Chinese Literati Paintings: Behind Symbols

The literati painting is a genre in Chinese painting that has its root in Han Dynasty, thrived in Song and has been one of the most important component of Chinese culture throughout history to this day. These paintings are artworks from members of the literati class, the well-educated intellectuals whose works are more contemplative than anything practical. Here I will use them as examples of interpreting some of the notions in the studies of the human symbol system.

First lets look at these paintings at their representational surface. An overwhelming majority of literati paintings use a limited number of imageries, such as plum trees/blossoms, bamboos and mountains. All of these are objects that exist in nature, in Chinese everyday life (at least for those who can afford it). Most people have seen them at least sometime in their lives. This is what Deacon would define as an “iconic” relationship (74). For example, when one knows what he/she sees in the painting of bamboo is the kind of plant he/she has seen in the garden, he/she does not make a distinction between the art and the plant.

Yet for someone who has seen bamboos, the represented art form looks far different from what one sees in real life. It’s two-dimensional, it’s colorless, and it’s highly abstract. This is where an “indexical” relationship (Deacon 77) comes into play, in which case the abstract art serves as an index item that point to the viewer’s idea of real bamboo.

But for the relationship to be considered “symbolic”, the most essential of which is combinatorial possibility (Deacon 83). None of the paintings above reveal an exact copy or exact abstraction of the real bamboo. In the procedure of making the art, items (such as butterflies) are added or subtracted, spatial relationships are altered, and compositions are manipulated. And these are not done randomly, however “free-thinking” the literati class have branded themselves to be. In fact, especially in the Ming dynasty, painting manuals that specifically teach about related rules were sold in large circulations that reached all tiers of society (Park).

Now lets look beyond the paintings themselves. All of the imageries have explicit meanings. For example, plum means endurance and pride, bamboo implies modesty and integrity, and mountain often refers to aloofness and detachment. These are metaphors shared by the entire Asian culture nowadays, but when they were initially used, they were symbols understood and used among the elite literati class. Such is what Hutchins would classify into “distributed cognition” (175), extending the cognitive process beyond boundaries of one’s mind to encompass interactions between people and with resources and materials in the environment. For the symbol system to work and be passed down through generations, it has to be externalized and weaved into the culture, be it group or social. It would be interesting to look into when they first come into being, but it is clear that once a core group or even one prominent figure has started using it, others have followed suit and reinforced the associations via the annotations and poems on the paintings, via the literature works which also circulate in the class group, and via the painting manuals that extend the influence of the symbol system to the entire society. This way of thinking about an art genre can be applied to all arts or all media, each with their different combinatorial rules and different cultural preconditions, which is where the real fun is.

Deacon, T. W. 1998. The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
James, H., Hutchins, E., & Kirsh, D. 2000. Distributed Cognition: Toward a New Foundation for Human-Computer Interaction Research. ACM Transactions, Computer-Human Interaction, 7(2): 174-196.
Park, J. P. 2012. Art by the Book: Painting Manuals and the Leisure Life in Late Ming China. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.