The Anatomy and Physiology of Chinese Painting
And the Pathology of Connoisseurship
Sainsbury Conference on Chinese Painting
At the University of East Anglia
Norwich, UK 12-14 September 1994
Dedicated to Sir Ernst Gombrich, Keynote Speaker
The essay delves into the basic ingredients and living elements that form a piece of art. Beginning with the physical ingredients of brush-constructions, we proceed to the act of brushwielding, and finally enter the state of creation where a Master’s work becomes inimitable and unique.
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Physical Parameters: The Anatomy of Chinese Painting
The time has come to review what has concerned many of us for years, and some of us for decades, in the wider context of World Art. One of the first adjustments we make when talking about Chinese painting as specialists is to don the spectacles of history. We plunge at once into an abyss of antiquity to cite the Neolithic Yellow River dweller who first fashioned the pointed painting brush out of animal hairs. A critical juncture in the evolution of this eastern branch of painting is that the tufts of hair were so gathered as to form a pointed-tip. This brush can and did create linear decorations on earthen vessels that show internal undulations in the line. Some of these lines form endings in clear sharp points, confirming that the ancestral brush was not too different from the implement used in China today. It was not, for example, like the stiff flat brush used for Western oil painting, nor even close to the nondescript watercolour brush with its languishing furs lacking in resilience or a firm point, that is better suited for washes than for sinewy brush strokes.
The Chinese fur-tipped brush, from the start, had a built-in resilience and bounce that gave rise to varieties of artistic expression. This, since the earliest examples, has been the backbone of Chinese painting and calligraphy and, as such, has had an inestimable effect on the entire evolution of Chinese painting down the millennia.
The red, black and white earthen pigments used for colouring the vessels can find parallels in other early cultures. But the Yellow River Dweller’s choice of burnt soot for black ink, and vermilion for red was indigenous and characteristic. The two colours assumed primal significance and since the Xia and certainly the Shang dynasties have become deeply rooted in the Chinese consciousness.
The colour red has special significance not only for the Chinese, of course. But in China, to this day, it has continued to exert a primary significance over nearly six millennia. It seems that red held some sacred if not magical function, at least in the highly structured social context of Shang society. Red was used to write the words of the oracle for divination, for supernatural (if quite frequent) communication with divine ancestors. The pointed-tipped fur brush was dipped in vermilion (a costly mineral containing mercuric sulfide), and the noumenal characters were inscribed with reverence (this can be seen by the fact that the draw of the brush was slow and deliberate). Little by little, the powerful words of augury took form, and a divining question was phrased. Once inscribed in vermilion, and propitiatory spirits having been invoked in the writing, the energized pieces were handed over to the carver who incised the characters with a sharp instrument, etching each stroke deeply into the bony substance for the final trial by fire.
Sacred Attributes of Vermilion in Antiquity
Why was expensive vermilion used for what may be considered only the “underwriting” of these documents?
Red continued to be endowed with significance in writing down through the Warring States period when treaties were inked in vermilion. In fact, throughout history red is used to mark auspicious or remarkable passages within written texts. The Seal of State as well as the personal seal were always impressed in red paste. Here again, this sort of quasi-magical writing – in the invocation of one’s Name – would twist and curve within a red border, in red – or in reverse on a red “ground”.
On the other hand, this colour is never used in connection with death or sorrow (during mourning periods, significantly, seals are impressed not in red but in black) – unless the deceased had enjoyed mountainous longevity past age eighty. Then he or she would have lived a long enough life for everyone to be grateful and happy. Such funerals may be framed as joyful occasions celebrating the triumph of life. And red is often be used.
We may conclude that red was in some way associated with blood, symbol of life. Blood courses only in a living body, and ceases to flow upon death. We can surmise that red had been associated with life, with the living, life force that renders something or someone alive.
