VII. THE MING PERIOD--FOURTEENTH TO SEVENTEENTH CENTURIES
The Ming dynasty came into power on the wings of national feeling. China rallied her forces and expelled the foreign tyrants. Without doubt the nation cherished the illusion of rebuilding itself upon the model of the past, and the first emperors of the dynasty believed that the empire could be re-established upon an unshakable foundation. But the Ming dynasty, in reality, was but the heir and follower of Yuan. The latter itself had been only a connecting link. It had changed nothing, but had tended rather to absorb into the Chinese system the Northern barbarians, who up to that time had been foreigners. It had unwittingly achieved unity for China, despite itself and against its own inclination. In the administration of the empire, it had finished the program of conservation which the Sung dynasty, through impotence, had been unable to carry to completion.
The Ming dynasty inherited the work of the Mongols and consolidated it. It survived under their reign and under that of the Ch'ing rulers until the final disintegration, of which we have but recently seen the results. The peaceful ideals of the Ming dynasty, the marked predominance of Confucianism as a code of ethics, with certain modifications by Chu Hsi, combined to form an ensemble that was apparently perfect and which made it possible to have faith in the excellence of the principles laid down by the monarchy. Thus a school was formed which had its own philosophy, manners and ideals, all of them cold, stiff and without spontaneity. It was an over-perfect machine which went like clockwork. The world was judged with a narrow and somewhat stupid self-confidence. The ideal dwelt in the word of Confucian writings, divorced from their true meaning, and so badly interpreted that they ceased to be understood aright. The meticulous, bureaucratic and hieratic administration of the Tartars was a perfect system of government. The machine was still new and worked well, whence arose a false impression of permanence which added still further to the complacency of the conservative mind. An art was necessary to this China. She had it. It was academic painting.
Side by side with this and yet apart, other influences were at work. Notwithstanding the prohibition of books on heterodox philosophies in schools, accompanied by the widespread decadence of Buddhism, and the complete downfall of Taoism owing to gross practices in popular magic, and despite the disdain of the official world, another element in China was preserving the spirit of the past, the restless spirit that craved novelty. In all probability its obscure workings did not appear immediately upon the surface, concealed as they were by the strictly prescribed screen of official China. They were sufficiently strong, however, to give rise to an art which differed essentially from academic art, and which numbered masters who were comparable with those of the past. In spite of adverse circumstances and the weight under which these movements were buried, they made themselves felt in violent upheavals. First let us draw a picture of the decadence of an art and later we shall return to activity and life.
Official painting in the Ming period rapidly stiffened into convention. To understand how it took shape, we must go back to the time of Hui Tsung and observe the method of recruiting talent in the Academy which he founded.
That painting was allied to philosophic and poetic thought is already known. It was always a refined diversion of poets and painters to unite in a quest for the beautiful. The poet wrote verses and the painter painted a picture suggesting, sometimes remotely, the thought enshrined in the poem. Such were the conditions upon which Hui Tsung instituted examinations, following which the doors of the Academy were open to the victor. He gave, for example, as subject for a competition a verse saying, "The bamboos envelop the inn beyond the bridge," which suggested a landscape with flowing water, a rustic bridge thrown across the stream, a cluster of bamboos on the bank, a "winehouse" half hidden in the verdure. All the competitors, the records say, set to work drawing with minute care the inn which they made the essential feature of the picture. Only one implied its presence by showing, above a dense cluster of bamboos, the little banner which in China denotes the presence of a "winehouse." Two verses of another poem in which allusion was made to the red flowers of spring were interpreted by the representation of a beautiful young girl dressed in red, leaning on a balustrade, for according to Chinese ideas, the thoughts of young men in spring turn there, as elsewhere, toward thoughts of love.
