The Three Perfections

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Painting, Poetry and Calligraphy

Chinese painting is often seen with calligraphy directly on the picture. Typically after an artist has finished a painting, he will make an inscription. The simplest inscription will contain his name followed by his seal or seals. The artist may add a date, something about the person for whom the picture was painted, a note on the occasion or the style he has chosen to paint. Beyond this the artist may include a poem or some prose that explores virtually any topic, from literature or painting to metaphysics or philosophy. Lengthy inscriptions often provide great insight into the painter’s process and personal life. It is the combination of all three creative processes – poetry, painting and calligraphy – that is considered the ultimate in artistic achievement. Very rarely does a single artist have talent in all three.

As the story goes, during the eighth century the Chinese poet, painter and calligrapher Zheng Qian (d. 764) presented a gift of his work to the emperor. Delighted, the emperor inscribed the words “Zheng Qian’s Three Perfections” (Zheng Qian sanjue). Since that time, these three – painting, poetry and calligraphy – have been connected and appreciated as the ultimate in the visual arts, known simply as the “Three Perfections.”

The richness of visual information in the combination of words and images makes for lively interchange and interaction in the mind. Cognitive psychology has taught us that both words and images are taken into the brain through the same passageway, but once in the brain, the information travels to different regions for processing and understanding. The Chinese understood that there is a play back and forth between words and images. Often one asks: Which came first, the poem or the painting? Was the artist inspired by the poem, or did he paint the picture and suddenly remember an appropriate poem? Perhaps both were inspired by natural scenery. We may never know, but in the end it does not matter. Just the fact that the mind raises the question means that the method is a success. The tension between them makes one think, understand and appreciate.

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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.