Commentary RESEARCH

Between Chinese and Western artistic creativity


2024-05-17 12:00

Chinese Social Sciences Today

The concept of “artistic creation,” as understood in modern Western culture, lacks a direct counterpart in ancient Chinese aesthetics and art discourse. However, this absence does not imply the absence of equivalent creative processes and principles in ancient Chinese art. In ancient China, there were numerous discussions regarding specific artistic approaches, including composition and rhetoric. However, when viewing artistic creation as a general practice, ancient Chinese perspectives often intertwined its origins or essence with the prevailing philosophies of the time.  

Western notions of ‘creation’

Chinese perspectives generally acknowledge that the concept of “creation” primarily stems from Western influence dating back centuries. However, even within the Western artistic tradition, the broad sense of “creation” has only recently gained widespread recognition as a novel concept. In ancient Greece, there existed no direct equivalent for the term “creation.” Artistic endeavors such as painting, sculpture, and architecture during that time involved labor and adhered to established norms of formal beauty. The concept of innovation wasn’t emphasized in these artistic pursuits. Activities closer akin to creation were found in poetry, which had not yet been included in the realm of art at the time. Poets sang like prophets, conveying extraordinary messages in a manner reminiscent of sorcery, and poetic creativity was ultimately attributed to divine inspiration. In medieval theology, only God, who could create from nothing in the act of creation, was deemed a creator.

During the Renaissance, some drew parallels between the practices of poets and the act of divine creation, yet they hesitated to use the term “creation” directly. Instead, terms like “invention,” “fiction,” or “formation” were preferred. In the 18th century, “creation” began to be associated with “imagination,” but was still not recognized by Enlightenment thinkers due to its lingering theological connotations of “creation ex nihilo.” It wasn’t until the early 19th century Romantic Movement that “creation” began to refer to the invention of new things. It was only in recent times, during the Romantic era, that “artistic creation” acquired its commonly used meaning.

The ‘constant’ and ‘variable’

The mythical creation system in China has long faded, and the so-called “creation of heaven and earth” primarily manifests in the cyclical changes of the four seasons, the circle of life, where everything evolves within relatively stable rules and rhythms, yet exhibits an infinite array of diversity. Chinese art, inspired by the natural world, focuses on the balance between “constancy” and “variation.” Art inspired by the natural world appears in countless personal expressions (“variable”) based on stable elements, structures, and patterns (“constant”).

German scholar Lothar Ledderose has examined and summarized several commonalities among various forms of Chinese art, including bronze, ceramics, architecture, painting, and calligraphy. One of his key observations is the prevalence of “modular” systematic production across these art forms. Modular production involves the flexible assembly of a large quantity of prefabricated components that conform to several basic patterns, creating infinitely variable units using a limited variety of standard components, ultimately resulting in high productivity and rich diversity of works. While the method of assembling basic components is not unique to China, only the Chinese extensively apply modular systems to language, philosophy, institutions, and art, shaping a unique mode of thinking.

Architecture serves as a particularly salient example. In contrast to European cathedrals, which often required centuries to build, Chinese palaces and temples were frequently completed in much shorter timeframes with fewer materials, yet possessed qualities of resilience, earthquake resistance, and ease of maintenance. The underlying principle behind this efficiency lies in the integration of a vast array of easily manufactured basic types of prefabricated components into a complex dou-gong structure [a structural system in traditional Chinese architecture used to support and reinforce the roofs of buildings], assembled by an efficiently coordinated team. Modular systems exist in various forms of Chinese art such as bronze, architecture, and calligraphy, which Ledderose traces back to the unique Chinese character system: all Chinese characters can be broken down into easily recognizable modules, such as “,” which can be further decomposed into smaller units like “.” All Chinese characters can be disassembled into the most basic universal modules—a few basic strokes. Modularization not only facilitates rapid, low-cost, and reliable manufacturing but also aids in the recognition and evaluation of artworks, as well as in the calculation of material and labor costs by managers.  

Similar to the manner of ancient Europe, Chinese cultural elites also tend to distinguish between the craftsman’s “products” (such as architecture, ceramics, etc.) and the literati’s “works” (such as calligraphy and painting), with the latter being closer to modern category of “art.” However, literati art also follows modular production. For example, the art of calligraphy embodies physical tools and materials that have been passed down for thousands of years, basic writing rules, and several exemplary script styles preserved in copybooks. Creativity in calligraphy is expressed within a predetermined framework. Literati painting also has constant themes, brushwork, and a repository of model sheets for emulation.

