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Chinese Philosophy and

Contemporary Aesthetics
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Kejun Xia

Chinese Philosophy and

Contemporary Aesthetics

Unthought of Empty

New York  Bern  Berlin
Brussels  Vienna  Oxford  Warsaw
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Xia, Kejun, author.
Title: Chinese philosophy and contemporary aesthetics: unthought of empty / Kejun Xia.
Description: New York: Peter Lang, 2020.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Identifiers: LCCN 2018052220 | ISBN 978-1-4331-6451-4 (hardback: alk. paper)
ISBN 978-1-4331-6452-1 (ebook pdf) | ISBN 978-1-4331-6453-8 (epub)
ISBN 978-1-4331-6454-5 (mobi)
Subjects: LCSH: Art—Philosophy. | Philosophy, Chinese. | Emptiness
Classification: LCC N70 .X53 | DDC 700.1—dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2018052220
DOI 10.3726/b15434

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The original Chinese title for this work is 平淡的哲学.

This edition is an authorized translation from the Chinese language edition.
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To dance is only to step aside and make room,
to think is only to step aside and make room,
give up one’s place. To leave at last the page blank.
I believe that man is blank and un-differentiated.
—Michel Serres

Out of expansion: Nietzsche
Out of Breath: Chuang Tzu
—Elias Ganetti

List of Figures ix
Acknowledgments xi

Chapter 1: Introduction: Infra-White—An Impossible Beginning 1

Chapter 2: Color and White, the Blank Canvas: The Reverse
Reconstruction of Non-Dimension 11
Chapter 3: Remnant and White, Color and Blankness, Qi and White 31
Chapter 4: Empty and White, Empty—Empty—Substance—Substance,
the Empty Room Filled with Light 41
Chapter 5: The White Layout of the “Woodcutters Fighting for the Path”:
The Ethics of Remnant Yielding 55
Chapter 6: Jade and White, Snow and White, Light and White 71
Chapter 7: “Black-and-Blankism” and the Silent Transformation of Invisibility 85
Appendix: The Ink Art of Chen Guangwu: Fasting of the Mind and
Interval-Blankness of Chora 103

Index 113

Figure 4.1: Wang Shen 王詵 (1048–1104), Misty River and Layered Peaks,
handscroll, ink and color on silk, 45.2 × 166 cm. 44
Figure 4.2: Dong Qichang 董其昌 (1555–1636), Copy of Wang Shen’s
王诜 Misty River and Layered Peaks, handscroll, ink and color
on silk, 29.5 × 184.5 cm, 1620. 49
Figure 5.1: Zhang Xu 张旭 (ca. 675–750), Self-statement, cursive script,
copy ink on paper, about “The Story of the Woodcutters
Fighting for the Path.” Xi’an Ancient stone tablets. 67
Figure 6.1: Gong Xian 龔賢 (1618–1689), Endless Mountains (detail),
ink on paper, 27.8 × 980 cm. 82
Figure A.1: Chen Guangwu 陈光武 (1967–), Double Yin-Yang Calligraphy,
Huang Tingjian 黄庭坚 (1045–1105), Passing by the Fubo
Temple, Ying-Yang, 2012, ink on paper, 147 × 365 cm. 104
Figure A.2: Chen Guangwu (1967–), Huang Tingjian: To the
Honorable Guests (detail), 2011, ink on paper. 105
Figure A.3: Chen Guangwu (1967−), cursive script in Huang Tingjian
(detail), 2011, ink on paper. 105

This book is an outgrowth of an unforgettable exhibition held five years ago in

Beijing. As curator, I found myself deeply moved by the dialogue between paint-
ers over white and blankness, and the unique experiences created by the works of
such artists as Qiu Shihua, Liu Guofu and Chen Guangwu.
For the publication of this book, I thank my translator Jeff Crosby for his
dedicated and precise translation work. Our collaboration over the years has given
us both a better understanding of contemporary art and the art of China. I would
also like to thank Liu Yehua, editor at China Renmin University Press, for her
great effort to make this book a reality.
Special gratitude goes to my friend Fabian Heubel, who has long been a close
partner in philosophical discussion. Our dialogue on everything from contempo-
rary interpretations of Zhuangzi to the contemporary transformation of Chinese
traditional art has carried on for many years. This book would not have been
possible without his support and affirmation. Thanks also to Dr. Dimitra Ama-
rantidou who carefully edited this text to make it more comprehensible!
Finally, my heartfelt thanks go to my wife Jian Yankuan. Her steadfast love
and support over the years have brought me the peace I need to think and write.
I dedicate this book to her.

Introduction: Infra-White—
An Impossible Beginning

To begin with blankness implies the impossibility of beginning.

To begin with blankness demands the yielding of philosophy itself: to yield
an empty remnant space, to yield itself.
To begin with blankness is the retreat of philosophy from itself, the yielding
of its sovereignty to allow blankness to take control.
There is empty-white.
When blankness takes control, blankness is not blankness, but “empty white,”
the emptying and blankening of, a mere perception of “empty” and “white,”
the “empty” completely empty, devoid of anything, and the “white” completely
blank, as if there is nothing, yet as if there is everything. This perception implies
the beginning of aesthetics.
When “empty white” becomes a pure perception, philosophy yields to aes-
But blankness cannot become the object; otherwise aesthetics will become
science, and beauty, as Kant said, is not science.
2 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

To begin with “empty white,” philosophy yields itself. To contemplate pure

“empty white,” aesthetics becomes possible. This blankness, however, is not the
object of aesthetics, though it is a condition for the appearance of beauty.
This is the connection between Chinese philosophy and beauty, as well as their
bizarreness —something Chinese philosophy and beauty themselves must confront.
The bizarreness rests in the fact that empty white is not beauty that can
appear, and yet it must take control of beauty, become beauty itself, become the
world itself. How can empty white reveal itself, but not as an objectified space,
nor as negational nothingness, nor as a theological abyss, but as an opening, an
emptying, a voiding? When the unfolding of empty white presents these three
simultaneously (nothing—emptying—opening), as with Plato’s chora (χώρα,
Derrida 1995; Sallis 1999, 2016), then blankness becomes “xu 虛 hsü, (enchorial
space),” a form of emptiness. Empty white becomes infra-white.
All things must thereby undergo this threefold “enchorialize” if they are to
reveal their own beauty. That is to say, the things of the world must accept this
threefold enchorialization if they are to take on the sense of beauty of existence.
There is empty-white (Nancy 2012, 2017). But how can this be possible?
Chinese philosophy and aesthetics have promulgated this order long ago, but it
still has not become the main topic (theme). Xu is the unthought of Chinese phi-
losophy, as well as the unthought of the entirety of philosophy itself.
In his book L’art, L’éclair de L’être, Henri Maldiney reflects on the Chinese
philosophical notion of xu: “Absolu comme le rien, comme le chaos authentique,
L’Ouvert, comme eux, évoque le Vide.” (The absolute as nothing, as truthful chaos,
the opening, as itself, evokes emptying.) (Maldiney 2012, p. 16). This is perhaps
the first time that a Western philosopher provides an actual and inner response
to a new aesthetics from China. For the interpretation of xu and its threefoldness
in the Chinese context, Maldiney consulted the work of François Cheng, who
speaks about “xu (tenuous-empty)” (Slingerland 2003, p. 175):

From the Chinese perspective, emptiness is not, as one might suppose, something vague
or nonexistent—it is dynamic and active. Linked with the idea of vital breaths and with
the principle of the alternation of yin and yang, it is the preeminent site of transformation,
the place where fullness can attain its whole measure. (Cheng 1979, p. 36)

François Cheng also reflects on the paradoxical logic of xu:

A binary system that can be ternary and a ternary system that can be unitary: two equals
three; three equals one. This is the seemingly paradoxical but constant mainspring of
Chinese thought! Emptiness is not merely a neutral space serving to defuse the shock
Introduction | 3

without changing the nature of the opposition. It is the nodal point where potentiality
and becoming interweave, in which deficiency and plenitude, self-sameness and other-
ness, meet. (Cheng 1994, p. 51)

Xu happens in the fifth dimension (Cheng 1994, p. 97), found in Paul Celan’s
poem Counter-Light [Gegenlicht]: “Four seasons of the year, and no fifth, to decide
for one out of them” (Vier Jahreszeiten, und keine fünfte, um sich für eine von ihnen
zu entscheiden) Hamacher (2014) in turn writes:

In this fifth, which does not exist, decisions would be made. In the world of the four
seasons one would have therefore to say, “There is no ‘there is,’” (Es gibt kein “Es gibt”),
and to ask oneself whether this sentence is translatable into “It, that does not happen,
happens” (Es, das es nicht gibt, gibt). If it were so, then the giving would give itself only in
and out of its holding back, the coming would come out of its not, and both would be
minimal conditions of the future as of the basic structure of time. Celan’s “no fifth” season
and Heidegger’s “fourth dimension” of time and space would be neighboring attempts to
think time not as a linear order of homogenous now-points but out of a + (-n) beyond

How to contemplate this threefold enchorialized empty white?

Let us begin with a contemporary art thought experiment.
Let us begin with contemporary art’s thinking on blankness.
In the opening to his essay Works of Art and Mere Real Things (1981, p. 5),
Arthur Danto carried out the following thought experiment. He devised an exhi-
bition that explored different versions of “redness” under a basic red tone: from
monochrome red abstraction, to the Buddhist concept of red dust, to Moscow’s
Red Square, to the allegory of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, to Matisse’s
red tablecloth, and on to a manufactured red canvas, comprehending historical
painting, psychological portraiture, landscape painting, abstract painting, reli-
gious painting and still life painting, thus reenacting art history in its entirety!
This touches off a certain kind of art experiment that challenges the traditional
divisions of objecthood with questions like “What is a work of art?” “What is a
mere manmade thing?” “What turns a mere manmade thing into a readymade?”
This experiment brings artistic theory to a crisis, a crisis of aesthetic judgment and
Danto, however, did not explore the full depth of these questions. Our ques-
tion today is clearer and more focused on the issue at hand. We use the blank
canvas to contemplate the different material divisions of things, to reflect on what
constitutes a natural thing, a manmade thing, an object, an artwork, a gift, and a
4 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

“non-thing,” void and absence, non-action and action, the visible and the invisi-
ble, and a whole host of other complex issues—we strive to express xu.
Let us consider a few blank canvases, all named for their blankness, to see if
art theory can distinguish between them:
(1) An ordinary piece of fabric, treated as a readymade, with no revision or
adornment, marked Blank One, hung directly on the wall, with even the art-
ist’s signature simply reading “White,” in a corresponding reference to blankness.
Whether this is similar to Duchamp’s urinal, flipped over, named The Fountain,
and signed “Mutt” (the “silent one”) or not, it clearly borrows from Duchamp’s
concept of the readymade.
—We can imagine that Duchamp could have been the first to do this, especially
as satire in the 1950s, after the rise of American Abstract Expressionism. There is a
concept of the “readymade” in his artwork. This is indeed art as non-action. Virtu-
ally nothing has been done. It is just any readymade object, with the addition of a
little signature, a signature that is self-negating.
(2) An ordinary piece of cloth, nailed to a wooden board as a base, and affixed
with an exquisite frame, titled Blank Two. This is the embodiment of conceptual
—There is a concept of the readymade here, too, but the piece has become
“abstract art,” because the addition of the frame points to certain limitations and
the external form of the painting.
Perhaps Robert Rauschenberg and others would like this work. This is paint-
ing about meta-painting, painting aimed only at the conditions of painting, such
as the frame, the stretchers, and the canvas. But there is no action here—perhaps
the exquisite frame is a product of craft, not made by the artist.
—Or, there is action, but it is not on the part of the self.
(3) A piece of white or black cloth covered in white or black paint. There is
virtually no paint to be seen, but the cloth has actually been meticulously coated,
with fine detail. It is actually an exquisite monochrome. It could be black, but
white would be best. It is hung directly on the wall, or mounted in a frame, and
titled Blank Three. This is a minimalist work. Or, similarly, a piece of cloth with a
base of black or white paint and a black or white grid painted on it. This is abstract
monochrome painting.
—Here abstract art emerges, but it is different from the examples above,
because the canvas has been painstakingly treated using the methods of mono-
chrome painting, Malevich’s earliest white on white, or later works by such artists
as Robert Ryman. Or, in contrast, it is the black painting of such artists as Ad
Introduction | 5

Reinhardt. —There is action here, very meticulous action, even if it appears as

(4) A piece of cloth which has been torn. Nothing else has been done to it; it
has just been ripped in many places. Let’s call it Blank Four.
This is Arte Povera, art after Minimalism. It goes deeper into the readymade,
but it also ruins the readymade. In addition, the canvas material has threads, and
when the canvas is ripped open, they reveal their form. This is a more total con-
sideration of materiality.
(5) A piece of linen, given a coat of white or off-white paint. The work consists
in merely painting this fabric with extremely fine lines that closely resemble the lines
of the linen, so that it is virtually impossible to discern any traces of painting. We
will call it Blank Five.
—There is conceptualization here, but this is not abstract painting, though
of course there is allusion to writing and the abstraction of material qualities. It
looks like a piece of linen, but this linen has been painted with repetitive lines of
paint. Workers carrying this painting would think it had not been painted at all.
But countless lines have been painted along the lines of the fabric.
This is “Chinese Maximalism” or Zen-style painting (set against Western Min-
imalism), the repetitive, mechanical labor producing illusion and subtle changes.
(6) Enter a blank space, or an empty room, or a blank wall with nothing on
it,,no artworks. This will be called Blank Zero, and each person who goes inside
will be a witness to this blankness
Or, to turn it around, the picture is just a mirror, a mirror that fills virtually
the entire frame, reflecting many historical or current, realistic scenes, but by
using “blank” in the title, it provokes many satirical or negative thoughts. We will
call it Blank Six.
—There is formalist brushwork here, there are many such scenes in classical
painting. But here, it is not what is in the mirror that matters, it is not about a
dystopia. The picture has been voided, emptied.
Or, in the style of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled” (Veterans Day Sale 1989
or Double Portrait 1991) which comprises printed sheets, it is intended that visi-
tors are able to take away the sheets, in order to evoke its animation through this
(7) A piece of cloth that looks just like a piece of cloth, but has actually been
painstakingly treated, so that paint soaks and penetrates the canvas. It is virtually
impossible to discern, but there is a certain kind of white fog, even hints of a
scene, though undetectable without close inspection. Faintly, almost impercep-
tibly, an empty image of a landscape emerges. This is the “Infra-mince art” we
6 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

