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Semiotic approaches to studies of traditional Chinese

Date:2005-11-04 00:00Author:youzhengli
Semiotic approaches to studies of traditional Chinese culture and thought This paper was read in ISI conference of Imatra 1991 and published in the proceedings Acta Semiotica Fennica 1993 Part one: Basic problems an intellectual background

Semiotic approaches to studies of traditional Chinese

culture and thought          


¨This paper was read in ISI conference of Imatra 1991 and published in the proceedings Acta Semiotica Fennica 1993 ©

Part one: Basic problems — an intellectual background         

1. Chinese culture: One of the largest and richest cultural autonomies in the world       

 Twentieth-century global culture has had a decidedly Western caste. As a result, on the     one hand all the non Western lands have been Westernized to varying degrees and different ways; on the other, Western studies of non-Western cultures have grown immensely. In our century cross-cultural dialogues have gone on steadily in both Western and non-Western countries, and studies of traditional culture have ranked among the most fruitful and encouraging. Yet on the whole, Chinese culture and thought still seem strange and remote to the majority of Western scholars and non-scholars even today. Studies of Chinese culture mainly have been made by specialists in the universities. The result is that Chinese culture, with its deep historical and conceptually thick psychological dimensions, has not effectively presented itself to the majority of Western  scholars who lack knowledge of  Chinese traditions. Therefore we cannot say that the great traditional culture and thought of China are extensively integrated into the worldwide cultural dialogues of today.      

   It is a fact that in the Western lands more and more qualified specialists have taken     great interest and been seriously engaged in studies of Chinese culture. But the significance of their work is far from being thoroughly grasped by most academics, because  of linguistic barriers, required historical knowledge, and the deep discrepancy in stylistic taste. Of course, any non-Chinese scholar, so long as he or she takes enough time to study Chinese language and culture in an appropriate way, can come to understand and appreciate Chinese culture as well as a Chinese does. This means that he accepts the     intellectual framework and presuppositions of Chinese culture, on the basis of which its   characteristic cultural manifestations can be pertinently appreciated. Living in modern  times, a scholar must naturally mix some modern viewpoints and methods into his  understanding of the traditional culture, making the formulation and organization of his   studies somewhat „modernized“ . But the most substantial part of his understand      remains based on the traditional norms and rules which he has learnt from the classics,     particularly those of traditional Chinese humanistic disciplines. In his case, he mainly     rearranges and represents those original and valuable propositions that are still deemed    “valuable” because of traditional beliefs and tastes. A more neutral or objective position     is not readily tenable. For example, Chad Harness has said: “While the 'best'     interpretation of the 'original' is the only access we have to historical claims about the     beliefs of ancient Chinese philosophers, the correctness of the interpretation does not     entail that the author had those beliefs” (l983: 5). But those beliefs still fall within the     original criteria. Generally speaking, this basic academic tendency has resulted in the fact that Western sinology, despite its rapid development over the past decades, has mostly     been the business of an academic minority and today still cannot extensively and deeply     participate in scientific communication with other important or dominant disciplines. The     result of this scientific distantiation may be a loss to both sides: scholars within and     outside the field of Chinese studies suffer from insufficient communication between     Western and Chinese intellectuals. This explains why the great treasure of Chinese     culture cannot be more deeply and widely appreciated by most Western or     Western-oriented scholars. Besides, I am tempted to say that, as long as Chinese studies     keep their traditional methodologies mainly based on historical description, the situation     just outlined will remain unchanged in the future.         

2. The basic difficulties concerning communication between the Western mind and     the Chinese mind         

   When Habermas tries to present some basic principles for his general theory of     communication - his “four universal claims; the meaning, the truth, the sincerity, and     the rightness” (l971: 101-141) - concerning effective communication between the     modern Western and the classical worlds, his concepts of “timeless meaning” and     “intentional state” remain tentative, mainly because the basic units of the semantical and     stylistic planes of verbal expressions in China are not so “commensurably” defined. It     is evident that in the study of material and technical civilizations of Chinese cultural     history the student naturally encounters much fewer methodological difficulties caused     by cultural divergence.          

   Worldwidely, today's scholars accept common terminology and norms in their     comparative scientific studies. To a lesser degree the same can be said about the history     of Chinese primitive learning, because the different terminology and rules of traditional     Chinese learning can be redescribed by way of modern scientific language, which has     been generally accepted by everybody, especially since the advantages and disadvantages of the former can be effectively judged against the norms of the latter.         

   In the social sciences, one of the more successful areas of research involves political     and economic history in general. Notwithstanding the fact that here we confront more     technical difficulties than in natural sciences, the factual descriptions and causal analysis     concerned can be quite satisfactorily dealt with on a positivist and behavioral level that     offers a common ground for broad comparative studies of different political and     economic histories. Western scholars meet with no difficulties in treating Chinese social     history if they have mastered the language and related material.         

   The above examples were meant to show that the studies of some areas of traditional     Chinese social phenomena can and actually do join in scientific communication with     counterpart studies of Western social phenomena because the contents of both can be     effectively dealt with by a common observational language. Therefore the difficulties in these areas are mostly caused by the various technical obstructions such as unsatisfactory     quality of scientific organization of sought after material and the lack of necessary     knowledge of modern social sciences.        

