Sung Dynasty Culture


Spring Night
The gold incense burner has gone out.
The water clock has stopped.
A chill breeze sends a shiver through me.
Spring troubles me and threatens my sleep.
Against my balcony, the moon casts the shadows of flowers.

So wrote the great statesman and reformer Wang An-shih (1021-1086). His political opponent, the leading Sung poet and calligrapher, Su Tung-p’o (1036-1101), wrote:

Flower Shadows
It piles up, thick and formidable, on the marble terrace.
The pages, called again and again, try to sweep it away.
Just then the sun comes out and carries it off.
But never mind, the next moon,
The shadow will come back.

My, weren’t they cultivated for politicians!, you think. Yes, but not precisely in the way you think. These are both political poems and refer to the influence of eunuchs, foreigners and nongentlemen on the court and to the respective authors’ antagonistic parties of reform. It is as though, in the days of Dienbienphu, Mr. Eden had written:

On the balcony overlooking the mountains,
Muguette, the most accomplished and learned concubine,
In red, white and blue gauze trousers powdered with gold lilies,
Serves, with delicate, weak gestures, the Lord of the West
The precious viands of the land of golden elephants.
Alas, she has placed them so near the edge of the inlaid table
That they may spoil the embroidered waves on his robe of state.

The Sung Dynasty (960-1279) was like that. It was overcivilized, but it adopted its own overcivilization as a mask. A great deal went on behind the filmy scrim of gauze and mist and incense smoke. In some ways the Sung was more tough-minded and realistic and even middle-class than any other period in Chinese history until the last, the Manchu (Ch’ing) Dynasty (1644-1912). It is in the Sung Dynasty that what we consider the specifically Chinese sensibility first came to flower. All those patterns of response to life that had developed through the earlier centuries of Chinese civilization stiffened slightly into an overall design.

However much we try to escape them, we always tend to view Chinese history through the eyes of the Confucian scholar-gentlemen who first wrote it. They are passionately legitimist. They speak of dynasties in periods of chaos when there were no dynasties. They persist in looking at the very courts before their eyes as embodiments of the Confucian utopia ruled by the priest-king of the harvest and surrogate for the people, although often the actual court was as polyglot as Charlemagne’s and as little “sprung from the local soil.” They dismiss whole cultures, for instance the northern proto-Mongol contemporaries of the Sung, as barbarians. And always they hold up as the ideal man the civilized, nonviolent scholar-gentleman, with his human-heartedness and his head full of memorized texts for all contingencies. Other classes may have ruled the State and made vital contributions to the culture. They have hardly a literary or historical existence.

Han (206 BC to 220 AD) and T’ang (618-906 AD) culture was imperial and syncretistic. Sung culture was national and synthesizing. Only in Sung times did the cultural base become narrow enough, only then was there sufficient lack of distraction from outside, for what we mean by “Confucianism” or, even more loosely, what we mean by “Chinese civilization” to set in the molds that have persisted to this century. Outlanders, what would later be Tibetans, Mongols and Manchus, had been the statesmen who had built the inner Asian empire of China for the T’ang. The T’ang fell in a welter of brigandage and ephemeral “dynasties,” and as the Sung emerged and unified China, they drew in upon themselves and eventually left the inner Asian empire to the outlanders. They retreated from the old Chinese borderlands and finally from the homeland, to “South of the River” — once a land of long-haired savages, recently filling up with emigrants from “China.” Here the gentlemen-scholars, undisturbed among their own people, could refine and intensify their peculiar culture, much as the Cockney prisoners could build an England more English than England in nineteenth-century Australia.

It is not altogether true that the Sung were beaten out of North China. Their shift to the South was partly economic. Islam had closed the oasis trade routes and had opened the monsoon trade through the Southern seas. It was partly hedonistic, as though older Caucasian New Yorkers should leave the city to Puerto Ricans and Negroes come North seeking opportunity, and themselves all migrate to Southern California, “for the climate” and for a new and different kind of opportunity.

