Rooted in One Stroke – My Thoughts on the Arts
Rooted in One Stroke – My Thoughts on the Arts
Originally Chinese text appeared on Tam’s personal website, kankanwoo.com, March 7, 2019.
Many ask me about my views on painting. These days, many value the Western aesthetics over the Chinese one. They claim that Chinese art is unscientific, that it lacks perspective, it lacks a focal point. They believe that Chinese painting should adopt the use of Chinese ink for watercolour paintings. Not only should one adopt the Western technique, but also the Western composition. Therefore, there are two types of people who ask me this question, those who are genuinely interested in what Chinese painting is about, and those whose sole purpose is to debunk and criticize the Chinese tradition.
The second type has long existed in Hong Kong as far back as thirty, forty years ago. At the time, Shun Po (Hong Kong Economic Journal) asked me to write a 3,000-word art column every week. With illustrations, the column became so popular that the two art magazines in Taiwan took note of it. Later I became a guest editor for one, and a consultant for the other. This way, a flurry of gossip and criticisms came a flying. One person who began his career in literature ended up in Fine Arts at Chinese University in Hong Kong. Along with him, a clique of writers began attacking me on a number of newspaper and magazine columns. Their point was to reject the use of ink and brush in Chinese painting. According to them, the Chinese brush can only be thick and thin, the Chinese ink can only be in gradients of shades. Thick and thin lines, in shades bold and light, became the meaning of brush and ink to them, which could not possibly be the defining element of a painting; to them, art is all about “impact.” If there is no impact, with only brush and ink, it is something outdated that old painters insisted upon. At once, the group became the standard among young artists; many agreed with them. Their paintings, though, were none other than a disarray of symbolism.
At the time, a Chinese painter friend of mine, Ren Zhenhan (1907-1990) couldn’t tolerate no more. After a long discussion with me, he decided to write Modern Perspective on the Paintings of Shi Tao (the book was published under the name Ren Ruiyao). In it, he emphasized Shi Tao’s notion of “one stroke.” One stroke represents the state-of-mind of a painter, expressed with the use of brush and ink is the epitome of artistic impact. It is not that Chinese paintings have no impact, it is just that the emphasis is not on the symbolism and the formalism. Just because the so-called perspective is dispersed doesn’t mean there is no focus. On the other hand, according to Shi Tao, without an artistic state-of-mind, one cannot even speak of impact. He said, “If there exists only the surface appearance, it becomes an obstruction.” So if an artist only cares about the visual impact, if one believes that art is all about the impact, it is an obstacle to the true and authentic impact.
What is “one stroke” according to Shi Tao?
Shi Tao (1642-1707) was a Chan Buddhist monk. His practice of Chan was one with his artistic practice, which became the saying of “one stroke.” He said, “The primordial is formless. When it manifests itself, it gives rise to all dharma. What is the basis of dharma? One stroke.” This is to say, there exists a realm that is formless (“the primordial”). When it manifests itself is also the arising of all “dharma” (thoughts and phenomena). Dharma is rooted in one stroke, for the non-arising gives rise all arisings. Then, what does this have to with painting? Shi said, “The painting is the expression of these arisings.” Paintings merely give them shapes and forms and therefore, the basis of painting must be one stroke, for the basis of dharma is one stroke.
This is the epitome of Chinese art. There has to be a soul to a painting, and this soul must a sincere outpour of the painter. The outcome becomes the authentic expression of a painter’s state-of-mind. Brushes and ink happen to be the tool for such impact.
Some may ask, are there not paintings in the West doing exactly that? Of course, there are. Art that is devoid of such expressions is only a form of doodling. Consider the impressionist paintings. Most impressionists were capable of such expressions and in turn, the viewers tend to be moved by them. Once I was at a Monet exhibit in Vancouver. A Westerner pointed out a painting to me and told me that he had come to the exhibit seven times already, each time he aimed to look one landscape. He said, every time he looked at the same painting, he found that there was always something different. Seven times meant seven paintings to him. I said to him, what was special about the landscape was its openness, its vastness, that with only the light radiated off of the colours expressed the state-of-mind of how one has become one with nature. This way, everyone comes away with a different feeling with the same painting. This man who saw the painting seven times. Every time he might come with some preconceived notion. When the conceptual state-of-mind changed, the change was also reflected as changed feelings for the painting. I told him that if he could put aside all concepts about the arts and look at the painting afresh like a child, he should be able to get a sense of a painter reintegrated with nature, for Monet wasn’t attached to any particular perspective. This is the true communication, which is very liberating. Then he went off and tried again. Half an hour later he came back and thanked me, for he himself was a painter. When he showed me his paintings on his phone, I told him, “You are too conscious with the concepts of things. Consider putting them aside. Consider that there are no mountains, no trees, no houses, no people. All these things are none other than a reflection of your mind.” He held my hand and thought for a long time, then he said, thank you, thank you.
What I just said is exactly Shi Tao’s “one stroke.” He said, “How matters are sculpted in nature through time, it is the flowing vital force of yin and yang. With the use of brush and ink to express matters heaven and earth, through me, it is nature, the flow of the vital force.” Speaking of “nature, the flow of the vital force,” it is an expression of one’s realm with the brush and ink, like the sculpting of all matters in nature. The self is a self, because it is a natural existence, which is why every artist has their own style. By style, it is simply the outcome of expression of the movement of one’s state-of-mind. When I paint, it is often from in the midst of meditation during tea, something simply arises. I would put aside my teacup and walk over to the studio to begin “expressing” (not “painting”). Sometimes in the midst of a painting, my realm would change, so I go along with the change in the expression. My paintings are not always popular, so it only serves to entertain myself. If one can entertain oneself, what more can one ask for?