   On the other hand, compared with some more empirical fields, modern studies of the     traditional Chinese humanities, which are rife with axiological, ethical, aesthetic and     artistic contents, have been faced with serious epistemological and methodological     challenges caused by the confrontation between the traditional Chinese and the modern     Western world on an ever-increasingly narrowing globe (Li 1988: 313-314). Therefore     in Chinese philology, philosophy, literature and arts, historiography, religious scholarship,      scientific communications - beyond merely descriptive comparisons between the     Western, especially modern Western humanities and the traditional Chinese ones - have     become more and more difficult following the rapid growth of Western publications of     Chinese studies. Although people try to say “today the East and the West must meet”     (Lin 1949; 11 ), the traditional saying that “the West is the West and the East is the East”     still seems to apply to the academic arena today. The point is that, despite the possibility     of broad  comparative studies between Western and Chinese humanities in corresponding empirical dimensions, the underline codes and values of both sides have been     continuously distinct and, even further divergent. If each side merely declares its     principles and norms to the other, regardless of the necessity of common denominator     for an effective dialogue, the discussions between them can not proceed fruitfully. In     other words, the ideas of both sides may be possibly compared to each other on the     denotational plane, but can hardly be made sufficiently commensurable on the     connotational level. This explains why, for example, philosophical discussions of ancient     China can be literally understood by Western philosophers, while the deeper implications     and charms of those discussions escape the notice of Westerners. Similar can be said     about the problems of a pertinent comprehension of Chinese arts of various kinds by     Western people who lack enough experience in and contact with Chinese artistic practice.         

   The worst thing might concern the concepts of “fact” and interpretation in our     comparative fields. Leibniz expressed too much optimism when he said: “There should     be no difficulty  in understanding.....those Chinese writers...”( 1977 : 53); because     he only tried to accept what he thought interesting but disregarded basic divergences     concerning semantic principles. Scharfstein said recently against a similar idea: “. . . it     is only too easy to lift ideas out of their cultural contexts, to translate the terms in which     they are expressed into the familiar ones and to come to plausible but misleading      conclusions” (l978: 9). Hansen (1983: 6) in his comparative study insisted that “. . . we judge     the interpretation by how well it 'fits' the facts to be explained. There is no exhaustive     and definite criterion of the 'best fit' of a theory to a body of data.” Nevertheless, the     concepts of “fact” and “fit” are still contextually and semantically dependent. In fact, the     problems about those hermeneutic terms in our comparative studies should be      systematically reconsidered today.      

   Furthermore, a melding of the Western mind and the Chinese mind into a single brain     capable of gaining access to both might be realized (Li 1989: 97); however, the difficulty     still lies in the fact that two different parts of the same individual mind may function     separately, according to two respective code systems, without necessarily and logically     making contact with each other. In any case, it seems that the prerequisite for effective     communication between two series of discourses existing in two different cultural     systems should be a set of common denominators on the two expression planes and content planes involved. This means that first a common terminology should be sought,     in order to promote a West-East dialogue in a genuinely effective way. Otherwise each     side can only keep following its respective linguistic and axiological codes determined     by the different cultural and academic histories.         

3. Chinese semiotics: Functions and possible fields         

   Among the abundant Western modern methodologies, semiotic approaches can be most     effectively applied to communication between the West and the East. We can use the     title “Chinese semiotics” to cover the following possible fields: (a) traditional Chinese     ways of thinking and Chinese practices that have semiotic implications; (b) traditional     Chinese discussions of (a); (c) present-day descriptions of (a) and (b); (d) present-day     Chinese discussions of (a), (b), and (c) in terms of modern scientific knowledge. Broadly     speaking, Chinese semiotics can be divided into two parts: traditional semiotic data and     modern semiotic analysis. These two parts belong to two different strategic levels and     should not be improperly mixed. Therefore the so-called Chinese semiotics will not only     be the preparatory stage for a scientific semiotic project. Furthermore, it cannot be      understood only as a reformulation in semiotic terminology of the relevant      traditional material without substantially changing their semantic structure. In the final analysis, Chinese semiotics as a new interdisciplinary and intercultural field will be     a comprehensive intellectual confrontation between Chinese manifestations and modern semiotic theories.        

   In my forthcoming book, Introduction to Theoretical Semiotics  (in Chinese), I prefer     to describe semiotics as a “cultural semantics” instead of “cultural logic”. Semiotics can     be used as a methodological tool for scientific analysis of Chinese thinking and culture,     for the purpose of increasing the intelligibility of the latter after a properly semiotic     treatment of some Chinese subject whose causal and meaningful relationships can be explained more thoroughly than before. As a result, the discussions concerned will move     from the normal level to the micrographic level so as to refine the corresponding     structural organizations of the object. This semiotically micrographizing process can first     of all and minus gratuitous interpretation, make clearer our pictures of the phenomena     in question.         