This vast cultural shift had several results you might not expect and might never gather from the legitimist, orthodox histories. The standard of living rose sharply. Peasants on new land, townsmen in new trades and industries, all were better off than in the glorious days of T’ang. A huge middle class of merchants and other literates who were not scholar-gentlemen literati came into being. Soon luxuries were widespread. Prices began a steady rise. Inflation set in and increased sharply till the fall of the dynasty. Against all this the scholar-gentlemen set their faces and built their Confucian utopia into Chinese society as a durable myth. But they did not do this without first incorporating philosophical Taoism as transmuted by popular folkways from the woods and springs and high places, and both popular and philosophical Buddhism from India, into the very foundations of what purported to be a purely aristocratic and ethnocentric system. So the society that developed in Sung times was at once adventurous and fluid, conservative and anachronistic.

This is a long introduction, but without it, to understand the period is impossible. In Sung times things are never what they seem, and this is not just due to Buddhist skepticism. Sung society and culture are permeated with contraries and contradictions which are never resolved, but, at the worst, are suspended and at the best, beautifully transcended. This is just as meaningful in pottery as in politics. The Sung synthesis, which looks so idle and dreamy on the surface, so precious and frail, is actually extremely dynamic — full of strength and tension.

A very fetching surface it must have been though. Hangchow, the Southern pleasure city turned capital, set amid waters and hills, wreathed with parks and canals and whimsical bridges, the great lake dreaming off into infinity, and the streets, in Baudelaire’s phrase, “lit with prostitutes.” It was like Baudelaire’s Paris, the Paris of the Second Empire when all important business and politics were transacted in salons and brothels, but most of all it was like Tiepolo’s Venice — the Venice of Browning’s Toccata of Galuppi’s.

Read the poem again; it’s sentimental, but so was Gaspara Stampa and so too was Su Tung-p’o in not a very different way:

As for Venice and her people, merely born to bloom and drop,
Here on earth they bore their fruitage, mirth and folly were the crop:
What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?

“Dust and ashes!” So you creak it, and I want the heart to scold.
Dear dead women, with such hair, too — what’s become of all the gold
Used to hang and brush their bosoms? I feel chilly and grown old.

Sentimentality is a middle-class quality. It is especially one of the aristocratized middle class where it occurs.

Su Tung-p’o was the greatest of the poets of Sung and the greatest poet of sentiment China ever produced. He was one of the greatest calligraphers of all time, and on his style is reared a whole tradition of Japanese fluent calligraphy. He was master of the abstract brush stroke — a painter of bamboo leaves in misty moonlight, so famous that half the bamboo scrawls in Hong Kong art shops are attributed to him to this day. While he was governor of Hangchow he was the lover of Su Hsiao-hsiao, one of the most beautiful prostitutes of Chinese legend, whose tomb was still venerated beside the West Lake of the city until our own time.

A soft breeze from the East scarcely ripples the pale water.
North of the Lake, south of the Lake, the Blue mountains vanish in warm mist.
Pairs of ducks play on the mud flats.
Orioles sing, mating in the new leaves.

By Sung standards this is an intensely erotic poem. It is love-making in a universe which neither is nor is not, in which the only reality is the unconditioned Void, of which it cannot be said that it is either real or unreal, and behind which lies pure undetermined consciousness, thought which does not think:

I drift alone in the middle of the Lake.
There is no rush to moor to, nor bottom to hold an anchor.
Nothing is visible beyond the prow of my little boat.
I take the wine from the picnic basket and slowly get drunk, while
       my rod hangs untended over the dim water.

The demon king Ravana asked for teaching and Buddha showed him all the mountains and palaces and jewels and harem maidens of all the universes. Suddenly Ravana’s sensibility was overturned and he was utterly alone, and Buddha laughed. Why did he laugh? Because he knew that duality and nonduality are both delusions. Peace is the single point of suchness which is beyond all conditions. And then all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and gods and demons and people and beasts and things laughed in all the universes. So opens the Lankavatara Sutra. Again, Buddha, once while he was preaching, picked a flower and smiled, and only the disciple Kasyapa understood why he had smiled. According to tradition, Kasyapa by similar meaningless acts taught Bodhidharma, who brought Ch’an Buddhism (or Zen as it is known in Japan) to China riding on a reed.

