Introducing a Chinese perspective
This article serves as a brief introduction to a way of thinking that I assume to be foreign and new to most of the readers. It is based on some observations I’ve made during the past 5 years as part of my PhD research into the comparison between two traditions of architectural representation, between China and Europe, under guidance of prof. Li Xiaodong at Tsinghua University in Beijing. With that in mind this article has no pretension, nor the proper length, to fully convey the complexity of the representations of architectural space in drawings from China, but should be seen as a first try to communicate some of these ideas to a wider audience. For anyone that likes to know more about this topic I’ve listed some recommended reading at the end and welcome any feedback or questions you might have in the comment section below.
This text was previously featured on ArchDaily.com
Why haven’t we heard about China before?
It was initially David Hockney’s mind-blowing, and controversial, book on perspective development that sparked my interest on the topic of visual representation of space in China, since he convincingly argues that the way we think about perspective and its historic development is distorted by our Western-centric and narrow-minded academic views. And I found that he was right about that. In hindsight I realised that during my architecture theory courses at TU Delft I was taught that we should look at the West, because only we had invented perspective and had a continuous, written theory to support this. In the introduction of my mandatory theory-book for one of these courses, Gombroich writes that:
“only twice on this globe, in ancient Greece and in Renaissance Europe, have artists striven systematically, through a succession of generations, step by step to approximate their images to the visible world and achieve likenesses that might deceive the eye.”
Likewise, over half a century Erwin Panofsky’s Perspective as Symbolic Form has dominated studies of visual representation. Quite pretentious, and both stemming from a time when the dominant world-view was indeed Western centric. And there were hardly any Chinese paintings or drawings around in the Dutch museums and architecture institutes I frequented to know otherwise. Well, through my research I found first of all that both these positions were not that true; in fact, I found that the Western-centric view had made us ignore another entirely different, thousands-years old tradition of spatial representation.
In addition, I argue that that the Greek and Renaissance system are not separate occasions, but rather continuations of the same, European, lineage. There’s a reason after all that it was named ‘re-naissance’ (rebirth in French). Through my research I’ve found that parallel to the European tradition of representing space, there is at least one other equally systematic, continuous discourse on spatial representation, able to conceive a ‘likeliness that might deceive the eye’. In addition, these two traditions (i.e. Europe and China) where not so dis-connected as people had imagined, which fits in a recent paradigm shift that explores our biased perception of the history of the world, well outlined by Frankopan’s groundbreaking book ‘The Silk Roads’ (2016).
China: representation not as imitation of nature, but as part of the natural spirit
To talk about a systematic approach we must understand what was at the base of these two systems. This mark a critical difference between the Chinese approach to painting and the European (Western) approach to painting. Beginning with the Greeks, who saw art as mimesis, i.e. the ‘imitation of nature’,
European pictorial representation was directed at once toward the conquest of realistic appearance and the fulfilment of an idealistic classical norm of beauty. Pictorial representation for the Chinese, on the other hand, attempts to create neither realism nor ideal form alone.
For instance, where the European painter had always attempted to achieve illusion by concealing the pictorial medium, the Chinese painter sought to capture, through the use of calligraphic brushwork, the spirit beyond its physical likeness.
Bush & Hshih write in their introduction to Early Chinese Texts on Painting that what underlies all discussions about painters and painting in China is a vocabulary reflecting a Chinese system of natural philosophy. Whereas the description of Western theories on representation and imagery can be traced back to how imagery was thought to be created as a ‘reflection of nature’ through an understanding of the natural ‘optics’, i.e. the way our eyes see the world, in China the context of painting as ‘image’ or ‘representation’ or ‘form’ has a very different conceptual origin. For instance, when reading this chronology of writings, one will find that the concept of ‘beauty’ does not play a role in Chinese aesthetic concerns. A ‘system of natural philosophy’ instead forms a more complex, abstract system of basic assumptions or agreements about phenomena, their organization and significance both in the cosmic order and in the human consciousness. This was systemized by philosophers and transmitted in Confucian and Taoist writings, of which the first mentioning can be found in the I Ching (Book of Changes), revolving around the character 象 (xiang) . As a verb, it indicates the action of making visible and material a phenomena which could be either abstract or material, here meaning making visible the expressions of the inner spiritual perception of the natural environment.