   Furthermore, many European and American semiotic approaches can be applied to     the rearranged Chinese material, thereby producing a great number of new synthetic     conclusions concerning cultural and intellectual problems in world history. Re- presented     in modern semiotic terms, the Chinese cultural heritage will more effectively participate     in dialogue with the dominant discussions in the world today; because the language     employed in discussions of Chinese culture will become more understandable to those     who use modern scientific language. By the way, compared with many other, possibly     applicable Western methodologies, semiotics seems more neutral and less ideologically     involved. Let me give several examples of possible fields of Chinese semiotics in the     following.         

   Language. Linguistic studies are among the most successful fields in modern China,     producing positive achievements and progressing at a great pace. But it has mostly   worked on an empirical level. For example, much work has been done in Chinese     phonetics and classical “phonology” with little theoretical inquiry into Chinese     phonetics as such. If we say that the first important divergence between Chinese and     Western cultural phenomena lies precisely in language, then key investigations should     be first made into those cultures' respective phonological structures. The best  known case     is the Chinese special prodemic (tone) system, which will probably revise the widely     accepted double articulation theory (Cao 1985: 264-265). But for the past decades the     interests of Chinese phonology have basically remained on the more practical level     (Chao 1968: 26, 31), with less attention given to the theoretical dimension. In addition,     morphology and syntax research according to a structural orientation would be other     important fields in helping disclose the characteristic semantic construction of Chinese.              

   Literature. More possibility of application of semiotic theories to Chinese culture  lies     in classic Chinese literary works and criticism. In fact, a lot of tentative work has been     done along this line in the West for the past twenty years. In general, if the new efforts     mainly focus on a re-description in semiotic terms without further systematic analysis     on a theoretical level, the possible results would remain mostly pedagogical and     exegetical. We are tempted to say that modern semantics, stylistics, typology, and     naratology can contribute to a deeper understanding of the signifying stratifications of     a variety of Chinese literary genres.           

   Philosophy. Chinese philosophy has become more and more active in the Western     sinological academies and seems rather attractive to a certain audience today. In China     proper the nature and the future of traditional Chinese philosophy have become the     recurrent topics of Chinese philosophers during this century. But the quite different     semantic, logical, and axiological structures of the Western and Chinese philosophical     traditions make a significant comparative reflection on any academic topic really     difficult. That is why  after a great number of translations of Chinese philosophy during    this century, it still cannot become part of serious concerns of the predominant Western     philosophical discussions today. Even a world- philosophy survey book, organized by     UNISCO and edited by Paul Ricoeur, contains nothing about Chinese philosophy. The     prerequisite of a Western-Chinese philosophical dialogue is the existence of a common     semantic ground. Otherwise both sides can only directly appeal to superficially visible     and empirical experiences, regardless of the inner organizations of the different mental     activities.      

   Sociology and anthropology. These fields should be the most promising, as first     shown by Marcel Granet (1929, 1936), because they depend less on Chinese linguistic     complexity and instead rely mostly on observational descriptions. Cultural anthropology     of traditional Chinese culture may someday revolutionize our understanding of ancient     Chinese societal life in general. It is well known that the results of semiotic methods have     become more and more encouraging in these fields in our century.         

   Historiography and politics. Classical Chinese historiography is the very foundation     of traditional Chinese academics, covering all domains of social and intellectual life.     Also, because of its unique capacity for philological scholarship that produces brilliant     results, historiography has steadily continued till today. But a striking phenomenon is     that, despite its obvious achievements in the philological and collational dimensions,     there is little chance for it to communicate with present-day Western-historical thought.     In addition to the technical part of  traditional Chinese historiography, there is a still     more lasting element, which might be called the “ethical” and which has proved widely     influential and even less open to modernization. On the other hand, it is a very important     task for Chinese scholars today to make more intelligible the whole field of their     political history. In dealing with a mountain of verbal and non-verbal documents at     Chinese history, semiotic approaches would help make more refined differentiations     between the various semantical strata; and then the re-described discourses would reveal     more clearly the original relationships underlying them. In this sense we can safely     predict that semiotic politics will help improve on traditional Chinese political ideas and,     indirectly, the present political consciousness as well.     

   Chinese semiotics should not be misunderstood as a mere formalizing game. The     necessary formalization and theorizing, to a high degree, purport mainly to increase     intelligibility and commensurability of the traditional Chinese cultural documents and records on a modern academic level. 'Therefore, we have to add that the task of Chinese     semiotics constitutes only part of a more general enterprise of modernization of Chinese     social and human sciences.         

Part two: Chinese structuring mentality: A semiotic analysis of poetical and artistic     signifying practice         

1. The general structural tendency of Chinese poetry and arts         

   If cultural semiotics is remarkably connected with those artistic activities that show more structural, formal, and symbolic characteristics, we may say that traditional Chinese     poetry and arts exhibit an even stronger semiotic tendency; this tendency is propelled by     a Chinese mentality highly capable of structuring and formalizing texts of various media.     I shall attempt to point out some basic structural and formal, therefore semiotic, traits     of traditional Chinese poetry and arts as well as their mental mechanisms. First, we can     try to summarize  the general traits of the so-called Chinese semiotics of poetry and arts     as follows.        

