Painting outside the lines : how Daoism shaped conceptions of artistic excellence in Medieval China, 800--1200

Reich, Aaron Kenna
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[Honolulu] : [University of Hawaii at Manoa], [August 2012]
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One place religious traditions lend themselves to a better understanding of artistic creativity is where they throw light on the question of what it means to create in the first place. In all its cultural manifestations, a particularly fascinating expression of the intricate and interwoven relationship between religion and creativity appears in the prolific theoretical treatises of traditional Chinese painting. This thesis discusses the role of Daoism in the formulation and eventual exaltation of the "untrammeled category" (yipin 逸品) of painters of the Tang (618--906) and Song (960--1279) dynasties as an example of this phenomenon.2 The theory of painting took a dramatic turn in the Northern Song (960--1127), particularly in the eleventh century. An influential art theorist and Daoist alchemist, Huang Xiufu 黃休復(late tenth to early eleventh century), in collaboration with other contemporary theorists from Sichuan province, reinvented the theoretical standard by making adjustments to the gradational classification of painters inherited from previous works of traditional painting criticism.3 This theoretical move confirmed that a new ideal for artistic excellence in painting had emerged by the eleventh century, one that held spontaneous (ziran 自然) expression as the ultimate desideratum. This thesis problematizes the historical causes for the generation and perpetuation of this new trend in Northern Song painting theory. Through a detailed exegetical analysis of painting texts written from the ninth to eleventh centuries, I argue that the eleventh century elevation of the yipin class of painters developed in response to a growing intellectual interest in the Daoist textual tradition and its application to aesthetic theory. My argument challenges the claims of previous scholarship that painters and art theorists of the Song looked primarily toward philosophical and religious systems other than Daoism for their ideas about art. In one famous work of this kind, James Cahill argues that, by the Song, Daoist concepts had become "so thoroughly assimilated into Confucian thought that the Sung scholars had no need to turn to other sources for them."4 Some scholars in the last couple of decades have also argued for the prominence of Neo-Confucian thought in Northern Song aesthetic theory.5 However, as Peter Bol has demonstrated more recently, the cumulative intellectual tradition known in Western language scholarship as Neo-Confucianism did not become central to literati life until the twelfth century; therefore, referring to the many developing philosophies prior to the time of Zhu Xi (1130--1200) as "Neo-Confucianism" elides the nuances between traditions that "can include diverse, even contradictory practices."6 Though some aspects of nascent philosophies that would later be compiled and codified by Zhu Xi may indeed have influenced painting theory to some degree, each of these studies has overlooked the more pivotal impact of the contemporaneous Daoist tradition on the formation of new theoretical models of painting in the Tang and Northern Song dynasties. Serious study of the links between Daoism and painting has only begun recently. Sarah Fraser has suggested that the reluctance of scholars to address the relationship between Daoist thought and painting theory, and their subsequent reorientation toward Confucian and Neo-Confucian elements, may have been in response to the foregrounding of Daoism in less scholarly books, most notably Mai-mai Sze's The Tao of Painting (1956), that treat Chinese painting in an inchoate and ahistorical way.7 Additionally, there is the question of the greater prestige of Confucianism, another factor which may have drawn scholarly inquiry away from Daoism. In my own research, I have been inspired by Professor Fraser's encouraging words to scholars who might build on her work: "Despite the negative associations of popular conceptions of Daoism, alchemical notions of creativity, [sic.] and conceptions of invention are worth another look."8 Indeed, an examination of the vocabulary, allusions, and conceptual framework of Northern Song painting texts and a comparison of these aspects with texts from the Daoist canon reveals a remarkable connection between the Daoist religion and contemporary ideas of artistic creativity. My research has been carried out largely with the assistance of searchable databases of digital Chinese texts, most notably Academia Sinica's Scripta Sinica, which has streamlined the investigative process, especially with the task of searching for Daoist terms and allusions in painting texts. What follows is an investigation of intellectual history which reconstructs the close relationship between Daoism and the theory of painting from circa 800--1200. By looking closely at the religious terms and concepts present within the painting theory of this period, we find that the religion of Daoism not only led to the invention and elevation of the yipin class of painters, but that several fundamental components of Daoist thought ultimately become central to how the most prominent art theorists articulated the processes behind human creativity.
M.A. University of Hawaii at Manoa 2012.
Includes bibliographical references.
daoism, taoism, art, Medieval China
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Theses for the degree of Master of Arts (University of Hawaii at Manoa). Religion (Asian).
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