To those officiating at Chinese rituals, the divine ancestors or heavenly spirits have always been very much alive, imbued with a palpable presence, a force that is para-physical. To rouse their attention, therefore, the supplicant had to impart an equally vital sense of life. Hence red banners, red writing. Hence firecrackers.
Animation in Chinese Brushwork
This brings us back to the writing brush. Its substantial resilience and its pointed tip enable this simple tool to produce, using different wrist-pressures and by wielding the brush-stem at different angles, all manner of brushstrokes. A single vertical or horizontal stroke can appear to breathe with such unique dynamics, – dynamics that translated into a Western cultural context recall the melisma in a vocalise, – that the trained Chinese eye actually perceives life in it.
In other words, whether it is in the colour, or in the form, a peculiarly Chinese requirement for a piece of calligraphy or painting to be perceived as a work of art, is that it speak of life, and transmits to the viewer a sense of being alive. This is the single criterion that is valued by the Chinese as excellent or desirable, in all forms of art. There are other desiderata that vary depending on the period and, within each period, on the viewer. But the presence of motivating life is sine qua non.
One last ingredient is the painting surface. This material has over five millennia evolved from (slip-painted) earthenware to (lacquer-decorated) wood, to (relief-decorated) cast bronze, (inlay-decorated) bronze, to (pigment-painted) silk and, (ink-inscribed) bamboo slips and wooden tablets, (linear and relief impressed) brick and, early in the first century CE, (ink-inscribed) mulberry bark paper. In each instance the symbiosis of writing or painting implement and surface material so conditioned the product that the appearance of the resulting art forms, painting or calligraphy, underwent radical change with each change of surface material. Yet we can detect throughout this period that essentially rather primitive instinct which continues unabated to imbue the work with life. In an almost magical fashion, the work tends to function as a talisman that has been enlivened by this life-evoking red, spiritually-potent writing, or with ritually-charged images that breathe with life that, – significantly, – transmit to the viewer the same apprehension of vitality, the sense of life coursing through the veins. The viewer experiences a spiritual or energy-transfusion, as it were, and the process of viewing acquires a temporal and psycho-physiological significance that may be lacking in post-primitive and pre-modern Western art.
Anatomically or physically, therefore, we have the implements, the images, and the brush-traces themselves.
The Physiology of Chinese Brushwork
We may also consider the brush arts of China in terms of physiology. If we dip into texts surviving from after the first century CE, we find that from the outset, discourses on calligraphy (and two to three centuries later on painting) refer to these arts in anatomical terms. They attribute to calligraphy veritable physical attributes including gu (bone), sui (marrow), jing (sinew), xue (blood), rou (flesh), mai (pulse), etc. This lexicon established an anatomical basis for Chinese perception of calligraphy and, by implication, a physiological framework for its application. These are the categories by which the strokes, curves, dots and dashes are re-viewed in calligraphy. They are subject to interpretation in organic, anatomical metaphor where the bone-structure of the character, the marrow of its implied or expressed temperament, the energy-tension of its sinew, the coursing of its blood, the resilience of its flesh, and the dynamics of its pulsation, are aspects that involve the viewer in the process of creation itself. By implication the viewer, too, must himself or herself be a member of the writing elite who practices Chinese writing, is experienced in brushwielding and familiar with the amazing transformative power of the pointed brush as it interacts with various surfaces.
It is clear that without a priori understanding of Chinese painting and calligraphy in terms of anatomy and, by implication, physiology, we may miss the essence of China’s ancient and living brush arts.
Moving from taxonomy to function or physiology (thence to quality), we have feng (wind or air), qi (pneuma, prana or breath-energy), yun (resonance, reverberation), shengdong (living and moving), bianhua (change and transformation), leigan (empathy), and the like. These terms come from a sixth-century text that focusses on the magic of painting, the Guhua pinlu (Evaluation of Ancient Painting). Figurative painting at that, where the spiritual presence and energy of the sitter was invoked by means of living brushwork.1_
The Six Laws of Chinese Painting
The central (and most discussed) passages of this brief text are the first two Guidelines, quintessential formulation heading the famous Six Guidelines (liufa). 2_ they are: 1. qiyun shengdong, living dynamism of energy (or life-motion) in empathetic resonance, and 2. gufa yongbi, brushwielding along [organic] principles of bone structure. These guidelines for quality-assessment are not only by comparison less tangible, less concrete than the ensuing guidelines, they function in essence as sole criteria which in China imbue a brushed artwork with value. Loftiness of expression resides in these life-factors: dynamic, psychic resonance or empathy that is channelled to the viewer.
