Chinese painting, the dream and the night

Lecture by Yolaine Escande, research director at the CNRS.

The picto-phonogram for the night, ye, consists of "the moon", Monthxi, and a phonetic element. The moon defines the night as the sun defines the day. The dream 夢meng, it is composed of three elements: the eyes surmounted by eyebrows, a man sleeping on a bed and the moon. Why this importance of the moon? The Chinese calendar is punctuated by two major celebrations, the Spring Festival in January, February and Moon festival, in mid-autumn, at the time of the equinox. The night star is the origin of the lunar calendar, which in China is as important as the solar calendar. The moon is associated with Yin and the sun at Yang, both opposing and complementary forces. The round shape of the moon evokes fullness and family reunion. At the time of Moon festival, she is admired and honored by the united family. It embodies favorable auspices: harmony, luck, and its roundness recalls the peach which is the fruit of immortality. In the poems of Li Bo (701-762), the evocation of the moon makes it possible to reunite friends, spouses, and family and to reconstitute the family fullness beyond time and space.
The moon has many meanings in Chinese culture. It is considered to be inhabited by animals such as hares and toads. On the banner of the Marquise de Dai, from 2rd s. av. NE, the moon is shown above, on the left, with a toad on the crescent. It is imagined as an island paradise which is the residence of the Queen Mother of the West and is linked to immortality. As it rises, lies down and changes shape, it is qualified as inconstant and this inconstancy would explain its character. Yin.

Banner of the Marquise de Dai (detail). 168 BC Painted silk. © Hunan Museum.Changsha.

Watching the tide on a full moon. Li Song. (1170-1255). Ink and colors on silk. © Palace Museum.Taipei.

Admiring the prunus buds in the moonlight. Mai Yuan. (1190-1224). Ink and colors on silk. © Metropolitan Museum.

The moon mentioned in poems is also mentioned in painting, but it is always the full moon. It is interesting to note that if the Chinese philosophy is based on changes, mutations and what is not constant, the round moon symbolizes a perfect form and its contemplation allows, through the imagination, the union with its relatives. in their absence. It is also the image of loneliness, purity and emptiness.
The moon, with its poetic, religious, literary meanings, has become an essential pictorial theme, whether apparent or hidden. Painting by Li Song (1170-1255) Watching the tide on the full moon shows a pavilion that was built to contemplate the tide that dates back to that time, more than 100 km inland at the time of the autumn equinox. The moon appears above the inscription, itself above the wave which is the main motif of this fan. A fan leaf due to Mai Yuan (active 1190-1224) Admiring the prunus buds in the moonlight features three main characters: the prunus, the moon and the scholar seated in contemplation. The effect of tension between these points in the painting and the gaze of the spectator, makes one feel the presence of the absence.
Among scholars, the moon is associated with the quest for purity and virtue but also with loneliness. In the painting by Wu Wei (1459-1508), The sound of the zither qin in the valley, a character is seated under a pine tree, he plays the instrument while looking at the moon. This quest for hermitism is linked to the desire to leave behind the rigid rules of society, to abandon the disasters of war and to seek a kind of immortality in contemplation. Wu Zhen (1271-1368), having refused to work for the new Mongolian dynasty, had retired and painted all his life on the subject of the loneliness of the scholar while referring to the purity brought by the presence of the moon . Fishing at night on the river in the fall refers to the poem inscribed on the right, while the moon does not appear on the painting. Here, the inscription is in the same ink tone as the painting, showing that it is an integral part of the work. This short poem arouses the reader's imagination by giving it the colors, the smells that could not be transmitted by the wash. Shen Zhou (1427-1509) took up the theme by referring to Wu Zhen.
In literary painting, the moon is one of the five purities which are prunus in bloom, pine, bamboo, water and the night star. These five motifs symbolize the eminence and purity of scholars.

Fishing at night on the river in the fall. Wu Zhen (1271-1368). Ink on paper. © Metropolitan Museum.

Monk reading a sutra under the moon. Anonymous. Around 1332. Ink on paper. © Metropolitan Museum.

