A Note To Shitao


Dear revered Shitao,

I have only encountered you in writing.

I confess that I am a painting addict; not that I am obsessed with art, but my mind registers a strange oblivion when the addiction possesses me. As the summer of 2009 vanishes, I have completed reading your Talks on Painting by the Monk Bitter-melon. I have a few thoughts that I would like to share with you.

I was not born a painting addict, though I was quite skilled with drawing in my youth. I once was able to copy the illustrated Tales of the Three Kingdoms with the most exacting precision. I was pleased that people looked like people and horses looked like horses. My brush was so sharp that it could slice a watermelon open; my ink so strong that it could shield burning chestnuts from fire. My lines could be as full and round as they could be squared, as straight as they could be winding, as upwards as they could go downwards.

In middle school things changed, however. Once I was instructed to paint a pumpkin. Since I previously had had the experience of drawing Zhang Fei’s angry face, I completed the assignment promptly. The instructor gave me a C in spite of my impressive performance. His youngest daughter shared a writing desk with me and sent me lovely little notes from time to time. She had the sweetest smile. We often chatted in a haze of joy. After that teacher and that pumpkin, I lost interest in painting and the sweet daughters of teachers. Many years later, I had a dream: I tried to hit the same teacher with a giant yellow pumpkin in the middle of a painting lesson.

You once wrote on the notion of the individual:

Remote antiquity had no method. Their state of natural simplicity had not been disturbed. When this state of simplicity was disrupted, a method was established. Of what did the method consist? It was the yihua. In this primordial creative painting all methods had their origin: It is the root of numerous modes of representation. It lies open to the gods but it is hidden to man. Therefore one has to establish yihua for himself, through creating method from no method. It pervades all other possible methods.

Dear Shitao, I am sorry to say that your writing comprises the beauty of your paintings, for you have never been able to deliver the meaning of yihua. So if you allow me, I would like to attempt a few passages in this regard on your behalf.

In prehistoric times, all art forms, including painting and writing, developed little formalism and methodology. The artists acted upon passion. When the ancient men desired a woman, eighty percent of them did not know how to express it. If a man could sleep with the woman, he would realize his desire. The rest of these men had to relieve such fervor on their own. The other nineteen percent of men would utter one sentence: “I miss you.” And the other zero point nine percent of men would say more directly, “I want you.” Finally, the last zero point one percent of men wrote: “Each day that I could not see you feels like three long years.” The last group of the learned men composed the Book of Songs. Since then, more men had become educated and embedded in this literary tradition, and thereby crowded the practice of writing. Every writer has to develop his own nervous response to expression. These men’s testosterone turned into letters, whether their biological impulses were orthodox or eccentric. How were any writers and painters to position these physical urges? And how could they utilize them effectively? The answers can be as complicated as simple. As most affairs go in our lives, complicated ones are usually misleading. The simple ones make more sense. The simplest of all is to respect your heartfelt instincts and passions, whether they are eccentric or barbaric. You make the most sincere efforts, regardless of the social reception of your work.

You paint that one stroke of yours, which does not belong to anyone else, which does not require any additional touch of yours, though it may consume all of you, be it upright or twisted. You give that one stroke all you have, including your life. By then, whether you succeed in completing a masterpiece no longer matters. You have achieved the essence of the mandala.

On the idea of the “practice of the ancient man,” you contend:

If one is limited by formed ideas, he will not be receptive to a broader vision. The gentleman painter ventures into the present by learning from the past. The true artist has no formed way, for his method emerges from no method. If one knows the constant principle, one can modify it by variations. And if one knows the way, one should also be skilled in transformation. I am myself in favor of the presence of self in my painting. The beards and eyebrows of the ancient masters cannot grow on my face; as the lungs and bowels (thoughts and feelings) of the ancient masters cannot be transplanted into my body (or mind). If it happens that my work approaches that of the old past, it is that master who is nearing me, not I who am imitating him.2

You and I have the same problem, namely, how can the individual artist process the ancient traditions while living in a contemporary world? But your situation contradicts my reality sharply. At the beginning of the Qing Dynasty, artists respected cultural heritage. Every master of art promoted a tradition that was larger than one’s own practice. The painters analyzed how brushwork could resonate with that of Dong Yuan and Juran, or how the use of ink alluded to that of Shen Yuan and Zhao Mengfu. They spent more time observing the imagined landscape painted on rice paper than touring Mount Huang and the Fuchun River. They were more enthusiastic about making copies of the ancient masters than depicting their own rockery or mountain. If their brush did not carry the “classicism” of ancient times, they mostly would feel as if walking naked on Chang-an Avenue, an act only to bring embarrassment upon themselves. On the contrary, we have seen, six decades after the founding of The People’s Republic of China, famous painters with little training or lineage. Many of them studied acting, film directing, or finance. More bypassed hard work as dogs skip longer paths. Their highest principle is to shorten the distance between fame and wealth.

The governor Gu Zhao of Yuzhang is the son of Yong Gu. Zhao died on duty. While Yong was entertaining some colleagues with a game of go, he saw the mailman arriving with no notes from the son. Yong realized Zhao’s fate though showing no trace on his face. He fisted his hands, which bled through layers of sheets.

The guarding soldiers yelled with aggravation, and soon the Hangu fortress was taken over. The Chu people set the capital on fire. Only the burnt soil remains as the pitiful witness.

