Landscape and meditation in China from the 15th to the 17th century

Video conference by Cédric Laurent, lecturer in Chinese language, literature and civilization, Rennes 2 University.

In China, the painters who devoted themselves to landscapes were literati, men of letters whose first mission was to transmit and comment on texts. The literati were inspired by literature and represented and illustrated the texts they liked and, very often, which were emblematic in their social class.

Cédric Laurent has devoted the last five years to the study of landscape paintings which have a common iconographic point: a small figure represented in a seated position. This motif generally considered to be insignificant, on the contrary, proved to be very rich and made it possible to restore the painted works in the literary and philosophico-religious context of their creation.

The motif of the seated man can be spotted in a significant number of landscapes painted between the 15st and the 17st s. Careful study of the works of well-known scholars such as Shen Zhou (1427-1509), Tang Yin (1470-1559) and Wen Zhengming (1470-1559), reading the attached inscriptions and comparing them with poetic texts from the same period have confirmed that man, discreetly painted in a corner of the landscape, practices meditation. The texts show the link between landscape and meditation on the one hand and, on the other hand, the intellectual and religious background of these practices. The neo-Confucian claim of this practice leads us to compare the poems inscribed on these paintings with those composed, at the same time, by Chen Xianzhang (1428-1500) and Gao Panlong (1562-1626) who are two great theorists of this thought. . These images must also be located and compared to the engravings presented in works dedicated to meditation. The meditation practices developed under the Song between the 10st and the 11st s. experienced, in fact, an important vogue in literate circles between the 14st and the 16st s. In this context, the iconography of meditation developed in the form of engravings to show, even in a summary way, the postures to be held. Thus, the engravings of Chifeng sui (The marrow of the red phoenix) by Zhou Lüjing published in 1578 illustrate certain postures. These practices had become so common that they were illustrated in the San cai tu hui (section "Human activities"), widely distributed encyclopedia at 17st s. These images produced by literati for literati were also to mark the large painting of the 16st s. It is remarkable that the image of a man in meditation, seated on a brocade carpet, appears in the San cai tu hui which served as a model for apprentice painters.

Detail of a work by Wen Zhengming.

Detail of a work by Wen Zhengming.

San cai tuhui. Human activities. 17th c.

San cai tuhui. Human activities. 17th c.

Night meditation. Shen Zhou.

Night meditation. Shen Zhou.

Night meditation (detail). Shen Zhou. Colors on paper. Palace Museum. Taibei.

Night meditation (detail). Shen Zhou. Colors on paper. Palace Museum. Taibei.

One of the most important paintings on the subject of meditation is well identified thanks to the long colophon that accompanies it: Night meditation (1492) by Shen Zhou. This work is exceptional not only for its very long text but also for the masterful execution. The eye sees rocks in the foreground, then a bridge made of a stone slab that crosses a small stream and, further on, a group of very simple dwellings sheltered by trees at the foot of high mountains. If you look closely, in one of the pavilions, you can see a man seated next to a table with a book and a lighted candle. This man occupies an insignificant place in the landscape and could go unnoticed. The long text which surmounts the work narrates and justifies the personal experience of the painter himself. Shen Zhou represents himself in meditation, explains the fundamentals of his practice, the different stages of the session which lasted six hours and the benefits he derived from it. Here, meditation is associated with reading and other activities specific to the literate. The vocabulary employed by Shen Zhou is clearly of Confucian obedience. The connections with the thought of Zhu Xi (1130-1200) and Chen Xianzhang (1482-1500) are obvious. The design of meditation is centered on the heart (xin) which is, in China, the seat of thought, sensitivity and emotions. The purpose of this practice is clearly stated: to purify the heart and natural dispositions of man and to develop the will. During meditation the solicitations of the senses disappear and the heart, regaining its original nature, the will is strengthened. In this text, Shen Zhou relates to a school of thought called the School of the Heart (Xinxue). According to Shen Zhou, meditation makes it possible to find the heavenly principle (tianli) in the things of the world and to “come to this wonder that is the heart”. Meditation is thus perceived as a transcendent practice. The author affirms that he composed this text with the clearly proselyte aim of developing this saving practice. The purpose is to strengthen the will and the quest for the heavenly principle.

Master Wuyang cultivates his nature (detail). Tang Yin. Ink on paper. Liaoning Museum.

Waves on the shore (detail). Shen Zhou. Colors on paper. Suzhou Museum.

