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Aesthetics and Art is a collection of essays on Chinese aesthetics by Jianping Gao, a leading aesthetician in today's China, a past president of the International Association for Aesthetics, and the author of the broadly acclaimed The Expressive Act in Chinese Art (Uppsala, 1996). The sixteen essays selected can be roughly divided into four groups, centering, respectively, on painting criticism in pre-modern China, traditional Chinese aesthetics, Chinese aesthetics since the late 1970s, and contemporary Chinese culture.

Among the issues discussed in the first group of essays, several were covered in Gao's Expressive Act, but here we have access to his further thoughts on Chinese painting, primarily of the "literati tradition". The book starts with the question of what kinds of lines are beautiful. Citing works like Plato's Philebus and William Hogarth's The Analysis of Beauty, Gao holds that beautiful lines of western tradition are to be found among "certain mathematically or geometrically describable lines" that show orders and rules (4). By contrast, beautiful lines in the eyes of traditional Chinese painters are freehand lines, embodying the artist's gestures and emotional and spiritual state. "Brushstrokes" is a more proper word here: lines in Chinese painting, as well as in calligraphy are the traces of the brush, which is controlled by the artist's hand and mind. The discussion naturally leads to a popular Chinese saying: "writing and painting share the same origin." One connotation of this saying is that for both calligraphy and painting the brush is used in the same way. Literati painters since the eleventh century, it is generally believed, employed the expressive abstract calligraphic lines to convey what was in their mind. To this understanding of the "same origin," Gao adds that such a saying was more attractive to painters than to calligraphers, for the former intend to "attach painting to character-writing so as to claim the authority of the classics with its importance to the whole civilization" (30).

Next are two interesting essays adopting a comparative perspective. The analogy-drawing between the game go and painting is prevalent in traditional Chinese texts on painting. By exploring key terms in this analogy, xing (form) and shi (momentum, propensity, situation) particularly, Gao says that we obtain a better understanding of the concepts of sequence, process, and balance in Chinese painting. Gao's second comparison is made between Villard de Honnecourt's Construction: The Wheel of Fortune (c. 1235)and a Chinese book titled The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting (1679), which is inspired by Ernest Gombrich's putting together of these two in his well-known Art and Illusion. However, where Gombrich uses these two books to prove that apprentice painters of different traditions relied on "basic vocabularies," Gao believes they are fundamentally different. When learning to paint, Europeans lay stress on the mastery of geometrical forms; they learn how to construct pictures from such sketchbooks as Construction. Chinese painters, by contrast, have an anti-geometric inclination, one which treats imitating copybooks as a process to cultivate a kinesthetic sense of the act of painting. This is of course in line with literati painting ideals: a painting should be unconcerned with "formal resemblance" and aims instead to be "calligraphic," as traces of the gestures of its maker.

Three essays, which comprise the second group, are concerned with issues arising from the study of pre-Qin texts. Gao starts with introducing Confucius's aesthetic ideas. When most thinkers of his time condemned art for its confusing human senses or exerting adverse effects on society, Confucius defended art by arguing that "it was useful in educating pupils and keeping social order" (125). In this Confucian tradition lies the root of a, one can say "non-autonomous" art theory that regards the practice of art as an important means of self-cultivation.

The next essay is a study of Yue ji (On Music). It is the earliest fully-developed treatise on aesthetics in China and has come down to us in the Confucian textual tradition. Gao's study focuses on the tripartite diagram of " wu (substance) -xin (heart) -yin (voice)," which can be readily found in the very first sentence of Yue ji: "All voices come from the human heart, whereas the moving of the human heart is caused by substance" (130). Gao is well aware of the confusion that might be caused by his translation of the key terms. No single English equivalent is "adequate to express the range of meanings covered by each of these terms," according to Scott Cook, who rendered the tripartite as "[external] things--heart--music." (1) Gao explains that the diagram could work in two directions. On the one hand, different social conditions (wu) can produce different feelings or emotions, which in turn find expression in different music, hence the diagram "wu[right arrow]xin[right arrow]yin". On the other hand, different music may evoke different responses and therefore produce different effects, hence "wu[left arrow]n[left arrow]yin".

