Ian Boyden > Essays > Preparing for a Transcendent Voyage

Preparing for a Transcendent Voyage:

The Assembly of a Chinese Scholar's Studio


Ian H. Boyden



Among the public at large there exists a fascination with artists' studios.  One senses that the investigation of these spaces will somehow shed light on the work produced therein and draw us closer to a true understanding of the art, the artist, and why artists are the way they are.  The characteristics and functions of these studios and the way they are occupied vary from art to art, culture to culture, time to time, and, of course, artist to artist.  Occasionally, the vision of such a space becomes so clear that it slips into the collective consciousness and becomes an archetype. 


For instance, one pervasive archetype is that of the American painter's studio of the mid-twentieth century (think Jackson Pollock).  This studio is understood as a toxic and chaotic space, with paints and solvents spilled on the floor, canvasses leaning haphazardly against the walls, and tools scattered about.  Such a studio functions more or less as a containment field, and the artist, a victim of his or her time, is manic, disheveled, and most likely smoking.  Another archetype, also embedded in the popular mind, is the polymath's studio of the European Renaissance (think Albrecht Dürer).  This space is more akin to a scientific lab, with sextants, dividers, astrolabes, the tools of science, and alchemical beakers brewing rare colors.  This studio functions as an elaborate device for quantifying and measuring the world, and the artist, engaged in an act of discovery, is surrounded by an array of objects that symbolize esoteric knowledge. 


By contrast, the archetypal image of the Chinese scholar's studio is one of a simple, orderly room or hut set in the wilderness and containing a handful of essential items.  These items include a table with requisite tools and materials (brush, ink, and paper), a display stand featuring a selection of objects (fantastic rocks, flowers, books, and the like), and a painting or two hanging on the wall.  The scholar can be seen within, resting in calm repose with brush in hand, prepared to channel the universal qi, or energy.  This is an archetype that has persisted since at least the fifth century, and may seem innocuously idyllic.  However, if set up correctly, it is actually a highly sophisticated time-space-dream machine capable of uniting the enclosed scholar with the Way, or Dao, conjuring the untrammeled spirits of past poets, painters, and calligraphers, and even transporting the occupant into the oneiric haunts of the immortals.


The success of the Chinese scholar's studio hinges on an understanding and respect for the extraordinary powers of evocative objects and on the elusive paradigm that less is more. Perhaps the assembly of a scholar's studio can best be understood if compared to the way an explorer prepares a ship or a poet writes a poem: the number of objects is pared down to the vital minimum; the quality of each object is held in uncompromisingly high regard; and furthermore, each object tends to be efficient as well as both practically and cognitively multifunctional. 


Considering the scholar's studio as a three-dimensional poem provides a potentially instructive perspective on the function of the objects assembled within.  Though generated outside of the Chinese tradition, the American poet T. S. Eliot's concept of the “objective correlative” articulates the importance and imaginative utility of selecting specific objects.  He writes:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula for that particular emotion; such that, when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.[1]

The set of objects in a scholar's studio can be understood as correlatives to forms of impressionistic transcendence.  Their presence within the studio is intended to evoke such emotive states.  However, the specific tenor or shape of that transcendence depends on the person setting up the studio and the specific objects selected.  A successful studio contains objects that help articulate essential aspects of the scholar's creative personality and help facilitate reflection and transcendence. 


The scholar's studio in the current exhibition is based on Hua Rende's studio, which he named Gu wei shan fang, or Ancient Crepe Myrtle Mountain Studio.  His actual studio in Suzhou is located on the second floor of his house and has a window that looks out over an ancient crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia lythraceae).  The two walls adjacent to the windowed wall are lined with shelves that on one side display a variety of fantastic objects, and on the other house his extensive library of books on calligraphy as well as a collection of rubbings and large quantities of paper.  His desk sits in the center of the room.  On the desk rest his ink stone, ink, brushes, paperweights, water pots, and other items.  As it was impossible to transport all the items in his studio from China, the assembly of objects in the current exhibition is only an approximation of that space.  The current setup of the desk is also somewhat idealized for the sake of display, his desk in his actual studio being much more pragmatic.


