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The Journal of Aesthetic Education 37.1 (2003) 64-76

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The Sign System in Chinese Landscape Paintings

Cliff G. Mcmahon

Paintings emerge from a culture field and must be interpreted in relation to the net of culture. A given culture will be implicated by the sign system used by the painter. Everyone agrees that in Chinese landscape paintings, the most important cultural bond is to ancient Chinese Taoism, and to a lesser degree, to Confucianism. Obviously, then, the key for these landscapes is an alert understanding of Taoism, and the primary source is the book the Tao TĂȘ Ching.

Some of the most crucial elements in Taoist beliefs are often ignored in the analysis of the Taoist landscapes, and this deserves more attention. The core of Taoism lies in a philosophic and religious guess, and the guess is made as an effort to reach a high-order explanatory theory of the origin of the universe, the structure of the universe, and the best path for human life. The guess of the ancient Chinese sages goes something like this: The universe is created by an Ultimate One whose nature remains mysterious, beyond the power of words, an Absolute pervaded by the spirit of motherhood, and thus moved to the acts of creation, using two agents of creation. These two agents are invisible but real forces that operate by the tension of polarity, the dynamic interplay of negative and positive energies, much like male and female forces. The female power is called Yin, the male power Yang. The female power is seen wherever there is fluidity, softness, openness, receiving, emptiness, or darkness. The male power is at work in hardness, assertiveness, force, and light. Everything that is made is a blending of the Yin and Yang polarities, and the dynamism and flux of reality is based on the tendency of Yin and Yang to advance and retreat, the tendency of one to become the other, just as summer changes into winter, and day changes into night. In order for a man to be complete, he must learn to put on the way of woman, to be receptive. This is a very intelligent principle. [End Page 64] When we take in all our impressions of nature, and take in all the books we have read, we are in the receptive mode. The Yin female principle of emptiness has a priority over Yang in that there must be an empty space before any concrete thing comes to occupy the space. The Yin female force is seen in the low and quiet valley, and in the fluid receptivity of water. Yang is in the bold assertive mountains and in the hardness of stone. Yin appears in the graceful and flexible bending of bamboo, while Yang is in the hardness and strength of bamboo. Since Yin is associated with water, all forms of cloud and mist are symbols of Yin. Yang is action, Yin is wisdom.

One of the most important aspects of Taoism is the principle that the mysterious Absolute One has permeated all of reality and serves the good of all creatures in every passing minute, asking nothing in return and offering no favoritism to any age or any group. This is obviously a sophisticated and intelligent principle for a theology. On this point, Taoism is superior to Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. Christianity might have taken a similar stand in that the gospel of John declares that the eternal logos dwells in all created things in a timeless manner, and was fully embedded in the world before the coming of the historical Jesus, but so far, Christians have almost totally ignored the opening lines of John.

This philosophic core of Taoist belief compares to the great Western idea that Godhead creates by the use of cosmic agents. In the gospel of John, the logos is the agent. In chapter eight of Proverbs, Wisdom is the agent. In Plotinus, Nous is the agent. In Heraclitus, the polarities of love and hate are this agent. Sometimes the idea of cosmic agent is used to protect...


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