Nicholas Bunnin

Themes from Contemporary Chinese Aesthetics

Ancient Themes

I am going to talk about some themes from twentieth-century philosophical aesthetics in China as a feature of China's response to modernity, but I begin by mentioning two ancient themes. The first is the Confucian understanding of art as a means of promoting ethical cultivation and securing social order. Music, which also involved dance and poetry and might be stretched to include artworks and performances in general, was closely associated with rites in promoting the inner development of virtue and the outer manifestation of virtue in harmonious social relations. Through its effects on thought and feeling, good art guided practice to shape and perfect good men and good society. Inappropriate art led away from individual and social perfection. Thus art and its assessment were tied to a didactic ethical and social role. Although this came to be a dominant cultural vision, we should also note the mocking chorus of anti-Confucian dissent against an allegedly self-obsessive concern with virtue and an allegedly mistaken analysis of the grounds of social order. This response made room for an ironic and deflationary art of ridicule, but one that was parasitic upon Confucian proprieties.

The second ancient theme deals with Daoist approaches to art and the ineffable, that which is beyond words and understanding. We all know the perplexity set in train by the claim: ›the dao that can be said is not the true dao‹. Each grasp of the dao ends in paradox: to succeed is to fail and at least some failure constitutes success. Here, the orderly world of virtue and harmony, in which we can grasp the dao for man and the dao for nature and show them to be the same, gives way to a deeper mystery at the core of nature and humanity. Further, this mystery, instead of being a fully actual and unchanging substance, like Aristotle's god, is a matter of pure potentiality, a potentiality that allows what is actual to exist. At the level of the dao, reality is a reality of change, as set out in the Book of Changes, rather than a reality of stability. The source of being and of the many things that exist is empty possibility or nothingness. On this view, art captures what we cannot grasp. Art expresses the creative movement of the dao and hence the free wandering of our human being. Here again, we have a different grounding of art and its assessment, one which embraces the ordinary and untransformed in man and nature, but sees them in a metaphysical perspective that places freedom over virtue and distrusts language as a means stating reality.

There are problems with both of these ancient themes. For the first, we are likely to rebel against linking art too closely with edification or against suffocating art by any other external goal. We want at least to explore the possibility of some limited or more extensive autonomy for art and autonomy for what is valuable in art. This autonomy can be promised, but not achieved, by the secondary parasitic acts of aesthetic demolition against a primary orthodoxy. Once the ground is cleared, what is left to defy? Clearly, some art of mordant response to prevailing values and institutions does have lasting value, while other works, styles and movements are art for no more than a day or a decade. I am not dismissing their importance or the importance of their context or iconographic force, but I am trying to understand the difference between their aesthetic and other importance and value.

A main difficulty with the second view can be stated in terms used by Frank Ramsey in his response to Wittgenstein's early pronouncement that everything that can be said can be said clearly. According to Wittgenstein, we cannot say anything about what concerns us most deeply – ethics, religion, ourselves – but we can show what we mistakenly try to say. Ramsey replied that ›what you can't say, you can't say, and you can't whistle it either‹. Whatever the complications of our language, showing – as an act of communication – is a kind of saying, and my unexamined contrast between capturing and grasping, if Ramsey is correct, falls in the same way as the distinction between saying and showing. An art of implicature rather than statement, of irony rather than directness, would become a mannerist affectation rather than a serious – even a seriously playful – aesthetic grounding. We would still be caught by the paradox: ›the dao that can be said is not the true dao‹. If the true dao that can't be said cannot be whistled either, an art communicating the ineffable will achieve no more than elegant failure.

The Importance of Art

Having looked at two ancient themes, I want to turn to two modern themes. The first concerns the question of why art is important and the second deals with the aesthetic consequences of new conceptions of the self in recent Chinese philosophy.

