Painter, Calligrapher, Critic
TUNG CHI CHANG (1555-1636), an artist of the Ming Dynasty, was an important figure in the world of Chinese art. He was known not only as a painter and calligrapher but also as a critic. Although the Chinese regarded his painting less highly than his calligraphy, both talents enhanced his reputation as a man of influence and critical vision.
During the Ming Dynasty, the Chinese passionately devoted themselves to the assertion of past greatness. The dynasty was a native house coming to power after a bitter century under the Mongol yoke, and the Chinese wanted to reassure themselves of their innate superiority over other peoples. To this end, they set about compiling encyclopedias, histories, and compendiums related to their past. This was a period in which critics flourished, and Tung Chi Chang, an arrogant man, took the field of painting un der his scrutiny. He began to classify it, leaning on tradition, his theories colored by his scholarly bias.
A highly educated man and comfortably situated, Tung took the civil service examinations early in his life, passed, and became a member of the bureaucracy. Being independent and making enemies easily, he moved in and out of office throughout his career; he would retire, then later accept a post if it were highly placed enough. All the while he painted, wrote, and produced marvelous calligraphy.
Strangely enough, it is the West that has lately decided to praise him as an extraordinary painter. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York recently completed a show of his work.) In China, his critical views and his calligraphy, rather than his painting, were extolled. It was to his advantage to be lauded for his calligraphy, because a man's calligraphy, quite apart from its intrinsic beauty, was thought to be an indication of his character and virtue. In theory, only a good man could be a great cal ligrapher.
TUNG'S position and renown were such that 300 years later when the Communists seized power, they did all they could to defame his memory. He had not been a man of socialist instincts, and his followers continued to praise him as a brilliant intellectual, a supreme example of the literati. The Red Guards desecrated his grave.
Tung maintained that only the wen-li, members of the scholar-artist class, could really paint, in the true sense of the word. (It went without saying that every gentleman painted, just as in Elizabethan England all gentlemen could sing.) Tung downgraded the professional artists who earned their living by the brush and were not scholars; only the independent scholar, he claimed, was free from worldly influence. This premise appealed to the snob element among his colleagues.
Tung's analyses of the history of painting were well accepted but were not new. They were only presented in a more imperious manner.
He espoused the time-honored idea of a separation between the Northern and Southern schools of art. (The word "school" is loosely used.) He stated that the artists of Southern school worked in consonance with Zen Buddhism, which relies on sudden inspiration and enlightenment, while the Northerners were pedantic and meticulous, plodding on and often depending on color (not necessarily popular) and even going in for figure painting. The Northern School, in point of fact, contained many superlative artists,
but many were bedeviled by prejudice against professional painters.
By the time Tung was working, the imperial house of Ming was beginning to collapse; in the mid-17th century the dynasty would fall, destroyed by its own corruption and greed. Tung's praise of austerity, of a life apart from the vulgar world, attracted many who were both disgusted and bitterly disappointed by the failure of their government, from which they had hoped so much. Soon China would be conquered by the Manchus, and once again would be under foreign rule. In this climate, the scholars and gentry found some strength in the beauty of Tung's calligraphy, evidence of the virtues that might keep the invaders at bay.
The calligraphy shown above is inspired by a poem written by the artist Mi Fu (1051-1106) about the Celestial Horse. Mi Fu was a gifted Sung Dynasty painter, also a poet, as were so many artists, the Chinese thinking the two arts closely related. The lower character, the one that means horse, is unmistakably the old ideograph, though it is simplified and inscribed in a free, untrammeled style with a broad, wet brush. This character for horse usually contained dots in the under section, conveying the idea
of the legs of the steed. The upper word, meaning heaven, is familiar to most people who have any acquaintance with written Chinese. Simple and striking, as it is in this example, it is a pleasure to contemplate.
Tung was also admired for his work as a copyist. This art form was necessary in the preservation of famous Chinese pictures that were painted on silk and were extremely fragile, so that fire, war, travel, and other hazards put them at great risk. Copying was listed as one of the Six Principles of painting from the earliest times, but artists understood that it was to be copying "with a difference." That is, the artist, working "after" the style of a great master was expected to add his own individual tou ches - in a sense to create another masterpiece. Tung's skill with the brush and his knowledge of the great pictures of the past made him particularly suited to this branch of the art.
As a rule, he chose traditional subjects, landscapes with lakes and hills, called, for instance, "Eight Views of Autumn Moods." Tung's mountains might be "in the style of" a long-honored painter, or, if left to himself, would be almost abstract in form. Here he was an innovator, and because of these works he is thought of today as one who broke with tradition and opened new paths, an odd appraisal of so conservative a man.