UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Tradition and individual talent in the theory of Chinese painting. Stocking, John Robert


This study is directed at the problem of an apparent contradiction within the theory of Chinese painting, between insistence on the importance of individuality in painting on the one hand, by Chinese critics, and on the other their veneration of traditional ways and means, subjects, styles, and the criteria used in judging excellence. Since this dichotomy is clearly embodied in the single most important document within the theory of Chinese painting, Hsieh Ho's Six Principles (the First and Sixth in particular), I have structured the first three parts of the thesis around an evaluation of Hsieh Ho's reputation, and the literal meaning of the First and Sixth principles, respectively. The method is essentially that of literary criticism, tempered, hopefully, by a familiarity with many of the great masterpieces of Chinese painting. In the last two sections I moved from an evaluation of the values and customs of the social class which supported the art of painting, back to the theory itself. Within the scholar-official class, as a social entity, a similar apparent contradiction exists between the importance placed on individual freedom and talent in living, and the recognized authority of fixed tradition. Since this dichotomy is embodied within the apparently conflicting ways of Confucianism and Taoism, I have built my argument around these two socio-religious traditions. The method used is one of socio-philosophical analysis and interpretation. From a consideration of Confucianism and Taoism a set of relatively a-historical constants emerges: for Confucianism a moral imperative and the practice of calligraphy; for Taoism a metaphysical imperative and the practice of meditation. In the great literary and artistic tradition of China, a fifth constant exists, shared by the Confucian and the Taoist mind alike. My formulation of these constants and evaluation of their inter-relationships, and interdependence, is almost completely philosophical--the intuitive and deductive construction of a resolution which seems to adequately explain all of the important issues. My actual presupposition that the conflict (between the individual talent and tradition) is illusory comes, foremost, from my sense of complete unity in the painting, and, secondly, from the fact that the Chinese themselves were never particularly aware of any such threat to the production of masterpieces of uncompromised spiritual significance. In the "Introduction" I suggest that the illusion of conflict or compromising conflict within the field-theory of Chinese painting is, very likely, based on a defensive Western cultural-egotism, and the superstition that the Orient has always negated the individual spirit while we in the new West alone know its true value. Once we emphathize with the Chinese scholar-painters, the illusion melts away. The conclusion I reach is that the apparently opposing and conflicting elements are in fact complimentary and supportive, within the overall unity of the Chinese spirit. However, a certain irony must be admitted in that an a-historical, or universal level of being is a necessary postulate in order to consumate the resolution. That the Chinese themselves were convinced of the reality of such a metaphysical level, I have substantiated with quotations; and it is on this level that the result of Taoist meditation emerges as the supporting basis of the Confucian moral commitment to the essential goodness of man. In a similar way the Confucian practice of calligraphy provides the essential technical equipment of the painter, and a ready-made audience of experts in brush work, while the final criteria for judging the excellence of painting is closely related to the experience of the Taoist mystic. Moralizing on the Confucian side of the coin takes the form of transmission of ideal types and subjects in painting, while the Taoist commitment to spontaneous use of the brush, on the other side, leads toward the unconscious lodging of individual moral character--and, conceivably, all within the same painting. Individual talent finds its freedom to live in expression primarily through the function of negative capability, while tradition, the authority of the sages, in strictly governing the artist's positive invention ironically preserves the ideal conditions under which the painter's negative capability may be activated.

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