In this regard Scolari (2012) proposes to consider images not just as a form of art, but as a form of thought, a projection of a way of life. His definition considers visual and conceptual representation, and approaches that theme as a manifestation of the ideological and philosophical orientations of different cultures.
This can be observed more concretely when considering the Chinese case, in which the concept of representation has clearly developed consistently in the same cultural context and in the same language; a language that itself is based on pictorial representation of a mental construct; as a way to merge painting, image and meaning.
As such visual representations of places, spaces, buildings, interiors and landscapes, whether imaginary or after reality, are considered not as straightforward mirrors of reality. Instead, the meanings of an image are understood as constructed through a range of complex and thoroughly social processes.
Tools and techniques: fluid storytelling through the brush and the scroll
In addition to the mental construct, the mastering of drawing tools and technique determine how one can construct this projection. And yes, the Chinese knew about and could use ‘European’ types of central perspective projections, see for instance in the Dunhuang cave Murals or in Li Songlin’s Classic of Filial Piety. In various writings it is mentioned how this perspectives and realistic depiction displeased intellectuals, artists and even emperors.
The Chinese painter sought to capture, through the use of calligraphic brushwork, the spirit beyond its physical likeness. In addition, perspectival representation is limited to a single moment in time and to one viewpoint, something the cubist also aimed to rebuttal in the early 20th century in Europe. For the Chinese this in turn limited the depiction of a completed system alluding to the perennial concept of unity and harmony of Chinese culture.
Therefore, in addition to using the fluid brush to capture the spirt, Chinese paintings present us with still expressions of movements in time by means of discrete viewpoints, exclusive of the way in which things are joined to one another and of what cannot be seen.
This is expressed in the shanshui landscape paintings for instance, but most evident in the hand scrolls, which were up to ten metres in length, and are viewed by unrolling them from right to left, unrolling a bit at a time from the roller and transferring the excess to a loose roll temporarily maintained around the stretcher on the right. About one arm’s length is exposed at a time for viewing. Hand scrolls are based on a (pictorial) synthesis of space and time. Rather than having a ‘subject’, the scroll is based on a ‘scenario’.
For instance, a scroll may depict ‘life along a river.’ Upon unrolling the opening sequence of the scroll, we may see people boarding a boat on a river. As we unroll the scroll further, we see the boat cross a lake, navigate rapids in the river, stop at a small harbour, and lastly arrive at its destination at the sea shore. It is not necessarily the same boat even. In other words, the scroll has taken the viewer through an experience in space and time. And, importantly, these scrolls were not a mere collection of separate pictures, but rather a continuous and seamless visual image, see the Qingmeng scroll example below.
1 First ‘birdseye landscape painting’, ca 1st century AD
When Western intellectuals in the ancient Roman empire where trying to make up for the lack of windows in houses by painting imitations of natural, framed views into houses, as realistic, optical illusions that where adjusted to viewing from a precise viewing point, the Chinese were interested not in the true landscape, but in depicting landscape as a projection of their world-view, a balanced, harmonious environment where architecture, man and nature are part of the same context. This image is the first known clear expression of such a worldview. It shows a small house, the natural context, and animal life.
2 China’s most famous scroll painting the Qingmeng (Mid-autumn) festival hand scroll , ca 11th century AD
The most well-known example of the hand-scroll type of projection. Harvard University has an amazingly high resolution, interactive version of the painting on its website, in which you can explore the narrative, scenic character of the scroll in full detail. An interactive, moving, digitized version of this painting formed the centre piece of the China Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo in 2010.