   (A) The structural tendency: existence of strictly organized and systems with a     limited number of available patterns of various kinds, namely the traditional typologies     of texts that are formally stereotyped and stylized; the principle of artistic holism in     handling elements within texts.        

   (B) The formalist tendency: a strong consciousness of manipulating forms and     techniques; a formalist aesthetics has been outstandingly stressed; neglect of narrativity     in organization of art works, with elements of stories regularly reduced to the mere     general framework for formal construction.         Therefore Chinese arts typically follow an aesthetics oriented more to spatial coordination than to temporal-sequential coordination. Consequently one of the main      characteristics of traditional Chinese literatune and arts is their non-realism, in the sense     of a devaluation of the role of “events” in aesthetic organization.        

   (C) Symbolism, in a literal sense: With a linguistic tradition of pictoriographism, the     signifying way of designating abstract and remote objects by means of visually concrete     images is an ingrained habit of Chinese thinking. Apart from verbally symbolic systems,     Chinese culture is historically also rich in many other symbolisms in its social and     mental activities. Considered from the content plane, in a deeper sense the essence of     Chinese arts lies in seeking for the “metaphysical” ¾ the remotest and most purely     spiritual signifieds -- through various imaginary symbols; there exists a unique semiotics     of connotations and interpretation in Chinese cultural life.        

   (D) The homologous signifying relationship of various forms of art, with poetry as     the archetype. This does not simply mean that all other forms of art are only     transformations of the form of literature, but that poetry and other arts have the same or     similar final objectives. Poetry, by dint of its common store of structural principles, can     more completely embody this common spirit. Therefore in the late, developed period of the Sung era and successive dynasties, several more art genres were elaborated and     popularly called “the painting of literary man” (in contrast with those made by painting     technicians); “the gardens of literary man”; melodies were rearranged or creatively     performed by the poets themselves rather than by traditional musical practitioners; and     many other similar phenomena.        

   The above traits, (A)-(D), date back to remote antiquity, but became more and more     marked in the late developed periods. Contrary to the popular misconception that Chinese     culture lacks dynamic progress, it really underwent development in some important     aspects. For example, we can clearly see progress in a form aesthetics, namely,     continuously improving skills and techniques, and ever-increasing adherent to the above-mentioned formal principles in the creation of artistic works..        

   Next let me try to discuss briefly here common traits of Chinese and in several     fields, taken one by one.         

2. Poetry         

   China is called a country of literature of poetry. This means that in the country's long     and continuous history, those Chinese intellectuals called “poets” loved and had to     compose poems of some quality during their lives. Yet few of them would be called     poets in the modern sense of having attained a higher artistic level by their work     Axiologically, it is perhaps impossible to grade the aesthetic values of Chinese poetry     in its various periods of the past three thousand years. There is certainly a technical     reason for differentiating artistic levels, between its earlier, simpler and unadorned, forms      and the later, more elaborate forms which appeared about 1300 years ago. In China we     simply say the former is “the ancient type” and the latter is “the modern type”. In a     certain sense the above-mentioned traits are much more richly exhibited in the latter. In     addition to the narrowly defined types just mentioned, one also finds other, new types     of poetry. Generally there are two major “modern types” of poetry in the early modern     period of the past thousand years. One is called shi, namely the special types of poetry     in the narrow sense described above; and the other is called ci (tzu), a different pattern     of poetry with more musical traits. Let us here consider both of them early modern poetry and   to enumerate some of their major formal characters.         

   There is a definite number of types of patterns of poetry. Each has a prescribed number     of sentences and each sentence has a prescribed number of characters. For the shi type,     each sentence has the same number of characters; for ci type, the number of characters     in each sentence in one ci type are mostly different from each other and strictly     regulated. Different ci types contain different numbers of sentences. Both shi and ci     types are limited by the certain number of  sentences and characters. This rule provides Chinese poetry with strict limitations as to length and structure of poetical texts.         

   Early modern Chinese poetry is characterized by its strictly regulated systems of tonal     patterns and rhymes. The musicality of Chinese poetry arises mainly from the     mannerisms and effects of stereotypical tonal and metrical schemes based on Chinese     phonetics. Unlike Western phonological systems, in addition to a system of phonemes     there is another fundamental system called “the four tones”: the high and level tone, the     rising tone, the falling-rising tone and the falling tone. These also function to help     differentiate the meaning of a word. The tone system and the phonological system of     consonants and vowels were gradually used more consciously as a means to enrich     musical expressions of poetry as well. The other sense of musicality of Chinese poetry,     one originating from folk songs, comes from the fact that the poem is made either as     song lyrics, or when recitation needs musical accompaniment. The musical dimension,     in turn, further sharpens the regularity of the tone and rhyme schemes. The double     audio-musical requirements (tonal-phonological plus melodic schemes) therefore     increased the formalist tendency of Chinese poetics, because the problem of the     corresponding resonance of sounds in phonological and melodic arrangements forced     poets to invent more strictly-regulated rules of tonal-phonological elements and their     combination. Only after publication of the classical Chinese phonetics books could the     more elaborate, modern types of poetry be created.         

