Countless Peaks and Vales

Hanging in the National Palace Museum in Taipei is “Countless Peaks and Vales,” an eight foot high scroll completed in 1693 by Qing Dynasty artist Wang Hui. A prominent and gifted painter in the 17th Century, Wang Hui first made his reputation by copying old masterworks. His style is a combination of detailed rendering and evocative calligraphic brushwork. Drawing on past influences he writes: "I must use the brush and ink of the Yuan to move the peaks and valleys of the Song, and infuse them with the breath-resonance of the Tang. I will then have a work of the Great Synthesis." The Song Dynasty saw the rise of the scholar literati class and marks the beginning of monumental landscape painting. Painting became a mode of personal expression; the literati painters began composing the landscape to show natural orders, which they believed were missing in active society. During the Yuan and Ming Dynasty, painting moved away from literal representation, instead calligraphic lines carried the life of a landscape. Wang’s mentor Dong Qichang stressed: "If one considers the uniqueness of scenery, then a painting is not the equal of real landscape; but if one considers the wonderful excellence of brush and ink, then landscape can never equal painting."

In “Countless Peaks and Vales” the colour palette is black, grey and the paper’s natural buff. The subject is a river gorge - a typical landscape in the regions south of the Yangtze river. Rocks and water are skillfully painted and placed, dividing the picture plane in various zones. Summits resembling spearheads are repeated successively from the top of the scroll down, stopping approximately at center; the cliff face bare, a stubble of shrubs scattered along the ridges. In the top half, the mountain pass is most visible from the left hand side, a close view in elevation, assuming two thirds of the scroll. The peaks dwindle in height and continue in the distance, disappearing behind the mist. Four long lines of calligraphy are written on the top right, mirrored by seven short lines of text on the top left. At center, rock and water intersect: at the far left water carves through the mountain eventually tumbling over of an edge, and a river rushes in from the far right, two fishermen paddling against the current. The scale changes, as if the scene is viewed from above. Clusters of trees line the river’s edge. Two villages appear: one beside the river, the other tucked inside a valley. The river divides the bottom portion in two halves, following an arcuate path. On the left bank a second waterfall appears, the route of flowing water continues as a dry path. Two travelers one old, the other young are trekking up the mountain. Needle shaped pines and gnarled conifers surround a monastery on the right bank. Three monks standing at the shore. Several trees left of the monastery interrupt the river’s flow, again water transformed into rock. The river becomes a quiet stream. Behind the monastery two travelers on horseback are rounding the corner on a second mountain trail. At the scroll’s bottom left corner, conifers and pines command the most attention. The trees in an upright stance contrast the ones bent over. Behind the trees is an island with a pavilion perched above. A small footbridge links the island to shore. None of the major motifs in Countless Peaks and Vales exists in fixed states. Water sublimates into air, flows through the veins of mountains, and boats skim over its surfaces. Plants grow in rock crevices and people walk on rock surfaces. The motifs coexist seamlessly, and permutations of rock, water, trees and people creates a broad range of variation.

There is a strong sense of unity in “Countless Peaks and Vales,” each element’s raison d'être is dependent on a counterpart. However, Wang’s painting is incredibly resilient against visual fragmentation. The painting overall tells the story of mountains stretching far in the distance and a river packed with charming vignettes along its shores. But if one considers only one half or one fifth of the overall work, another story unfolds. From the bottom-most section, a scholar and his two pupils stand at the head of a bridge. Both students are carrying supplies while their teacher points his staff towards a place across the water. Directly behind them, a stream appears, water rushing towards the quiet bay. The trio’s destination - the pavilion, is screened by a large rock, although one assumes that there are stairs leading up to the top. A boat is heading away from shore, reeds and trees sway right - showing that the oarsman is rowing against a headwind. Two people are resting in the pavilion, perhaps waiting for their friend. One man gazes at the peaks in the distance, while the other admires the rocks before him. The story progresses from right side to the left side. The bridge suggests a path and a destination, the upward gaze of the scholar extends the scene beyond his immediate context, while the wind resists the fishermen’s efforts of moving upstream. The motifs do not follow the usual conventions of scale and distance. Objects vary in size and level of detail even if positioned in same zone on the scroll. The trees behind and in front of the small pavilion are significantly larger. Wang Hui seamlessly stitches relates conditions. Although the lower section is but a fragment of the overall painting, there still exists a complete story.

The Calligraphy Lesson

Teaching the friend premise is a little corny...but this is the solution I've come up with so far.