3 Shanshui landscape paintings (more about the Chinese landscape in this link)
A Solitary Temple Amid Clearing Peak by Li Cheng, Song Dynasty, ca AD 10th century. This is one of the most excellent works in the landscape painting (shanshui) category and shows that the narrative character with multiple discrete viewpoints (see the detail zooms). The work contains rich human and architectural details – temples, villages, bridges, pagodas, wine shops, pavilions, and pathways – in a balanced natural setting, and constitutes deep miniature realms of imaginative construction, dream worlds that one is invited to enter and explore.
4 Jiehua, axonometric
Flour Mill, Song dynasty, ca AD 10th century. Well before Leonardo DaVinci, in China we can find one of the first and most well-respected uses of a specific system of oblique perspective, called jiehua (界画), to draw architecture. Although jiehua had been practiced for centuries prior to the Song dynasty, it was not recognized by Chinese art historians and critics as an independent genre of painting until the 11th century. This Flour Mill work is considered the most representative work of this style, showing intricately and precisely the working of the mill mechanism.
Towards A New Theory
One of the hypothesis for my research work is that the currently dominant ‘Western perspective’ mode of representation has lead to a contemporary discourse dominated by object-oriented, non-holistic thinking and representation, resulting in buildings as disconnected objects standing detached in their surroundings. Through studying the Chinese tradition however, we can historically describe how instead, consciously, the traditional Eastern mode of architectural representation had developed into an inclusive type of representation where man and architecture are part of the natural environment. The goal herewith is to establish a new theory on spatial representation.However, quoting Helene Frichot (2009)
“if we are to believe Sarah Whiting, Rob Somol, as well as Michael Speaks, then we have entered a ‘post-critical’ era in which the negative critical work of theory, and its burdensome emphasis on textual analysis and dialectics, can be displaced with a ’projective’, ‘performative’, ‘cool’ and ‘atmospheric’ architecture.”
It seems indeed that in the past decades, since the introduction of the computer into the design process, whether through Computer Aided Design (CAD), computational programming or Artificial Intelligence (AI), the architectural discourse has largely focused on the effects of this tool onto designers’s actions, thoughts and processes, without a grounded theory. Some authors even claim the ‘end of architects’.
Now, the word ‘theory’ derives from the Greek theorein, which means ‘to look at’. Following this definition, my research aims to utilises the way of looking at the world, images as a form of thought, as a basic understanding to arrive at a new theory on representation that is derived from the cognitive base. To show the effect this can have, consider the following three comparisons of the same architecture, respectively rendered in a Western perspective, and in a Chinese projection.
Comparison 1: Main Audience Hall at Yuanmingyuan (the Old Summer Palace)
The Main Audience Hall, designated the first of the 40 Scenes, was where the emperor received high officials and on a few occasions foreign guests.
Comparison 2: Comparison 2: (Yuan Dynasty) Jian Zhang Palace
Perspective drawing from: The Elegance and Elements of Chinese Architecture.
Comparison 3: Yuan Dynasty – The Prince Teng Pavilion
Perspective drawing from: The Elegance and Elements of Chinese Architecture. Even while the first images has some natural elements to it, when utilizing European perspective representation, it is clear that the building, as an object, is the dominant, central part of the scene. Whereas in the Chinese version, the same structure is pushed all the way to the top right of the image, at an axis that ends right at the junction of two mountain ranges. We can easily argue that the European image is more correct, detailed and truthful in representing the object. But likewise we can also argue that it’s wrong, since it doesn’t show any of the surroundings or, most importantly for the Chinese, the embedding and balance within the natural system. And that is exactly the point I hope we can go toward in this new way of looking at and representing architecture, outlining how a certain way of thinking leads to a type of representation, and ultimately has physical consequences in the structures architects build. And hopefully that can make us think about the way we practice architecture.
The holistic conception of nature affects the way Chinese have visualized spatial structures, it enables a worldview that is encapsulated in their physical representation of space.
And this has been emerging in recent practice again, for instance in the work of Wang Shu (with the Hangzhou Chinese Academy of Arts) or in Li Xiaodong’s Liyuan Library. And then the question can be, do we need more disconnected objects, or integrated environments?
To be continued.