   A so-called semantical formalism of binarism is also expressed in the composition     of a poem. There is a distinct requirement for the spatial relationship of meaningful     elements embodied in Chinese characters. Each element has the same size and occupies a symmetrical position to its counterpart in a text. A poet has to be meticulous about     the semantically harmonious arrangement of various meaningful units in order to put     them in orderly contrast of opposition. Thus the rhythmical expressions of Chinese     poetry are not only shown in the phonological and musical dimensions but also in the     semantic.  For example, the poet is attentive to making a holistic, matching arrangement     between sound and sense in a neighboring pair of sentences. If the poem is further “realized“ by brush on paper or sung by the poet, the purely formal “text” of calligrapfical shapes will, be means of movement (gesture) and the formal audio-musical text, collaborate with the verbally meaningful text of the same poem to build up this synthetically poeticalcompound.         

   The four semantic levels of Chinese poetical texts can be broadly distinguished as     follows: S1 - the perceptual images (as elements) in the reader's mind; S2 - the     feeling of the formal arrangements of SI; S3 - the further emotional reaction to S2 in     typological forms; and S4 - the aeshetically metaphysical spirit. The level of S4 is     viewed as the highest ideal of poetic art, which can hardly be attained or appreciated by     mediocre poets. This means that the final test of a poetic mechanism - how much     formal strategy it can take - is still the feeling aroused by the poetic-semantic     hierarchy. In other words, the formal play of words still purposes to lead to this final     semanic level; but on the other hand  this “metaphysical“ level(S4) must have S2 and     S3 as its “physical supports“. The four semantic levels overlap each other to form an      organic whole. Therefore the poetic mechanism never creates a path leading directly     towards S4,. It is true that many ancient critics maintain some     philosophical, religious, and even political implications for Chinese poetics. But the     genuine sense of the metaphysical level - the level of “will and spirit”, “implicit poetic     domain”, “spiritual void”, or some such - remains aesthetically emotional in character.     And the second artistic level, formed through the audio-visual images of S1, is in most     cases the more substantial part, forming the true basis for the “super-structures” of S3     and S4. Concerning those super-levels: because of the non-religious background of     Chinese culture, they are directly or indirectly connected with what I prefer to call a     traditional psychology concerning structure of mind. This psychology consists mainly of     the role of will and feeling as well as their interaction, If this is correct, the function of     Chinese poetry lies precisely in the artistic expressions of lively activity of will and     feelings. Propelled by this function, poets search for the possibly more effective formal     rnechanisms by which to express the psychological and metaphysical worlds. That is why     Chinese poets prefer the spatial-synchronic arrangements of artistic qualities; such     arrangements can more effectively reach the deeper psychological elements that are     involved, elements which always appear in a fixed structure.      

   The above subjective traits naturally led to a dominant position of the lyrical style     in Chinese poetry, with a quite weak emphasis on narrativity. Maybe that is one of the     reasons why the long epic form has always remained unimportant in Chinese literature.     The more elaborate the poetry became, the less did poets have a motive to express      narrative content of any kind in their poems. It is obvious that lyrical form is more suitable     than narrative poetry for expressing the above-mentioned structures of the psychological     world. If narrativity is naturally connected with objective reference, that is, if diegesis     must refer to art outside world, then the lyrical principle would be well-suited to the     inside world. If so, the actual perceptual elements, and their narrative articulations in     artistic works, are reduced to mere material for constructing a non-physical world.     Besides, the weakness of narrativity in the Chinese high-brow literature also proves that     poetry and arts in ancient China were mainly for producing enjoyment through feeling     and tasting rather than for meditation.          

   Sensitivity to an aesthetic strategy applying  concrete images and their combinations increases the possibility of multi-symbolism in Chinese poetics. This tendency not only     bespeaks a strong visual imagination on the part of Chinese poets, but also relates to the     semantic structure of Chinese character-language. In brief, each Chinese character is a     storehouse of possible semic elements that can directly (through denotation) and     indirectly (through connotation) participate in a certain semantic organization in a      definite poetic text. Without exaggeration we can say that each Chinese character has its own     semantic history lasting several thousand years, and a variety of semic elements might     play an active role in a certain semantic network formed within a discourse. A     character's actual appearance, and the degree of semic activity of a character in the text,     are determined by both the vertical (historico-semantic) and horizontal (discursive     grammar) axes. As to semantical interaction of various characters in a text, many semic     elements, both explicitly and virtually implicated in the related characters, can mutually     reflect and cross-refer to each other in the temporally-formed semantical network. And     do not forget the pictographic etymology of Chinese language. It is natural that even     conceptual semes can keep their imaginary shadows, and this fact gives Chinese     language a strong symbolic function.        

