Tacit Meanings in Chinese Art


This is an article taken from our China Eye magazine (2009) written by Brian Morgan.
Brian teaches traditional Chinese art and crafts. He has close contacts with professional Chinese artists, especially Xi'an based artists, and has arranged exhibitions in the north of England. Brian is a member of SACU and is a regular contributor to China Eye.

Haungshan painting

Artists tend to react to political and other pressures. Sometimes they have had to be very careful that their reactions were not seen as treasonable. This has led to hidden messages in more than one country's art.

China has suffered three major conquests, the Tartars, 265-581AD, the Mongols, 1279-1368, and the Manchus, 1638-1911. In terms of art alone, the greatest developments were soon after the Tartars, during the great period of the Tang Dynasty, 600-900, before and during the Mongol period, and early in the Manchu period. So art developed mostly either during the periods of occupation, or when China was free to follow its own destiny, especially during periods of internal unrest. This tells us something of the nature of artists and their temperament.

We have few records of the Tartar or Wei Period, except through stone rubbings, and they tell us that the Tartars introduced Buddhism and were soon assimilated into Chinese culture. The Tang period followed this, and it was a great period of cultural and artistic development, often promoted by short periods of internal unrest.

But truly classical Chinese Art developed during the Song periods, 960-1279AD, and matured during occupation by the Mongols. This was partly because some Chinese scholars were banned from office during this period, and had plenty of time to develop their art, with their discontent, to new levels. This was also the advent of the literati artist/scholars, and they developed radical new ways of looking at art.

They felt too restricted by the styles of the past, and felt that art should express feelings and ideas, rather than only be copies of natural images. At the same time new materials were developing, and the new papers more mobile with ink, gave far more room for expression.

This allowed new techniques to be developed, for example by using new and full brush strokes to give representations of objects, instead of the old and restrictive outlining of objects. For example, a leaf of bamboo could now be represented by a single practiced stroke of the brush, and could be used with colours which blend in the brush.

The Literati also had a fresh look at the plants around them, and found that many of them could be represented as mimicking the best of human virtues. For example, bamboo would bend before a strong wind that would uproot the proudest tree, only to spring up again afterwards without damage, so they believed that it was resilient. Because it gave shelter and food to animals, and tools to people, it was considered benevolent. It grew in all manner of places, and so it was humble, and continued to grow throughout the year, and so it was constant and consistent. All good Confucian practice. The representation of feelings was to come a little later.

They singled out four plants, and named them the Noble Paragons. So these paintings, while having beautiful images, also represented human virtues. This was in parallel with the selective use of calligraphy, to ascertain character. These plants were the plum-blossom, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum. These artists looked carefully at the structure of these plants, and found out new characteristics and ways to represent them. For example, the disposition of bamboo leaves corresponded to outside factors. Some leaf forms were like birds in flight, others were like fish feeding, etc. Consequently a whole new nomenclature developed, and this allowed new ways of depicting them.

Delicate plum-blossom flowers open in the depths of winter, and showed resistance to adversity, as well as a promise of hope as spring was around the corner. Orchid represented elegance and rare beauty, often equated to Chinese culture. Chrysanthemum always grew alone, so represented the independence of the noble scholar, always willing to help and advise mankind, yet keeping aloof from it. This symbolism could be Confucian, Daoist, Buddhist, or mixtures of these. For example, Confucian ethics demanded a powerful moral code of social inclusion and responsibility. Themes like loyalty, which were expressed by objects or things in pairs, or a vision of distant mountains covered in snow, and flying egrets, suggesting we must not forget distant friends. The Dao is expressed in certain landscapes, as advocating the Way of Nature, and questions some eternal enigmas, like defining permanence and transience, - a mystical skepticism. Buddhism is usually associated with the lotus, and the search for perfection. The lotus grows from sullied waters, and yet produces the Buddhist idea of perfection in the form of the seed pod.

But the new symbolism also applied to animals. For example, a scaly carp represented a military career, and would have been painted for a soldier. A carp leaping a waterfall, represented “Leaping the Dragon's Gate”, indicative of overcoming a formidable obstacle, and meant a scholar passing the Imperial examinations. Certain flowers, like peony, represented love and affection. Fish, in general, represented prosperity. The list of symbolism is well documented. During the Song period, landscapes developed to new heights and purposes. They were associated either with Buddhism and meditation, or the wanderings of the mind in the Dao. These artists saw a complete vision, and not just the grouping of its component parts. The great landscapes were able to free our imaginations, and allow them to wander through these imaginary scenes, among lakes and mountain peaks, past waterfalls cascading into mists, and to pick their way through deep forests of pine, perfect conditions for the meandering thoughts of deep medication.

These paintings were spontaneous and identifiably original. They were also closely linked to classical Tang poetry. Wang Wei was the writer of much poetry with Buddhist themes; here, in “A Visit to Xiangji Temple”, the writer is going into a state of meditation, in pure Buddhist tradition, with some Daoist overtones. He sees, in his mind, a distant landscape, with winding tracks up the mountain sides, and he compares the winding lake with processes in meditation, and sets the scene at twilight.