The great Chancellor of Peking University, Cai Yuanbei (1868-1940), was a philosopher of aesthetics. His account of the importance of art was a startling one: art could replace religion. His work on ethnology and comparative civilisation led him to appreciate the value of religious beliefs and their aesthetic symbols in providing fortitude and stability in the face of human suffering. But confusions of doctrine had led to a decline of religious belief. We seemed to face a dilemma: revise religious belief to enable it to stand up to rational scrutiny or relinquish the social and individual benefits of belief. Cai offered a middle way, of shifting our emotional attachments from belief to symbol and of soothing the pain of life with effective artistic symbols freed from religious belief. By focusing on art rather than belief, Cai went further than the nineteenth century European proposals for a demythologised civic religion to provide solidarity without muddled belief. Good art would be art providing individuals with peace and society with stability. But even with this liberating view, we still have art and its assessment tied to external benefits.

A second early-modern Chinese approach to the importance of art can be found in the New Culture Movement and, more particularly, in the vernacular literary revolution initiated by Hu Shi (1891-1962). On this view, cultures and periods of a culture have different characteristic aesthetic expressions. In China, according to Hu Shi, a classical literature that reflected the life of an earlier age had carried forward in a debased and artificial way to distort and suppress new social patterns and their aesthetic expression. Art could renew itself through a vernacular revolution that brought it back into relation with real people and their lives. Here there is some uncertainty whether our assessment of art is autonomous or tied to an independent understanding of the values of a culture or of a cultural period. On one interpretation, we use our judgement of whether art is lively and creative as a means of penetrating to the core of culture. On another interpretation, we use our ideas of a cultural essence to assess the works of art. Perhaps, we can satisfy both inclinations through a hermeneutic circle involving artistic assessment and an environing cultural understanding, but it might be better to call into question the whole project of cultural essentialism that motivates this project.

We can trace two further developments of Hu Shi's understanding of the importance of art in terms of expressing a cultural period. First, Guo Moruo (1892-1978) adapted a Marxist framework of the historical stages of the development of the forces and relations of production as a base shaping a superstructure of philosophy, law and culture, including art. On this view, art would be valuable not through its role in expressing the culture of a period. Rather, art would be good if it expressed the progressive forces of its period and bad if it expressed the reactionary forces of its period. What was suggestive as hypothesis became stifling when Guo Moruo's periodisation was adopted as official orthodoxy and, of course, also subordinated the autonomy of art to external goods. Other Marxist philosophers argued for the objectivity of aesthetic judgement, so that external criteria could be used to prove or disprove the value of a work of art or a whole mode of artistic production.

The second development that I trace back to Hu Shi's concern for cultures and their periods is Fang Dongmei's (1899-1977) evocative holistic comparisons of cultures and their sources of creativity, especially in Greece and China. Fang's rhapsodic prose expressed his vision of reality as many-layered and many-faceted, from the physical and biological to the ethical and religious, with each higher level emerging from the less complex levels below it, but not reducible to those lower levels. According to Fang, different human cultures are unified through different patterns of artistic creativity, represented at its purest by a neo-Confucian concern with ›creative creativity‹. For Fang, art is important for its capacity to unify and preserve cultures and for its exemplification of creativity, but these formal roles need not impinge on the assessment of art. Rather our autonomous criticism of art leads to our understanding of culture. Nevertheless, we might be glad to have an account that makes room for the autonomy of art and aesthetic judgement without being lumbered by Fang Dongmei's entrancing but implausible system of philosophy.

Conceptions of the Self

I shall turn now to my final theme, the aesthetic consequences of new conceptions of the self in Chinese philosophy over the last century. Although each view has a philosophical motivation and is worthy of internal philosophical discussion, we can also see the creative variety of accounts of the self as a response to the prolonged crisis that has afflicted China as Chinese intellectuals and the country at large have come to terms with modernity. Distress, pessimism, envy and loyalty, utopian vision and nihilistic despair all have had a part to play in shaping these explorations of the self.