   In comparison with Western language and poetry, we can point out an interesting     fact: after the translation of a Western poem into Chinese the former could lose less     poetic message than in the opposite case. This is true because, generally, each Chinese     character contains much more semic possibility than its more or less corresponding     Western word. For the same reason, more ambiguity and polysemy exist in Chinese     vocabularies than in Western ones. The semantic structure of the Chinese language     predetermines the plentiful symbolism of Chinese poetics, including its internal     connection with the semantic elements of other media. We should not underestimate this     implicit semantic commensurability between Chinese verbal texts and texts of other sign     systems. This may be one of the main reasons for the aesthetically unifying tendency of     Chinese literature and arts. Rhetorically speaking, Chinese poetry is quite rich in     metaphorical expressions of various kinds; a practical rhetoric of metaphor was one of the major parts of classical Chinese poetics. Among other things, the sophisticated     practice of metaphorical poetics helps create the strange and deformed images made of     perceptual objects, with a result that the literary realities in poems are artistically     alienated from the pictures in the true world on one hand, and the deformed images     become the pure rhetorical elements in the holistic construction of poetic form on the     other.         

3. Painting and calligraphy         

   As the privileged forms of visual art, Chinese painting and calligraphy have a close     connection with poetry in two senses. In the case of painting, poetic sentences actually     appear on the paper, playing a semantically suggestive and complementary role. If      for painting this poetic supplement can take part in the organic whole, then, for     calligraphy the poetic texts form the basic structure itself, with respect to its spatial existence as well as its semantic content. Semiotically speaking, the more important similarity      between poetry and the visual art lies in their ways of arranging artistic elements. Chinese      painting, lacking a perspective-tradition, is strongly unrealistic. In pictures on paper or     silk canvas, natural images are always deformed and the spatial proportions are     systematically neglected. In its late elaborate forms, the paintings of “landscape” and     “flower” paintings, the two main genres of this art, are devoid of any kind of narrative.     We can also say that the number and kinds of images on canvas are evidently limited.     In fact, painters routinely draw a few dozen chosen images and pictures without ever     trying to increase richness of the depicted content. This means that the content, namely     the limited selection of images and their spatial relations, is taken only as a material     means and framework for formal construction. The merits of the drawings, far from lying     in their representational capacity, lie in the performance of fixed skills and technical     operations which are traditionally regulated and imitated. The rules and the implied      formalist taste of the painting skills, after being authoritatively established, are what a     painter makes a lifelong effort to master. His individual creativity and aesthetic     enjoyment lie precisely in his judicious and faithful performance of the rules. He thus     can enjoy a freedom of formal maneuvering within a strictly regulated framework. He     takes pleasure in the technical dimension, which can eventually bring about a profound     spiritual impact due to a special symbol-aesthetics. In paintings, the images of persons,     trees, mountains, flowers, and other things are far from being equivalent to their parallels     in reality, with respect to their aesthetic effect. For instance, in painting, the landscape     function differently from the natural landscape in its aesthetic results; each creates different semantic effects. In landscape painting, the deformed images first function as normal semantic units of its verbal counterpart on the one hand, because they are indexes of meanings of the corresponding words; on the other hand, the formal-technical treatment of lines, curves, ink, and even blank spaces creates a special visual rhetoric for the painting. Consequently painters and audience read the meanings of so-called “freehand” brushwork in a new rhetorical perspective. In its highest achievement, the content of Chinese painting is mainly reduced to the minimal, with bamboo paintings as a typical example. The plain and identical figures of the plant, and the accompanying rock, become the favored images on which painters perform their sophisticated skills creation. Some excellent works of bamboo painting belong to the top grade because they are the most capable of expressing the “lofty spiritual domain” through their ingenious manipulations comprised of the simplest lines and ink.         

   Quite similar to poetry, painting implicates two groups of semantic levels: the most     sensory group consists of artistic levels S1 and S2; and the most spiritual group consists     of aesthetical S3 and S4, if we use the terms in Roman Ingarden's sense. By the way,     traditional Chinese criticism of painting is mainly concerned about  differentiation      between the axiological grades of works with a special focus on the technical aspects.         

   The relationship between painting and its expanded form, the Chinese garden, roughly     compared to that between music and opera. Despite a long history of its own, the garden     became an elaborate art only in the late stage of he early modern era. In fact, it was the     direct product of “the painting of literary man”. As a synthetic art consisting of various     elements drawn from architecture, sculpture, painting, landscape, the common garden     and literature, the artistic garden shows a vivid similarity to the painting in its aesthetic     functions and spiritual ideal. While classical phonetics served as technical preparation     for early modern poetry, early modern painting served as aesthetic preparation for the     artistic garden. Besides practical purpose, garden-art designers, like painters, search also     for aesthetic taste and aura, Yet because of the technical difficulty of creating a garden     and the physicality of its constituents, the number of successful artistic garden works     have remained limited in the history of Chinese architecture.         

