The Three Perfections

[green_message] How does the artist decide how much space to leave? For Yun Shouping (1633-90), the inscription is given much visual weight in the overall composition:

For Li Shan’s“Orchids,” the inscription is given more than half the visual weight:

In the case of Wen Zhengming’s painting of “Traveling to Tianping Mountain”  the artist has inscribed four successive poems in a way that does not interfere with the painting and does not seem crowded:

How does the artist decide where to place the calligraphy? And how does one appreciate the calligraphy itself?

Calligraphy is considered the highest form of expression in the visual arts of East Asia and can be appreciated on many levels. Fundamentally, it may be viewed as words, as each character signifies a meaning. That meaning can be elevated through the medium of a poem, correct in rhyme and meter and conveying concepts through content and form. At still another level, calligraphy represents a visual, aesthetic expression of brushwork, in rhythms and relationships of space created by ink and paper.

To a Western audience, the appreciation and comprehension of Chinese calligraphy may seem daunting. There is the perception that if the meaning of the actual characters is not understood, then something essential to the work will be missed. But this is not necessarily the case, as more fundamental and universal elements can be realized. The spatial tensions and movement of the brush in calligraphy should be viewed as a presentation of forms in a particular time and space – an art with infinite possibilities. To distinguish style, one looks for the different ways elements may be combined in search of a new effect. A calligrapher demonstrates his virtuosity with the brush by expanding the known visual vocabulary of a character.

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.