The craft of achieving formal resemblance on the other hand has always been of lesser importance, and comes under headings hardly unfamiliar to Western readers:
3. yingwu xiangxing, formal representation in accordance with the subject.
4. suilei fucai application of colours in accordance with the category.
5. jingying weizhi management and placement [of elements] in accordance with plans.
6. chuanyi moxie copy [good paintings] for transference.
Painting in China, like calligraphy, is perceived (and experienced) as process of becoming. This approach differs fundamentally from a perception of calligraphy or painting as plain image or fait accompli. In the West the Word was with God and the Word was God where the Word, a nominal concept, is equated with God, also a nominal concept, in transference of two relatively completed phenomena requiring no time. It is an instantaneous and eternal equation. But in China the Word, as it were, is becoming God – and we, in watching the transfiguration, partake in the transferring and transforming process through a sort of visceral empathy. Significantly we too, by partaking in this temporal process, become God. We too are imbued with that life force generated by the artist in the process of creation. Unlike Western painting that we view as a completed statement from the outside, as detached observers, viewing a Chinese painting we replay its creation and become party to its evolutionary process. Here too the equation is instantaneous and eternal. But it involves time, experienced as eternity in perpetual transformation, in an eternity that is dynamic.
What we perceive and experience, in a Chinese frame of mind therefore, is a complex of psycho-physiological dynamics. But to the untrained eye, these dynamics may remain undetected and unsuspected.3_
Here I speak of an eye-mind that has been conditioned for centuries by an internalized psycho-physiological exploration of the movements of pneuma, prana or qi. Such movements are generated by the gentlest, subtlest flowing processes within the mind, and they can be initiated by the slightest exercise of will (what the modern Chinese call yinian.) Tremendous internal coursing of energy is summoned by this yinian, but it can also be triggered by the act of watching Chinese calligraphy or painting. The viewer participates, along with the artist, in the creative act and, as it were, paints the picture all over again. At the same time, he enjoys it as a completed work and enters the fluid, ever-shifting space to which the image alludes, and takes an imaginary journey tracing each brush-trace from inception to conclusion, from first to last stroke. Such journeys or empathetic participation were grounded two thousand years ago largely in figurative painting, especially portraiture that brought out the internal spirit or essence of the sitter. Around the 8-9th centuries focus began to shift toward more cosmic concerns where seasons are evoked, acting upon particular terrains, when artist and viewer join in participating in Nature’s creation of landscapes of different types, responding to different meteorological conditions.
A visual experience of such brushwielding creates in the experienced Chinese viewer a resonance that lingers long after the viewing. For in such this type of empathetic, creative viewing, the viewer experiences living qualities.
Let us step back from pat definitions, from idioms we have memorized and repeat without thinking, like qiyun shengdong – and imagine as visitors from outer space might imagine, what the Chinese of fourteen-hundred years ago were trying to encapsulate in this expression.
If asked what we might cite as conditions for greatness in painting, we might imagine the most important thing is to represent a three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional surface, and we might set the principal concern as yingwu xiangxing – formal representation in accordance with the subject. Yet this guideline in China was ranked third of six criteria. We would then ask, “What were the first two conditions, and why were they so important as to be ranked above physical resemblance?”
