The aesthetic conceptions of the Far East have been deeply influenced by a special philosophy of nature. The Chinese consider the relation of the two principles, male and female, the yang and the yin, as the source of the universe. Detached from the primordial unity, they give birth to the forms of this world by ever varying degrees of combination. Heaven corresponds to the male principle, earth to the female principle. Everything upon the earth, beings, plants, animals or man is formed by the mingling of yang and yin. While the mountain, enveloped in mists, recalls the union of these two principles, the legend of forces thus revealed by no means pauses here. Fabulous or real, the animals and plants habitually seen in Chinese paintings express a like conception.
The dragon is the ancestor of everything that bears feathers or scales. He represents the element of water, the waters of the earth, the mists of the air, the heavenly principle. He is seen breaking through the clouds like some monstrous apparition, unveiling for an instant the greatness of a mystery barely discerned. The tiger is the symbol of the earthly principle, a personification of quadrupeds as distinct from birds and reptiles. His ferocious form lurks in the tempest. Defying the hurricane which bends the bamboos and uproots trees, he challenges the furies of nature that are hostile to the expression of the universal soul. The bamboo is the symbol of wisdom, the pine is the emblem of will-power and life. The plum tree in flower is a harmonious combination of the two principles. It symbolizes virginal purity.
Thus is built up a complete system of allusions similar to the allegories of our own classics but superior in that they never degenerate into frozen symbols, but on the contrary keep in close touch with nature, investing her with a vibrant life, in which human consciousness vanishes making way for the dawning consciousness of infinitude.
Buddhism goes still further. It does not even believe in the reality of the world. In this belief, forms are but transitory, the universe an illusion forever flowing into an unending future. Outside of the supreme repose, in the six worlds of desire, the things that are susceptible to pain and death pursue their evolution. Souls travel this closed cycle under the most diverse forms, from hell to the gods, advancing or retreating, in accordance with the good deeds or errors committed in previous existences. A stone, a plant, an insect, a demon, or a god are only illusory forms, each encompassing an identical soul on its way to deliverance, as it is caught at different stages of its long calvary and imprisoned through original sin and the instinctive desire for life. Whence we see emerging a new feeling of charity which embraces all beings. Their moral character is felt to be the same as that of man, their goal is the same, and in the vast world of illusion each seeks to fulfill the same destiny.
These are: the worlds of animals, of man, of gods or dêvas, of giants or asuras, of prêtas or wandering spirits, and of hells. Freedom from perpetual transmigration in these six worlds is attained only through the extinction of desire.
Behind the changes of the universe the Buddhist perceives the primal substance that pervades all creation. There results from this an intimacy with things which exists in no other creed. From inert matter to the most highly organized being, all creation is thus endowed with a sense of kinship that is destined to make a tender and stirring appeal in the artist's interpretation of nature.
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PART TWO THE EVOLUTION OF CHINESE PAINTING
The origins of painting in China are mingled with the origins of writing. Written characters are, in fact, derived from pictography or picture writing, those in use at the present time being only developed and conventionalized forms of primitive drawings. The early books and dictionaries give us definite information regarding this evolution. But while history bears witness to this ancient connection, we do not come into contact with actual evidence until the third century of our era, through the bas-reliefs of the Han dynasty, and in the fourth century through the paintings of Ku K'ai-chih. Here we find by no means the origin of an evolution but, on the contrary, the last traces of an expiring tradition.