Exhilarated, I walked in moonlight into a wine war to the west. Somehow I became oblivious about people and things as my body rose afloat into a different world. When I woke up from drunkenness in the moonlight, the shattered shadow of flowers flooded my sleeves. For a moment I felt that my soul was bathed in an icy bottle.

Beautiful writing as quoted above is of such rarity that you can skim the China Daily from January 1 to December 31, or the Harvest magazine from January to December (and you may continue for three years) and you will find nothing worth your while.

On the notion of the individual vs. the art of the ancient men, I have in mind an image that one grass growing on Mount Kunlun relates to the mountain in entirety. Before the grass grows, one is required to climb the mountaintop of Kunlun. Otherwise, one shall never comprehend the phrase “being humbled by the height of the mountain.” And moreover, one should not claim “seen it been there” before then.

You may begin by memorizing three hundred poems from the Tang Dynasty. After you recognize the height of Mount Kunlun, you can start practicing mountain-climbing. You can study Du Fu till the thunder de-roofs your house and Li Bai till deities touch your head in your dreams. You can memorize Li Shangyin to the extent that the first sound of the brocaded zither will get you a hard erection. Once you have mastered the spirit of these great poets, you will be in a bloody battle against these great cannons. When you no longer feel the Li Bai, Du Fu or Li Shangyin in you, when you instead feel that they echo you, you are now on top of Mount Kunlun, and you are now growing your own grass. Even if your grass on the mountaintop is only one inch in height, it is already much higher in the air. In comparison, the many desperate jumps you had to made on the ground would have been in vein.

You wrote on the site-specific act of painting:

When brush meets ink, yinyun has no division, hence chaos is born within. No mechanical chiseling, no rotten formality, no indulgence, no detachment, no unreasonable expressions. Once standing upright in the ocean of ink, the brush produces life, the paper transforms the hair and bone of a painting, chaos in turn shines with brilliance. Even if brush is no longer brush, ink no longer ink, painting no longer painting, one’s self is retained.

When one paints the shade of mold growing on a tree, the ink varies from deep to thick, the strokes may conform to the shapes of different characters such as 分,个, 一, 品, and 幺. Every three to five branches in foliage, such as those from parasol tree, pine, cypress, and willow, exhibit unique expressions. Some may lean and others may recline. A painter may apply these techniques to describe the feel of trees and mountains. But I have a different approach:

My dots can paint wind, snow, rain and sunshine. They can be front, back, yin and yang. They can be watery, inky or a mixture of both. They can blossom with buds, spread as sea grass or entwined with silk thread. They can be both vast and empty, they can be both dry and bland. There are dots filled with ink or emptied without ink. They can be frosted with the flying-white inside out.

They can be thick as lacquer and adhesive as glue. They can be as messy as transparent. There are two additional types of dots, which I never shared with contemporaries: when there is no heaven and no earth, the dots can hit one’s face like axes; amongst thousands layers of rockery and tens of thousands of streams and rivers, there is not a single dot. Sigh, the method forms no shapes, it is the qi that makes the mark.

When composed on-site, painting is magic.

Emphasizing the individual does not mystify you into god. You might be a god-send at times, you might be only a chunk of protein some other times. Even when you stand on top of Mount Kunlun, all your bearing is only the brush. Painting on-site as an act constitutes a performance of the ink, a cry for the unknown destiny, a split second when the higher powers forwarded you into this world. In that moment you ignore logic or and reasoning, you forget yourself, you overlook the brush, you can longer remember that you were on top of the world, and you no longer fear the deep pool beneath the cliff.

There is so little you can control in painting. You cannot even control the touch of the hairy brush landing upon the silky paper.

Have you ever seen the shape of smoke ascending from a stem of burning incense? If you cannot feel the wind, how can you comprehend the logic behind the formation of that smoke? How can you control the invisible movement of the air? Likewise, how can you control what shape the smoky ink grows into?

After we defeated the ancient men in the bloody battle, after we have exhausted the last bit of self-control, after we have grown into grass on the mountain Kunlun, we still cannot reach the sky. But it no longer matters, because clouds remain in the blue sky and water is held inside the jade bottle. The universe contains itself beautifully.
I shall never meet you in person, Shitao, whereas I cannot help admiring you and your oeuvre.

Sincerely yours,
Feng Tang

  1. For the translation of Shitao’s writing Huayulu, see Osvald Sirén, Chinese on the Painting of Art, Chapter One (New York: Schoken, 1963), pp. 184-192. Much of the translation in the essay is indebted to Sirén’s work. Another important account can be found in Chou Ju-hsi’s dissertation entitled In Quest of the Primordial Line: The Genesis and Content of Tao Chi’s Hua-Yu-Lu,(Princeton: Princeton University, 1970).
  2. See Osvald Sirén, Chinese on the Painting of Art, pp. 184-192, Chapter Three.
  3. The three passages are quoted from Liu Yiqing’s Shishuoxinyu, Chapter Six on Inner Strength, Du Mu’s stanza Fu on the Apang Palace, and Li Bai’s essay Four Accounts on Random Themes, respectively. Since all three texts are well-known, no editions will be named.
  4. See Osvald Sirén, Chinese on the Painting of Art, pp. 184-192, Chapter Nine.