Asian Pacific Art Institute of America


The Depiction of the Scene, the Dao and the Inner Essence of an Artist:

The Chinese Esthetic Tradition and Mode of Thoughts behind Mu Jiashan’s Paintings


Paul Y. Shao, Ph.D.


As I lack a formal training in the criticism of art, I feel I am not the person to make any meaningful critical statement on Mu Jiashan’s painting.  However, Mr. Mu [hereafter, Mu] insists that I would be able to provide the framework of the esthetic mode of thoughts behind his works, since I have a formal training in Chinese poetics and critical theory in my study of Liu Hsieh’s classic The Literary Mind and the Creative Act some 25 years ago at Stanford, and the Chinese esthetic assumption between art and literature is essentially undistinguishable.  I thus make the following bold attempt to provide the background and an answer to the “validity” of the Chinese esthetic tradition of creating a world of divine beauty from being in resonance with the Dao and from the manifesting of the inner spirit of the artist.


In her article Jiashan Mu: In Search of a Universal Link (Collected in the present anthology), Dr. Julia B. Grinstein states, “Mu’s landscapes are the product of his imagination; they show no indication of place, time, and, quite often, season of the year.  His works are pure abstractions and reflections of the self in a constant pursuit for an international art language.”  For a Western student of art, whose tradition demands novelty, an explanation is needed for the phenomenon of the repetition of archetypal imageries such as rocks, plants and waterfalls in Chinese paintings.  Particularly, where does the originality of an artist locate?  And she goes on to say, “[Mu] has done some falls in the past and although they are not visually present they are nonetheless there.  He, the artist, thinks of himself as the waterfall, an inner waterfall meaning knowledge and talent, a force that interprets the shapes of nature.”  The originality comes from the artist’s unique artistic quality of his Qi [vital force] and his Sheng [Spirit] in resonation with the primordial force of nature, the Dao.  We start with the abstractness of Chinese painting in the pari passu of the twin brother, the art of calligraphy by tracing the very nature of Chinese written characters and the instrument, the writing brush, which creates them.


This is a view shared by Mu in his speech made in 2005 for his exhibition held at the Kensington Park LibraryHe touches upon subjects such as the same source of origin of calligraphy and painting as the twin arts, the creation of the world of esthetic beauty in painting as a separate art, and how for an onlooker to contemplate this world of esthetics.  Mu expressed in a somewhat impressionistic mode and we shall provide a more analytical and systematic approaches to describe these ideas.


If there existed not the Chinese characters, there could not have the coming into existence of the Chinese painting.  The Chinese characters, both as an instrument for painting and as a medium for ideas, restrict the outlook and world view of the artist.  Traditionally, the creation of the Chinese character is linked to the invention of the eight hexagons of The Book of Change [the compilation of the early version of the book might come into existence between the years of 1046 – 500 B.C.  The book containing materials as far back to the time of the invention of the written Chinese characters, dated legendarily around 5,000 years ago.  The later version which was passed on to us consists much materials written between the 4th and 2nd century B.C. -- traditionally, but we believe to be wrongly -- was attributed to Confucius (B.C. 467 – 539)].  The legendary sage-king Fu Xi [legendarily 6000 – 7000 years ago] is credited to the invention of the eight hexagons.  As the legend has so far not yet been verified as historical facts, the assumption that Chinese characters were connected with hexagons is merely a feasible theory.  We human had at least some 40,000 to 100,000 years of speaking capacity in exploiting the natural and human world [using spoken language to structure the external world around us] prior to the invention of the written system.  We knew what sky, earth, water, fire, wind, thunder, mountain and wetland were but we did not know how to represent them with signs.  The hexagons are signs used by the ancient man to record these natural phenomena and to devise rules governing the “change” from one sign [phenomena] to the other.  Signs are the forefather of representative characters, the ideograms.  Thus the hexagons gave birth to the eight characters representing the concepts of sky, earth and etc. and eventually, following the same principle of inventions, a set of 200 to 300 words were classified and recorded in The Book of Change.