wish to spread. It appears to be something yet appears to be nothing. It appears

to be nothing but appears more to be something. It appears to be abstract, but it
is actually concrete. It appears invisible, but it possesses internal growth. We will
name it Blank Seven.
—This is painting, but it is almost impossible to see that it is painting. This
is Chinese Infra-mince art or Infra-mince painting. It is not abstract painting. It
resembles some reduction from Impressionism, but it is not the plein air or land-
scape painting of Impressionism. The canvas has nothing more than granulated
traces. It is blank, but it is not blank. It contains Chinese-style abstraction, con-
veying Zen or Daoist thinking.
—There is action here, meticulous action, but it appears to be non-action.
Facing, then, these seven types of blankness listed above, these seven weapons
pointed at art theory, how does art criticism or art theory distinguish between
It would appear that they are all canvas or scroll paper, all material things.
(1) But, if there is simply nothing—nothing done to the readymade—then
we end up with nothingness. As with John Cage’s 4’33”, there is nothing but
non-action, which, like with Blank One, can only be performed once.
(2) If the opening of blankness itself is revealed, this is an opening that causes
the picture to open anew, but it is only to reveal blankness, to reveal the plane
itself, as with Blank Two and Blank Three.
(3) If it is just an empty opening, retaining the constant fracturing and tear-
ing of itself, then it is the plasticity of material, as with Blank Four, Blank Five,
and Blank Six.
But it could be possible to have some form of blankness, some retention of
the three above possibilities, through which something would be revealed: the
richness of the world.
This happens in Blank Seven, in works of Chinese Infra-mince art, or in
Duchamp’s imaginative experiment of “Inframince” (46 notes from 1937–1946)
(Duchamp 1999). Since Duchamp, painting has been inseparable from the
unique properties of readymade materials, in that the canvas must maintain its
textile properties (i.e., its rough texture). If there is still painting, and not in the
traditional sense as an art form, then it must maintain a certain tension.
On the one hand, painting must transcend the bounds of painting with new
conceptions. You can paint however you want; namely, you can do however you
want to do; even a simple square of canvas can be hung as a work of art as long as
you name it afresh.
Introduction | 7

On the other hand, painting must maintain the possibilities of painting. You
cannot paint however you want; namely, you cannot do however you want to
do; because no matter how a painting is painted, it cannot exhaust the profound
depths of painting.
This is pure paradox: On the one hand, you can do it any way you want; on
the other hand, you cannot do it any way you want; and, at the same time, you
must do however you cannot do. Painting must maintain painting’s unique prop-
erties while also refraining from being replaced by another art form, and it must
still possess the Art General.
According to Duchamp’s understanding of “Inframince,” the unique qualities
of the readymade are a condition for painting. He believed that Western painting
transitioned too quickly from “textile” to “the canvas base” (in other words, the
“virgin” quickly became the “bride”), quickly applying paint and constructing a
“painting subject.” Even the abstract paintings of Malevich and Mondrian con-
tain the relationship between the color fields of the base and those of the surface,
and do not maintain the material of the canvas—i.e., do not allow us to see the
textile nature of the canvas. The question of how to maintain painting’s virgin-
ity and original nature is a difficult one. Differently put, the question is how an
artwork can, keep its “virginity” or naturalness, while at the same time carrying
new creation (the unknown pleasures of a bride’s “first night”). Perhaps this pure
paradox is the new task for Art itself!
How could Chinese Contemporary Art solve this paradox? Is it a question
of whether Chinese Art can bring nature into art? This transference is doubt-
less rooted in deep understanding of the Chinese artistic spirit, in China literati
painting, which is to allow the white nature of the scroll paper to remain, and is
scroll paper not a readymade object? This is especially the case when the natural
material that is water is infused into the scroll paper. The Empty-Whiteness of the
scroll paper is allowed to remain and has not been covered. This is different from
Western oil paint, which when spread on the canvas covers the canvas, becoming
a sort of foundation. This unique approach of allowing the essential qualities of
the fabric to remain is a modern transformation of the spirit of ink painting: “that
which is color-form(only appearance and not truth)is emptiness; that which is
empty is color-form.” How is this perception of remnant whiteness attained with
oil paint on a linen canvas?
In his discussion of Infra-mince, Duchamp mentions the canvas’ holes and
absorptiveness, although he himself did not employ them. Chinese painters, how-
ever, have, to the point that the material almost does not exist. It is simply a bot-
tomless, blank receptacle of the “grey” (like Plato’s chora, as discussed by Derrida),
8 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

allowing the grey to be repeatedly covered, and repeatedly permeated. At the same
time, Chinese painters borrow from the spirit of emptiness in the Chinese ink
painting culture, where there are always spaces left empty in the image; the void is
omni-present, and whiteness, inherent in the canvas, is used to explore new reso-
nances between “white” and “empty.” This latter concept is made possible by the
logic of the Chinese language, where “the color white” (baise 白色) and “empty”
(kongbai 空白) share the same root (bai 白), forming a new harmony between the
perception of life and painting techniques.
This surface-level art allows the surface to remain a surface, so that it appears
that nothing has been done in terms of painting. This “non-action” on the surface
is clearly an embodiment of the Daoist concept of “action through non-action,”
though it has now been inverted: action—repeated applications on the fabric, using
a filling technique—to attain non-action. Much has been done, but it appears as
if nothing really has. Along the traditional lines of “appearance and non-appear-
ance,” the artist leans more towards “non-appearance,” the appearance of nothing,
even though nothing does resemble something. Evidently, this describes painting
itself: after modernity, painting ceases to resemble any particular object from reality,
but becomes painting about painting, a painting of the possibilities in painting,
the potential for painting to leap beyond its own boundaries. The second layer of
repeated coatings retains the white properties of the picture, without adding to its
thickness. This opens up another plane, just like water seeping into the scroll paper
while retaining the paper’s whiteness.
Twentieth century Western painting had several major approaches to dealing
with the plane: the production of an illusion of depth that strayed from traditional
perspective techniques, or the continued retention of relief effects as in cubism.
This was also the case in collages of readymade objects such as news-paper scraps.
Later there was the approach taken by Mondrian—compressing the foundation
into a plane that was virtually equal to the canvas itself, although there was still a
small degree of visual distortion. Then, beginning with expressionist painters from
Soutine to Auerbach, we see the emphasis placed on thickness, even on the weight
of oil paint itself, extending the thickness of the plane beyond the canvas. It was
American abstract expressionists, particularly color field painters such as Newman
and Rothko, who maintained the qualities of the plane itself (as Greenberg wanted),
keeping the plane a plane. But as Duchamp saw it, abstract expressionist painting
did not highlight the characteristics of the readymade, so it was still painting. Once
minimalism emerged, shifting towards the restoration of materiality, it became
excessively material and led to the end of painting.
Introduction | 9

Painting after painting begins with the disappearance of painting, only barely
retaining its own disappearance. In fact, what it retains is so little that it is almost
nothing. What is called “presque rien (almost nothing)” becomes the only object
of the painting.
Painting may begin with the disappearance of the painting itself, but Chinese
culture has never had the same kind of love of debate between the iconoclastic
and the monotheistic. Western postmodernism has its place within this debate,
but took on Buddhist influences regarding the idea of duality i.e. that “all matter
is empty” and “the immaterial is the material”. This was also a turning point for
black ink landscape painters of the late Tang Dynasty (755–763). In his works
All Matter is Empty, poet and painter Wang Wei 王維 (701–761), eschews the
rich vivid greens of landscape painting, instead using colorless and dull water and
dark black ink to create a series of snow scenes with distinct Zen characteristics,
which move towards the artistic territory of “the immaterial is the material.” This
is in the same vein as the over-stated idea in Western modernism about the exag-
gerated expression of form (the impressionists’ colors, the cubists’ pure forms,
etc.). American Abstract Expressionism and the Minimalist School thoroughly
strove towards monochromatic painting and a conquest of the painting frame.
Painting thus started moving towards its own extinction. There would no longer
be any possible object of painting. Painting would merely start with oneself and
the fading of the world; it would start at “presque rien.”
So, how does painting reappear? How does the world again come into
being? If there is painting, it must be in the moment of the first tentative rays of
the morning sun—the emergence and separation that Heidegger labeled Anfang
and Beginn, which implies a sense of maintaining an “anti-objectivity,” a state
of perpetual blurriness.
In an interview transcript from his later years, Duchamp remarks (Duchamp

Pierre Cabanne asks, “What do you do all day?” Duchamp responds: “Nothing. I’m on
the go a lot, because one always has a lot of engagements. We went to Italy, to Baruchel-
lo’s, the painter, whom I like very much. He does big white paintings, with little tiny
things you have to look at close up.”