To understand the specific qualities and functions of the objects in Hua's studio, it is first necessary to explore some of the endemic cultural definitions of personality and aesthetic sense, and where precisely Hua fits within this world.  During the Eastern Han dynasty, there began a critical tradition of “personality appraisal,” in which discrete types of personalities or manners were articulated and categorized.  The categorical terms used were akin to those used in contemporary psychology (designations such as extrovert, submissive, compulsive, and so forth) and tended to be composed of paired words: “limpid and calm,” “decorous and dignified,” “close-woven and dense,” and “lucid and wondrous,” for example.[2]  It is interesting to note that the terms used to define personality attributes were quickly adopted as aesthetic categories to describe actual works of poetry, painting, and calligraphy.  Tied up in these critical categories was an observation that understanding the qualities of a specific work leads to understanding the personality of the maker, and vice versa. 


Hua's personality and aesthetic proclivities are consistently described as gaogu, or “lofty and ancient.”  This category refers specifically to poets, painters, and calligraphers who have strong affinities for ancient aesthetics and have internalized and translated those ancient aesthetics into the present.  This aesthetic of the lofty and ancient often carries strong Daoist associations.  Such an aesthetic and personality is clearly evident in Hua's personal calligraphic style, which is based on clerical script, and in his compositions, which so often reference antiquity through the use of rubbings of ancient objects and ancient texts. It comes as no surprise then that Hua's studio reflects these same concerns.  The objects in his studio celebrate the artistic heritage of the stele school tradition, the sacred spaces of Daoism (especially sacred mountains), and products of anonymous craftsmen from the fourth century BCE to the sixth century CE.


Hua is keenly aware of his associations with the aesthetics of gaogu and is particularly fond of Sikong Tu's (837–908) articulation of it in his Ershisi shipin, or Twenty-Four Categories of Poetry (and, in fact, the following passage opens the current catalogue).  Sikong's poetic description, titled “Lofty and Ancient,” reads:

The man of wonder rides the pure

In his hand he holds a lotus;

He drifts on through unfathomed aeons,

In murky expanses, bare of his traces.

The moon emerges in the eastern Dipper,

And a good wind follows it.

Taihua Mountain is emerald green this night

And he hears the sound of a clear bell.

In air he stands long in spiritual simplicity,

All limits and boundaries lightly passed.

The Yellow Emperor and Sage-King Yao are in his solitude:

Noble and unique—those mysterious principles he reveres.[3]

Like Hua's studio, this poem is filled with images/objects that serve to move the reader into a specific set of associations.  It should be noted that Sikong wrote this poem in extremely vague and elusive language (a difficulty further compounded in translation).  However, this elusiveness was thought to be imperative for the poem's success, for it was believed that if the language were too concrete, the poem would lose its capacity to evoke a larger, more vital world. 


It is not by accident that several images in Sikong Tu's poem are found embedded in Hua's works in the exhibition as well as in his own studio.  Careful exegesis of this poem reveals how deeply integrated this aesthetic of the lofty and ancient is in Hua's life and work.  The first line, “The man of wonder rides the pure,” refers to Zhuangzi's description of an immortal flying through ethereal vapors.  This subject of the individual who transcends the cares of the world can be found in The Sun and Moon Shine Together (cat. no. 2) and Obtain Promotion and Prosperity (cat. no. 6).  The lotus in the second line is not just a symbol of purity, but it also provides a fantastic image of this individual's relationship to mountains.  The lotus is a reference to one of the peaks of Hua Mountain in Shaanxi Province, one of the five sacred Daoist mountains.  Thus the man of wonder holds a mountain in his hand.  Mountains are the traditional haunts of the immortals, and several objects in the scholar's studio lead the viewer directly to this world.   For instance, the following are all intended to render and therefore summon associations to mountains: the brush rest (cat. no. 22 C), the three scholar's rocks (cat. nos. 23 B–D), the landscape painting titled Grandfather Mountain (cat. no. 28), and the varnished conk (cat. no. 23 E), also known as the ling zhi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum).