We have here an example of the subtle allusions, at times profoundly poetic, with which Chinese painting abounds. But these things retain their value and charm only in so far as they depend on a free play of mind or upon personal, living sentiments. As accepted conventions regulated in an academic competition, repeated with sustained effort and without enthusiasm, their rigid monotony becomes intolerable. Such was the ultimate fate of that ability to express by half meanings, to suggest without directly stating, to which the Sung painters attached so great an importance. The day it was understood that a little banner fluttering over bamboos indicated the presence of a "winehouse" in a sylvan retreat, or that a young girl dressed in red symbolized the crimson blooming of a garden pink in springtime, banners and young girls dressed in red were seen in paintings innumerable to the point of satiety.
Thus were established those dry conventions of a somewhat stupid erudition which were so much the fashion in the academic painting of the Ming and the Ch'ing periods, and whose great success repressed the artistic aspirations of a people. Under these influences was rapidly assembled a complete arsenal of allegories, allusions and symbols that gave birth to an art which was possibly very learned, but which was inartistic to the last degree. An academician of the Ming period would have thought himself disgraced if he had not proven by complicated compositions the extent of his knowledge of things of this character. Art was no longer anything but a kind of puzzle. Furthermore, the decadence of eye and hand followed that of the mind, and there next appeared a taste for brilliant colors, overladen compositions, and fine and meticulous lines, culminating in an unbearable nicety. The work of the Academy is summed up in these words.
Let us turn aside from an art that is inert. It robbed things of the creative spirit that animated them. We shall now see what was achieved by those who followed in the steps of the old masters.
The fifteenth century in China witnessed a continuance of the style prevalent during the Sung and Yuan periods. Chou Chih-mien, for example, was true to that profound feeling for form, that delicacy of coloring, and rhythm in composition which were the endowment of the greatest masters. Shên Chou belonged entirely to the Yuan school, and to prove that the old ideals were not dead, we have in the fifteenth century the magnificent group of painters of the plum tree, with Lu Fu and Wang Yuan-chang at their head.
As before stated, a special philosophy was associated with this tree and its flowers. The white petals scattered on vigorous branches had long typified an inner soul, whose purity was the very likeness of virtue and of tenderness. Chung Jen, who in the eleventh century wrote a treatise on the painting of the plum tree, explains in his chapter on "the derivation of forms" that it is a symbol, a concentrated form, a likeness of the universe. The great fundamental principles mingle harmoniously within it; they express themselves in its shape and reveal themselves through its beauty. Similar to this was the philosophy associated with the bamboo, which endured up to the fifteenth century. The subtle monochromes of Lu Fu show branches of flowering plum swaying in the breeze. In the great works of Wang Yuan-chang trunks of old trees, still bearing hardy blossoms, stand proudly in the magical radiance of the moon. Vibration and power, grandeur and majesty, such are the qualities which were still sought amidst the severe conditions imposed by the use of black and white. Here we feel that the creative force is not yet spent. We find it equally fresh and vigorous in the ink bamboos of Wên Chêng-ming in the sixteenth century.
In landscape, however, new elements appear which mark a decline. I have already laid stress on the overladen composition which developed in the Yuan epoch. This was still more noticeable in the Ming period. When pictorial art has had a long series of masters, a certain eclecticism is infallibly produced. This leads to the rejection of the direct study of nature, in favor of viewing it only through the eyes of the old masters. This phenomenon appeared in China as well as in Europe. The landscape painters of the Ming period studied the technique of the T'ang and the Sung epochs and codified their system of lines, arranging them in series according to types and schools; in short, they drew from these a ready-made technique by which they were controlled. Turning from nature they yielded to imagination. They delighted in painting fanciful landscapes and were inclined toward images that were more external and less inspired than in the past. Their works, however, were invested with great charm, and the impossible disposition of their clustering peaks and oddly cleft rocks cannot but appeal to the imagination.
In these overladen compositions the unity of the picture is lost. We are no longer in the presence of a simple and forceful idea, but behold a thousand incidents, a thousand little details, exquisite in themselves, but which require a search. It is a new conception of landscape. We may possibly prefer the gripping formula of Sung and Yuan art, but we are forced to acknowledge that this later work has great charm and extreme refinement.