But the moon is not the prerogative of academic or literate painting, it is also present in painting. chan Buddhist monks. In the latter, the moon embodies purity, solitude but above all emptiness. By its evanescence, its growth and its decrease, it marks impermanence and its light goes hand in hand with the notion of cold, the state of detachment and emptiness sought by the monks. chan. In Monk reading a sutra under the moon (anonymous around 1332), the text says "In this single sutra scroll, the words are often difficult to understand. When the sun rises, the moon then sets. When will I finish reading it?". The character, aged because of his long beard and very long eyebrows, touches his left eyebrow; it could be an allusion to the dream and show that the moon, like life, is a dream, an illusion over which we have no control. Monks are quite often associated with the moon and Shide laughing under the moon by Zhang Lu (1464-1538) shows this monk from the Tang dynasty (618-907), standing, disheveled robe and disheveled hair, his face stretched out towards the moon barely visible and his face split in a burst of laughter. The message is that awakening and wisdom are not out of this world but available to everyone, even in trivial things.
For Buddhists and Taoists, the moon is associated with death, as a transition and not as an end. For the former, life and death, like the sun and the moon, are the expression of impermanence. Death is thus only one stage in the cycle of reincarnations. For Taoists, life and death are the expression of mutations and changes. The full moon marks an end point that will necessarily come undone, so you have to take advantage of this magical moment that does not last.
Not only do the Chinese enjoy the landscapes under the light of the night star, but they also have other activities during the night. They visit friends, go for walks, organize banquets, etc. For the literati, the night is the bearer of poetry and gives to see differently than the day, including when it is without moon. This could explain that the night paintings do not differ in any way from the day paintings and that only the title, lanterns or the presence of the moon allow them to be located.
The Chinese artist will try to show a cosmogony at work in the painting, by the alternation of dark and light, high and low, horizontal and vertical, etc. It is this alternation that will give a feeling of life and reality to his work. Thus, the yin night is embodied by the black of the ink while the yang day is found in the white of the support.
Watching the moon in mid autumn by Shen Zhou (1427-1509) shows scholars leaning at a table, drinking tea, in a pavilion, and admiring the moon. A crane stands in front which evokes immortality.
The night also lends itself to impromptu visits and, Visit to Dai, a snowy night by Zhang Wo (? -1356)) relates in pictures an event concerning Wang Ziyou (4rd s.), poet and calligrapher. On a snowy night, he suddenly thought of his friend, Dai Kui (325-396) and wanted to visit him. He got into a boat to go but it took him all night. Arrived in front of the door, he stopped and turned around. Asked about his behavior, he replied "I went there, driven by my pleasure, now that it is exhausted, I turn around, what need to see Dai? ". The pleasure to share with his friend was that of the night and the sparkling moon on the snow. As the night was almost over, he had nothing more to share and was not going to annoy Dai Kui. The snow is not even suggested in the painting, only the character bundled up in the boat makes us understand that it is cold. In Studying in reflected light from snow by Zhou Chen (? -1536), we see a scholar studying in a pavilion in the middle of a snowy landscape. This type of painting highlights the courage and abnegation of these literati who, renouncing everything, live as hermits in poverty and have gone down in posterity for their courage.

Shide laughing under the moon. Zhang Lu (1464-1538). Ink on silk. © Freer Gallery.

Visit to Dai on a snowy night. Zhang Wo. 1356. Ink and color on paper. © Shanghai Museum.

Spring evening banquet in the garden of peach and pear trees. Leng Mei. (active 1677-1742). Ink and color on silk. © Palace Museum. Taipei.

Fun scene of ghosts. Luo Pin. 1766. Ink and colors on paper. © Honolulu Museum of Art.

As for dreams, they are often depicted in the illustrations of novels. In an image of West Pavilion by Wang Shifu (c. 1250-c. 1307), illustrated by Chen Hongshou (1598-1632), we see a figure lying down and his dream appears as in a cloud emanating from his head. The most famous dream is that of Zhuangzi (476-221 BC NE) dreaming that he is a butterfly. "Zhuangzi dozed off and dreamed that he was a free fluttering butterfly. When he woke up, he no longer knew if he was Zhuangzi dreaming of the butterfly or a butterfly dreaming that he was Zhuangzi. Yet there must be a difference, it's what we call the transformation of existing". Another passage from Zhuangzi says "The one who dreams does not know that he is dreaming, and in his dream he may even seek to interpret his dream. But it is only when he wakes up that he knows he has dreamed. One day there will be a great awakening and we will know that it was all a vast dream. Only fools believe they are awake, convinced that they understand things… ”. The anecdote of the butterfly has inspired many artists. "The dream of the butterfly" or "Dreaming of the butterfly»By Lu Zhi (1496-1576) already shows in his title all the ambiguity because there are only the words dream and butterfly, it is up to the reader to interpret. We see Zhuangzi leaning on a rock and two butterflies flying above his head. If in the illustrations of novels, the dream is identifiable in a bubble, in the painting it is on the same plane as reality.

Cheng Hongshou. (1598-1652). Illustration of the play The West Pavilion by Wang Shifu. © BNF Paris.

The dream of the butterfly. Lu Zhi. (1496-1576.) (Detail). Ink on silk. © Museum of the Old Palace. Beijing.

Zhong Kui. Li Shizuo. (1687-1770.) Ink and color on paper. © Paris Museums.

The character of Zhong Kui, slayer and demon hunter, comes from the dream of an emperor who has been painted. The theme is as popular as it is literate. Zhong Kui was thus the subject of paintings by Dai Jin (1388-1462), Wen Zhengming (1470-1559), Gao Qipei (1660-1734), Zhang Daqian (1898-1983), etc. Even today, we see an image of this genius on the doors of houses. It is then about prints or cut papers representing him, in particular during the New Year to have a happy new year.


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