We can begin with Liang Qichao's (1873-1929) adaptation of the Confucian conception of the self as regulated – or even constituted – by its position in a set of overlapping role relationships. To the traditional five cardinal relationships, Liang added the relationship among private persons in general and the relationship between citizens and the state. With these additions, Liang hoped to underpin the transition from arbitrary rule to constitutional democracy. In a later expression of the same civic and democratic intuition, Feng Qi (1915-95) developed an account of wisdom and freedom suitable for the ordinary man rather than for the gentleman or sage. In each case, we have a basis for an edifying art for the common man rather than for a restricted elite, but our worries about art as edification remain.

More radically, Zhu Guangqian (1897-1986), following Croce, understood a human life as a work of art. By aestheticising the self, Zhu challenged ethics as the most fundamental mode of self-understanding and withdrew ethical improvement as grounds for valuing and assessing art. He also challenged entrenched ways of determining the limits of what is a work of art by finding beauty and other aesthetic qualities in a whole range of human creative activity, including the products of our intellectual life, as well as in the self and in traditional artworks. His doctrine effectively raises the modern question: ›What is a work of art?‹

A further conception of the self entered China from Europe through the aesthetic writings of Wang Guowei (1877-1927). Wang was fascinated by the German idealist notion of the free play of genius as an explanation of the origin of the most important works of art and as a guide to critical assessment. He supplemented the notion of works of genius with a traditional notion of refinement or elegance as a lesser, but closely related, aesthetic ideal. His understanding of the aesthetic state provided a basis for the autonomy of art and the independence of aesthetic judgement. There is much to say about Wang Guowei as a theorist of art, as a critic and as an interpreter of Kant, Schiller, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, but I shall confine myself to noting his introduction of the self as genius – as a Promethean creator or Faustian over-reacher and as an object of aesthetic concern – among the modern Chinese models of the self.

The two final conceptions of the self that I shall consider arise in different ways from Chinese responses to Kant, those of Mou Zongsan (1909-95) and Li Zehou (1930- ). Mou Zongsan criticised Kant for restricting the possibility of active intellectual intuition, the knowledge of objects that can bring the objects into being, to God. Kant argued that we cannot know whether even God has this capacity, but discussed intellectual intuition to show that human intuition was restricted to passive receptive sensibility. Mou thought that this was unsatisfactory, because without intellectual intuition humans would be incapable of universal moral judgement. Underlying his account of the self was a commitment to a moral metaphysics, in which two fundamental aspects of ourselves – our ontological status and our ethical life – are understood as a necessary unity. Futhermore, individual selves are not only in communion with one another but also participate in a great spiritual unity underlying or constituting reality as a whole. This is heady stuff, but instead of examining each of these claims in turn I shall note that if we can make sense of our having or striving for intellectual intuition, we are back with our relation to the ineffable and the question of whether art can dispel the mists of ineffabilty.

While Mou Zongsan can be seen as responding to Kant from a neo-Confucian standpoint, Li Zehou used Kant to develop a post-Marxist perspective. In criticising both traditional Chinese philosophy and Marxism, he sought to rescue both individuality and culture through the recognition of the importance of subjectivity. The daoist naturalising of human beings, Confucian humanising of nature and the Marxist absorption of the subject in an objective conflict of social forces all made it impossible to understand individuality and culture, including art. Li Zehou's account of subjectivity sought to provide understanding of these matters in a way that transcended both traditional Chinese philosophy and classical Marxism.

My prediction is that future discussion of the self in Chinese philosophy will involve dialogue between the Kantian interpretations of Mou Zongsan and Li Zehou. Wittgenstein's understanding of the metaphysical subject as a limit of the world and Heidegger's vision of Dasein as being-in-the world – with ourselves thrown into the world – will also enter these debates, along with the traditional Chinese conception of the heart-mind as an undivided physical and mental or emotional and intellectual unity. What emerges from this dialogue will shape Chinese aesthetic thought through an understanding of creativity, individuality and culture. Whatever emerges is also likely to find its content in Xu Fuguan's claim that Chinese culture is grounded in anxiety.


This paper was originally delivered to the Second Ashmolean Chinese Painting Colloquium, University of Oxford, 16 October 2002. A fuller version will appear in a forthcoming issue of East Asia Journal: Studies in Material Culture.