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The Aesthetic Concept of Yi in Chinese Calligraphic Creation
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1 The Aesthetic Concept of Yi in Chinese Calligraphic Creation Xiongbo Shi Department of Art History and Theory, University of Canterbury xiongbo.shi@pg.canterbury.ac.nz In ancient Chinese philosophy, yi 意 means both “intention” and “idea”, which means, according to Edmund Ryden, that it can be voluntative or cognitive.1 As a widely used aesthetic category, yi has multiple dimensions in Chinese art theory. Stephen Owen, for example, summarized several common usages of yi in literary criticism: yi as “the clever interpretation of some material (much like the late Renaissance concetto)”, as the act of giving relation to the sensory data, as “intention” or “will”, and as “the way someone thinks of things.”2 In the area of Chinese calligraphy criticism, there are more than twenty aesthetic categories that contain the word yi, such as youyi 有意 (being intentional), wuyi 無意 (not being intentional), biyi 筆意 (the technique and spirit in brushstrokes), xinyi 新意 (new ideas), and yixiang 意象 (idea-image). Though differing markedly in their meanings, all of these compound terms in calligraphic theory are related to the artist’s or the viewer’s mind in varying degrees. This article is concerned with yi in the calligraphic creative process and, based on the term’s philosophical dichotomy, I divide yi on the part of a creative calligrapher into two types: first, the voluntative yi, the calligrapher’s intention or will; second, the cognitive yi, the idea within the artist’s mind. Yi as Intention 2 Referring to the artist’s intention immediately prior to or during the act of creation, the voluntative yi has two antithetical states in the theory of calligraphic creation– youyi (being intentional) or wuyi (not being intentional). Youyi means that the calligrapher is conscious of the process of artistic creation and has a comparatively clear mental conception of what comes next. Contrary to that, the approach of wuyi holds that calligraphers should not self-consciously predetermine or preconceive the effect of the following creation. The distinction between youyi and wuyi is reminiscent of R. G. Collingwood’s differentiation between making and creating. For Collingwood, works of art proper, such as a painting or a piece of music, are not “made according to any preconceived plan…Yet they are made deliberately and responsibly, by people who know what they are doing, even though they do not know in advance what is going to come of it.”3 Creativity is blind, Vincent Tomas suggests, and “prior to creation the creator does not foresee what will result from it.”4 Viewed in light of this nonteleological perspective on the creative process, calligraphic works resulting from calligraphers’ preconceptions (youyi) are not creative artworks. When a calligrapher has a mental conception in creating a work, he or she can foresee – to various degrees – what comes next: the shape of a next stroke, of the next character or even the whole column. Calligraphic creation without the subject’s preconceptions (wuyi) seems to correspond with what Collingwood and Tomas conceived as artistic creation, in which case the calligrapher does not have a preconceived plan before setting his or her brush to paper and cannot foresee the effect of the creation. In describing opposing psychological tendencies of the calligrapher, youyi and wuyi are too abstract to explain the two different approaches to calligraphic creation. The immediate 3 question is how calligraphers, intentionally or not, complete their creation. For calligraphy theorists like Chen Zhenlian and Ni Wendong, calligraphers who incline towards youyi stress yi zai bi xian 意在筆先, meaning “mental conception will come first and the brush will follow”, while calligraphers who prefer wuyi advocate linzhen jueji 臨陣決機, “making decisions and acting according to the changing circumstances”.5 The idea that mental conception precedes the brush was first proposed in the essay Bizhen tu 筆陣圖 (Battle strategy of the brush), which is attributed to Wei Shuo 衛鑠 (272-349) and later became a guiding principle in the calligraphy criticism of Wang Xizhi 王 羲之 (303-361), the most influential figure in the history of Chinese calligraphy.6 Wei wrote that: Those in whom the mental conception follows while the brush leads, they will be defeated…those in whom the mental conception precedes and the brush follows, will be victorious.7 For Wei, having conscious...


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