Chinese Aesthetics

Chinese Aesthetics

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-1702-4.ch002


This chapter studies the development and basic ideas of Chinese aesthetics by reviewing the history of aesthetic perspective from the Han Dynasty; the Wei, Jin, and Southern and Northern Dynasties; the Tang Dynasty; the Five Dynasties; the Song and Yuan Dynasties; and the Ming and Qing Dynasties. The ancient Chinese artists pursued the artistic conception of beauty, namely, the integration of mind and objects, sentiments, and scenes, and the fusion of subjective emotions and objective landscape. Nevertheless, this conception overlooks the function of practice, the intermediary between mind and objects. Actually, there are three fundamental elements: emotion (first feeling) of aesthetic subjects; artistic conception sensed through the painting brush in practice (perception); poetry, books, songs, and paintings as artistic finished products (containing essence and sentiments). It is the combination, conformity, and harmonious co-existence of these three essentials (namely subject–practice–object) that constitute the art system aesthetics or design aesthetics.
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As an old Chinese saying goes, everyone has a heart of beauty.

However, only a few Chinese have made a thorough study of the aesthetic theories in China since ancient times. Liang Qichao (1922), a Chinese scholar who inspired other Chinese scholars with his writings and reform movements, once said that Chinese culture was characterized by generality, arbitrariness, conventionalism and hypocrisy, and could only be sensed rather than being explained.

From Western aesthetics scholars’ views, there is no real aesthetics but only some fragmented aesthetic discourses in China. The beginning of the 20th century marked the commencement of the formal study of aesthetics in China, since Chinese scholars began to introduce the concept of aesthetics from Japan and translated a lot of books on Western aesthetics.

Figure 1.

But actually, the origin of Chinese aesthetics was rooted in the Spring and Autumn period (from approximately 771 to 476 B.C.), when other schools of thoughts and philosophy also began to emerge in China.

This is in line with the German scholar Karl Theodor Jaspers’ famous proposition of Achsenzeit (Axial Age, from 800 to 200 B.C). According to him, major breakthroughs took place in various civilizations in this era as great spiritual mentors emerged in these civilizations, including Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece, Jewish prophets in Israel, Shakyamuni in ancient India, and Confucius and Lao Zi in China, etc. Their ideological principles shaped different cultural traditions and continued to influence the thought and practice of all societies. (Jasper, 1953, pp 1-25)

The “awakening of the ultimate concern” in the Axial Age in the human history is the “mutation” happened when the social system evolved to a certain stage, and completely changed the process of human society.

Then, the further expansion and development of China’s aesthetic thought took place in the Wei and Jin period (from 220 to 420 BC) and Southern and Northern Dynasties (from 420 to 589 BC). This is the second mind liberation in China.

After the Spring and Autumn period, the Warring States Period (from 476 to 221 BC) and the Qin Dynasty (from 221 to 207 BC) when China achieved unification, China’s aesthetic thoughts converged into Chinese classics such as Lao Zi (also referred to as Tao Te Ching), Zhuang Zi and Zhou Yi (also known as the Book of Changes).

Figure 2.

Lao Zi established a system of philosophy which centered on Tao (natural order of the universe), and brought up philosophical concepts such as Tao, Qi (the life breath), semblance, being, nothingness, existence, nonbeing, hollowness and truth and so on. Lao Zi’s ideological system exerted enormous influence on China’s philosophy and aesthetics and even contemporary Chinese philosophy and aesthetics are inseparable from it. In the Chinese classics Dao De Jing (Lao Zi, 2007):

  • 1.

    The Tao is the original “chaos”. Lao Zi believed that “there was something undefined and yet complete before the universe was born.” This view is in accordance with the principles of contemporary cosmological models and singularity theory, which hold that the universe was in a zero-space-time quantum state where time and space were both zero and the radius of the universe was also zero.

  • 2.

    The Tao produces one; one produces two; two produces three; three produces all things. Thus, the universe came into formation, and then emerged galaxies, the Sun, the Earth, the human beings and so on. This view conforms to contemporary physics, cosmology, biology, etc., if we replace the Tao with singularity;

  • 3.

    The Tao follows nature, which refers to the self-organization and self-evolution of nature. Driven by the principle of time- and energy-conservation, nature evolves automatically without the need of any external force. This view conforms to the contemporary system theory;

  • 4.

    The Tao is the unity of being and nonbeing and of yin and yang, just like the unity of elements at a singularity point;

  • 5.

    Lao Zi’s concepts, such as Tao, Qi, semblance, being and nonbeing, solid and void, beauty and ugliness, easy and difficult, long and short, high and down and cleaning always all distracting thoughts and keep the heart and soul as pure as mirror with a flaw, all play a positive role in philosophy and aesthetics.

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