Spiritual Dimensions Beyond Visual Stimuli
Here we touch on the quintessence of Chinese aesthetics: which may be defined as “identification with living universal forces”. More than resemblance to any thing, it requires that the spirit or essence of the thing be recreated, as if alive. A special condition is that the life force be manifested by qi – personal or cosmic energy (micro and macro). This primary ingredient, qi, an invisible quantity, had long since transcended corporeality – yet reigns as the chief criterion for paintings the impact of which is transmitted through the optical/visual process of seeing. Qi is recognized in China as the causa vivendi, the reason nature’s is alive.4_ Clearly, qi in such a context cannot resemble the chaotic motion of debris flying in a typhoon. Rather, it must be a sequential, serial or pulsating manifestation of an eternally self-transforming energy whose sub-units interrelate to each other in a harmonic, rhythmic fashion.
Thus, in the second character of the first criterion we encounter the qualitative condition, yun. Wave-like energy that must be in empathetic resonance, where one set of reverberations in the universe will cause another to resonate in sympathy, in something resembling Kepplerian Weltharmonik.
So we have on the one hand the raw material of life itself in the form of energy and, on the other hand, this energy’s deployment as manifested in orderly, natural harmony, that is, engendering a sense of order. To put it in reverse, which is the Chinese phrasing, the “ordered series of dynamic life energies must be alive and imbued with motion.”
Put together, qi-yun, individual and cosmic energy that is resonant in harmony, is altogether quite a handful. It seems reasonable to suggest that such criteria can arise only in a highly civilized, complex culture that has enjoyed continued reassessment and confirmation of its values uninterrupted over millennia.
Thus we have a precariously balanced primary condition for qualitative supremacy in which the generative and the conditional are paired, where the dynamism of raw forces are tempered with the seasoned resonance of sympathetic, empathetic or harmonic vibrations.
Particle and Wave or The Chineseness of Chinese Painting
let us isolate the attributes that make a painting Chinese. Indeed, a central concern among twentieth-century Chinese artists has been the definition of “Chinese painting” for our day. Artists are preoccupied with reception of their works in the eyes of an ever wider, ever more modern and ever more international audience. By late twentieth century, it is no longer surprising to learn that one’s work has appeared in journals of far distant lands and is being discussed by strangers in unknown tongues. Many painters now feel that their work should be not only contemporary, but also recognizably Chinese.
These twin concerns reflect the cultural paranoia of developing nations which feel somehow ‘behind the times’, either as if self-worth could be quantified by GNP, or as if intrinsic value depended on stylistic considerations. What matters today to both artist and art-dealer is the image of Chinese art in the eyes of the “more advanced, more developed” cultures such as America or Western Europe.
Reacting to Western industrial hegemony, Asian cultures with relatively long histories like China and Japan have revealed their characteristic differences: while Japan rushed pall mall to assert her ‘modernity’ by hiding her ‘Japaneseness’ in her more publicized arts, Chinese artists took pains to ensure their cultural heritage be largely manifest in their art.
The definition of Chinese painting engendered bitter controversies among these artists, centering on medium and image. They insisted that failure to use traditional media or failure to produce recognizably Chinese images rendered a painting non-Chinese. They would attack an opponent for being un-Chinese because he painted with oils or acrylics on canvas or board. On the other hand, it was equally easy to put one down as antediluvian for painting images resembling traditional landscapes.
In thus defining – and confining – Chineseness, both schools commit the proverbial folly of focussing on externals like “pelt and fodder”5_, missing the inner essence.
For it is this internal life that sheds light on the nature of the artwork, its ethnic roots, and its values. But they can only be gleaned through the work. They transcend and permeate it, but they do not reside on the surface in the medium or even in its image.
Take for example, the works of the Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione (Lang Shining 1688-1766), painter for the Qianlong emperor of flowers, trees, animals in landscape done with Chinese materials and executed in Chinese court style. Yet in fact, these paintings do not ‘feel’ Chinese. Why should this be so? Painting is the direct expression of an individual’s response to living which, like singing, writing, love-making or cooking, reflect the imprint of his consciousness, and from Castiglione’s paintings we detect no Chinese consciousness.
