Harvard's "Chinese Kinesthetic Forms" Conference November 11-12, 2022

Harvard's "Chinese Kinesthetic Forms" Conference November 11-12, 2022

Aïda Yuen Wong, Professor of Art History at Brandeis University; Founder and Head of Design of Callimode, an Asian American contemporary jewelry brand specializing in luxury designs to express antiracism in Asian calligraphy. Ethical & Sustainable Jewelry with Recycled Gold and Non-Conflict Diamonds.

November 28, 2022

Multimedia Expressions of Kinesthetics

Movement has a distinct and rich tradition in China. Chinese kinesthetic forms see motion as the organizing principle of myriad media and cultural expressions--from dance and music, painting and calligraphy, theater, and martial arts.    

This conference (organized by Prof. Eugene Wang at the FAS CAMLab at Harvard, supported by the History of Art and Architecture department) examined how movement, both as expression and as an object of perception, opens up experiential dimensions that extend even beyond the body. 

After Eugene Wang's keynote, "When and How Did Art Become Art?," the two-day conference included other panels such as "The Lightness of Being: Sensorial Kinesthetics," "Sword Dance: Three Readings of Lady Gongsun," "Reviving Repertoire: Dunhuang Dance, Then and Now," "Furor and Festivity: The Song-Yuan Turn," "Calligraphic Kinesthetics," "Kinesthetics Media." The panel ended with a conversation with Lenora Lee and SanSan Kwan about their contributions to Angel Island memorialization through dance. Lee has been a dancer, choreographer, and art director in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City for the last 24 years. Her company, Leonora Lee Dance (LLD), integrates contemporary dance, film, music, and scholarship, and has gained increasing attention for her ongoing exploration of issues related to immigration, incarceration, global conflicts, and her own. SanSan Kwan is professor and chair in the department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies at UC Berkeley. Her research interests include Dance Studies and Transnational Asian-American Studies.    

They spoke of two pieces of dance which creatively reenacted trauma in Angel Island Immigration Station, where Chinese immigrants were frequently held in humiliating conditions for extended periods during the first half of the twentieth century. The dancers interacted with a now-empty barracks, including mimeographing poems on a wall, and a public place where American immigration officials read out detainees' fates. 

Calligraphy as Kinesthetics

I had the pleasure to serve as discussant on the panel "Kinesthetics in Calligraphy," which featured Prof. Jeffrey Moser from Brown University (Chair) and Profs Kathleen Ryor of Carleton College and Amy McNair of the University of Kansas (Speakers). The two papers were titled "Like the Splash of a Great Whale Rising: Motion in the Criticism and Practice of 'Mad Cursive' Calligraphy" and "Martial Heroics in the Calligraphy and Painting of Xu Wei (1521-1593)."

In traditional China, the literary and pictorial arts are often inseparable. Poetry and calligraphy are interwoven in such varied ways that it is tempting to ask, as McNair does, if the poetry inspires the calligraphy or vice versa.  The literal meaning of the word is just one component of the image’s meaning. Kinetic calligraphies strike a chord above all as expressions of the creative power within an individual.

After its high point in the Tang dynasty, the wild cursive script slumped for several centuries until a Ming revival thanks to a large extent to Zhang Bi 張弼 (1425-1487), who modeled after Huaisu but incorporated zhangcao 章草 or the older “essay cursive” manner in parts. This manner can be discerned in his intermittent use of the triangular dots or strokes. 

Though profoundly cryptic, the reference to a whale that McNair finds in Zhang Bi’s calligraphy has both physical and metaphorical manifestations. First, there’s that tantalizing stroke that resembles the epic motion of a whale thrusting out of the water. Here, we go well beyond our first lesson in Chinese when our teacher showed us the characters “Mu” for tree and “Shan” for mountain to demonstrate some pictographic foundation of character composition. However, the great majority of Chinese characters are phonosemantic composites, not at all resembling the word or meaning that they are used to represent.

The whale look-alike stroke in this case is not even in the character for whale, nor is the whale an established metaphor which can be easily interpreted for philosophical, historical, and metaphorical associations, unlike, say, the moon, plum blossoms, fans and curtains, etc. Writing a whale into a poem, an unusual motif, helps expand the reader’s imagination. Whales are mysterious creatures, so free, powerful, and fascinating, a perfect motif for a calligraphy in wild cursive script.

McNair’s paper recognizes the power of calligraphy as a visual, textual, and cognitive device at the same time, but not necessarily completely realized or in perfect alignment with what they are supposed to represent. Her paper asks us to imagine the calligrapher’s thought process, proposing the theory of a delayed echo of a word with a picture. With other motifs such as the snake and the wisteria, she also demonstrates just how effective and fruitful kinesthetic analogies are in creating a coherent narrative.

Ryor’s paper takes us to the next period, the mid-Ming dynasty. Like Zhang Bi, Xu Wei 徐渭 was gifted in both poetry and calligraphy. Chinese literary figures are idealized to have both intrinsic virtues, such as moral  probity and integrity, as well as the outward excellence that the arts embody. Dance and martial arts became less and less central to defining a learned elite over time. This undoubtedly had something to do with the fact that dance, including the sword dance performed from ancient times, were primarily practiced by women. Ryor probes this gender element through examining the art of Xu Wei, starting with his avowed admiration for Lady Gongsun.

Xu's adoption of “Gongsun Daniang” 公孫大娘 on one of his personal seals suggest a cross-gender identification. She’s a special kind of woman who possesses masculine skills. Seals, by the way, were where Chinese artists since the Ming would increasingly use to hide their anxieties, aspirations, various lofty or personal thoughts in plain sight.

