The Impossible Nude

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 10:15 pm

Following up a quote on Thomas Hahn’s site I got a hold of Francois Julien’s The Impossible Nude – Chinese Art and Western Aesthetics.1 Jullien is interested in the question of why the Chinese artistic tradition did not have nudes and, by extension, why the Western tradition was so obsessed with them.

The existence of the nude is made possible primarily by what, which the Greeks, we came to understand by “form”: a form that functions as a model, whose background is often mathematized and geometrized, and takes on the value of an ideal as it fixes an identity of essence (the eidos) -this is what was consecrated by the nude. p.33


The nude is thus a form in the Platonic sense, “whose contour detaches it from the world and resettles it in itself” (p.75) and always posed (p.78) Chinese artists were always more interested in things in relationship to their surroundings, and thus were always uninterested in painting “mirrored reflections” (which Da Vinci, for one very much wanted to do), avoided poses and instead wanted to capture the “natural” which is seen through interaction.

Here is an illustration from the painter’s manual The Mustard Seed Garden, showing a man


Fall Walk

“in the autumn, in the mountains, walking with hands clasped behind his back.” This indicates that the natural context-the setting and the season-which is defined beforehand, but not actually depicted, is considered inseparable from the representation of the figure itself. Otherwise, the critic goes on to say, “the mountain is merely a mountain, and the man is merely a man.”…then the intimacy of their relationship falls apart and the co-originality that the painter was trying to trace….is lost. p.55 Jullien compares the nude to something Chinese artists really liked to paint: rocks. He quotes Su Dongpo “Men, animals, palaces and even tools all have a constant form; on the other hand, mountains, rocks, bamboos, trees, waves or mist have no constant form but nevertheless possess an internal coherence that is constant” Rocks are called ‘cloud-roots’ because they contain just the same active qi as a cloud or a human, and that is what the artist should depict.(p.71)

Ni Zan

Here is Ni Zan’s “elegant rock” which “remains blurred, vaguely defined, indistinct.. The mass of concentrated energy is not circumscribed within the form of the rock…and its “form” without being completely individualized is not inconsistent either, contains all forms, or rather it excludes none. (p.77)”It’s a good book, and if you ever wondered why Chinese painting and Western painting did not come together very well in the 20th century you should read it.

. (more…)

  1. U of Chicago Press, 2007. It’s a good book, if a little sinological for me. []


Five Things That Didn’t Happen (But Might Have)

Filed under: — C. W. Hayford @ 2:32 am

Kate Merkel-Hess at China Beat had an intriguing list last month, Five Chinese Historical Events That Don’t Get Much Attention, (2/ 11/08) which was in turn inspired by Jeremiah Jenne’s piece at Jottings From the Granite Studio about the most important Chinese historical figure most people have never heard of.

That got me to thinking – why discriminate against an event just because it didn’t happen? Very un-Daoist. So to kick things off, here are five things that didn’t happen. We don’t mean alleged “failure” to follow European models, such as the once common “failure to modernize,” but turns not taken. You’ll see that they fall into different ontological categories, since there is a lot of wiggle room when it comes to things that don’t exist.




How things work (in China)

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 5:04 pm

I have been reading a really interesting book on Chinese tools. Well, actually the most interesting thing about it is the title:

Hommel, Rudolf P. China at Work; an Illustrated Record of the Primitive Industries of China’s Masses, Whose Life Is Toil, and Thus an Account of Chinese Civilization,1

You can’t get a much more orientalist sub-title than that. The author spent a lot of time in China between 1921 and 1930 and toured all over Central China photographing and describing Chinese tools. He seems to know a good deal about tools and making stuff, which means he occasionally makes interesting observations about the effectiveness of these tools and comparisons with versions in other countries.2


Here in honor of Gary Gygax is a crossbow trap

Crossbow trap



  1. Cambridge, Mass., M.I.T. Press, 1969. (Re-print of the 1937 edition []
  2. He does tell us that he like the Chinese, and after telling us how to make he explains that this is the origin of the false rumor that Chinese like to eat rotten eggs []


Resource on Chinese photography

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:15 pm

Hunting leopards in Zhejiang, 1935


 I’ve been doing a bit of photo and video stuff lately, and one site that has been very helpful is Thomas Hahn’s Zenfolio which hosts a lot of pictures of modern Chinese art and also lots of historical photographs. He also has a great bibliography site on Chinese/Asian  photography.


First, kill all the Legalists

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 10:21 am

Sam at Useless Tree draws our attention to a really interesting website called 新法家(in English the New Legalist) I’m not quite sure who these people are, but the website is out of Beijing and quite impressive. Sam does not much care for them, seeing them as “nationalists who are appropriating ancient Legalist texts, together with some Taoist volumes, to fashion a neo-traditionalist legitimation for a contemporary Chinese assertion of power globally” That sounds about right to me.

Sam is much bothered by their attempts to tie together Legalism and Daoism, but to me it just sounds like Huang-Lao stuff, as there were lots of links between Legalism and Daoism right from the start. I am also not that surprised to find people looking back to the Legalists themselves, as this was a big item in the early 20th century as people began going through the Chinese tradition looking for the genealogy of a modern nation in the Chinese past. The New Legalists may seem weird, but they have a long way to go before they can match up with Kang Youwei.

Of course these people are looking into the past to find something different than the Chinese thinkers of a century ago. They are finding environmentalism and anti-globalization ideas, along with lots of occasions for nationalist chest-thumping. As Sam points out it is pretty bizarre to see Han Fei as a Green. Still they do seem to be drawing on a pretty wide range of classical thought. According to their mission statement

The Chinese people have built up a unique and comprehensive thought system covering medicine, economics and politics. This system aims at a dynamic balance between different parts of the human body, between different groupings of people within a society, and between human society and nature. All its subsystems follow the principle of “guiding changes towards balance” (from The Yellow Emperor’s Four Cannon ) economically, arranging production and consumption in accord with the change of seasons and with nature’s productive capabilities at the time; and politically, allocating limited resources among people according to their respective contributions to the society1

This actually does sound bit like a lot of the Warring States-Han stuff you would find in Mark Edward Lewis’s work. For me the most interesting part is the twisted Marx quote at the end. A lot of the site has an anti-capitalist feel, or at least a feel that China is best off if it does not totally adapt American culture. Part it seems to be vaguely Maoist egalitarianism and concern for the workers, “end capital’s hegemony in the name of liberty” and part of it an even more vague utopianism that owes something to Mao and also a lot various bits of traditional Chinese thought.

  1. 中国人还在这一伟大哲学的基础上建立起了独特的医学、政治、经济体系——她追求人体内部、社会与自然、社会内部各阶层之间 的动态平衡,她的医学、政治、经济都按“应化之道、平衡而止”(《黄帝四经·道法》)的原则构建——经济上,她按照自然时序与产出能力进行生产和消费;政 治上,她按一个人对社会贡献的大小对有限的资源进行配置 []

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