Ledderose’s book may not mention poetry and opera, yet these art forms are highly valued by Chinese literati and appeal to both the cultured and the masses. The creation of poetry and opera also exhibit the characteristic modularization observed in Chinese art. Distinct from Western opera, Chinese opera features various storylines, character types, and performance routines dominated by several basic types of “roles” –sheng (male role), dan (female role), jing (painted face) and chou (clown), where innovation can be seen in the flexible combination of roles and their routines. In the Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber, Lin Daiyu summarizes the basic model of classical Chinese poetry: “In regulated verse there are always four couplets: the ‘opening couplet,’ the ‘developing couplet,’ the ‘turning couplet’ and the ‘concluding couplet.’ In the two middle couplets, the ‘developing’ and ‘turning’ ones, you have to have tone-contrast and parallelism. That is to say, in each of those couplets the even tones of one line have to contrast with oblique tones in the other, and vice versa, and the substantives and non-substantives have to balance with each other—though if you have got a really good, original line, it doesn’t matter all that much even if the tone-contrast and parallelism are wrong.” 

If the rules are so simple, why does such disparity exist in poetic artistry? Lin particularly reminds beginners: “As a matter of fact, even the language isn’t of primary importance. The really important things are the ideas that lie behind it. If the ideas behind it are genuine, there is no need to embellish the language for the poem to be a good one. That is what they talk about ‘not letting the words harm the meaning’” (trans. David Hawkes). Lin’s perspective reveals that overly rigid adherence to modular production can lead to being criticized as “mechanical” or “stereotypical.” “The ideas that lie behind” is the most important point of literati arts such as poetry, calligraphy, and painting. Craftsmen must strictly adhere to established norms and traditions without infusing their own “ideas,” while literati can and should possess and express their own “ideas,” so as to distinguish them from the “vulgar.”

Creative crisis in contemporary Western art

The advantage of modern technology lies in its universally effective precision on a quantifiable basis, which has increasingly widened the gap with individualized artistic creation. The challenge of rediscovering humanistic skills that demonstrate individual creativity amidst the dominance of technology has become an increasingly urgent issue.  

Since the 20th century, with the popularization of education, the development of media, and the maturity of capital operation, art has been able to intensively participate in public life. However, a paradox also emerged: while “creation” has become more convenient, opportunities for listening and appreciation have become increasingly rare—let alone purchasing and collecting. As opportunities for individual creation to attract public attention dwindle, creative strategies are forced to resort to sensationalism. Consequently, the entire art industry is submerged in media hype.

In recent years, “AI art” has posed the ultimate challenge: can “artists” continue to exist? The foundation of “AI art” lies in integrating existing artistic materials. Various artistic resources are products of human creation in the past, and the database is already large enough. Even simple “permutations” and “combinations” can constantly prompt “new” forms of art. This mechanized “creation” may eventually surpass humans, offering significant advantages in terms of cost and efficiency. However, if the pool of artists diminishes due to a lack of market support, and new contributions to the database cease, the ability of AI to continue “creating” may be called into question. 

Dilemma in traditional Chinese art

Ancient Chinese art once addressed the issue of “innovation” within a limited scope: within stable frameworks such as modules, techniques, and stylistic schools, artists could improvise based on their individual talents, habits, and the cultural contexts. Esteemed masters could also innovate upon existing paradigms. However, achieving this subtle balance between “constant” and “variable” required extremely stringent conditions. The prerequisite for innovation was that the artists had to be thoroughly familiar with the basic patterns of their domain, forming instinctive muscle memory through long-term training and practice—a principle known as “one minute of glory on stage is 10 years of hard work off stage.” Equally important is that audiences and critics must possess a corresponding level of tastes to establish a “sympathetic” relationship with the artists, based on which they are able to praise or criticize the artworks to the point. All of these require a social mechanism that allows various artistic traditions to be stably transmitted and inherited, supported by an equally stable, or even conservative cultural background. 

If the characteristics of Chinese artistic creation can be simply summarized as “personal expression based on basic patterns,” it may help explain the significant crisis Chinese art is facing in modern society. Firstly, mastery of any basic pattern requires apprenticeship and diligent practice. However, in a rapidly changing society, the emergence of new technologies, concepts and standards have eroded the confidence of many aspiring artists in learning from teachers and practicing techniques. Innovation becomes impossible without the “basic skills” that Chinese art relies on. Secondly, audiences familiar with the rules and who appreciate new ideas are dwindling. Without further improvement on basic training and effective feedback, Chinese artists’ creativity may gradually stagnate or even wither away. What’s worse, exquisite artistic creations often rely on the spontaneous improvisation of esteemed masters. If the tradition of apprenticeship is disrupted on a large scale, the art form may vanish, leaving only remnants that blur the distinction between authenticity and imitation. 

Sun Tao is an associate professor from the Arts Management and Cultural Communication Department at the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts.



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