History and culture provide a rich seam of attempts to explain dancing’s singular hold on our bodies and minds. The transformative power of dance lies in its state of artistic flow, and it is not one that everyone feels comfortable in.  The sword dance, involving lethal weapons, can be overwhelming visceral. Performers make complex cutting and turning motions in all directions. When sparring with partners, which I suppose happened, required extra dexterity, concentration and coordination. Calligraphy, which must follow a certain direction, is certainly not as three-dimensional as dance, but it has a flow state that also requires intense focus. As frenzied as his art may seem, Xu Wei valued control which he couched in gendered terms. He talked about control and relaxation explicitly as feminine qualities. Ying and Yang coexisting in one body was what he strove for.

Xu Wei, Eight Poems on Autumn Thoughts, Ming Dynasty

Xu Wei, Eight Poems on Autumn Thoughts, Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei

In the Tang dynasty Zhang Xu could be believed to have improved his calligraphy by watching Lady Gongsun dance. What about in the Ming dynasty? The brilliance of these dances was mostly lost.  I am not a dance historian, but it seems by Xu Wei’s time, women training for sword dancing were few, except as part of popular operas, which had matured during the previous Song dynasty. These performances integrated music, singing, dancing, martial arts, acrobatics, costumes, makeup, and literary forms. As operas became more and more accepted, so did dances decline as a distinct, individual art form.  Lacking a firsthand impression, Xie was left to speculate on Lady Gongsun’s ability, which he readily did for his own heroic self-fashioning.

Xu Wei’s gendered theory of calligraphy can be a little tenuous. In one of the cited passages, he likens the calligraphy of Lady Wei Shuo, Wang Xizhi’s teacher, to “arranging flowers and dancing women,” as Katie tells us. I cannot find evidence to support Xu Wei's claim. By the Ming Dynasty, people probably knew just as little about this grandmother of Chinese calligraphy as us today. No doubt, Xu Wei was reading the legend of Lady Gongsun back to the Jin Dynasty. While it was a matter of pure conjecture what Lady Wei’s 衛夫人 calligraphy style might actually be, the canon remembers her as the author of Bizhentu 筆陣圖, “Diagram of the Battle Array of the Brush.” In this theoretical and instructional text, she explains brushstrokes and linear effects in kinetic terms, for example “dots like rocks dropping from high peaks" and "the zhe stroke like the firing of a 100 arrows." Lady Wei came from a politically prominent family and married a high official, and was probably very aware of the military events of the day. Wang Xizhi probably chose her as one of his teachers for these various reasons.

In Wang Xizhi’s 王羲之 postscript to Bizhentu, he expands on the combat theme, saying “Paper is the battle array, brush is the knife or spear, ink is the helmet and armor, inkstone and water are the city wall and moat.” The language of these august forebears motivated Xu Wei to summon his own vivid array of martial imagery for calligraphy: “fast horses entering ranks”, “the assassin Jingke grasping the halberd,” etc. This is a process of "lineage making." Even as he reprises the snake analogy in his poem "Zhang Xu watching Lady Gongsun’s Sword Dance,” the snake is endowed with a warrior nature. Not content with scurrying in the grass or hanging off trees as in Huaisu’s 懷素 and Huang Tingjian’s 黃庭堅 calligraphy, Xu Wei portrays the embodied snake as raging and attacking.

The warrior motif is more than just a rhetorical expedient for Xu Wei along the line of kinesthetics for kinesthetics’s sake. The artist had real-life experience as a military strategist, which contributed to his image as a knight-errant. Ryor brings up Xu Wei’s emphasis on training. While anyone can vent their frustration by splashing ink around, the physicality of his calligraphy and painting is bound by method and concentration. This is different from the mad, free-wheeling brushstrokes justified by drunkenness, an overused trope in Chinese aesthetics. Like sword dancers and warriors, Xu Wei aimed for controlled flourishes. This analogy of calligraphy to fighting was later picked up by the Qing dynasty theorist, Bao Shichen 包世臣, in Yi Zhou Shuang 藝舟雙楫 (Paired Oars for the Boat of Art).

Another major theme is the synergy of painting and calligraphy. Here, Xu Wei clearly took after  the Yuan dynasty master Zhao Mengfu 趙孟頫, whose advice was to paint rocks like the feibai brush mode and trees like the archaic seal script (石如飛白木如籀). But Xu Wei’s fervent uses of the feibai stroke in his paintings take Zhao Mengfu’s principle to a whole new level.

Xu Wei’s contemporary Wang Shizhen 王世貞 (1526-1590) also recommended painting grapes like cursive script, tiger’s claws and spring onions like seal-clerical script, etc. Blurring the boundaries between calligraphy and painting was therefore not unusual in Ming discourse. But Xu Wei gives us something more. His inscriptions offer a window into his disillusionment with the art market and his strong social judgments.

Chinese valuation of calligraphy is traditionally bound up with rarity, antiqueness, the artist’s moral standing, and even price. Xu Wei was neither commercially successful nor a paragon of good morals. Mentally unstable, he committed femicide and tried to kill himself several times. But his posthumous fame, already established by the end of the Ming, suggests a relaxing of the old rules and an increased focus on the artwork and the body.

Calligraphy, by its very nature, forges a natural link between literature and the visual arts, even though the link is by no means self-evident. I am really grateful to our speakers for furthering our understanding of the various possibilities.