“Not knowing where the temple is,
I am already miles into the mountain, into the mist.
Ancient roads offer no human trails,
Deep in the peaks, whence comes the echoing bell?
At jagged rocks, spring water sobs and groans,
On the hazy pines, the sun shines cool.
Here a lake stretches in the evening light,
Winding, like profound meditation,
Drowning all worldly speculation.””

The Tartar invaders had been fairly gentle, and willing to assimilate Chinese culture. The Mongols were aggressive nomads, who loved fighting, who loved their horses, and reveled in acrobatic and circus-like physical skills, as shown in many stone-rubbings of carvings of this period. They were rough and ready, quite different from the cultured Chinese scholars. While, on the one hand, they admired the Chinese culture, on the other hand they wanted to dominate it and take it over. They sought the help of some scholars, but refused others. Anyone willingly in Mongol service was considered a traitor. Many were forced into service. The system of eunuchs controlling the court continued as before, as they had no existence outside of the court, and they were always looking out for obvious signs of unrest or of treasonable intent. This put a great burden on the scholars, who had to be very careful what they wrote or painted.

These scholars were already well practiced in calligraphy, and this took a prominent and often structural position in the paintings. With the coming of the Mongols, there were some immediate changes in art, for example, any landscapes painted were desolate and uninhabited. Some artists had their own methods of tacitly and safely expressing their discontent, if only for future generations to unravel. References in calligraphy had to be oblique.

The artist Kung Kui painted an emaciated horse, which was a complete anathema to the horse-loving Mongols. This heroically represented a noble gentleman, who refused to cooperate with the Mongols, and despite the deprivations put upon him by his overlords, was remained unbowed. He wrote the following script to the painting, whose meaning is still clear in the effect of the occupation on China.

“A horse, which casts a shadow like a mountain upon a sandy bank, in the setting sun.”

The most famous of these paintings was by the Song patriot artist Zheng Si Xiao, who put his feelings into exquisite paintings of orchids, which did not show their roots above the mound on which they grew. He was in effect saying that the Chinese had lost control of their soil, and this tradition is still remembered today. A closer study of that painting, with knowledge of the structure of orchid, shows much more, and that the stunted orchid was placed beside, and slightly separate from a clump of grass, which signified the baseness of the Mongols.

His script carries a fairly safe message:

“I have been asking Xi Huang, (the old hermit), with my head bowed,
Who were you, and why did you come to this land? I opened my nostrils before making this painting, and there, floating everywhere in the sky, is the antique fragrance, undying.”

A simple translation of the hermit's name is 'Western Emperor', a direct but tacit reference to Kublai Khan himself. Another Song patriot, Zhao Meng Fu, was long courted by the Mongols to enter their service. After ten years of pressure, he relented, and entered the service of Kublai Khan, where he soon rose to high office. He was always ashamed of his surrender, but he must have been under great pressure.

When he continued painting, he did one painting in particular, of a sheep and a goat, again an anathema to the Mongols, who held these as beasts of burden and of food. But this was a cry of despair. He had been shunned by his own countrymen, and expressed his despair as safely as he could. He left it to future generations to understand his meaning. Fairly clearly he was comparing himself with the early Han General Su Wu, (139-60BC), who had been captured by the Xiongnu, and was their slave and herdsman of sheep and goats for 19 years. Finally Su Wu was set free or escaped. But during these years he had never given up hope nor his fervent patriotism.

At the time of the Manchu conquest, in 1638, similar situations arose. The great Ming patriot, Gong Xian, thereafter only painted desolate landscapes, with little inscription. For example, “A 1,000 peaks and Myriad Ravines”, meaning that their own land was now impassable, and excluded from them. This was a period of acquisition of land, of enforced marriages, the pigtail, foot-binding, and of terrible punishments.

In many ways the Manchus were far crueler than the Mongols, and imposed strict laws upon he Chinese. It took two centuries before some of the Chinese began to be reconciled with their conquerors. Some never were.


We all know of the 'Manchu Escape', an outer part of a landscape, left clear of impediment to the wandering mind, in case of being disturbed by the Manchus, during meditation.

During these periods of conquest there were also more subtle signs of disquiet, many of which I don't think have yet been documented.

For example, paintings of bamboo in the Mongol period used new and unknown leaf-forms, and one of them was like a six-legged marauding insect. If the artist had used eight legs, suggesting that a marauding spider was over China, it would have been quickly noticed, as previous leaf forms were restricted to six leaves.

A very old artist told me his feeling was that the six-legged marauder implied a hostile man on horseback. These artists also introduced bamboo in the wind, rain and snow, inclement conditions, and the startled rook and wild goose in flight leaf forms, whose meaning is now quite clear.

Bamboo was often paired suggesting loyalty, but with one stem bowed and both fairly bare of leaves. Also it was often represented in stony ground, all of whose meanings are clear. In the early 19th century, the famous horse artist Xu Bei Hong, suddenly changed tack for a while during the Civil Wars, and painted scenes with two stems of bamboo and a cockerel. The cockerel is symbolic of a brave soldier, faithful in his duty, the two stems of bamboo express fidelity, or in this case, patriotism.

I have studied changes in some of these images, from Song to Qing, and patterns do seem to be there. I am sure that careful study, by artists rather than historians, will reveal far more hidden information among the Noble Paragons, and landscapes, if not throughout the whole of traditional Chinese art.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2009, China Eye Issue 22, Summer 2009

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