                 The emergency of the hexagons provides a uniform method to create signs for physical objects in daily life or in the phenomenal nature.  Even though we often say that Chinese characters composes of ideograms [actually, only 5-8 %] which signify objects in pictorial manner, the representation is more abstract and less concrete than, say, the Egyptian hieroglyph and Yun Nan pictograms of the Dongba Culture.  The abstractness of the hexagons sets the tone for the abstractness of the ideogram, if one agrees that the original idea of ideograms comes from the making of the hexagons.  Furthermore, the hexagon system had a profound influence on how ancient Chinese looked at the Cosmo and the natural world around them.  It is an abstract symbolic system telling the ancient man how the Cosmo functions with definite rules of “changes.”  It emancipated man’s thought from myth in the sense of “the world is an intelligible whole,” i.e., viewing the origin and phenomena of nature, instead of concrete images, with abstract thinking.  The inventor of the hexagon like the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. Greek philosophers such as Thales (Circa 625 - Circa 547 B.C.), Pythagoras (Circa 580 - Circa 500 B.C.) and Parmenides (Born Circa 515 B.C.) presumed that a single order underlies the chaos of our perceptions and stipulates that we are endowed with the ability to grasp that order.  The ancient thinkers viewed the world in the abstractness of the conceptual thought.  The hexagons, to the ancient Chinese, represented the Cosmo order and its “changes,” generated by the primordial forces of Yin and Yang.  Both the representation and the operation are devoid of concrete imageries.  With this primordial system of hexagon as the frame work for viewing the world, the Chinese cannot see the phenomenal world in concrete terms as the Egyptians and Babylonians did.  In the case of Greeks, who used the dual eyes of the conceptual thoughts and the mythical stories to view and understand the world around them, they are rich in both realms.  In the realm of concreteness, they have the magnificent realistic sculptures and murals vs. Chinese bronze vessels and jade artifacts of abstract symbols and patterns; [whereas, the Chinese paintings appeared much later upon the invention of the writing brush and the mastery of its utilization] and the literary arts of dramas, epics and histories vs. Chinese lyrical poetry and episodic history writings.


His pain-staking training in calligraphy enables the young Mu to draw with a fountain pen the esthetically appealing lines, full of the textual of warmth and youth energy of a female figure, in his sketch of a young girl.  The lines also give the impression of power in the sense of having the strength of carving a line in the marble.  One simple line of drawing defines Mu's ability as a painter and he utilized this ability of his, fully and magically, in his later nature painting.  For example, the plants, the stones and the waters in his paintings have a quality of calligraphic brushstrokes of loftiness and spirituality.  The influences of past masters such as Huai Su (fl. 830 - 870), Wang Duo (1592 - 1652) and Ba Da Shanren (1626 - 1705) are unmistakable.


Even though the artistic creative imagination has its root in the sense experiences, the sense experiences themselves cannot be said to possess artistic value, which comes from the artistic creative imagination.  The famous modern painter Feng Zikai (1898 - 1975) had the following experiences [Painting and Literature, p. 17.]:


The special quality of the artistic value of a scene in nature, while a painter may not be able to catch by his brush, is remarkably revealed in a line of poetry or lyric.  Once I went in a rainy day to the famous Su-walkway amidst the West Lake, I carried back a painting of the drooping willows.  Then I, accidentally, flipped open a book of poetry and read the lines of “The Branches of the Willow Trees” by the famous Tang poet Bai Juyi (772 - 846), which reads, “So lovely, after the rain stopped and the Eastern wind subsided, was the scene, which saw hundreds and thousands of willow branches droopingly still and alone.”  The scene I had just seen was shown, clearly and brilliantly, in the fourteen characters of the two poetic lines.  The painstaking effort of going to the Su-walkway to do a portrait of the willow scene falls short of the esthetic enjoyment I receive from reading the two poetic lines.