Does this mean that the great artists and poets of Sung were all Ch’an Buddhists? They were not. Most of them were not Buddhists at all. They were mostly Confucianists, scholar-gentry who specially prided themselves on the orthodoxy of their caste philosophy. But Confucianism had changed. The welter and flow of ideas of the last two or three hundred years had created a new “universe of discourse,” a new consciousness of the popular mind. Indian ideas and notions from the animistic folk background of China had mingled with and profoundly altered the old Confucian orthodoxy.

Sung times produced the two great founders of Neo-Confucianism, Chu Hsi, China’s greatest “philosopher” in our sense, and Lu Hsiang-shan, Chu’s leading opponent. They not only made Confucianism a more systematic philosophy, they turned it into a personal discipline of the sensibility. To use Western philosophical jargon, which is misleading but will do, Chu and Lu both developed reality from Not-Being, the unconditioned, through the interaction of form (li) and potentiality (ch’i). For Chu, these two metaphysical principles always interacted, although the world of form was, eventually, one — pure, empty — the Void of the Buddhists. For Lu, form was always primary, its substantiation an illusion.

The only trouble with this glib summary is that both thought of li (form, principle) as itself a realm of potentiality in our sense and ch’i as really a sort of bare matter, serving as a principle of individuation. For Chu, man’s mind was a combination of li and ch’i. For Lu, man’s mind had strayed from the world of li, pure form, to which it had originally belonged, and the aim of the wise and good man was to find his lost mind or true nature again by quiet meditation and begin to understand its relation to the whole. At the end would come, without words or ideas, the sudden illumination, the knowledge that the individual was in fact the totality. In the words of the Upanishads — “That art thou.”

Far more important to them than the metaphysics they had developed, the Ch’an Buddhists, the Neo-Confucianists, all cultivated a specific kind of sensibility, a special life attitude. This sensibility is the ideal of the Bodhisattva, the being who turns away, on the brink of vanishing into Nirvana, out of quiet, “indifferent” love, and vows that he will not enter into salvation until he can bring all other beings with him. This he does with a smile of “indifference,” realizing that all beings, animals, flowers, things, atoms, have the Buddha nature, and yet realizing that there is neither being nor not-being, neither Buddha nor not-Buddha, neither Nirvana nor not-Nirvana, neither illusion nor not-illusion. This ideal reaches its most developed form in Buddhism, true, and finds its most perfect expression in the weary, oversophisticated, smiling faces of the Sung paintings of the Bodhisattvas. But, toned down and made more “practical,” it is very close to the ideal of the scholar-gentry. Both Neo-Confucianism and the Bodhisattva ideal involve a real sense of responsibility behind their language of indifference. The difference with orthodox Hinduism is marked. For Arjuna in his chariot in the Bhagavad-Gita, action and inaction become one and the same, but for the Chinese this becomes a scarcely concealed imperative to the moral, socially responsible action that has ever since been identified with Confucianism.

So Su Tung-p’o was not just a dreamer of mists and mountains and foggy bamboo leaves; he was a great administrator with a love and devotion for the people of Hangchow, to whom he became a kind of demigod. And, like a modern, altruistic, overcivilized English civil servant, he was acutely conscious of the pathos of his responsibility and the gulf that it created between him and those given into his charge.

. . . The rich prepare banquets.
Silk and brocade decorate their halls.
The poor have hardly anything to offer.
Instead, they try to hide
The family mortar from the tax assessor.
I am a stranger in this neighborhood,
Where gay processions fill the streets and alleys.
I, too, sing the old folksongs.
But I sing to myself. No one sings with me.

And again, Su’s opponent, the great reformer Wang An-shih, who for a while put into effect the utopian, semi-socialistic measures of this idealized Confucianism:

In midsummer, leaning on my thorn stick,
I climb up the rocky trail
Where the leaf shadows make a darkness at noon.
I stop and listen to the quiet voice of the water.

The Sung sensibility was polarized between quiet meditation, a gentle sinking into the indeterminate profundity of an Absolute which was never absolute, and intense, active curiosity about all the manifold of life and things, which led to investigations into the riddles of nature.