Of course, Baruchello’s paintings are not quite Infra-mince enough. If

Duchamp could see Chen Guangwu’s (1967–) ink paintings, he would certainly
like them even more. He would probably proclaim once again, “I like living,
breathing, better than working. Because Infra-mince art is about breathing”
(ibid., p. 72).
10 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

Cheng, F. 1979, Vide et plein : Le langage pictural chinois, Paris: Éditions du Seuil, p. 45.
————. 1994, Empty and Full: The Language of Chinese Painting, Boston: Shambhala, pp. 36
and 51.
Danto, A. 1981, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art, Boston: Harvard
University Press, p. 5.
Derrida, J. 1995, On the Name, Thomas Dutoit (ed.), California: Stanford University Press.
Duchamp, M. 1987, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp by Pierre Cabanne, London: Da Capo Press,
p. 101.
————. 1994, Duchamp du signe, Paris: Flammarion.
————. 1999, Notes, Paris: Flammarion, pp. 19–47.
Hamacher, W. 2014, Messianic Thought Outside Theology, Anna Glazova and Paul North (eds.), New
York: Fordham University Press, p. 234.
Maldiney, H. 2012, L’art, L’éclair de L’être, Paris: Les éd. du Cerf, p. 16.
————. 2010, Ouvrir le rien, l’art nu, Paris : Encre Marine.
Nancy, J-L. 2012, Il y a Blanc de Titre. In Blanc de Titre / Blank of Title, The Art of Susanna Fritscher,
Wien: Springer-Verlag.
————. 2017, Preface in L’Art du Vide, Paris: CNRS.
Sallis, J. 1999, Chorology: On Beginning in Plato’s Timaeus, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
————. 2016, The Return of Nature: On the Beyond of Sense, Bloomington: Indiana University
Slingerland, E. 2003, Effortless Action: Wu-Wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early
China, New York: Oxford University Press, p. 175.

Color and White,

the Blank Canvas:
The Reverse Reconstruction
of Non-Dimension


Wittgenstein: There seem to be what we can call “colors of substances” and “colors of
surfaces.” Our color concepts sometimes relate to substances (snow is
white), sometimes to surfaces (this table is brown), sometimes to the
illumination (in the reddish evening light), sometimes to transparent
bodies. And isn’t there also an application to a place in the visual
field, logically independent of a spatial context? Can’t I say “there I
see white” (and paint it, for example), even if I can’t in any way give a
three-dimensional interpretation of the visual image? (Spots of color.)
(I am thinking of pointillist painting.) (Wittgenstein 1978)
Robert Rauschenberg: They are large white (One white as One GOD) canvases organized
and selected with the experience of time and presented with the inno-
cence of a virgin. Dealing with the suspense, excitement and body of
an organic silence, the restriction and freedom of absence, the plastic
fullness of nothing, the point a circle begins and ends. They are a nat-
ural response to the current pressures of the faithless and a promoter
of intuitional optimism. It is completely irrelevant that I am making
them—Today is their creator. (Rauschenber 1977)
Clement Greenberg: By now it has been established, it would seem, that the irreducible
essence of pictorial art consists in but two constitutive conventions
or norms: flatness and the delimitation of flatness; and that the
12 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

observance of merely these two norms is enough to create an object

which can be experienced as a picture: thus a stretched or tacked-up
canvas already exists as a picture—though not necessarily as a success-
ful one. (de Duve 1991)
Michael Fried: It is not quite enough to say that a bare canvas tacked to a wall is not
“necessarily” a successful picture; it would, I think, be more accurate
to say that it is not conceivably one. It may be countered that future
circumstances might be such as to make it a successful painting; but I
would argue that, for that to happen, the enterprise of painting would
have to change so drastically that nothing more than the name would
remain. (Fried 1998)
Thierry de Duve: The blank canvas is not a picture; it was one. It was a picture, a viable
would-be picture, a potential picture, in the days when modernist
painting had its tradition ahead of itself. For the modernist sensibility
striving for purism and attuned to the “elements” of painting, the
blank canvas’s potential to become a painting had an extraordinary
aesthetic appeal. From Malevich to Mondrian, there is not one pio-
neer of abstract painting who didn’t respond to the appeal of the bare
canvas. They were breaking with the past, relinquishing the strongest
of all “expendable conventions” namely figuration; they also thought
of themselves as laying down the basic alphabet of a future culture.
Although none of them actualized the blank canvas, they sensed its
promise. (de Duve 1998, p. 252)
François Cheng: Taking this into account, we have grounds to speak of a kind of fifth
dimension, beyond space and time, that represents emptiness in its
supreme degree. On this level, emptiness constitutes the basis of the
pictorial universe, yet it also transcends this universe and carries it
toward the original unity. Level Five (Fifth Dimension) is the void
that transcends space-time, the supreme state toward which every
painting that is inspired by the truth reaches. For this ultimate level,
very few descriptive terms are adequate. It is perhaps fitting to cite
two expressions used by the Chinese artist to gauge the value of a
work and to indicate the ultimate aim of art beyond all notions of
beauty: i-ching (density of soul) and shen-yun (divine resonance).
(Cheng 1994, p. 106)
Michel Serres: Being is blank and transparent, quite simply. Being as Being is blank, so
is Being as Word. Blank, undetermined—POSITIVE. (Michel 1995)
Hua Lin: When painting reaches the point where it is without a trace, it seems
on the paper like a natural and necessary emanation of this paper that
is emptiness itself.

It begins with empty.

It also means to begin with white.
That means that it begins with Empty-White.
Color and White, the Blank Canvas | 13

Empty and White

Blank and White
Begin again from blankness!
Begin to turn back from blankness
To reconstruct the world in reverse
Color is visibility itself. It is first perceived not as color, but as an appearance or
phenomenon, i.e., visibility. Aside from certain craftworks, where color is used
purely based on the requirements of color theory, color is always perceptual, a
color material.
There is certainly much contention regarding color theory. It is evident in the
discrepancies between Newton’s theory of the color spectrum and Goethe’s the-
ories regarding color boundaries, as well as in Wittgenstein’s thoughts on colors.
These are all logical meditations on the concept of color, rather than medita-
tions on color as a material, like logical, linguistic investigations of things without
experiments on the psychological experience. As a result, we enter murky waters
whenever we confront color. Wittgenstein pointed out that colors seem to present
us with a riddle, a riddle that stimulates (anregt) us, not one that disturbs (aufregt)
us. White, the object of our inquiry, is doubtless a riddle within a riddle, which is
certainly even more stimulating. That is because white seems not to be a color at
all. Newton’s spectrum does not contain white, and among Goethe’s color bound-
aries, black and white exist merely as boundary conditions. Color is always linked
to light, to the fifth element which is the sense of light, while the color white is
merely the embodiment of this sense of light. Thus, Wittgenstein made a power-
ful distinction between transparency, cloudiness, and surface reflection.
How did white become a color, while being so much more than a color? In
his notes, Wittgenstein writes, “Lichtenberg says that very few people have ever
seen pure white. Do most people use the word in a wrong way, then? And how
did he learn the correct use?” (Wittgenstein 1978, pp. 21–21e) How do we view
white? How do we make a connected distinction between material white (white
snow), surface white (white paper), white radiance (being surrounded by dazzling
white walls, or so-called incandescent lights), and white transparent objects (the
glass cup)? How can a white work of art or an artwork about the color white
possess these traits while also possessing rich visual and spatial form? Does the
whiteness left by Chinese scroll paper and ink painting possess such subtlety? Can
we intuit it using Wittgenstein’s methods? When a snowscape is painted on the
white surface of a piece of scroll paper, it can be done with white powder (which
is material), by leaving white spaces, using the whiteness inherent in the paper or
silk surface (both material and surface), or one can make the blank white spaces
14 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