To this general trend was added a new taste in color, which became brilliant and complex like the composition itself, harmonious and graceful in the paintings of the masters and always charming in the work of painters of the second rank; but this was the herald of a blatant and vulgar manner which gradually gained ground until it came to be generally adopted by the artisans of the Ch'ing period.
While landscape under the Ming painters was assuming a different guise, and, forgetful of the observances of the past, was beguiling the mind by its charm and delicacy, a new type of figure was also developing. Here we must pause for a moment.
We have seen that figures were treated before landscape by the painters of periods preceding the T'ang dynasty. This early tradition had submitted to the influence of Buddhist art and, while certain of its elements were revived in the work of a few masters, there is no doubt that figure painting from the seventh and eighth centuries on, was absolutely revolutionized. The inevitable result was a new type in the sixteenth century. Painters studied the line for itself, determined its proportions, and analyzed features and drapery. As far as our present knowledge extends, their observations were not collected and codified until the end of the nineteenth century, but the assembled writings testify that the result of their studies was expressed along the lines indicated from the end of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth centuries. Their ideal was totally different from that of the old masters. The figure treated for itself with but few accessories became the sole aim of the painter. He endeavored to show the charm of a woman's face, the dainty and elegant gestures, the supple and voluptuous gait, and he grasped the characteristics and peculiarities of a man's figure by means of an intensified drawing. At times, the influence of analysis was so objective that it resulted in a painting closely approaching European standards. The taste expressed in landscape was likewise evident in figures. There were brilliant and harmonious colors, a charm which became exquisite in the coquettish and vivacious faces of women with ivory skin and brilliant eyes, of graceful movements, and with long, slender, delicate hands, incarnations of the fairies of ancient legend or historic beauties whose memory still lived.
In a word, the philosophical inspiration to which the Sung dynasty owed its glory was discarded to make way for the painting of everyday life, a realistic representation of the world and its activities, which in Japan gave rise to the Ukioyoyé school, and in China recruited a series of painters of the first rank outside the limits of academic tradition.
It would be interesting to study the influence of this movement of the China of the time of Ming upon the originators of the Ukioyoyé in Japan. It is certain that the movement on the continent preceded similar manifestations in the island empire by a century, and it is also certain that the Japanese empire was directly influenced by the China of the Ming period. Chinese painters were established in Japan as early as the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. There is one of whose family name we are ignorant and who is known only under the appellation of Ju-sue,--in Japanese Josetsu. He left China, where the domination of official art stood in the way of an independent career, carried the traditions of Sung and Yuan art to Japan, gathered pupils about him there, and had the glory of being the founder of that magnificent school of which Sesshiu is the leading exponent. There is only one small painting which can be attributed to Ju-sue with certainty. This is preserved in a Japanese temple. Unfortunately it is a work of small importance which, notwithstanding its intrinsic value, by no means furnishes sufficient information to enable us to pronounce on the authenticity of several other works which are said to be by his hand. We find in the latter an extremely individual art, in accordance with early traditions, but with the addition of something fanciful and unexpected which gives this painter marked distinction. Having worked outside of China, however, his influence was not felt in the evolution of Chinese painting.
In the seventeenth century Ming art came in contact with the art of the Europeans. The methods and rules of the Italian ateliers of the end of the Renaissance were brought to China by missionary painters whose talent was of a secondary order. The system of monocular perspective and modeling, strongly accentuated by the opposition of light and shade, made a forcible impression on the Chinese mind. Indications of this are found in the Chinese books on art. But the technical methods were too different and the systems too much at variance to meet on any common ground. Notwithstanding its effect upon certain painters, the influence of European painting was on the whole negligible. Father Matteo Ricci worked at the end of the Ming period under the Chinese name of Li Ma-tu and Father Castiglione, at the beginning of the Ch'ing dynasty, used the name of Lang Chu-ning, but, although the former continued to use European methods, while the latter adopted the Chinese procedure, these were only isolated efforts submerged in the great wave of Asiatic evolution.