The third and forth lines of the poem (He drifts through unfathomed aeons, / In murky expanses, bare of his traces) deal directly with the capacity to traverse huge spans of time and to be comfortable investigating unexplored territory.  This type of activity is in concordance with Hua's interest in uncovering and then celebrating the products of anonymous artists and craftsmen of great antiquity.  Again, this proclivity is seen in numerous works in the exhibition (especially cat. nos. 1–14) and then again in several objects in the studio, including the roof tile (cat. no. 23 F), the ceramic jar (cat. no. 23 I), the tomb figure (cat. no. 23 J), and the rubbing of the Votive Stone of Ma Luozi (cat. no. 26). 


Lines seven and eight  (Taihua Mountain is emerald this night / And he hears the sound of a clear bell) bring the reader back to an image of Mount Hua, also known as Taihua.  This time, rather than resting in the palm of the man of wonder's hand, the mountain takes on a magical, sentient quality, glowing like an emerald in the dark night.  In the next line, the image of the mountain is further qualified by the clear ringing of a bell traveling through the darkness.  The sound of a bell becomes a conduit allowing the viewer to be united with the majesty of the mountain. There is also a fortuitous personal connection: it so happens that the written character “Hua” in Hua Rende's name is the same character as that used for Mount Hua—a coincidence that is not lost on Hua (the artist).  In the exhibition, the application of anthropomorphic qualities to mountains is found in the poem Along the Mulberry Path (cat. no. 8).  In the scholar's room, the seal carved by Hu Lunguang (cat. no. 25) is composed of the four characters of line seven, thus directly referencing Sikong Tu's poem. 


Lines nine and ten (In air he stands long in spiritual simplicity, / All limits and boundaries lightly passed) return to the spiritual simplicity of the individual of lofty and ancient character and his or her capacity to transcend boundaries with ease.  This capacity is described in numerous works in the exhibition, especially The Happiness of Fish (cat. no. 1), The Sun and Moon Shine Together (cat. no. 2), The Yinglong Captures the Heavenly Bird (cat. no. 9), and Drinking Wine, No. 5 (cat. no. 18).  Such transcendence is, of course, one of the primary functions of the studio itself. 


The three contemporary works included in this room heighten its capacity to transport its occupants into other realms.  The first is Hua's fan, which reads, “Everywhere is Pure Land when you are reading books; close the door, for you are deep in the mountains” (cat. no. 23 A).  The second and third are both traditional landscape paintings by two Chinese artists living in America: Grandfather Mountain (cat no. 28) by Charles Jirong Chu (b. 1918); and Untitled Landscape (cat. no. 27) by Chang Ch'ung-ho (b 1914).  The hanging of landscape paintings in an artist's studio has a long history, an early practitioner of this being Zong Bing (375–443), one of the preeminent painters and aestheticians of the Southern Dynasties (317–589).  Zong loved to wander through mountains, but when he grew too old to do so, he lined the walls of his studio with landscape paintings.  In this way, he could continue the pleasure of wandering without having to undergo the physical rigors.  Chang Ch'ung-ho grew up in Suzhou and her painting captures the spirit of the Jiangnan landscape that surrounds Hua's own studio.  Charles Jirong Chu grew up in the mountains of Hebei, just a few hours south of Mount Hua.  His painting captures the spirit of traveling through the mountains.  In Chu's work, the viewer can also find paths for wandering and, in fact, close examination reveals tiny figures here and there climbing through the spectacular scenery—suggestive invitations to the viewer to wander along through these lofty spaces.

[1] T. S. Eliot, “Hamlet and His Problems,” in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (London: Methuen & Co., 1920), 100.

[2] These particular categories are from Sikong Tu's Ershisi shipin, or Twenty-Four Categories of Poetry, translated by Stephen Owen, from Readings in Chinese Literary Thought (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992), 299–357.

[3]  Translated by Steven Owen, from Readings in Chinese Literary Thought, 313.  The explanations of specific images in the poem are based on Owen's and are found on pages 313–15.