Mr. Feng’s painting at this stage is in the prison house of sense experiences and he thus painted the physical shape rather than the spirit of an object through his artistic creative imagination.  But he fully realized the primary importance of catching the spirit of an object in painting and he utilized the reading of poetry to cultivate his creative imagination.  In the realm of expressing one’s emotion, the same applies: The naked emotion has to be wrought into artistic expressions through artistic imagination in order for the expression to possess esthetic strength and quality.  An emotion, no matter how sincere it is, without the purification process of the artistic creative imagination is never itself an art.  Mu’s painting “In the Wake of a Dream” of the autumn sceneries reflects his esthetic world of cultivated concerns and inner feelings.  That feeling comes from his alienation of the uprooting from his home country and of taking root in a completely strange cultural environment of the West, in addition to his personal emotional wounds and crises from being deprived of a supportive and understanding soul mate.  His work reveals a yearning for the light at the end of the tunnel of black clouds and thunderstorms.  Hovering over the painting there is a seemingly darkness; however, lurking underneath this gloominess a heroic spirit rears its head with strength.  Like a budding of Chinese art breaking out of the rich soil of the West his painting springs into being an art object of traditional esthetic beauty and of modern esthetic outlook or value.  The seemingly mysterious void in his paintings “Flying Clouds over Waterfalls” and “The Light Boat Leaving behind Billows of Waves” manifests the growth of his artistic inner spirit.  The saying “One’s heart engenders the divine world of esthetic beauty” in the theory of painting may well refer to such a situation.  This is related to the esthetic theory of resonance.


                 In the case of the esthetic theory of resonance, it would mean that it requires of an artist to possess some specific quality to enable him to resound to that specific quality in a natural object.  For a delicate shang note in nature to evoke resonance of a shang note of similar nature in the artist, he must by nature, resemble a musical instrument of the same nature.  The implication is that the essence of a natural object is only accessible to an artist who possesses a certain kind of sensibility; and, due to the diverse nature of each artist’s temperament and sensibility, the essence of an object captured in each artist’s work is not identical.  Each artist, like a musical instrument, resounds to the same essence of an object in different manners according to his own nature.  This is why one cannot say that art is an imitation of essences, or of the truth that is hard to see.  This is because, first of all, the essence of an object is not a permanent concept like that of a Platonic form.  This essence is immanent in that object (as opposed to transcendent) in the sense that it is dispersed, whenever the object is destroyed.  In other words, there is not an essence as such, which is independent of the existence of the physical object and which one can grasp purely on the spiritual level.  The artist can only “see” the essence through the physical medium.  Secondly, the essence of a particular object is revealed only to an artist whose temperament is right for that object.  This may explain why some painters are good at painting bamboos, while others at birds.  Thirdly, no two artists respond to the same essence in the same way due to their different temperaments and sensibilities.  When Mi Fu (1051 – 1107) “saw” the essence of a particular rock after days of contemplation, none of us can share his particular insight, including other accomplished artists, whose nature may prevent them from reacting to the rock in the same way as Mi does.  One may thus conclude that an artist cannot copy the essence of an object, because this essence has no objective existence, and it is only created in a flash at the moment of inspiration, when the interaction between the artist and the object is taking place.  So, to capture the essence of an object is a creative act, and not an imitative act.  In the painting “Among the Green Mounts and White Clouds, One Listens to the Sound of the Waterfalls” Mu does not pursuit the elegance of the form and the outward beauty.  Instead he goes deep inside himself to find the essence which resonates with the object he contemplates.  His particular temperament and cultivation resonate to the world of esthetic beauty he creates.  The vitality of this esthetic animation comes from the life force of the Dao.


In Chinese esthetic theory the artistic creative imagination comes from the philosophy of Daoism, as it was first put in the form of speculative thinking by Laozi [Unknown of the date of his birth and death.  Even his historical existence is disputed.  Traditionally he is considered to be a senior of Confucius (551 – 479 B.C.) and his book The Cannon of Dao and De should be compiled not later than B.C. 369], who described the Creation of the Cosmo in the following manner:


There exists a “Thing,” which is formed with no discernable features,

And which comes into existence prior to the formation of Heaven and Earth.

