- The Impossible Nude: Chinese Art and Western Aesthetics
The title of François Jullien's book, The Impossible Nude: Chinese Art and Western Aesthetics, is misleading. Readers who seek to understand the reasons for the lack of pictorial nudes in Chinese art find more of a sinologist's philosophical inquiry into the nude in European traditions. Jullien has an intriguing premise for the book: one sees neither painted nor sculpted nudes in the long history of Chinese art, and Jullien approaches this topic from the vantage point of the Western nude. Even though he proclaims that "while I was speaking of the European tradition of the nude, it was its absence in China that intrigued me," he devotes the majority of the book to investigating what the Western nude is and its century-long dominance in European art. His main objective is to look afresh at the nude that has been taken for granted and to reveal its "strangeness" and its core characteristics. He believes that thinking about "the impossibility of the existence of the nude in China will permit an assessment of the conditions that made it possible in Europe" (p. 31). As such, Chinese culture and art (in that order of importance) serve more as illustrative points of contrast in his involved contemplation on the nature of the Western nude. Guided by a belief in the "radical incompatibility" between "East and West," Jullien focuses on highlighting the dichotomy between the European and Chinese understanding and perception of the human body. The result is a circuitous study that shifts between the Western philosophical lineage from Plotinus to Hegel, and Chinese notions of the body and their manifestation in Chinese society. The Impossible Nude should really have been two separate essays; Jullien's confining focus on the fundamental irreconcilability of European and Chinese cultures never quite explores possible points of fusion or shared similarities between East and West, despite his claim that one can better understand the core differences between European and Chinese thought by looking into the absence of the nude in China. The two paths of inquiry fall short of converging in a revelatory way in the book.
Throughout The Impossible Nude, Jullien insists that the disparate conceptualization of the human body between the imagined West and China are fundamental and unequivocal. In the European tradition-and Julien focuses primarily on thoughts from Greek antiquity-the Greek "form" (the edios) is permanent, stable, and finite, a point he reinforces throughout. The nude, with its origins rooted in Greek philosophies, represents 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 edios)" (p. 33). In Jullien's view, the Western nude is thus an ontological entity that operates as an idealized and systematized [End Page 234] representation of flesh and bones and life; it is, in the Kantian sense, the manifestation of the Beautiful, a finite form that incites aesthetic pleasures and by extension, a product for scopophilic consumption. Jullien asserts, however, instead of emphasizing anatomical accuracy or structure, the Chinese focus on the "energy" of the body, which is "perceived in a global, organic way that preserves its life-ensuring capacity . . . It is itself a universe that is both closed and open, permeated by breaths flowing through a system of channels or 'meridians' which runs through the body and circulates vitality" (p. 34). The Chinese "form" (the notion of xing 形) is thus diametrically opposed to the Greeks' in that it is transitory, temporal, and changing.
Following this thread, Jullien suggests that the absence of the nude in Chinese art is attributable to a prevailing emphasis on seeing the body as a "network of pathways for the circulation of physiological energy" in Chinese treaties on aesthetics (p. 59). He offers that Chinese culture averts the "overdirectness" of the Western nude, whose "all there all at once" existence is never discreet, and prefers "an oblique, indirect approach...