7 pages + 1 photograph (maybe), 1500-2000 words

The Setup: 500-700 words

content: 3-4 pp diagrams + text
  • I am teaching a friend (Krista) calligraphy, she doesn’t read, write or speak Chinese
  • I bring over brushes, ink, paper and prepare references: the character 永 (yong), a book - The 84 Laws, a dictionary, a landscape painting and a calligraphy scroll
  • Introduce Chinese written language

Part 1: 1 blank page + 永 (yong), 300-500 words

content: 6-8 pp + diagrams
  • I explain that 永 (yong) is composed of 8 basic strokes in Chinese writing
  • Krista learns how to hold a brush, brush movement, the stroke order
  • Her first attempts are unsuccessful and I show her where the problem areas are
  • I ask her to consider the relationship between strokes and paper

Part 1.1: 1 blank page + cover of The 84 Laws, 500-750 words

content: 25 pp diagrams + text
  • I introduce Li Shun and his 84 laws (diagrams)
  • Krista is curious why Li Shun and her are both copying other’s work
  • I explain the common belief that old works are reservoirs of knowledge and personal style is a synthesis of older works (essay)

Part 1.2:
1 blank page + cover of Calligraphy Dictionary

content: 60 pp diagrams + text
  • I show Krista the same character 花 (flower) written in many different ways (from dictionary)
  • Phrases written and arranged in variation
  • 花 (flower) written in 5 styles, stroke order, line and shape
  • Timeline
  • Essay on the history of calligraphy and the five major styles (in essay)
  • 5 styles all differ rhythmically & in time of execution

Part 2: 1 blank page + Countless Peaks and Vales, 2000-2500 words

content: 20 pp diagrams + text
  • Essay on Countless Peaks and Vales and brush painting
  • Diagram analysis of painting
  • 势 (shi) as it operates in calligraphy (balance of shapes and strokes)
  • Essay on Fenellosa’s Chinese Written Character as Medium for Poetry

Part 2.1: 1 blank page + quote on dynamism, 500-750 words

content: 10 pp diagrams + text
  • Diagrams showing rhythm
  • Diagram showing interaction between brush and paper
  • Diagrams showing calligraphy written with small brush
  • Diagrams showing calligraphy written with large brush 
  • Essay on collapse of time and space in calligraphy

Part 2.2: 2 page spread + fold-out page of calligraphy

Part 3: End of Lesson, 500 words
  • Review to today’s lesson: tools, methods, dynamics, sensation of hand moving in space and collapse of time and space
  • Krista has more questions (still working on that) and I promise to answer them during our next lesson

Epilogue: Lessons I’ve learned, 500-750 words
  • My trip to Lan Ting
  • Calligraphy is hard, due diligence is the only way one improves
  • Culturally important: Chinese identify with the craft, calligraphy equals value
  • Socially important: Positive reputation associated with calligraphers
  • Calligraphy is practiced throughout Asia, but is now receiving attention from the West
  • I’m not sure what exactly keeps me practicing, maybe it’s because of the community of people that practicing, a way of connecting to my roots, or that it’s something I can just work on without having the pressure of ever finishing, in any case I’ll continue practicing

Chinese Painting: A Landscape that Continuously Unfolds

In Classical perspective, as it was codified in the Renaissance, the third dimension is constructed geometrically, based on a line at the viewer’s eye level, and one or more fixed vanishing points with one or more of those points on that line. Perspective establishes a specific point in space to which all other points relate. Space is defined by points, straight lines, and planes. Perspectival art renders uniform space – where the subjects are framed and bounded, and fixed in their positions. In Chinese art the subjects are drawn with black outlines with tones applied as detail. Chinese calligraphy, is strictly focused on line work. If Chinese art is in essence a two dimensional graphic, how do we understand depth or space?