"The Original Meaning of the Chinese Character for 'Beauty'" is an early piece from Gao, written originally in Chinese in 1982. Gao challenged several opinions on the origin of [phrase omitted] (mei)--the Chinese counterpart of "beauty," notably that of "large sheep being beauty." That the Chinese ideogram [phrase omitted] is composed of [phrase omitted] (sheep) and [phrase omitted] (large) is broadly accepted by traditional Chinese philologists, and an idea from which Zhu Guangqian (1897-1986) developed the notion that "beauty originated from the flavour of sheep soup" (138). Gao contends this is not tenable. By deciphering the meanings of mei in pre-Qin texts and using archaeological evidence, he convincingly argues that the character for beauty does not originally refer to delicious food; instead, it might imitate a man or woman wearing certain ornaments on the head. Gao's opinion is of course open to question, and more questionable is his using the new interpretation of mei to draw the implied conclusion that the Chinese consciousness of beauty originated from the sense of sight, rather than the sense of flavour. The origin of the aesthetic consciousness, Gao would agree, might well be traced to a time long before the invention of Chinese characters, say, the Yangshao Culture of the Neolithic Age.

The third group of essays is a survey of modern Chinese aesthetics. In the West, aesthetics is a rather specialised, if not marginalised, area pursued by a small number of scholars. In China, by contrast, it became incredibly popular during the late 1970s and 1980s. Gao's first essay in this group studies this phenomenon, which is generally known as the "aesthetics craze" in Chinese academia. For Gao, this craze for aesthetics is by no means accidental; it reflected a need of the time and played a vanguard role in the transitional period immediately after the Cultural Revolution, a period that saw China's reform and opening-up and ideological liberation. The role is threefold. Firstly, it paved the way for a renewed comprehension of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought. Secondly, as one of the first fields where Western influence was accepted, aesthetics prompted the practice of translating Western books in other humanistic disciplines and social sciences. And lastly, it helped untie Chinese literary and artistic creation, which had long been expected to "visualize and pictorialize certain political and social concepts" (161).

Gao makes a clear conceptual distinction between "aesthetics in China" and "Chinese aesthetics." While the former is associated with the import and reception of Western aesthetics, the latter refers to an aesthetics that roots in Chinese philosophical and artistic tradition. The distinction has been widely accepted in Chinese academia since it was first raised by Gao in 2004. Implied in this distinction is a contention between what Gao calls "the universality and national particularity" in aesthetics (189). A few ideas Chinese scholars used to support the universality of aesthetics, such as "common human nature", are examined before Gao takes his own position that aesthetics, unlike such subjects as mathematics and chemistry, has "an internal link with the culture and society it emerges from... [and] the aesthetics of a nation or a culture is not a branch or application of a universal aesthetics" (194). Nevertheless, a Chinese aesthetics with modern sense, Gao holds, should be based on the study of both Chinese and other aesthetic traditions. And this is precisely what Gao has endeavoured to achieve in his own research, the first group of essays in this book being a fine example.

Essays included in the last group are concerned with contemporary culture. In "The Growth and Construction of Cultural Diversity in Cyberspace," Gao challenges the view of regarding cyberspace as a closed space, as independent of physical or real space, contending that it is a part, or an extension, of people's social life. The last essay of the book, "The Beauty of a City," starts with Gao's critical reflection on "one face for a thousand cities," a recent phenomenon that accompanies Chinese rapid urbanisation and also bothers many aesthetic souls in the country. The sameness in a city landscape is nothing to be worried about if "city" is defined as a daily necessity; but if a city is intended as a piece of art, it cannot repeat others. Of the latter idea, however, Gao is very cautious, for treating a city as an artwork would mean "this city must be finished once and for all" and that it "lacks traditional neighbourhood culture" (223). For Gao, the beautiful city is a living thing wherein its residents can feel a sense of belonging.

As a collection of essays, the book would be more reader-friendly if an introduction were added. Also, it would benefit from sound editorial work; misspellings occasionally obstruct the flow of one's reading. Small defects as such, however, cannot obscure the virtues of the book as a whole. Written in a plain, pithy style, Dr. Gao's book would entertain those English readers who intend to acquaint themselves with Chinese aesthetics, in both its traditional and modern senses. To readers who already have some knowledge of Chinese artistic tradition, this book would certainly afford fresh insights.


Shenzhen University


(1) Cook, Scott. "'Yue Ji', Record of Music, Introduction, Translation, Notes, and Commentary." Asian Music 26.2 (1995): 24.

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Author:Shi, Xiongbo
Publication:Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2019

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