982)”] [source][/tooltip] [green_message]

In China painting occupies the supreme position among all the arts. It is the object of a veritable mystique, for in the eyes of the Chinese, the pictorial art is the one best able to reveal the mystery of the universe. Compared with poetry, the other pinnacle of Chinese culture, painting, through the original space that it embodies and through the vital breaths that it arouses, seems far more apt to go beyond description of the spectacles of creation and to enter into the very gestures of creation. Though it stood outside the religious current, which by tradition was primarily Buddhist, painting was itself considered a sacred practice.

The basis of Chinese painting is a fundamental philosophy that holds precise views of cosmology, of human destiny, and of the relationship between the human being and the universe. Painting represents a specific way of life for putting this philosophy into practice. Its purpose is to creeate not only a framework of representation but also a medium in which true life is possible. In China, art and the art of life are one and the same.

Francois Cheng [tooltip content= “Emty and Full: The Language of Chinese Painting (Shambhala Publications, 1994)”] [source][/tooltip]

If the connection between calligraphy and poetic writing seems direct and natural, that which unites the latter with painting is no less so in the eyes of the Chinese. In the Chinese tradition, where painting is often referred to as wu-sheng-shih (silent poetry), the two arts clearly belong to the same order. Numerous poets also devoted themselves to painting, while every painter owed it to himself to be a poet. Without doubt the most famous example is Wang Wei of the T’ang. Inventor of monochrome technique and precursor of the style of painting called “spiritual,” he was equally celebrated for his poetry. His experience as a painter greatly influenced his manner of organizing the signs in poetry, to such an extent, in fact, that Su Tung»p’o, the famous Sung dynasty poet, could say of him that “his pictures are poems, and his poems, pictures.” The primary link between poetry and painting is, put simply, calligraphy. The most notable manifestation of this trinitarian relationship, a relationship that forms the base of a complete art, is the tradition of presenting a poem in fine calligraphy in the blank space of a picture.

Before defining precisely the significance of this practice, it is necessary to underline the fact that calligraphy and painting are arts of the stroke: it is this fact which makes possible their cohabitation. The art of calligraphy, aimed as it is at restoring the primordial rhythm and the living gestures implied by the strokes of the characters, liberated the Chinese artist from the need to describe faithfully the exterior aspect of the physical world, and gave rise, very early, to a “spiritual” painting that, rather than pursuing resemblance and calculating geometrical proportions, sought to imitate “the act of the Creator,” catching the essential lines, forms, and movements of nature. Seeking the same sovereign liberty as the calligrapher, the painter uses the same brush in the execution of his work. lt is only after a long period of leaming to draw a variety of elements from nature and the human world that he begins to execute what may be called in the strictest sense works of art. The ensemble of elements that he must first master have themselves been the object of a slow process of symbolization. Having become signifying unities, they offer the accomplished artist the possibility of organizing them according to certain fundamental aesthetic laws; in mastering these elements it is as if the artist had leamed the visible universe “by heart.” The execution of a work is done without, and beyond, any model (for the work must be an interior projection); it unrolls exactly as does calligraphy, rhythmically, as if the artist were carried by an irresistible current.

The Shih Ching , usually translated as either The Book of Songs or the Classic of Poetry, is the first great collection of Chinese poetry. Tradition says that it was edited into its present form by the Sage of Sages, Confucius himself. In fact the book was assembled before, during, and after the life of Confucius. Its more than three hundred poems include fragments of works as old as the Shang Dynasty (traditional; dates 1766-1154 BCE) as well as “contemporary” poems from the Chou feudal states written or spoken by both aristocratic court figures and just plain “folks”. A great deal has been said about the origin of many, if not the majority of the poems as oral “folk” art, but it is clear from the artistry of the written language in which they have been handed down that, like the scribes who improved upon the originally oral poetry attributed to “Homer” in the West to create the Iliad and the Odyssey, the people who converted Chou folk songs and court verses into poetry in written Chinese characters clearly thought of themselves as (and were) artists. So the characters used to render simple and direct lyrical utterances of the illiterate peasant folk often honor them with carefully chosen written vocabulary: the heart and soul of folk art remains clearly present, but literary subtleties are introduced. The scribes who created the Shih Ching were poets, not tape recorders. They chose the best of what existed, and they honored it with their own art.

In its present form, the Shih Ching consists of three major sections, the Kuo Feng, or Odes of the States, comprising 160 of the 300 are generally but not always folk songs. The Ya (Elegant Verses) subdivided with no obvious criteria into greater and lesser, include poems 161-265, and the Sung or Temple Odes high ritual songs and bits of dynastic myth, include poems 266-305. The present selection is comes, all but a single longer poem on drinking and its positive and negative consequences from the “Lesser Elegants”, all come from the Kuo Feng Sections.

Knowledge of the Shih Ching poems was a necessity of diplomatic practice around the time of Confucius, when it was a common practice to deliver or at least support the delivery of diplomatic messages among the feudal domains (the “States or Guo of the Guo Feng) by oral presentation of relevant lines from the Classic. From the Han on many of the poems where imbued with very specific allegorical interpretations, but it is clear that later poets, who memorized the book word for word, used it as allusive material in their own poems at least as often for its plain “folk” messages as for its orthodoxly approved allegorical ones.