This was the time when Chinese science came into its own, the full midsummer of an efflorescence of observation, speculation and technology. Printing, invented shortly before, came of age, and Sung books and style are still considered the best. T’ang stories had been as simple as the Brothers Grimm; true fiction in the vernacular begins with Sung. A whole new kind of poetry, at once freer and more complexly musical, developed — of this Su Tung-p’o is the acknowledged first master. Back to Sung is traced the beginning of modern drama, and the quieter, more subtle plays of the present repertory are still known as “Sung,” although most of them are much later. Music, to which Confucius had attributed at least as much importance as ever did Plato or the Pythagoreans, was analyzed and systematized, and again, the quietest, subtlest, most civilized — to our ears — music is still known as Sung. It is likely that some of the solemn choral dances of the Japanese court date back to Sung China, little altered today. Taoism was also revived and provided with a systematic mythology and a philosophy, and it is from Taoist researches and speculations of this time that alchemy and related protoscientific practices grew and, in the case of alchemy, spread over the world. Great illustrated herbals, pharmacopoeias and manuals of medicine, acupuncture, massage, physiotherapy were compiled, as well as encyclopedias, not unlike our own, which developed six hundred years later. Chinese merchants sailed all the southern seas, at least as far as India and the Persian Gulf, and may have reached the African coast.

Painting shows the same polarity. In fact, Sung painting can be described most succinctly by saying that it sought two goals. The portrait painter, the painter of flowers, birds, animals, detailed or, so to speak, close-up studies of landscape, the genre painter of human activities, all strove to concentrate with such intensity on the realization of the subject, the Other, off there opposite their eyes, that the integument was burst asunder and the Buddha nature shown forth. This accounts for the extraordinary surface tension of Sung paintings like the famous Two Geese in the British Museum, so reminiscent of our own Arp or Brancusi, and, of course, it accounts for the overpowering sense of individuality in Sung portraiture, surpassed, I suppose, in our own world only by the Romans.

Especially after the conquest of the north by the Chi-Tan from the desert, on the other hand, when Southern Sung landscape almost dissolved in dream, the landscape painters sought to portray the essence of the Ch’an, Neo-Confucian or Taoist metaphysics of ultimate reality. It is significant that this type of painting, committed in principle to an aesthetic of the formless, rises to its highest achievements in a number of extremely individualistic painters. Tung Yüan’s River Landscape in the Boston Museum establishes a kind of classic norm as early as 1000 AD. Note that along with his fantasy, mists and illimitable waters, Tung Yüan is an acute observer of geological forms. A perfect example of a U-shaped glacial trough of the Yosemite type is the Fishing in a Mountain Stream by Hsu Tao-ning, also from about 1000 AD, in the Nelson Gallery, Kansas City, Missouri. The strange, almost false-naïve calligraphic paintings of Mi Fei — sugar-loaf mountains, wet windy pines, marshy meadows, all swathed in mist — are painted with discreet, horizontal spots of the brush, in a technique so obvious and so personal as to be utterly inimitable.

Ma Yüan, whose lovely fan painting Bare Willows and Distant Mountains is perhaps the most famous Chinese painting in America, also painted a Fisherman Alone in His Boat, now in Japan, an archetypal illustration of an archetypal Ch’an poem . . . just a little boat, low in the water, a single figure, a drifting line, and the slight surge of the water stretching away. In a Chinese collection there is a long scroll attributed to Hsia Kuei, A Myriad Miles of the Yang-Tse, whole passages of which consist of nothing but the expanse of illimitable water. Other passages, however, are of rocks, whirlpools and rapids, and busy with traffic and folk life.

Many of the paintings of the school of Hsia Kuei are specifically portrayals of the act of “quiet meditation,” a sage reclining by a waterfall or a still pool, or looking out from cliffs across endless, formless distance, and sheltered by a gnarled, stunted, highly individualistic pine. This type of painting, at least for my taste, culminates in Fa-ch’ang’s Eight Views of the Tung-T’ing Lake and in the ink-blot painting of Ying Yu-chien, in his Eight Views of Hsiao Hsiang. The most famous section of this latter scroll, Haze Dispersing from around a Mountain Village, anticipates the ink blots of the great Japanese, Sesshu, and his followers, and is certainly one of the most remarkable paintings in all history.