emit a kind of white light, or one can actually paint a sense of jade texture or
transparency (where the snow is not painted at all, but there is still a strong sense
of snow.).
Perhaps within the color white, there are many entanglements of painting:
(1) White is the color white. White is a type of color, distinguished by its
difference from other colors, such as black.
(2) White is not a color, but is the color of colorlessness. In the West, it is a
sense of light, the whiteness of light. It is a perceptual embodiment of light on
a thing. It looks white, but it is actually visibility. White as the embodiment of
visibility is particularly apparent when compared to black.
(3) White is neither the color white nor the sense of light, but blankness
(emptiness), a kind of opening, an open and empty non-formal formal force, the
force of opening, the touch of blankness.
“White” or “the color white”: First, white is a material perception of color;
second, white is the color of color, the white of light, visibility itself; third, white
is no longer a material perception but the sense of touching emptiness, an imma-
terial material, a non-perceptional perception. Such distinctions will correspond
with our rethinking of ink painting material below.
When we consider white, we can relate it to the Western term “sense,” which
has a triple meaning (meaning-sensation-direction):
First, it is “meaning”—white as part of color theory is a construct of mean-
ing, part of a system of distinction, and as a perception of color. It does not exist
within the red-yellow-green primary color system.
Second, white is a “sensation,” a sense of light, a sense related to radiation
from the surface, like a white transparent glass cup. Perhaps it is as Wittgenstein
said: “We might want not to call a white high-light ‘white,’ and thus use that
word only for that which we see as the color of a surface” (Wittgenstein 1978,
pp. 8–8e). White is perhaps the brightest color. Whether white is transparent or
an opaque color, white is in essence a description of the visual traits of a surface.
White only emerges as reflection. It is the touch of visibility opened up by the
white surface or transparency.
Third, it is white as a “direction,” a mere opening of directionality. In this
sense, white is actually “non-white,” an emptiness extended by the white, an
empty opening, a formal indication of direction.
When we think about color, it is color thinking about itself, as Baudelaire said
when writing about Delacroix. White, or non-color, is the fasting of color, the
mental fasting of colors, in the same way that Chuang Tzu’s (Zhuangzi) fasting of
the mind opens up the light in the empty room.
Color and White, the Blank Canvas | 15

Beginning with white.

Beginning with blankness.
Beginning anew with emptiness and whiteness.
In white, or things connected to white, Western contemporary art encoun-
tered some fundamental problems.

Crisis of Principles

John Cage once created an amazing composition entitled 4’33”. Is this not a case
of white noise? There is no music, but this absence catalyzes white noise. By doing
absolutely nothing, the composition deconstructs the entire system of music and
disturbs the audience. Is the restless breathing of the audience not a more primal
noise? By dissolving the differences between “music,” “sound” and even “primal
noise,” is the materiality of sound not revealed? Is it not more apparent? Like
Marcel Duchamp’s 1918 Tu m’, it incites noise through silence. This is white
noise. It seems to be the natural noise of the subject, but there are also formal
markings to denote time. The musical notes marking the progression of time are
obliterated, bringing chaos to the audience’s breathing. It seems to be the Western
modern transformation of Zen.
Before Cage’s composition, Robert Rauschenberg, who also spent time at
Black Mountain College, followed Kasimir Malevich’s abstract artwork White
on White (1918) with the even more extreme White Paintings series (1950–53)
(Joseph 2000, pp.  90–121). With White on White, we see the beginnings of
the integration of the readymade and minimalism, which would lead to the
self-destruction of painting. The total flattening of the plane somewhat resembles
a cleansing ritual, evoking a powerful sense of nothingness, using its limitations
to catalyze silence, making absence appear.
Such creations revolving around the question of blankness had already begun
to reveal the crisis of Western art.
In the 20th century, Western modern or contemporary art contributed
two main universal principles: the principle of abstraction and the principle
of non-art.
First was the principle of abstraction. This principle emerged from among the
Cubists, and was drawn from the Impressionists, particularly from late Cézanne,
who extracted geometric shapes from an “apple,” a “nude” and a “mountain” (Mont
Sainte-Victoire). Here, the artist no longer looks directly at the content of a thing
but treats it like a form or a shape such as a cylinder. This “cubist” extraction was
16 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

extraordinarily important in that it cast off the fetters of figuration, of substance. It

was only through such a geometric abstraction that the Cubists came into being.
It was only after this abstraction that you could have the abstract paintings of Kan-
dinsky and Mondrian or Klee, that the purer abstraction of “point, line and plane”
arose, that abstract language became independent. They all later became teachers at
Bauhaus and, through abstraction and the shift towards design, that language per-
meated into the broader field of everyday life. This was the second transformation.
The third transformation was American Abstract Expres-sionism, where the deep
emotions of the subject were integrated with the pure lines, triangles, quadrangles,
and other forms to give them a richer flow, the bearing of individual life in an
attempt to convey the tragedy or religiosity of emotion. This was the third muta-
tion. The fourth mutation was Minimalism, which was also abstract but moved
outwards, moved outside of painting until real objects came out. The fifth muta-
tion was the Japanese Mono-ha tradition which followed Minimalism. Some of the
Mono-ha art works were readymades, but they were still connected to geometric
and architectural forms, shifting towards the more dramatic so-called postmodern
art (as Michael Fried wrote in Art and Objecthood). This thread stretching from geo-
metric extraction to abstract painting was the basic transformational mode of the
first 60 years of the 20th century. From geometric abstraction to abstract painting
to Bauhaus to abstract expressionism and on to minimalism and Moho-ha, from
the forms in the picture to emotional depth and on to the dramatization of the
objecthood of materials, the three basic facets of art were all realized, fulfilling the
principle of abstraction. Any later artist, including Chinese artists who wished to
paint abstract paintings, would be hard pressed to transcend this model, but this
principle is important and universal. It does not belong to the West alone. The true
principle behind geometric shapes is abstraction, rationality, even mystical theoso-
phy. It is the quest for order, rooted in a worldview unique to the West, which led
Husserl to contend that the spirit of geometry from the West should become uni-
versal. Geometry is much more than geometric forms. It is a rationalized principle
of the world (as we can see in Derrida’s purely intuitive deconstruction of Husserl’s
phenomenological Origin of Geometry).
The second principle is unlike the formal language construction principle
above, and is even somewhat opposed to it. It is the so-called “non-art” principle.
It manifests in the non-art method of the readymade—“you can do it however
you want”—that began with Duchamp. With no more painting on the easel and
no more geometric shapes, Duchamp’s principle is fundamentally different from
Cézanne’s (which still pursued retinal aesthetics). Duchamp invented the ready-
made. His urinal, turned upside-down and signed, became the non-artwork. It
Color and White, the Blank Canvas | 17

