Literati Painting: A Synthesis of Art and Meditation

This is a digitally constructed collage. I put together pieces from different classic Chinese paintings and tried to mimic the style of a fourteen-century literati artist.

I’ve done research on China in the past, especially Chinese traditional art, and have written about it here and here. This week I decided to start writing a new book about China. I will use art as a reference point and bracket that reference between two centuries–the fourteenth and twentieth. And I will focus my attention on one city that just happens to straddle the Yangzte River: Chongqing.


Credit

It was Chongqing that became the last stronghold of the free Chinese in WWII (Second Sino-Japanese War). And it was there that fierce resistance by the Southern Song Dynasty held invading Mongols off for years.

Why art? Because in China, art has been a vessel for culture and tradition. Through conquest and revolution, art has endured. I find that to be especially true in the literati tradition.


A Word About the Picture at the Top of the Page

The picture was prompted by a contest on Steemit, which I enter every time it’s open. In the contest we are challenged by a fellow Steemian, @shaka, to make a collage from one of his photos. Rank amateurs (like me) and graphic artists participate. Sometimes a good idea prevails over skill…that gives me hope. However, I don’t enter to win. I enter to have fun.

Here’s @shaka’s photo, as it appeared before I made the collage:

Here are the elements that went into my collage:

[By the way, emulating, or even copying an artist is considered to be an homage, in the literati tradition]

The tree was extracted from this picture:

Wu Zhen Fishermen section.steemit 2,5x562,2cm._ca._1340._Freer.public.jpg

Fishermen, by Wu Zhen. China, fourteenth century. Public domain.


The meditating gentleman was extracted from this picture:

Ni_Zan_Portrait_Yuan2.jpg

Ni_Zan_Portrai_Yuan, unknown author. China, Yuan Dynasty (approximately fourteenth century). Public domain


The lotus flowers were extracted from this picture:

lotus.jpg


Pink and White Lotus, unknown artist. China, Yuan Dynasty. Public domain.


The birds were taken from this picture:

Loquats steemit and_Mountain_Bird anonymous public.jpg

Loquats and Mountain Bird, by anonymous. China, fourteenth century. Public domain.


The ducks, reeds and characters were taken from this picture:

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Ducks and Reeds, by Lin Liang. China, fifteenth century. Public domain.


The hint of chrysanthemum was extracted from this picture:

chrysanthemum steemit public Xian'e_Changchun_Album_08.jpg

Xian’e Changchun Album 08, by Guiseppe Castilione. Between 1722-1725. Public domain.


If you’d like to see the blog that accompanied this collage, you can find it on Steemit. It’s called The Brain: Meditation, Flow and Literati Art.

I’ll try to post a new chapter for my book once a week. That’s going to be a challenge, but I might as well aim high 🙂

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Art and Life

plum website Lu Zhi
Plum Blossoms, by Lu Zhi,  Public Domain

Increasingly, I see no distinction between art and life, although there is a sense of the word “art” that suggests fabrication.  As a writer, or someone who loves to write (sometimes it feels pompous to call myself a writer), I have found art to be simply another form of expression, one that flows naturally as a complement to my words.  This is a view that traditional Chinese artists embrace, particularly those artists known as literati.

In literati painting, inscriptions on the work are intrinsic to the art.  The literati derive their inspiration from nature, tradition and philosophy.  In literati painting, art is an expression of character.  Technical skill, or “artifice”, is less important than the genuine inspiration evident in the work.

Traditional Chinese art often features one of four themes known as the Four Noble Ones or, the Four Gentlemen.  These themes are the plum, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum.  The essay below is adapted from my book, Four Masters of Yuan and Literati Art: Tradition in China from Mongol Rule to Modern Times.

