BBC 4 recently broadcast a series of programmes on Chinese art presented by Andrew Graham-Dixon. It is not possible to cover this subject in three hours, but Graham-Dixon attempted to do it by going for what might be called the essential underlying ideas. Though each of the three programmes was excellent in itself, I don’t think the grand plan worked since so much was left out. For me, the most enlightening programme was the first since it covered recent research into the earliest periods of Chinese art. These had largely passed me by because the sources on which I have relied do not cover it.
The first of these sources is ‘Chinese Painting An Expression of a Civilization’, by Nicole Vandier-Nicolas. In order to account for Chinese art, the author has provided a history of China along the way. Despite her strong academic credentials there is, unaccountably, not a single word about her anywhere on the outside or inside covers, so it is worth pointing out that she was Professor in Chinese Art at the Ecole du Louvre and Professor of Chinese civilization at the National School of Modern Oriental Languages.
The second source is that wonderful book by Lin Yutang, ‘The Chinese Theory of Art, Translations from the Masters of Chinese Art.’ The quotations range from the sixth century BC to the eighteenth century and we are helped throughout by Lin Yutang’s explanations. What a labour of love this book is. If we really want to understand Chinese art, not just in itself but in its social context, this title is essential reading. I believe it is about to be re-published, and not before time.
That said, back to the programmes. The first dealt with Sanxingdui, located in the city of Guanghan, 40 km from Chengdu in the Sichuan Province. The first finds were made in 1929 but the bulk of what we now have was discovered in two pits in 1986. As far as is known, this culture was largely self-contained and wrote nothing down. So we are left to infer from their art what they may have been like. For example, one of the artefacts appears to be a tree of life, which may give a clue as to their beliefs. Then again . . .
There have been other cultures like this and they do not tend to do well in the long view. Having no story they have no history either. The Picts, who lived in north-east Scotland, were masters of stone carving and finely crafted silver jewellery, but they did not write. So when they came into conflict with the Scots, who had a written culture, they were likely to lose out in the end. Unlike the people of Sanxingdui, the Picts had weapons and we know from non-Pictish sources that they used them when they had to. But now, like the people of Sanxingdui, they are the subject of much speculation and conjecture because they left no written records to guide us.
A cautionary note. Having a written culture does not of itself guarantee success. The first known example of an alphabet was developed by the Ougarit, who lived close enough both to the Hittites and the Egyptians to be under their sway from time to time. And what happened to them? Their culture was destroyed by ‘the people of the sea’, who appear to have been the local equivalent of the Vikings – given to rape, pillage, looting and destruction. What’s mine is mine, what’s yours is mine. Including your life. The Ougarit are less well known than they should be because the archaeologists studying them are French and, guess what, just like Nicole Vandier-Nicolas they write in their native language! Good for them, I say. (A search in English should be made under Ugarit.)
I believe that Chinese script is the only remaining hieroglyphic language. It could be argued that it leaves a lot to be desired: who is going to master 50,000 different characters? But it does have advantages. Since it uses ideograms and is not connected in any way with pronunciation, it has remained comprehensible for thousands of years to all who use it, regardless of their dialect or the many changes in pronunciation which have taken place.
Just as important, and more so when considering Chinese art, is the fact that calligraphy is itself an art. Can you control your brush and ink and still let it flow? If not, resort to Zen and the art of calligraphy or, failing that, the hip flask. We have only to look at the use of calligraphy in Chinese (and Japanese) art to see how important it is. For example, the painting may illustrate a poem, part of which is included in the picture to aid the viewer. Which means that unless you can understand the calligraphy then you cannot fully appreciate the picture.
And lastly, a little wrinkle. I have read that dyslexia is not a problem among the Chinese precisely because they do not use an alphabet. Chinese characters, which may be classed as ideograms – or pictograms at one remove – do not pose the problems to some that letters of the alphabet do. Not that I would advocate learning Chinese to work round the problem, even though here where I live we are fortunate to have a Confucius Institute.