was a spontaneous creation that broke the boundaries of art, turning something
that was not the artist’s creation, anything, into an artwork, smashing all distinc-
tions: between art and non-art, between everyday life and artistic performance,
between male and female, natural and non-natural, between the artwork, the
implement and the gift. All of these traditional distinctions virtually disappeared,
and all objecthood grew complicated, constantly smashing all boundaries of art to
form a so-called “non-artistic art.” Abstract painting is actually an artistic art, while
“non-artistic art” focuses on the readymade, rather than the art of the artist’s sub-
jective creation. From Duchamp to Warhol’s vulgarizing, celebrity-idolizing com-
mercial model, and on to Beuys’ so-called “social theater” and “social sculpture”
where everyone is an artist, non-art eventually reached its zenith. Performance art,
even installation and video art were all expansions of this non-art field, and in the
end, they may lead to the end of art.
Of these two principles in 20th century Western art, the first was to take the
abstract principle of art and push abstraction to the extreme, to Minimalism, and
thus beyond all boundaries towards dramatized art. The other was, as we saw, the
principle of non-art, according to which everyday life, behavior, and socializa-
tion cause art to lose its boundaries and move towards its so-called end. Chinese
modern and contemporary art in the 20th century did nothing more than follow
these two principles and methods. So-called pure art (with modern abstract
formal language as the most extreme) chose the first principle, the principle of
geometric abstraction, facing the challenge of “you cannot do it any way you
want.” The second path went against art, to the quotidian and the social, where
everyone was an artist, learning the principle of “you can do it any way you want.”
Of course, there was also the third principle, which opened up a new visual formal
language between photographic technology and painting. Bacon, G. Richter, sur-
realism and so forth brought the photographic sense of vision into painting. This
is very classical painting, but it is also a very contemporary visual experience. An
abnormally large number of artists imitate Richter, basically attempting to push
painting into a photographic transformation, searching for a new film form.
The West, however, has never been able to integrate this double bind:
Cézanne’s “you cannot do it any way you want” with Duchamp’s “you can do it
any way you want.” Though Harold Rosenberg once optimistically exclaimed that
“The American vanguard painter took to the white expanse of the canvas as Mel-
ville’s Ishmael took to the sea,” the sea perhaps drowned these artists, or washed
art into the wilderness. According to Fried, after the 1960s, as Western art shifted
towards a new theatrical form through Minimalism (Fried 1998), seeking out sit-
uational and dramatic effects while highlighting the “anything” nature of objects,
18 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

it subjected art to the overall situation and led to the dissolution of the boundaries
of art. Thus, even when one proposed Wittgensteinesque “conventions,” there
was still the question of whether or not people were convinced. Later, the path
of so-called pure art became nothing more than an individual game played by a
small number of artists.
More importantly, Cage’s Zen-like artwork could only happen one time.
Moreover, Duchamp basically gave up on the creation of readymade art in 1936.
White, whether it is the white color of abstraction or the blankness of conceptual
art, faced a crisis. Cézanne made discoveries regarding nature, while Duchamp
fully opened up the possibility of thingness. How can naturalness and thing-
ness be incorporated? Western contemporary art has doubtlessly overlooked
natural-ness and overemphasized the thingness of materiality. We must, there-
fore, rediscover naturalness. Western art mainly shifts between manmade objects,
artworks and gifts, without restoring the manmade object and the gift to nature,
or fully exploiting the latent significance of the natural object. This is connected
to Western culture’s devaluing of natural beauty, an idea discussed by Adorno in
his critical reflection on Hegel’s devaluing of natural beauty in Aesthetic Theory
(Adorno 1997). In this sense, the starting point for Chinese art is how to effect
a dual retreat in the face of the crisis in contemporary Western art. On the one
hand, when facing the question of Minimalism, not moving towards theater but
instead emphasizing the importance of the material—ink as a material (immate-
rial material)—appears particularly important. On the other hand, it is a retreat
to the plane, a stauncher defense of the limitedness of the plane. This is not a
two-dimensional plane but a non-dimensional or zero-dimensional plane, like
the empty plane opened up by the “flying white” in traditional writing, which
maintains the emptiness of the empty.
Chinese contemporary art must engage in a “non-dimensional” opening up of
the plane. It is not one-dimensional painting; black and white painting has broken
the two dimensions, but it also led to the end of painting, the disappearance of
light, the approach of death, the absoluteness of nothingness. It is not the preser-
vation of the two-dimensional plane, either. It is not the plane of the abstract or
the two-dimensionality of Abstract Expressionism, because large, all-over paint-
ing leaves no room. It is not three-dimensional space either—not the theater of
Minimalism. The problem with Japanese Mono-ha is that it brought nature too far
towards theater. It did not merely point to the temporality of the fourth dimen-
sion, like John Cage’s compositions or Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings which
explore the power of the fourth dimension. This in a non-dimensional art: it is
extracted from the “flying white” form of calligraphy, which is not manmade,
Color and White, the Blank Canvas | 19

and it preserves the flow, production, and constant formation of non-dimensional

blankness (or, xu happens in the fifth dimension).
Thus, it is a dual retreat. On the one hand, it is more material, the material
of that which is not material, the leaving of blankness on the paper, not using it,
emptied supernatural properties. On the other hand, it is flatter—non-dimensional,
opening up a dimension that is not a dimension. In facing Minimalism and excess
theatre, it must develop its own independent steps (of both progression and return).
It must move “half a step” forward, become more conceptual and more material. It
is not that conceptual art which is only done one time. Instead, this step forward
allows conceptual art to return to individual life and the body’s experience of aging,
returning to growth. At the same time, it must step back half a step, returning more
to the painted surface, to the limitations inherent to art. In this way, it can open up
a distance between them, open up a crevice of possibility.
By opening up a direct channel to the non-dimensional plane or the
five-dimension via the fourth dimension and reopening the space of the plane,
nurturing space with blankness, using blankness to construct space, the reverse
reconstruction of Chinese contemporary art can begin.
Beginning with white
Beginning with blankness
Beginning anew with emptiness and whiteness

The Crisis Brought about by the Blank Canvas

The so-called “ultimate” monochromatic paintings, or the enactment of changes

on a blank canvas, brought about by the blank canvas, led to the suspension
of painting. In terms of the surface, any blank and flat object could present flat
blankness by opening up the plane; glass, for instance. In terms of technique, flat
brushwork, the act of painting without leaving brushstrokes, was a result of the
simplification of techniques. It may appear to be a painting, but it is not necessar-
ily a success as a work of art. In terms of paint, the so-called monochrome, partic-
ularly the color white, was brought to purity or nothingness, which is the result
of abstraction and minimization. In terms of the readymade, a piece of canvas as
a traditional medium was itself a painting, and there was no need to do anything
to it. The readymade smashed the limitations of painting, and the materials of
painting could now directly manifest thingness. This is why Duchamp set out
from the readymade and completely gave up on painting. But is it a painting? If it
is a painting, then “it should” only be one painting, just one occurrence.
20 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

Thierry de Duve once stated that the blank canvas has always been the allure
of modernist art. Whether it was the pure art of Greenberg or the non-art of
Duchamp, all were pulled in by the magnetism of this flat surface.

Kandinsky, for example, in 1913, praised “this pure canvas that is itself as beautiful as a
picture.” This sensibility accompanied the history of modernist painting all along. When,
as early as 1940, Greenberg spoke of “the pristine flatness of the stretched canvas,” he
was still surrendering to its magnetic appeal. In fact, it is the Mallarmean seduction of
the virgin canvas that is the secret center of convergence of Modernism as “self-critical
tendency” with Formalism as “tropism towards aesthetic value as such.” And it could of
course keep this attractive power only as long as it was itself taboo. With each convention
that proved “expendable,” modernist painting came closer to actualizing the blank canvas.
But the closer its actualization, the thinner its capacity to promise a future. By 1962 this
actualization seemed imminent, and so did the end of modernist painting. In calling the
blank canvas a picture, “though not necessarily a successful one,” Greenberg anticipated
its imminent realization. He didn’t actualize it; he legitimized it instead and in so doing
made its actualization futile. He would probably have been very surprised to learn that he
was joining hands with Duchamp on this issue. (Duve 1998, pp. 253–254)

On the other hand, de Duve also pointed out that Greenberg and Duchamp
may have conspired on the blank canvas, which was the possible result of the
independence of material. He continues:

In Greenberg’s retrospective account, reinterpreted via Duchamp, the history of modern-

ist painting has, at the same time, both fulfilled and exhausted the promises of the blank
canvas. In Kandinsky’s eyes, it was a picture in 1914. It meant that on this tabula rasa a
future abstract language called Malerei was going to be erected. In Greenberg’s eyes, it is
a picture in 1962. It means that modernist painting has finally surrendered to its essence,
to its being, in the present participle. But seen through Duchamp’s eyes, the blank canvas
will have been a picture, for in 1914 it was and in 1962 still is a readymade, in the past
participle—a picture to be made and yet already made. It will have been the picture that
Kandinsky saw, potential and promising, and the one that Greenberg sees, finished even
before it gets started. For it was readymade as early as 1914, the year of the first ready-
made, and would become a finished picture only in 1962, when Greenberg legitimized
it. One can apply to the theme of the virgin canvas (between vierge and mariée, there
has to be le passage de la vierge à la mariée) the same, incredibly subtle treatment which
Duchamp has applied to the theme of the tube of paint. One would then see in it the
same “avant-garde melancholy.” (Duve 1998, p. 254)

But how can it be possible to maintain the virginity or blankness of this bride?
If Duchamp were to return to painting, it would be a blank canvas, but how can
a blank canvas be a painting? This is what led Duchamp towards the “Infram-
ince” in 1937 (Xia 2012). It would appear that Western art found itself paralyzed,
Color and White, the Blank Canvas | 21

at a loss for words, when confronting the blank canvas. This heralded the end
of painting. Greenberg believed that the initial harmony of the blank square of
canvas must be found within the completed painting. But how can it be found?
Has Western painting provided a satisfactory answer?
As Rosalind Krauss, a formalist critic, has declared about the blank canvas:

Within the limits of its rectangular field, a blank canvas presents a viewer with two
(mutually exclusive) inherent conditions or properties. The first involves its physical pres-
ence which the viewer acknowledges when he sees the literal flatness of its surface. The
second is a perceptual property—equally a condition or aspect of the canvas—and that is
the apparent opening up of an infinitely penetrable depth behind that surface. In looking
at a blank canvas, one can either see its flatness (by identifying its flatness as the surface
of an object, impenetrable and unyielding like the surface of any object), or one can see
its nascent space. The blank canvas’s either/ or is like the either/or of a Gestalt puzzle:
one sees it now as a rabbit or now as a duck; it is impossible to see it as both at the same
time. In this situation the alternate and conflicting claims of apparent depth or literal
flatness can neither be adjudicated nor unified. The blank canvas cannot make one pres-
ent through the coherence of the other. The fact that one sees this doubleness is merely
a function of perception. These two irrevocable claims are given with eyesight itself.
(Duve 1998, p. 259)

In the commentary that follows, de Duve wonders whether or not the mental
activity of choosing between the duck and the rabbit in the white canvas is just
another play on words like the “impossibility of iron” (l’impossibilité du fer). But
it is precisely here that a seemingly impossible possibility emerges: what happens
if the blank canvas does possess such rich possibilities? This is the “terror” or
“seduction” that Fried felt towards the blank canvas when reflecting on the art
beginning in the 1960s, the increased theater, the worry that painting would
be forever changed. Or perhaps, as de Duve thought, painting was just special,
while the blank canvas opened up the generality of art. How could the special
and the general be combined? How could it shift towards absolute uniqueness?
How could one set out from the blank canvas, without either merely revealing
the readymade or shifting towards the simplification of monochrome painting or
the nullification of painting, maintaining richness within simplicity? If this “rem-
nantization” (the remnants of remnants and no-remnants) is once again enacted,
what kind of art will result? This is a possible point of growth for Chinese art.
Thus, why does the crisis of the blank canvas emerge? When “conventions”
and the formal linguistic analysis of modernism are no longer effective, how can
the blank canvas promise a future? Rosalind Krauss provides a detailed analysis of
the several key elements of the blank canvas. We will summarize them here:
22 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

(1) The blank canvas is not painted. This is the greatest manifestation of the
concept of the readymade. What could better express the artist’s own non-action?
With the addition of a simple and philosophical title, does it not appear as Zen?
(2) The blank canvas has been “emptied” of everything, and thus appears more
abstract. It is anti-abstract abstraction. Now that everything has been extracted, is
the blank canvas not the most abstract?
(3) The further Western painting shifted towards ultimate painting, towards
so-called monochrome painting, whether it was Rauschenberg’s white paintings
of the 1950s, so-called zero painting, or the later black paintings of Rothko and
others (Rosenthal 2007), the more it pushed painting to its extreme, with the
blank canvas being the most extreme, leading to the refutation of painting itself.
(4) The blank canvas is also the highlighting of the material itself. If the canvas
is itself a material, why not allow it to fully present itself?
Chinese art, however, particularly traditional ink painting, has already con-
fronted the question of white painting:
(1) Under the influence of Zen, Chinese ink art pursued the notion that all
that is visible is empty and all that is empty, visible. From the very beginning, its
pursuit of blankness did not refute painting; instead, it opened up new possibilities
for ink painting.
(2) The simplification of ink painting did not amount to a simple trend
towards Minimalism. For instance, the Zen “simple brush paintings” of the
Northern Song dynasty (960–1127) later grew popular and developed in Japan,
moving towards the richness of nature. Thus, in confronting the aftermath of
minimalist simplification, ink painting may be able to provide a new tension
between simplification and richness.
(3) Ink painting can confront the problems brought about by black painting.
Although black abstract painting does not necessarily bring about the end of paint-
ing, the powerful sense of religiosity in Rothko’s late period black paintings, as well
as the apocalyptic attitude about the end of painting led to the disappearance of
light, the late style of approaching death and the affirmation of absolute nihilism.
The widespread use of “ink” in Chinese culture took on a mournful character in
the Han dynasty (202 B.C.–220)—many of the stele texts from this period are
about death—but the dilution of ink in turn diluted the atmosphere of grief and
death, and opened up the leaving of the scroll paper’s inherent blankness. Thus, in
terms of remnantization, ink and the blankness of the scroll paper can provide new
room for abstract art, perhaps even bringing it back to nature. In highlighting the
materiality of ink painting, how can it be made to possess the expressiveness of the
material and the richness of the object of expression?
Color and White, the Blank Canvas | 23

There are three requirements for setting ink apart from other materials: it
must at once be a “special material,” a “material of material” and an “immaterial
These three connected traits are highly significant, and have connected
requirements. First, the artist must fully express the uniqueness of ink as a
material, discovering how it differs from other materials and highlighting the
uniqueness of this material. This is particularly important in modern art, which
unearths the latent potentials of material itself. Such uniqueness is not partic-
ularly highlighted in traditional ink painting. Though traditional ink painting
makes use of the unique properties of ink, it has not consciously engaged in
unearthing the potential of these properties. Second, the reason that ink is not
merely a material but materiality itself is because ink art turns a natural mate-
rial (water) into the most expressive of materials. The natural object is neither
a readymade object nor a manmade object, and this natural element becomes
the leading factor. The question of how to further develop other related natural
and elemental traits is the task and potential for Chinese contemporary art.
Third, the material of ink is not a material, because it contains the coming of
emptiness. This emptiness that is not of man’s creation has been miraculously
integrated with the natural materiality of ink, and the naturalness has height-
ened the emptiness to the point that one gains the sense that the materiality has
been reduced to the bare minimum. The contemporary artist must convey these
three properties simultaneously for a fundamental expansion of the language of
ink and the possibilities of contemporary art.
Beginning with white.
Beginning with blankness.
Beginning with action and non-action.
Beginning anew with action through non-action.