The Four Gentlemen in Chinese Art

 

Literati artists have an affinity for nature. In their response to nature they believe they are revealing essential qualities about their own character. The qualities they hope to cultivate in themselves, they believe, are innate to certain plants. Four of these, called The Four Gentlemen in Chinese Art–the bamboo, chrysanthemum, plum and orchid–are said to embody different aspects of a noble character.  In fact, the plants are also called The Four Noble Ones.  Each of these plants has been featured across the centuries in exquisitely expressive art.

 

china bamboo elegant stone ni zan website public
Wood, Bamboo, and Elegant Stone, Ni Zan Public Domain

Wood, Bamboo and Elegant Stone, a painting by Yuan Dynasty artist Ni Zan (above), is part of a long tradition that reveres this plant.  Bamboo is seen as a natural embodiment of longevity, humility and endurance.

chrysanthemum website ong
Chrysanthemum, by Ong Schan Tchow, with an inscription by Lin Sen, President of the Republic of China.  Public Domain

Ong Schan Tchow, a twentieth-century painter, devoted a book to the study of chrysanthemums. This flower holds a special place in Chinese culture because the flower was first cultivated there. Chrysanthemums blossom in autumn, when winter is looming and other flowers are fading. It is the flower’s ability to flourish when others perish that makes it a metaphor for withstanding adversity.

Lu Zhi, an artist from the Ming Dynasty, was also a calligrapher and poet. His painting, Plum Blossoms, is featured at the top of this page. The plum tree blossoms in winter. This winter bloom, in harsh circumstances, represents to the Chinese the qualities of endurance and prosperity.

orchid 96 smaller
Orchid, by Hu Zhengyan, Public Domain

Another Ming Dynasty artist, Hu Zhengyan, was also a printer and calligrapher. He was a traditionalist who featured a variety of simple, natural themes in his painting. The image presented here is “Orchid”.  In the orchid many see qualities of humility and grace. The orchid blossoms in remote locations and often exudes its fragrance in solitude. The nobility of quiet repose is much admired in classic Chinese art and poetry.

 

Forgotten Reflections: A War Story, By Young-Im Lee

 

South Koreans_harvest_rice_in_the_Demilitarized_Zone_of_Korea,_1988
The photo was taken by an employee of the United States government and is therefore free of copyright restriction.


Some books are read hurriedly. We rush through the pages to get to the end and find out ‘what happened’.  Some books invite us to linger, as descriptions of exotic backgrounds and high-energy exploits demand attention.  Forgotten Reflections: A War Story holds the reader’s attention in both ways. It is a thriller, with a mystery that is not solved until the very end. It is also a moving love story, and character study.  Author Young-Im Lee has woven a tale that takes place mostly in wartime.  This is the Korean War, but the situation evoked is universal.  Even well-planned wars are chaotic for those at the center, civilians and foot soldiers.  Their challenges are universal: How do they survive the violence? How do they eat? Who can be trusted and who is a traitor?

Much of what Miss Lee writes may be familiar to Korean readers.  Western readers, however, will be introduced to contemporary Korean culture and its foundational myths. Forgotten Reflections: A War Story is a considerable achievement.  Using flashbacks and flash-forwards, Ms. Lee nimbly manages a narrative that spans half a century.  She accomplishes this without ever breaking the thread of the story.  I admire Ms. Lee’s skill as a writer and her apparent passion to explore ideas central to the identity of her country.

There is no need here to belabor the importance of the Korean peninsula in world affairs.  Many people in the West are perplexed by how this relatively small area came to be a tinderbox that threatens to explode into a global conflagration.  Reading Forgotten Reflections: A War Story will help to explain the origins of the conflict.  The book accomplishes this in a way that is entertaining and credible.  Ms. Lee’s book is well-worth a reader’s investment of time and money.  I highly recommend it.

 

About the picture:

South Koreans are harvesting rice near the Demilitarized Zone.  The picture is appropriate for this review because so much of the people’s energy during the war was spent in trying to feed themselves and in trying to preserve rice stores for the future.   After reading the book, I find it hard to look at the bounty in the picture without reflecting on the struggles of the South Korean people during the war.