   The art of calligraphy consists of two parts: 1) the elements of painting, namely the verbal sentences. But generally speaking, in calligraphy, painting plays a much more     important role than in its literary counterpart. On the other hand, never take calligraphy     merely as an art of abstract lines, as some modern critics suggest. Without  the semantic     dimension of poetic sentences there would  not have been a similar art called calligraphy.     The aesthetics of calligraphy is not that of modern abstract art such as, say, minimalism;     calligraphy cannot be reflected to an abstract art of the pure movement of strokes formed     by brush and ink. A rhetoric of calligraphy can not be disconnected from its linguistic     background. It is true that the content of sentences in a calligraphical work do not play     the same important role as the dynamic combination of various stroke structures, because     the same verse can be written repeatedly with quite different calligraphical styles and     qualities. Besides, as is the case with images in painting, here the content can be taken     only as a material means. Despite all of this, there indeed implicitly or explicitly exists     a verbally semantic framework, like a shadow playing a not negligible role in the total     aesthetic mechanism of calligraphy. This is mainly so because the latter in its aesthetic     practice seeks for the similar ideal as all other arts, including poetry. In other words, a rhetoric of dynamic lines and colors functions effectively only in combination with its     poetic skeleton, which might only potentially lurk in the mind as a general psychological     background, rather than in the actual functioning of a concrete calligraphical work. With     this necessary understanding, we can still safely say that the calligraphical skill     themselves certainly play a quite independent aesthetic role. Therefore the purely formal     elements of brush strokes can have a direct artistic impact on people, just as the painting     of bamboo. For both types of visual art are said to be minimal in content, that is,     representing almost nothing. In the formal demands of calligraphy the rules of brush strokes and use of ink can be more precisely regulated so as to more strictly control the related formal elements. Moreover, calligraphy evidently has a structural aspect: the proportional relationships of various strokes within one character, various characters in     one sentence, and all elements in a calligraphical works can be treated in a quite holistic way. Particularly in calligraphical works the artistic qualities exist in various     levels of the stroke, the spatial relations of strokes within a character, and the dynamic     relations of various characters as stroke groups. It is said that what an artistic     calligraphist seeks in his works is to realize a dynamism of various stroke groups. Like     abstract painting, calligraphy lacks actual images in texts. Because of this it is called the most sophisticated painting, which can most essentially manifest the fourth, metaphysical     level - the loftiest ideal of Chinese arts.         

4. Music and Opera         

Chinese music as an independent art is much less developed than Western music, which     is typically structural in every sense of the word. Besides the tradition of simple folk     songs, prevailing everywhere and all the time, the most formal ancient Chinese music mainly originated in ritual ceremony and official banquets. The composition of music     served strong practical, moral, political-educational, and religious motives. Parallel to the     development of Chinese literature, pure artistic music arose much later. In the Tang era,     about 1300 years ago, poetry, painting, dance and music reached their first flourishing     stage in the medieval period, and almost at the same time. The second flourishing could     be said to have occurred in the next long dynasty, the Sung. From a technical angle we     can simply say that, after the Sung dynasty, Chinese music reached a higher level than     before. In the same period, most musical art existed in combination with other arts,     gradually decreasing its independence. But I do not view this as a purely negative     phenomenon. First, music’s existence with other artistic media exhibits the common     singular spirit and style of the traditional Chinese art world. Secondly, the inclination of     the Chinese mentality in music life should be interpreted in terms of the total cultural     structure. At any rate, early modern Chinese music remarkably existed as a certain     category of poetry — Ci, originating in the Sung  and in various opera songs — Qu,     originating in the Yuan dynasty. To make this picture more complete, we can add that     music and dance co-existed in poetry and theater. Indeed, in its later, more elaborate     state, music performs its aesthetic functions in conjunction with poetic sentences and     dancing gestures. Based on this background, the formal traits of Chinese music are     closely connected with those of poetry and dance. In this sense the various rules of the     different media are mutually limited to or coordinated with each other. For the art of Ci,     there are two parallel, stereotypical patterns of the musical sounds and the verbal sounds.     The structural art of Ci therefore manifests in a triple system: the verbal plane, the     musical plane, and the mediating plane between the former two. In this case, musical     forms are related to the corresponding poetic forms.         

   Strongly emphasizing technical significance, music shows its faithfulness to the     established forms transmitted from ancestors. Therefore, in the history of Chinese music     its achievements were mainly manifested in creatively rearrartging and artistically     performing the fixed melodies and their articulation patterns. Whenever a successful     melody type was established the musicians of following generations were readily inclined     to imitatively perform it with only stylistic alterations. With this special tradition we can     even say that the authorship of opera melodies is collective in nature because of their     formation by cumulative practice. Good melodic patterns look like the useful     mechanisms one encounters in a traditionally established typology of the psychological     life. When the process from the musical to the psychological mechanism is successfully     carried out, the purpose of music is attained. It seems that both musicians and poets     participate in the same process and have the same aim, but make use of different     channels or media. As regards content, the information of thoughts, which must refer to the     outside world, can be bountiful. By contrast, the emotions and moods can only exist in     fixed typological patterns. In this sense we can say once again that the Chinese arts are     typically subjective in character.         

