Messages without words

In this ink monochrome painting of a famous and eccentric T'ang Dynasty monk-poet, the artist has portrayed Han-shan standing barefoot before the viewer , apparently reading with great intentness the handscroll he holds close to his face. Inscriptions on similar paintings of Han-shan imply that, if the monk is not reading his own poems written on the scroll, he is scanning blank paper. Such a depiction depends for understanding upon the shared assumptions of artist and audience and is an example of the paradoxical wit associated with Ch'an or Zen Buddhists who claimed that transmission of the truth came not through written sutra texts but through encounters between master and pupil which led to enlightenment.

Han-shan and his monkly companions, Shih-te and Feng-kan, the latter usually accompanied by his pet tiger, were figures about whom numerous legends developed and who appeared together and separately in countless paintings from the tenth century onward in both China and Japan. Certain conventions employed by the artist assured immediate recognition by the viewers and communicated messages without words, although on many such paintings, inscriptions by the artist or his Buddhist associates definitely established the identity of the subject and underlined the event or theme of the painting.

The artist has presented Han-shan timeless in space in a pose of intense concentration. He has drawn the visible facial features and the overlong fingers and toes in a caricatural line. After denoting the belt in rapid brushstrokes, he has applied the ink wetly almost to the edges of the sash but has left some suggestions of blank space around it which lends a kind of monkly corpulence to the body. The bushiness of the monk's hair, which underlines his eccentric nature, was rendered by rubbing in the ink.

It is just such a rough, abbreviated style that Chinese critics of the Sung and Yuan dynasties disapproved but which found great favor with Japanese Zen Buddhists who preserved paintings of this type in monasteries, temples, and private collections. The main corpus of Ch'an painting thus survives, not in China where it was considered lax and characterless in execution, but in Japan where it continues to be greatly appreciated today.

The painting of ''Han-shan Reading a Scroll'' is attributed to Lo-ch'uang, a late Sung Dynasty monk-painter and follower of the great Mu-ch'i. Both painters lived and worked in temples at West Lake, a famous beauty spot near Hangchou. This city served as the capital of the Southern Sung Dynasty from 1127 to 1279 and was a center of intellectual life in which literary and artistic activities flourished. Ink painting, which had begun to thrive earlier without any Ch'an associations, was taken up by Ch'an monks as a form of spiritual exercise and they painted not only Buddhist themes but also nature subjects already dear to the hearts of the Chinese, such as pines, plums, epidendra, lotus, tigers, dragons, people, gibbons, ducks, reeds, trees, rocks, and landscapes.

The designation Ch'an or Zen painting is perhaps one of the most loosely applied terms in art history. It can be used to describe several different types of painting with equal validity. Certain splashy brushwork styles have come to be associated with Ch'an painting. The term also covers painting executed by a Ch'an priest or monk whether or not the subject itself is associated with Ch'an painting, or whether it can even be distinguished from secular painting from the Sung Dynasty on. Ch'an subjects include priest-portraits or chinso, given by a master to a pupil who has achieved enlightenment. Ch'an painting can simply be a painting used in a Ch'an temple or it can concern themes of Ch'an doctrine or history. Because the artist and the viewers shared an understanding of the conventions used, the subjects or theme of Ch'an painting could be grasped instantly. The sudden perception paralleled the experience of Ch'an Buddhists who aspired to sudden enlightenment.

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