There is a small group of paintings, mostly by one or the other of the great artists I have already mentioned, which, it seems to me, combine all the qualities of both main types of Sung painting, the capturing of the absolutely generalized and of the intensely particular — the Buddha Nature and the Unformed Void. Chief among these is the simple and stupendous painting of Fa-ch’ang (Mu Ch’i), five Japanese persimmons in varying stages of ripeness in an irregular row, and slightly to the fore, another, the smallest, persimmon. This is certainly the most nearly perfect expression of the aesthetic principles of the Sung period, whether derived from Ch’an Buddhism or Neo-Confucianism. All similar Western paintings, those Italian bottles of Morandi, for instance, come up to it, topple over into it and vanish. Here is one of the greatest achievements of the mind and skill of man, and inconceivably simple. There is a Woman in White with a wicker basket and fly whisk in the Freer Gallery, Washington, D.C., which is more than one of the world’s most haunting portraits. The folds of her robe conceal her feet so that she seems to float in bottomless space. The quiet surface tension of the forms is almost unbearable. As you stand before it and watch it (and I use this verb advisedly), its still rapture catches you up and marks your mind indelibly forever after. And last, by another unknown Sung painter, a dog in the Boston Museum, a painting of a being so lonely, so poignant and yet so sure, that it might have been painted by a Bodhisattva himself, as he smiled “indifferently,” turned away from promised bliss and lifted his first soul out of Hell.

This special poignancy is itself the Sung sensibility par excellence, and it finds expression in poetry too, notably in Su Tung-p’o’s “Gold Hill Monastery,” “Terrace in the Snow,” and Lu Yu’s “I Walk Out in the Country at Night” and the poems by the poetesses Li Ch’ing Chao and Chu Shu Chen (which can be found translated in my own One Hundred Poems from the Chinese). In the poetesses the sense of vertiginous ecstasy reaches a point verging on hysteria. Here is another poem by Li Ch’ing Chao:

The lascivious air of Spring
Overflows the narrow garden
Beyond my open windows.
Across the pulsating curtains
Confused flower shadows flicker.
All alone in the summer house,
Wordless, I stroke a rose jade lute.
Far off in the lingering early
Twilight a cliff falls from a mountain.
The faint wind breathes with a light rain,
Delicate as a falling shadow.
O, pepper plant, you do not need
To bow and beg pardon of me.
I know you cannot hold back the day.

No art requires more refined perception than pottery. Here all forms are at least as subtle as the subtlest Brancusis and the slightest error of taste jars like a noisy racket. It is not surprising then that the Sung Dynasty produced the greatest pottery ever made. Pure, ethereal celadons, Ting ware plates that look as though they had been made on the moon, stoneware bowls and jugs with brown hare’s fur or oil-spot glaze, Chün ware with a purplish mottled glaze like the breast of a bird, these are among the loveliest and the most subtle things in all the world, natural or man-made. It was in Sung times, too, that the control of the ceramic process to produce just the right kind of accident began — crude, irregular pots with blemishes in the glaze — as though they had been made by some half-blind, stumbling old peasant in a bonfire on the windy fields of Heaven. Fortunately, Sung pottery has influenced all the world since and, although not everyone can own a great Sung painting, anyone can have a pot of Japanese or American stoneware that embodies much of the achievement of the Sung potters.

And last, as a token of farewell, I would like to conclude with a tiny jade pitcher-shaped vase in the British Museum. There is nothing to it, it is only three and a half inches high, with a ring handle and a little ornamental band. It looks rather as though it might have held a royal baby’s milk. But it is infinitely subtle, so much so that if you look too long at it in its case in the British Museum, it will hypnotize you. Its color is even more subtle than its form, the mottled olive and khaki and gray of the plugs of jade placed in the ears and nostrils of the distinguished dead. This little vase looks as though it might have lain against the heart of the buried Kuan Yin at the end of one of her many incarnations.



This essay was originally published in Portfolio & Art News Annual (1960) and reprinted in Assays (New Directions, 1961) and World Outside the Window: The Selected Essays of Kenneth Rexroth (New Directions, 1987). Copyright 1987. Reproduced here by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. The poetry translations are from Rexroth’s One Hundred Poems from the Chinese (New Directions, 1959).

Other Rexroth Essays