Chinese aesthetics is rooted in Daoism. Nature is a popular subject in Chinese painting. Nature – ziran (自然) represents elements of the natural world. Ziran also means “of itself.” The natural world is self generating, made by a matrix of elements that interact causing change. Nature is rhythmical, in constant flux passing between active and passive states. The Daoists believed that every object living or inanimate possess qualities “of itself.” True wisdom recognizes and follows the flows of natural rhythms, leaving things as they are. The Chinese makes no distinctions between nature and artifice or between large and small. Landscape painting and garden design uses similar tactics in spatial organization. The Chinese garden – a world of artifice, where the elements nevertheless follow natural processes – is a tightly organized journey, where a small space expands by suggestion, and the sense of the place is framed as an accumulation of experience. The garden is a continuous narrative, each scene is revealed along a serpentine path. Well designed gardens control pace and view. In-position viewing locates the viewer at a platform or pavilion in order to admire a scene in elevation. Curving paths are disorienting, hiding important settings and destinations from view. In-motion viewing anticipates the viewer’s promenade along narrow paths that thread between rockery and buildings. All the elements used in the garden are suggestive forms. Rock sculptures remind the visitor of majestic mountains, ponds and streams represent lakes and rivers. A rock is a smaller version of a mountain because both belong under the same cosmology. At the end of the journey, the visitor is reminded of the natural landscape through the scenery he passed through. For an artist, accurate depiction is not important, but revealing natural rhythms and the spirit of the subject are essential. Brush art captures vitality in painted form with brush technique and strategic composition.

Shi (势) is an ambiguous term meaning both position and potential. Shi represents the rules and also the effect caused by the rules. The definitions are codependent: things arranged in a specific position generate a potential. In The Propensity of Thing, Francois Jullien uses the ambiguous meaning of shi to argue that Chinese logic is never formed a priori. A sinologist and philosophy professor at the Université Paris VII Denis-Diderot, Jullien writes:

When compared with the elaboration of Western thought, the originality of the Chinese lies in their indifference to any notion of a telos, a final end for things, for they sought to interpret reality solely on the basis of itself, from the perspective of a single logic inherent in the actual processes in motion. (Jullien, 17)

No configuration of forms is perfectly static; all actions require form to take effect. Chinese artist and poet “produced a particular configuration of the dynamism inherent in reality.” (Jullien, 75) Calligraphy, painting and poetry tells stories in parallel: simultaneously describing the here and now and the events will follow.

Chinese paintings use silk and paper. Paper is made of bamboo pulp cut in separate sheets or made into a roll. A finished painting is mounted over lining paper and coated with a paste that waterproofs the surface. Chinese painting and calligraphy are not on permanent display but stored and periodically brought out for viewing. The scroll exists in two formats: the handscroll and the hanging scroll. Handscrolls are horizontal compositions, typically nine to fourteen inches high with variable widths. Looking at a handscroll, one begins from the right-hand side, unrolls the painting, one shoulder width section at a time, re-rolling the section before moving on to the next part. Hanging scrolls are vertical compositions that range between two to six feet high with variable widths. A hanging scroll is suspended from a cord at the top and viewed after the painting is hung. Jullien describes the logic behind landscape painting as follows:

In contrast to Western logic, which is panoramic, Chinese logic is like that of a possible journey in stages that are lined together. The field of thought is not defined and contained a priori; it just unfolds progressively, from one stage to the next, becoming more fertile along the way. Furthermore, the path along which it unfolds does not exclude other possibilities – which may run alongside temporarily or intersect with it. By the end of the journey, an experience has been lived through, a landscape has been sketched in. (Jullien, 124)

The scroll format encourages continuous narratives. Artworks are completed in stages. With long scrolls, each section is painted separately then assembled. Boundaries are avoided: motifs in one scene extend towards its neighboring sections. There are no visual breaks; scenes combine, never disrupting the pace or tempo of the overall work. Great paintings sustain multiple viewings, the scenes always revealing new surprises. The first viewing establishes the overall narrative: the characters, the motifs, the major paths and journeys. The subsequent viewings reveal finer subplots: the minor characters and alternative routes. Time is physically marked by the moment the viewer begins and finishes unrolling the scroll. The scroll format invites kinetic interaction.

A Chinese landscape painting is a precise compilation of forms that allude to movement. One rarely finds a straight line in the painting. Even architecture found in paintings cannot escape the influence of curves. Straight columns support sweeping roofs that, in return, reciprocate the motion of currents and streams that are never far from the scene. Curved lines best illustrate organic forms: the lines are serpentine, rarely limited to a single arc. Chinese painters impart life into their subjects using a strategy that Jullien calls functional bipolarity. From opposition comes desired effect: the curve is the opposite of the straight edge, but the combination of contrasting qualities creates tension, and the tension is visually dynamic. For example, a cascade is represented by undulating lines, but on every line, each arc springs from a common point but in alternating directions, facing left and right. The effect describes both the motion of the water and the structure that causes the movement. The rock gives shape and direction to the flow of the water and the water animates the rock. It is this combination of angular and smooth edges, and alternating orientation that creates the sensation of movement. The straight elements are structural while the curved elements suggest life. Another way artists create visual dynamism is by combining and repeating similar motifs. Kuo Hsi, a painter in the Song Dynasty writes:

