At the heart of symbolism

As the seasons go by in ancient China


Opening in a chinese garden

Nature and seasons

Chinese calligraphy and painting are strongly interwoven. They share the same material, the same technique and the same state of mind. The material and inner preparation is common to both arts. It is probably why Chinese paintings are often accompanied with poems.

Just like the calligrapher, the painter empties his mind and alleviates his heart before seizing the brush. He enters into meditation (“Chan”) and proceeds without reflection or hesitation.

Nature of seasons

Nature is a worthy, or better an essential, source of inspiration of Chinese painting. Moreover, the seasons constitute one of its major topics. So much so that their various representations have acquired a symbolic meaning that the tradition has maintained and developed over time.

The seasons punctuate the rhythms of everyone's life. However, these rhythms are deeply dynamic and changing, never definite neither well-defined. The Chinese artist feels it and knows that he is unable to represent all seasons in their totality. At most, he can seize a fleeting moment of each of them. An important moment nevertheless as it comes from the Great Unity (“Taiji”) which rules the World. A Unity which polarizes itself into complementary aspects, Heaven and Earth, yang and yin…

  • Heaven and Yang mainly symbolizes the luminous aspect (of Unity) as spring and summer;
  • Earth and Yin particularly symbolizes its darker side as autumn and winter.

cycle of seasonsLet us note in passing a notable difference regarding seasons between the Western and Asian worlds. Whereas the solstices and equinoxes mark the beginning of the seasons in the Western world, they characterize, on the contrary, the “middle” of the same seasons in the Chinese world. Moreover, the Chinese year starts with spring.

During his life, the being will symbolically cross the seasons and discover the yang and yin aspects of the world and of himself. When he will have gone beyond their apparent opposition and realized their deep complementarity, he will be able to join the centre of the circle (cycle) where yang and yin are in perfect balance. He will have carried out the fullness of human possibilities and will become a complete human being, a true being. From there, he will be able to symbolically rise towards the celestial heights along the vertical axis going through the centre and achieve the totality of the human and supra-human possibilities of the being and become a transcendent being. While rising, the being will become more yang than yin, more luminous than dark. Such is the way the Chinese artist and poet will have to travel through while painting nature and seasons.

During their progression, the artist and poet will move away from the world diversity and draw nearer the Great Unity. The brush stroke will be less rich, more spare. In brief, it will become more simple and essential.

Features of the Chinese painting

The characteristic features of the Chinese painting are three in number 1:

1. Simplicity: In a general way, let us recall that simplicity and unity go hand in hand. In a more obvious way, the Chinese painting shows an obvious sobriety conferring elegance and refinement, thanks to the following ingredients:

  • The material first of all, limited to the “four treasures“: brush, ink, ink stone and paper or silk.
  • The preference for monochromic paintings. Largely influenced by calligraphy and the introduction of the poem under the Song dynasty (from the 10th to the 13th century of our era), Chinese painting has mainly confined itself to black and white.
  • The introduction of monochromic coloured painting used the same technique with a reduced pallet of colours of mineral or vegetable origin. A typical Chinese pallet consists of indigo, red colours (crimson or carmine), vermilion, yellow (gamboge or light yellow), burnt sienna and white.
  • The economy of the brush stroke, reduced to the essential, reflects the World Unity. The imagination of the spectator will always be able to adorn the painting with details. The Chinese artist does not paint what he sees, but what he perceives. Chinese painting does not seek to reproduce appearances, but to transcribe the essence of things. Just like symbolism, it is less a question of representing than suggesting.
  • The choice of subjects lends itself well along to calligraphic technique, taking on a highly emblematic character. Among the various evocations of the seasons, the choice often focused on flowers and, particularly, the “four noble plants” honoured by the Confucian tradition: the exquisite orchid (spring), the evergreen bamboo (summer), the perennial chrysanthemum (autumn) and the delicate flower of the plum tree (winter) 2.

2. Spontaneity: The use of ink and brush does not tolerate any retouching and requires an instantaneous technique. The layout is irrevocable and the accuracy of movement does not permit hesitation. The brush stroke is part of the general effect and can only convey the essence of things. It comes from the immediate intuition, flows naturally and follows its natural course. Everything must be done effortlessly even if the learning process requires a lot of effort. Mastering the representation of a bamboo stem is the work of a whole life. In fact, the painter follows the way of nature by minimizing his energy consumption as much as possible 3.

3. Asymmetry: The influence of calligraphy introduced an asymmetry between white (yang) and black (yin), between the luminous and celestial side and the dark and terrestrial side. Even under a symmetrical appearance, nature is deeply asymmetrical. The distinction between asymmetry and symmetry corresponds to the difference between dynamics and statics, movement and immobility, natural and artificial, spontaneous and reflective. The Chinese painting seeks to catch the dynamics of yang and yin rather than their static balance.

A good example of this dynamic aspect is offered by the reading 4 of the Chinese paintings. The vertical scrolls must be looked bottom up and the horizontal ones from right to left:

  • While looking at a vertical scroll, the spectator raises his eyes from Earth (yin) towards Heaven (yang);
  • The axis of the celestial poles, connecting Earth and Heaven, is projected on the terrestrial north-south axis. While turning towards south and unrolling a horizontal scroll, the spectator leaves west (yin) on the right and looks towards east (yang) on the left.

In both cases, the being of the terrestrial and obscure world (yin) has to look for the missing complement and turn his eyes towards the celestial and luminous world (yang).

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The practice of Chinese painting is a spiritual experience. The artist empties his head (of thoughts) and opens his heart (to the intelligible, “divine” light) as much as possible:

  • He clears his mind from any source of reflection and duality;
  • He fills his heart with the direct Knowledge, the immediate intuitive Knowledge, source of inner peace.

When the painter feels ready, he seizes the brush and traces the lines without hesitation. The painting must be carried out in one go. Then, the time of nature approaches a present time. However, the representation should not be fixed as such. It must give the impression that the nature and seasons will continue their own cycles according to their own rhythms.

1 back See, for example, the book of Leslie Tseng-Tseng entitled: “Chinese watercolour - four seasons”.

2 back The Chinese also associate peony with spring, lotus with summer, chrysanthemum with autumn and the plum-tree flower with winter.

3 back The contemporary physics ensues from the principle of least action, a projection on the physical world of the Chinese principle of non-action (wu-wei).

4 back The Chinese painter writes a painting and the spectator reads it. The influence of calligraphy on painting is so important that the 8 strokes of the writing are part of the 64 strokes of the painting.

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