Why do we know without lab-testing its ingredients or appearance that what we are eating is Chinese food, for example? We recognize it as Chinese even if the ingredients are foreign. Like potatoes, tomatoes or sweet corn (all natives of America). For it is how the artist or chef deals with the materials, what values he assigns to them, and not the materials themselves, and even less their image, which determine the nature of the end product. Sweet corn boiled and served on the cob is typical American fare while stir-fried in its under-developed state with mixed vegetables, or floating its mature kernels in a clear broth with ‘egg-drop’, makes it Chinese.
In painting, how do we find that Chineseness? In painting, as in food, it is not the medium or subject, but the way of seeing, that conditions how an artist’s perception becomes re-presented or expressed in the artwork. And Chinese painting of the past millennia collectively points to a perception of the world that is generated by the notion of change: where change or transformation has been the single universal constant. This change or transformation is in essence immaterial and fluid. Western painting has tended toward faithful representation of the present moment and of the immutable, and appears by comparison corporeal. This was especially marked in the half millennium from the Renaissance up to the late nineteenth century.
To Chinese eyes much of Western painting has the effect of still-life. To them, the notion of learning portraiture by drawing after plaster casts would be as anathema as learning about the human body by dissecting a corpse. Studying musculature through autopsies cannot be more alien from the Chinese consciousness since the Chinese have never been interested in corporeality as such, but have always striven to capture and transmit the vitality and particularity of spirit of the subject (or the landscape, or the fruit or flower). To the Chinese, anatomy has been necessary merely to activate the physiology, but has hardly been of interest in itself.
In close parallel is medicine where in China the study, accumulated knowledge and understanding of diagnostics and treatment are founded on invisible, systemic energies that course through the body in the context of cosmic energies. In contrast, Western medicine is founded on the investigation of individual and separately understood organs. To computer buffs, it is the difference between operating systems that unite the whole and individual data folders that differ from each other in content and function. China’s most ancient text, the Yijing (Book of Changes), reflects a perceptual consciousness of the universe and its principles whose constant is continual transformation, yi. It is not surprising, therefore, that expression of this consciousness informs Chinese painting regardless of material, subject matter, period or style. The single constant is that the work reflects a transformation in energy that is apprehended by the viewer in an experiential manner, transcending image or material.
Knowledgeable Chinese viewers re-experience the artistic process. In superior works this span of creative, generative time of being and becoming is perceived and experienced as transformation, as dynamic, shengdong movement. James Cahill once made the acute observation that Chinese painting is a performing art. This is entirely true, as the Chinese viewer replays the creative process of the artist, from beginning to finish, as in a piece of calligraphy which is read and replayed as dynamic wrist/brush energy-deployment in time and space.
Western painting by comparison appears more focussed, like individual frames in a movie, re-presenting a specific moment caught in a particular slice of time, – but not occupying time. These two modes of perception are two sides of the same coin, one residing in energy and the other in matter. They parallel the twin perceptions of light, one as wave, the other as particle. The Chinese perception, as wave, is concerned more with energy; the Western perception, as particle or matter, may be concerned more with formal content. Matter and energy are, of course, two aspects of the same thing and interchangeable. They appear to us as distinct phenomena because of the difference in the manifestation and our perceptual faculties. When manifested as energy, we can feel it and be conscious of it changing us – but we cannot see it. It is motion that is dynamic. As matter, it is still but has form; we see it and feel it. In this light, when Chinese artists want to paint a landscape, they are not interested so much in rendering the likeness of a specific place in a particular moment in time, as they are in capturing particular dynamics of a season acting upon a certain type of terrain. They wish to present meteorological transformations where cosmic forces – energy – are perceived, and re-presented, as living forces or energy that can affect natural elements like mountains and streams – matter – and where the latter are seen to respond to these transformative influences. Matter in Chinese painting undergoes constant change as a result of the circulation of the energies. Thus while Western viewers complain that Chinese landscapes have no proper perspective, they often fail to see that this is because in experiencing a Chinese landscape we move in our mind’s eyes through the various vistas. The shifts in foci are part and parcel of the ever-shifting vantage point of the roving spirit.