   The traditional Chinese theater or opera differs from its Western counterpart in     constitution. The high development of Chinese Opera is Kunqu, arising in the Ming     dynasty. Among its various elements taken from different artistic media, the order of     their aesthetic importance or relevance in Kunqu can be described as follows: music,     dance, facial and other gestural expressions, poetry, and narrative. Therefore, in its most     elaborate form the art of opera is popularly called dance with singing, or singing with     dance. In the form of Kunqu, Chinese music attains its highest level. Meanwhile, Kunqu     music is innerly connected with the verbally musical elements of Chinese phonetics.     Therefore the exquisite achievement of Chinese music is much more richly realized in     the form of singing rather than in that of instrumental music. We can also point out that     Kunqu Opera has a most remarkable structural character because it applies a variety of     performing elements of various media in a systematic way. Contrary to the popular     conception of opera, dramatic elements play a much smaller aesthetic role in the Kunqu,     showing again the coherent lyricism of the Chinese art tradition.         

5. The homological patterns of signification of the Chinese arts         

    In our above delineation of signifieds, S1 (perceptual images in the mind) and S2     (Psychological effect of the formal arrangements of material) are more denotational     elements; and S3 (emotional effects of S2) and S4 (aesthetically metaphysical effects of     S2 and S3) are more connotational. And most Chinese arts take S4, at least theoretically,     as the highest ideal of art. Many characteristic names are given to the so-called spirit of     Chinese arts, such as “Chinese expressionist art”, “Chinese stylizational art”, “Chinese     subjectivist art”, “Chinese arts of nature and spirit”, and others. S4, expressed by those     characterizations, could be roughly said further to cover the following domains: (a)     super-physical idealism (represented mainly by Taoism); (b) ethical idealism (represented     mainly by Confucianism); (c) lofty aestheticism (particularly disclosed by some typical     landscape poems and paintings); (d) the feeling of will and integrity in personality     (typically shown by the paintings of bamboo and flowers as well as by calligraphical     works),         

   We should like to say that at S4 forms the primary basis of aesthetic-semantic     unification of various Chinese arts. But S4 is not the most important factor in the process     of the actual constitution, appreciation, and analysis of Chinese arts. For on the whole,     poets and artists do not philosophize in their artistic works; they are not artistic     translators making concepts into intuitive texts. What they are actually concerned about     is their own formalist practice when dealing with the material of the media, the material     that directly produces S2 and S3. In essence, they are practical structuralists engaged in     both imitatively and originally creating and organizing their formal elements within the     traditionally established frameworks. Therefore this concern with structural, formal and     stylistic practice has become the very core of the aesthetics of the Chinese arts. The so-     called development of Chinese arts is in fact the elaboration and elevation of that     practice. It is precisely for this purpose that we see artworks grew smaller in the more     developed medieval era. The ancient, long poem-types evolved into the short ones of the     Tang and Sung dynasties. The ancient (big) practical drawings on walls turned into the     early modern “small fine pieces” (xiao-pin). The long melodies (da-qu) of the Tang     and the Sung evolved into the shorter forms of vocal music found in the operas of the     Ming and the Qing (C’hing). And the most typical example is that the earlier, quite long     narrative dramas, whose performance could last many days, later became independently     performed short arts, cut off from the original story as a whole. In a word, it seems that only in short forms can the artistic qualities be most satisfactorily refined; that is, only     in the reasonably short forms can the structural-formal principles be transformed most     effectively into artistic realities. However remote S4 seems to be from the formal     arrangements of artworks, it must, at least potentially and indistinctly, lurk in the mind     and the texts. In this sense, Chinese formalism is always connected, even if only in depth     of heart, with a deeply-rooted idealist framework.         

   Western ideas embodied in Western arts are semantically complex; whereas Chinese     ideas seem to be simpler and more reflected, more intuitive in their morphology, which     decreases much conceptual thickness of various kinds. If so, the problem is directly     connected with the different life forms and the philosophies of life, in areas which are     beyond our present topic. In addition, there is another important explanation for the     Chinese formal principle, which is the constitution itself of S4. According to difference     in personality, temperament, situations, national tendency of the period, and other aspects,     the different works can show different focuses of the various domains of S4. The early formalizing efforts of arts in medieval China brought about stronger effect     on (c) and (d), that is to say, those aestheticist elements which were less metaphysical     and more humanistic in taste. In connection with this tendency the typology of emotional     expressions existing in S3 has been remarkably elaborated, particularly since the Sung     dynasty (which began about 1000 years ago). If the direct purposes of the formal     mechanisms of artistic texts lie in promoting the multiple capabilities of expressing the     aesthetically emotional typology, then small pieces of artwork with increasingly complex     formal strategies can in fact be big enough to carry out the task.         

   In conclusion, we can say that the continuous fascination with structural and formal     aesthetics in the history of Chinese literature and arts manifests a uniquely constant     Chinese mentality that in the course of three thousand years developed into a single and     singular cultural tradition. A semiotics of Chinese culture should first engage in     redescribing the signification patterns of various domains of this culture. Among them,     arts and poetry offer one of the most possibly fruitful and most readily available areas     of research.         


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* This lecture was partly delivered in  the Congress of International Semiotic Institute, Imatra Finland, July 1991 and later published in Acta Semiotica Fennica, vol.2, Imatra 1993.