The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, May 20, 2001
'Art and Soul

Taoism and the arts of China
By B.N. Goswamy

"Thirty spokes converge on a hub

but it’s the emptiness

that makes a wheel work;

pots are fashioned from clay

but it’s the hollow

that makes a pot work;…

existence makes something useful

but nonexistence makes it work.

Laozi on an ox

Laozi in the Daode jing

IT is remarkable, I think, that most of us should know so little about cultures, especially old cultures, other than our own. There are, everywhere, religions and ideas and philosophies that have fashioned the minds of people, moved their spirits, over centuries of time, but the interest we take in them is, at best, cursory. Take the case of our ignorance about China alone. The one name in the area of thought that many of us might be familiar with is that of Confucius, the great thinker who lived in China close to the time when the Buddha walked among us in our own land. But that is about the extent of it. There are long and deep gaps in our information, and our understanding.

Some fakes and a scandal
May 6, 2001
A collector’s intimate world
April 22, 2001
Gutenberg and his ‘new art of writing’
March 25, 2001
Difficult business of authentication
February 25, 2001
Artist’s view of Kutch: A place apart
February 11, 2001
Arts and the common man
January 28, 2001
Voices from China
January 14, 2001
The persistence of memory
December 17, 2000
Nizami: Mystic; Epic Poet
December 3, 2000
Different snakes, different ladders
November 19, 2000
Celestial mappings
November 5, 2000
Discussing art — threadbare
October 29, 2000
Feeding the Imperial Image
October 8, 2000
Goya: Painter of the absurd
September 24, 2000

Yet another Mughal Ramayana
September 10, 2000

Children: Seen, but not heard
September 3, 2000

In my case, I could make some amends, at least as far as China is concerned, by going and seeing recently a rich, new exhibition at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. For it had as its theme "Taoism and the Arts of China", which gave me an opportunity to educate myself a little more about that great and influential stream of thought — (I do not know how else to describe Taoism, for it contains within itself so many things: philosophy, religion, ritual, even systems of alchemy, medicine, geomancy) — in the best manner possible: through the arts. As many as 150 objects were on view: paintings, sculptures, calligraphy, textiles, ritual objects. And in them one could pick up some reflection of tao, literally a path or way, but, in Taoism, the One Path, in which doing things in conformity with the laws of Nature becomes a central tenet. Here, within the works on view, were contained ways of seeing, and of doing. The presence of qi (pronounced correctly as chee), that primal energy which flows through everything in life, which by nature is fluid in Taoist belief, could be sensed. One could see through the eyes of the artists what Tao is said to be: spontaneous, nameless, and indescribable.

Again and again, however, in the exhibits, and the catalogue, one went back to Laozi (sometimes also referred to as Lao-tzu), the Teacher, who, in the sixth century BC, summed the essence of Taoism up in a slim little text of no more than 5000 words, the Daode jing. Very little is known of his own life, and there are conflicting theories, but one old authority says that it is in the course of his journeys, precisely in fact at the Hangu Pass, between the Yellow River and the Chongnan Mountains, that Laozi met the Warden of that Pass, and revealed to him the entire text of the Daode jing. Of the importance of this text it has been said that "Chinese civilization and the Chinese character would have been utterly different" if this book had not been written. For in this work were ideas, and ideals, of nonconformity, individualism, tranquillity, acceptance, above all the primacy of the natural world, which served as correctives to the Confucian emphasis on social responsibility and hierarchies of authority. The Daode jing has been likened to a deep, still pool, a mirror to the reader’s own soul. In it one can find the individual truths most corresponding to one’s personal search.

To go on to the art that the show in San Francisco mostly consisted of. There were delicately rendered works, with ink and light colours on paper, like the 13th century handscroll showing fish quietly leaping and swimming in water. "The Pleasures of Fishes" it was called: rightly, for one could almost see in it the artist being able to identify himself completely, intuitively, with those playful fishes. One saw, alike in sculptures and paintings, mountains and rivers, visualisations of the spirits of the Immortals, courtly scenes in which Taoist rituals were being performed. There was a measure of joy that one sensed in many of the works, quirky perspectives and elaborate patterning all coming together. On view also was that rare, 8th century work, "Scripture of the Way", showing Laozi himself on ox-back, journeying in order to be able to find. As always in so much of Chinese art, mountains, with their mysterious paths and rising peaks, took one’s breath away. "Seeking the Tao in the Autumn Mountains", a 10th century hanging scroll, done with ink on silk, almost constituted a puzzle. For all that one could see in it first was softly rendered rocks and trees, holding as it were a conversation that one could almost ‘hear’. But then one’s eye came upon, in the midst of the ravine in the painting, a tiny little hut, a thatched dwelling, in which sat a recluse, speaking to a guest, holding a conversation like those rocks and tree around them. The vignette was all but invisible at first, and the pleasure of regarding the work consisted, at least in part, of discovering this wonderful detail. And then there were, of course, the expected diagrams, including the taiji, in which, within a perfect circle, two identical curving forms are locked together, embracing each other, each containing within it the germ of the other. This was the classical yin/yang, which emerged, in Taoist belief, from the original, swirling mass: two opposing qualities that gave birth to the material world in all its many forms. One thinks, naturally, of purusha and prakriti, in our own thought. In Chinese belief, yin is dark, female, and subtle; yang is bright, male, and overt. Winter is yin, summer is yang: the moon is yin, the sun is yang; and so on….

Of dreams and questions

Laozi apart, the other great figure in early Taoism is Chuang Tzu, who lived in the fourth century BC. His writing is different from that of Laozi, for it is lively, informal, humourous; but the concerns are the same, the understanding of things and forces at work, similar. In one of the texts, a charming parable is told. "Long ago", it runs, "a certain Chuang Tzu dreamt he was a butterfly — a butterfly fluttering here and there on a whim, happy and carefree, knowing nothing of Chuang Tzu. Then all of a sudden he woke to find that he was, beyond all doubt, Chuang Tzu. Who knows if it was Chuang Tzu dreaming of a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming of Chuang Tzu?"