Life and Arts in Pre-Modern China

In the traditional discourse of Chinese painting, it was believed that an artist should 外師造化,中得心源 (outwardly learn from the Nature and inwardly trace the source of their own heart). Unfortunately, with the enormous temporal and geographical difference, both the Nature and the “heart-source” of the ancient masters, as well as their techniques in articulating the two, appear to be unapproachable to us living in the modern age. Likewise, the field’s ambiguous meta-language full of expressions like 氣韻生動 (infusing ch’i to show life movement) or 意趣 (subtle charm resulted from spontaneity) can also be a hurdle to uninitiated students.

Distant it might seem, art, after all, is inspired by real life. This course seeks to explore the material basis of the Nature artistically heightened by the ancient artists directed by their heart-source. We would try to explore the abstract philosophical ideas and aesthetic ideals by looking at something physical and concrete: by visiting specific scenic sites, we would be able to compare the landscape with the paintings they inspired and have more idea on how the visual vocabulary and grammar of Chinese painting translates the real world; and by viewing the objects, or even experience some of the activities central to the artists’ cultural life, students would also have a more substantial understanding on the heart-source of these painters.

This course would use Ming paintings as case studies. A field trip will be organized and students will be walked through the areas of Shanghai, Suzhou and Hangzhou where the Ming Dynasty painters were active in. Through the well-preserved tangible heritage of the region, students could have a better feeling of the intangible ideational world of the ancient masters and their artistic pursuits. The endeavours of the local communities in preserving these invaluable treasures will also be reviewed.

We are deeply grateful to the D.H. Chen Foundation for sponsoring the course.

A Summer General Education Course