On a microcosmic plane, man as both subject and viewer, is able to move within this interchange between energy and matter, to travel in it and become part of it. In this way man becomes unified with the Way or Dao. The experience is fluid. Our mind, our psychic and spiritual energies, and those of the universe, come together in this psycho-physiological experience of reading a Chinese landscape painting.
The Pathology of Connoisseurship
Identifying (with) the Artist’s Heart-Print or DNA
We enter the landscape and tune our spirit-energy to that resonating in the painting. The result is a process of harmony in rhythms that transcend words or visual images. In this process, matter is changed into energy: our consciousness of corporeality is momentarily suspended and channelled into energy. The same process takes place in us when we become absorbed (or lost) in music, in loving, in meditation, in prayer, etc. We occupy time, and we lose our sense of our finite self and become transformed in communion – in union with experience that has no boundaries.
As the centuries passed, the foundation from which this stress on living motion was perceived underwent several changes in focal point. In the Han dynasty early in the history of empire, focus was on portraiture, on didactic figurative work. Energy was perceived in the subject, especially in the dotting of the pupil. By the Tang dynasty, as portrait reached its apogee, a more philosophical need swung the subject to landscape, and cosmic forces were portrayed, and their energies described in the most minute and moving ways. By the Mongol Yuan dynasty, the focus filtered down to the smallest physical ingredient: that is, in the brushwork itself. External form came to serve as foil for one’s superior brushwork, which was scrutinized at close range as if reading a love letter. And here every nuance of the artist’s wrist – as it were the author’s breathing – came to be reflected on the increasingly sensitive painting surface: the paper that became more and more absorbent with each succeeding century.
And here I would speak of the DNA – or the artist’s “heart print” – xinyin – that inimitable manner of his brushwielding which distinguishes his work from that of all others. From the fourteenth-century onwards, compositions have come to bear increasing resemblance to each other as increasing numbers of later artists worked “in the manner” of progressively fewer ancient masters. As compositional schemata are reduced and simplified, increasing stressed is laid on individual yongbi (or wrist-dance) characteristic of particular Old Masters. And instantly the imitators, especially forgers, stand out in glaring light. For they are not like the best of later painters, copying with love and reverence, or creating variations of, a well-loved ancient composition which activity while largely passive, is kindled by the spirit of love and appreciation that imbues the work with however little, a sense of lie. Instead, forgers merely seek to identify that aspect of an Old Master’s brushwork, to memorize his favoured brush-motif, cunfa, and fill huge areas of his spurious painting with this “hallmark brushwork” so that people will readily identify it, and mistake his production for an ancient masterpiece.
Inimitable Qualities of Individual Old Masters
While it is feasible to imitate outer aspects such as the costume or choreography (medium or image) of a celebrated artist, it is impossible to imitate his or her involuntary characteristics such as breathing, heartbeat – or brushwielding.
From the fourteenth-century on, Chinese painting has been about painting of Old Masters. One sought to reduce their brush-mode to certain typical, readily identifiable manners, and to make variations on them. To take James Cahill’s analogy one step further, later Chinese painting is a “performance art that seeks to create variations on an Old Master’s well-known themes. And here it becomes not too difficult to distinguish those artists who can under such circumstances imbue their work with life, from those who merely perform their set pieces by rote. Thus, for later Chinese painting, it is those very few who had the gift of impromptu – like the great jazz musicians of our day – who become the great originals, while the rest survived as also-rans – or as forgers.
I believe that it is only through this psycho-physiological immediacy and such empathetic reading that we can truly enter the world of Chinese painting as the best of Chinese artists and connoisseurs have been creating and experiencing it. And by keeping our eyes chaste (in the sense that Krishnamurti would have it, unsullied by preconceived notions) that we can identify in later Chinese painting the Master from the forger.