A painting by Tang Yin, Master Wuyang cultivates nature, features a calligraphy by Wen Zhengming. Tang Yin describes a riverside landscape. In the foreground, twisting trees grow on a pile of rocks. This first plan is connected to the second by a small bridge made of a stone slab. On the other side, a very modest building covered with thatch, shelters a man seated on an oval carpet made of plaited rush. Beside him, an open book is placed on a table. The man is wearing a simple black cap and wearing a loose white robe with gray borders. He sits cross-legged and holds his knee in his hand. His head slightly raised, his gaze seems directed towards the sky. The painting clearly relates to the genre of literate portraits in their studio. The afterword identifies the character as Gu Mi (1456-1525) who worked in several ministries before retiring prematurely. He retired to his hometown where he was appreciated by his contemporaries for having raised funds to help the affected populations following the terrible flood of 1508. In the first years of the 16st s. he established relations with the great scholars of the region, in particular with Wen Zhengming and Tang Yin who delivers a portrait here. The posture of the man in meditation is perfectly suited to what Wen Zhengming says in his preface. Wen Zhengming affirms that the principle of the world is unique and it is by the non-use of the heart and by stillness (meditation) that one can reach it. This assimilation of Taoist and sometimes Buddhist notions around the notion of the heart is typical of the thought of the School of the Heart which proceeds by compilation of the various writings with a specifically Confucian purpose: the quest for the celestial principle which we speak of as the Way. , the Dao.

Another painting by Shen Zhou, Waves at the shore, shows, on the right, a group of rustic pavilions sheltered by trees in the colors of autumn in front of a bamboo grove. In one of the buildings, we see a man sitting cross-legged with, near him, an incense set, and, in the adjacent one, a table where books are placed. The left part of the painting is reserved for the description of ripples formed on the water in contact with emerging rocks. It could be the support for human meditation. This painting also presents itself as a cabinet portrait, a praise of the character, and seeks to extol the erudition (books), good taste (allusion to incense) and good spiritual practice of the owner of the studio from the waves to the shore . In this work, the painter gives the greatest part to the landscape and the character is relegated to the lower right corner. It is for this reason that we usually classify this work in landscape painting, forgetting that the real subject is meditation.

The same can be said of silk painting Waterfall Contemplation by Tang Yin. The landscape represents a waterfall in a mountainous setting, a body of water and rocks in the foreground. On the bank, we see two figures, one seated and, behind him, a young servant standing. The text which is associated with this painting evokes "to get rid of the nuisances of the world, to stand aside and to wash one's heart" through contemplation and meditation. The landscape has no other meaning than itself, as the meditator is present without thought.

Listen to the source, by Wen Zhengming, represents a rather sketchy landscape, a stream spanned by a small bridge and, on the bank, a man dressed in red, sitting cross-legged leaning towards the surface of the water as if to listen to the rustle of the water . The painting is accompanied by three contemporary poems, the first by the author, the other two are by two of his disciples. The first poem evokes the quest for the heart and meditation. These themes are repeated in the other two poems.

Contemplation of the waterfall. Tang Yin. Colors on silk. Palace Museum. Taibei.

Contemplation of the waterfall (detail). TangYin. Colors on silk. Palace Museum. Taibei.

Listen to the source (detail). Wen Zhengming. Colors on silk. Palace Museum. Taibei.

Listen to the source at the foot of the pines. Wen Zhengming. Ink on paper. Palace Museum. Taibei.

Still from Wen Zhengming, Listen to the source at the foot of the pines (1668) depicts a large vertical mountainous landscape with a misty waterfall. The foreground is occupied by rocks and pines and, at the very bottom, at the edge of the cliff, a tiny figure sits in contemplation. The poem that accompanies the work is in perfect harmony with the painting.

Some of the paintings only present a very brief mention which identifies a scene of meditation.

A very great work by Wen Zhengming Moment of freedom in a deep valley represents a landscape in which we can see a man dressed in the long white tunic with black piping, seated on a rock and a servant bringing him a book. In the foreground, a visitor is on a bridge that spans a stream to reach the other side. Here too, the title allows us to link this painting to meditation but also to the white garment edged in black which is the outfit dedicated to meditation and worn by scholars when they retire from administrative affairs.

The poems that accompany these paintings respond to a literary genre that developed from the end of the 15thst s. and that we find in particular in the poetic work of Wen Zhengming.

A bed in the rustling of pines (detail). Wen Zhengming. Ink on paper. Palace Museum. Taibei.

Moment of freedom in a deep valley (detail). Wen Zhengming. Colors on paper. Palace Museum. Taibei.