Quietly and in the void

It exists apart [from the phenomenal universe] and ever-lastingly.

It circulates around ceaselessly and without wear and tear,

It can be thought of as the ‘Mother of All Creation.’

I know not by what name It been called,

I thus in an arbitrarily manner call It ‘the Dao.’


Laozi himself is quite aware that “Dao” is merely an arbitrary label used for the “Mother of All Creation.”  It connotes no significant meaning.  In characterizing the creative Dao as “Quietly and in the void” in the moment of creation, the artistic imagination in resonance to the Dao must also possess quietude and vacuity at the time when inspiration strikes in an out of blue fashion.  Daoist, in the pursuit of achieving a spiritual unification with the primordial Dao, attempts to have a complete resonance with the rhythm of the Dao.  It is precisely at this moment that the mind is most futile in creativities.  To achieve this, an artist must be in the state of being selflessness in the sense that intention becomes quiet and void.  It is important to emphasize that in the West there is the Creator who “designs” [intention is not only assumed but of primary importance] the universe and, in the Daoist tradition, intention [the Will] is definitely an obstacle to the state of creation, which should engender life magically and naturally like the spring breeze.  It should be the inner spirit of the artist to be manifested in his work, and definitely not his intention.  To apply this theory to Mu’s painting, one find that in his work “The Autumn Dream Lingers On” the floating and streaming of clouds and rivers have the vague images of the great flow of the Dao described in the statement that “[i]t circulates around ceaselessly and without wear and tear,” as quoted above.  It has a feel of the bursting activities and vibrant energy of life force coming out of the inanimate objects.  The esthetic world of beauty thus created consists of the illusion of “Quietly and in the void/ It exists apart [from the phenomenal universe] and ever-lastingly/It circulates around ceaselessly and without wear and tear.”  In other words, there is a sense that man the contemplator and Heaven the nature merge into one.  In the painting “Smokes Here Four and There Five from a Village” the brush work shows Mu’s mastery of the script or cursory style of calligraphy.  It gives the impression that the trees and the reeds are dancing in the wind.  Mu is skillful in his execution of painting technique of “long line brushstrokes like spread-out hemp fibers(长线披麻皴)” and he catches the spirit and essence, rather than the form, of the mountains and rocks he paints by infusing his inner feelings of heroic spirit of profoundness and romanticism into the objects.  In contrast to many commonplace painters, Mu’s brush-strokes are full of penetrating strength and lively spirit, unifying the Jing[essence] - Qi[vital force] - Sheng[spirit] into one body of life force, which evokes resonance from the reader/contemplator of the painting.


Ideally the totality of the entire painting created by a scholar-artist should convey an awe-inspiring feeling of the life force behind the universe or the Dao, and this force should shines through the mountains and the water flows created by the artist.  This force comes from the artist’s inner spirit of two fold cultivations: the mastery of the technical aspect and that of the spiritual cultivation of inner being.  Mu reveals in his paintings, not only a mastery of the technical brushstrokes, but also an inner spirit of grand inspiration and a willingness to look beyond the traditional boundary towards the sky of modern artistic aspiration.  In the work “Lofty Firmament with Streaming Birds,” the waterfall brings with it a rainbow-like life force, which manifests to the reader/contemplator the artist’s gushing creative imagination out of the philosophical cultivation of his inner spirit.  One may thus infer from his works the inner being of Mu’s artistic individuality and temperament.





Paul Y. Shao, Professor of the Asian Pacific Art Institute of America.  He holds a Ph.D. in Asian Languages from the Stanford University and a M.A. in Mathematics from UC Berkeley.  He is currently a freelance writer.  He has published a novel and many articles, and shall publish a novel on Confucius, by utilizing modern scientific data, from the view point of man in the spring of 2008

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