1_ on the living quality of portraiture, we may refer to contemporary practices in certain Indian Ashrams where statues or photographs are through chanting and other rituals brought to life. Unlike the living subject, the living portrait is imbued with a living presence, which can be remarkably powerful. Once linked to the power and the presence of the portrait, the devotee (and sometimes-unsuspecting visitors) is brought face to face with the consciousness and universal power of the subject, usually a highly enlightened being. In this case the devotees have imbued the image with the living energy associated with a particular master (the sitter), energy reinforced by the collective devotion of the gathered monks trained in this type of ceremony.
2_ The Six Guidelines are found in Guhua pinlu (Classification of Ancient Painters) which has been associated for over a millennium with the Southern Qi artist Xie He (active early sixth century). It is a typical reference on standards excellence in the creation (and in the appraisal) of painting, written as much for painters as for the elucidation of collectors.
3_ The Six Guidelines are found in Guhua pinlu (Classification of Ancient Painters) which has been associated for over a millennium with the Southern Qi artist Xie He (active early sixth century). It is a typical reference on standards excellence in the creation (and in the appraisal) of painting, written as much for painters as for the elucidation of collectors.
4_ Chinese recognition of this invisible generative force and acknowledgment of its value above all else, may have had a history of a millennium, and can be found in the early Han text Liezi.
One day Duke Mu of Qin (r.659-621 BC) said to (the famous horse appraiser Sun Yang, zi) Bolo, “You are getting on in years. Do you have descendants [trained in the techniques of horse-appraisal] who can be dispatched to identify the fleetest horse in the realm for us?” Bolo replied, “Ordinary good horses can be identified by their looks, sinews and bone structure, and by their behaviour and posture. But the best horses under heaven are swift and fleeting in their appearance and disappearance, sometimes seeming as though non-existent, and sometimes as if lost. In this way they transcend the ordinary worldly dust and leave no traces. Your humble servant’s descendants are all of the lower order of connoisseurs and can identify merely the ordinary class of good horse; but they are unable to find the best horses under heaven. [However,] there is a man who has been helping me carry kindling wood named Jiufang Gao whose ability in horse-appraisal is not inferior to mine. Would that your liege give him an interview.”
Duke Mu summoned Jiufang Gao and duly sent him off to find the (fleetest) mount. Three months later Gao returned and said, “The horse has been found. It is in Shaqiu (southeast of Pingxiang Prefecture in present day Hebei.” Duke Mu said, “What type of horse is it?” Came the reply, “A yellow mare.” Retainers were dispatched to capture it. The fabled horse turned out to be a piebald stallion. Duke Mu was incensed and summoned Bolo, saying, “You were mistaken! The man you recommended as a connoisseur of horses cannot even distinguish a horse’s colour and gender, how could he possibly know how to appraise horses?” Bolo heaved a long sigh and said; “That Jiufang Gao has reached such a stage in his appraising of horses shows that he has surpassed your servant more than ten thousand times! What Gao studies is the spirit of Nature: he can grasp its fine inherent essence, and overlooks its gross external manifestations. He deeply penetrates the spirit, but forgets external bodily form. He looks at what he should look at, and does not look at what he need not; he sees what he should see, and does not see what he need not see. Such horse-appraising as Gao’s far surpasses mere horse-appraising.” When the horse arrived, it was indeed the fleetest under heaven.
5_ The Northern Song genius, Su Shi (1037-1101), decried modes of perception common to untutored critics who judged paintings by their formal appearances. In his day, the spontaneous kind of painting by scholars was considered ideally created and was viewed in the intuitive, direct experiential way of Jiufang Gao looking straight into a horse’s essential qualities of speed and endurance, forgetting external form. These are the spiritual qualities, qualities that transcend form, physical appearance, and certainly details of gender, all trivia of external ‘reality.’