In front of the bamboos (detail). Tang Yin. Ink and colors on paper. Palace Museum. Taibei.

Listening to the bamboos in an empty kiosk. Tang Yin. Colors on paper. Liaoning Museum.

In the examples presented, we see that particular attention is paid to the landscape, both in the paintings where the character occupies only a tiny place and in the poems. In the latter, there are few descriptions of the sensations obtained by meditation; it is the fusion with the surrounding space, correspondence between the interior landscape and the exterior landscape that is emphasized. The harmony and tranquility of the place symbolize the inner state while expressing the permeability of the individual to his environment.

In the meditation paintings of the 16st s. several sub-themes emerge: the contemplation of water, water reflecting the world, it is an image of the right attitude of the heart and of its impassibility; the theme of the retreat, because we meditated in particular during the periods of retreat during which we held to a great simplicity of life; the contemplation of bamboo which refers to a fundamental Confucian philosophical questioning which appears in the work of the founder of the School of the Heart, Chen Xianzhang.

A painting by Tang Yin, In front of the bamboos, shows a cottage on a terrace surrounded by bamboo in front of a body of water fed by a waterfall. In the pavilion, a man is seated in meditation near a table containing the incense set, his gaze raised towards the bamboos. The painting is followed by several contemporary texts, the first being by Tang Yin. Two keys allow us to interpret the text: the gaze that is lost in the emerald which corresponds to the green of the bamboo leaves and meditate every day on the terrace? which is a quote from the biography of Chen Xianzhang. This painting does not represent just anyone but it is the representation of the great master meditating in front of the bamboo trees in the place he had dedicated to meditation, the Yangchun terrace. It is about the quest for the one celestial principle through meditation and an inner quest in one's own heart. It is a question of finding this uniqueness of the world in the multiplicity of beings such as, for example, bamboos.

Portrait of Zhu Kuishi. 1653. Xie Bin (1602-ap. 1680) and Xiang Shengmo (1597-1658). Colors on silk. Palace Museum. Beijing.

Portrait of Wang Shimin (detail). 1616. Zeng Jing (1564-1647). Colors on silk. Tianjin Museum.

Recreation of Emperor Yongzheng (detail). Colors on silk. Palace Museum. Beijing.

Recreation of Emperor Yongzheng (detail). Colors on silk. Palace Museum. Beijing.

The other great philosopher of the Ming period, Wang Yangming (1472-1529), will not find the way by contemplating the bamboos and will deduce that there is nothing to look for in the observation of beings because everything is already in the heart innately. Wang Yangming reaffirmed that meditation should remain an introspective practice, directed towards the heart and not towards external beings.

By the comments of these works we see that the painters were very aware of these concepts, these doctrines and that their painting wants to be a real medium of neo-Confucian thought in vogue at the time.

Like many scholars of the 16st s., Shen Zhou, Wen Zhengming and Tang Yin were directly involved in the current called School of the Heart. Thus, the proximity to the work of Chen Xianzhang, fervent defender of meditation, makes it possible to confirm the interpretation of the paintings and to situate their production in the philosophical and religious context.

In painting, it is generally considered that the 17st s. is a period of transition animated by strong changes of which the appearance of the portrait is an essential component. It is nevertheless advisable to situate these portraits in the continuity of the pictorial production of the 16st s. to the lighting of poetic texts. In the paintings we have seen, the character is clearly identified by the text. We must consider that these paintings are portraits where the scholar is shown among some objects revealing his humility, nothing is ostentatious, and his good spiritual practice, he is in meditation. The contemporaries of Tang Yin were thus represented in meditation to underline their good spiritual practice in front of their contemporaries and posterity. By refocusing the gaze on the seated man, beyond religious practices and concepts, we come to ask the question: who is this man who meditates? Thus the works gradually pass from the status of landscape to that of portrait.

In 17st s., meditation practices continue especially as Buddhism chan gained influence. Thus the representations of scholars on their meditation mat multiply but they are now focused on the person. The production of landscapes continues in the 17st s. but is dissociated from the portrait which occupies a more important place. We approach man in meditation to describe him physically, to make him identifiable, even if it means reducing the landscape to a simple grove or a distant mountain. At that time, new Confucian currents appeared with the criticism of quietism and the rapprochement with Buddhism, but meditation remained a widespread practice in certain circles and the image of a man in meditation remained common until the 18th century.st s. Indeed, a series of portraits of Emperor Yongzheng (1722-1735) show him leaning over a stream, in front of a waterfall or in meditation, in a cave dressed as a llama.

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