The change of appearance caused by the varying degree of distance from the object is figuratively known as ‘the change of shape with every step one takes.’…Thus a single mountain combines in itself several thousand appearances. (Kuo, 41)

Trees, rocks, bodies of water, boats, villages and people are often repeated, disperse throughout a painting. Views of the same object at various distances and levels of detail are collapsed on one picture plane. A painter may also group “pines, cedars, old acacias, and old juniper trees in clumps of three or five, in such a way as to emphasize their shi.” (Jullien, 82) Every tree possess a shi - the propensity for developing a unique form. Direct comparison reveals obvious differences in shape, height and posture. Differences create harmony, not dissonance. Ultimately, shi is a unifying force, “for in China, a painting is only really worthy of its name when it represents the totality of things.” (Jullien, 98) Shi is a term, representative of the vital energy, a natural logic that shapes form and propels change in all objects alive or inanimate. Functional bipolarity and variation are artistic devices that enable the viewer to sense vitality - a life force in the painted form. The artist stays true to the essence of his subject - a unifying quality, but never replicates any motifs exactly.

Conclusions - The First Draft

Until I can write without having to recall what a word looks like or think about how my hands should move, I remain a student, not a master of the craft. The only definitive advice I’ve ever gotten was “practice, practice, practice," and I think that's pretty good advice.

Chinese is not my first language. I am a novice. Using my own graphics I illustrated the patterns emergent in calligraphy such as brush technique, stroke order and the differences between five calligraphic styles. The drawings separate the concrete facts from the incidental events. Calligraphy is a tedious, repetitive craft that uses wet, unforgiving materials. While the premise is basic, the rules simple, juggling aesthetic and kinetic factors in the moment between strokes is not. There are no easy tricks or shortcuts that masks a calligrapher’s inexperience. In this thesis, my calligraphy was carefully selected; for every successful case there were pages and pages of failures and mediocre results. Whereas the historical examples were successful, every stroke, every word and every sentence rendered beautifully on the first try. A true master is a painter and a poet. Calligraphy after all is a communications art and utility greatly influenced its development. In Feudal times, literary talent and a beautiful hand could transform a man’s life and elevate his social status. Every notable poet and painter was also an excellent calligrapher. A masterpiece makes space, traverses time and distance by suggestion on multiple levels: the tangible, the ephemeral, the poetic and the literal. Prose shape imaginative space, brush strokes and color blocks construct graphic space, the hand, the brush and the paper interact inscribing a physical space. Calligraphy is a matrix of stroke types assembled using a predetermined order and brush technique. Calligraphy is also a harmonious combination of serial patterns and personal touches. Contradiction is calligraphy’s definitive characteristic, simultaneously rigid and fluid.

In this present age, brush writing is obsolete. Most people prefer a pen or a keyboard. In China however, a skill set that includes calligraphy immediately boast one’s public image. Mao Zedong saved brush writing over other traditional arts during the Cultural Revolution. A single word by an established artist is a pricey commodity and historical relics are worth many times more. Calligraphy equals value. When hard work and good fortune intersect, magic happens, but these are rare occurrences. Thus, a few written words turn men into sages, and transform obscure places into extraordinary finds. As a culturally distinctive craft, brush art is also attracting new audience in the west. A renewed interest in calligraphy by a Western audience outside of the intellectual circle keeps the tradition alive.

Lan Ting

I visited Orchid Hill Park on a November morning, following a winding path that cuts through a bamboo grove, the sound of raindrops lightly tapping my umbrella. The path led me to a small pavilion raised on a platform three steps high, the sweeping gable roof raised by four stone columns. At the center was a stone tablet inscribed with the words “Lan Ting.” During the Spring Autumn Period, a pavilion was built at the foot of a hill where once there were orchids planted. It was named Lan Ting, the Orchid Pavilion. In the spring of 353 Wang Xizhi and forty-one of his friends and family gathered here. They played a game floating cups of wine down a stream, drinking and writing poetry. Wang wrote a preface introducing these poems titled “Lan Ting Xu,” considered the masterpiece of Chinese calligraphy. Looking at the fabled pavilion I thought: this is it? Had it not been for the inscription, the building was simply ordinary, its significance verified by two words. Was that enough? I came here chasing the beautiful place I sensed in Wang’s writing. I came searching for clues connecting the present to that spring day in 353. I wanted inspiration. No one noticed. I guess calligraphy gods don’t like rain either.