The Crisis Brought about by Jackson

Pollock’s Drip Painting

The creative transformation of Western modern art was most profound with Pol-
lock. The outdoor life painting of the impressionists confronted the temporal
changes in nature. The expressionists faced changes in living emotion. The formal
extraction engaged by the cubists was an expression of freedom. The dadaists
opened up the dream world of the unconscious. The sense of freedom and infinite
24 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

opening of the fourth dimension, however, only became total and clear with Jack-
son Pollock. After Pollock spent some time imitating European expressionism
and cubism, he had to discover a mechanism for creative transformation within
American culture. He retreated to Long Island and began experimenting with
drips (Franscina 2000).
This bold step of no longer contacting the canvas led to an astonishing devel-
opment. In several thousand years, Western culture had never broken contact
with the plane, never broken the contact between the brush and the canvas, but
now, with Pollock, a break occurred. Now, the fourth dimension could directly
reach the second dimension and even the lines of the first dimension, allowing
the lines of the first dimension to revolve without limit. This art appears at first to
be mere performance art or action painting, but this step away rendered all tech-
niques meaningless, with profound effects. Although from Malevich to Mondrian
the techniques of Realism and modeling, as well as the depictions of scenes and
life, had all been reduced to the absolute minimum, to the point of mere design,
it was Pollock and his drips that gave the fatal blow. It now appeared that no
technique at all was needed; mere drippings by a child or a lunatic would seem to
suffice. Of course, we know that this dripping is actually quite difficult. Pollock
had an almost hallucinatory perception of colors, and a lasting experience in the
vertigo created by colors and shape, and so he preserved the invisible movements
of this vertigo, as well as certain allusions. Within this blurred haze, one could still
see the beginnings of form.
The brushless approach of drip painting had drastic results, causing every
painter after Pollock to be filled with doubts and emptiness when they picked
up the brush. Now, the brush was no longer necessary, and not using a brush
almost became a necessity for the painted arts. The brushless approach brought
immense pressure, leading to a crisis in painting. Painting was no longer the only
technique, and the contact between hand and brush, brush and canvas, lost its
singular nature. Meanwhile, this brought new opportunities and challenges to
painting. Later painters, such as Barnett Newman and even Alberto Giacometti,
engaged in painting that destroyed form or even destroyed painting. The painting
that followed had to confront its own destruction and impossibility, it had to con-
front the radicalization of the brushless approach, to the point of even discarding
painting and shifting towards installation and video art. The question of how to
reintegrate the brush and the brushless had to be solved in order for painting to
be possible again.
Color and White, the Blank Canvas | 25

Later developments have shown us that this act of dripping and brushless
painting ended the possibility of painting, in the sense of painting techniques,
subjects, and meaning, because such dripping brought painting to the extreme of
abstraction, making the substantiation of Minimalism possible. Now, there was
no more reason to paint. One could just place a substance or object directly in
the exhibition space. All it needed was a bit of form. This is why Western painting
constantly faced its own end, lingering on in its last gasps.
But it still had to continue. It had to preserve this action and had to reopen
the plane, but it also had to preserve Duchamp’s readymade. Thus, it had to pos-
sess three necessary elements: random or serendipitous actions or an opportunity
for leaving the plane; the acceptance of the readymade or the preservation of the
readymade properties of the material; the reopening of the plane.
We did see some efforts in that direction later. For instance, in Robert Ryman’s
attempts to open up a white space upon white, which was also an attempt to pre-
serve the readymade properties of the canvas and reopen the two-dimensional
plane. His attempt, however, lacked the action we saw in Pollock, or at least the
subtle changes on the surface lacked the kind of effect we saw in Pollock’s drips.
Gerhard Richter’s realist and abstract paintings, particularly the abstract paintings
which possessed the movement of action, truly had similar connotations with
Pollock’s drips. This was especially the case with Richter’s later paintings, where
he used a specially-made palette knife, which he would use to scrape around
paints applied to the canvas, creating various layers of paint and scrape marks,
like stacked abstract traces. These colors and traces would stack up together, and
he would then use the palette knife again to adjust them. This is no longer the
palette knife in the normal sense, but the use of a tool. It was not quite as absolute
as Pollock leaving the canvas, but it was still indirect.
The question is how to preserve the relativity of action painting seen in Pol-
lock’s drip paintings. Not setting out to paint, not acting, it is painting which
you cannot do any way you want (you can no longer touch the painted surface).
At the same time, it opens up the rich effects of the painting, you can do it any
way you want (the drips or swirls are repeatedly covered ad infinitum, creating
an endless sense of expansiveness of the canvas). It also poses a challenge to any
painting technique, which is why Western art later shifted towards conceptual art
and serendipitous art. The visual aspect of Pollock’s drip paintings, however, has
a strong perceptual effect, one which transcends any technical depiction. This is
where Pollock’s paintings are both bizarre and marvelous. How can there be possi-
bility, that freedom represented by drip painting, and the directness of opening up
26 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

four-dimensional space, while also having the infinite richness and subtle changes
of the painting, transcend all painting techniques?
If there is a new painting art, it should be able to face the challenge raised by
Pollock. It will possess the non-contact and non-action of Pollock’s drip paintings
while bringing about a more profound visual effect, but it will also be different from
Pollock, because after all, Pollock did end Western modern painting and brought
about conceptual art, bringing art into a crisis. Can Chinese culture face this chal-
lenge? If there is an opportunity, then the brush and the brushless must be achieved
simultaneously—the paradoxical tension between Cézanne and Duchamp must be
maintained. Perhaps Chinese culture has faced such a challenge before, and the
response and its principles are worth learning from:
Namely, Chinese culture has always had an action tradition akin to “dripping”.
The birth of Chinese calligraphy and ink landscape painting came about from the
spattering of ink, which in turn developed into free painting; it had the same effect,
through a different route, as Pollock’s drip painting. Thus, Chinese culture has
already faced this challenge, and it catalyzed a new art form. The question of how to
transform it today, however, is a difficult one.
The key is a clear principle, and that principle is found in Laozi’s (Lao Tzu)’s
Dao De Jing: “The Dao abides in non-action, yet nothing is left undone.” On
the one hand, do not act, do not paint, discard all existing methods and use the
simplest, most rapid of other methods: the spattering of ink and the dripping
of paint. On the other hand, there must be action. This action is allowing noth-
ing to act. Now that there is spattering and dripping, we cannot return to the
meticulous brushwork of yore, but there must still be brush technique. Even
if there is no brush technique at all, it must be a single-occurrence, as seen in
cursive calligraphy writing. Simplification easily leads to the loss of richness.
How do we maintain the simplicity of drip painting without losing richness?
Pollock’s drip painting brought vertigo to the picture and a sense of infinite
spiritual depth, but it was not refined or rich enough, like certain corrections
by Mark Tobey. How can we have the simplicity or non-action of the drip while
maintaining the richness of action? How can this principle undergo a modern
The highest realm in Chinese art is not painting but achieving the “unpainted
painting.” This relates to the Islamic miniature painters who would eventually
go blind. They do not see the world through their eyes, but through the eyes of
Allah. Only then can they reach the highest realm. In Chinese painting, there is
the “leaving of white.” It is not intentional inaction, which would just amount
to nothing. Instead, it lets the nothing do the doing, using the remnant white to
Color and White, the Blank Canvas | 27

touch on the edges of the existing forms and thus bring about living, subtle shifts,
quivering. This is an opening onto the infinite. This demand of an “unpainted
painting” happens to be related to Pollock’s non-action. This non-action, this lack
of contact with the painted surface, made all techniques irrelevant. The discarding
of technique in Chinese art, this concept of the “freshness beyond adeptness,” is
also a kind of non-action. It turns around and lets the blankness do the action.
This is the artistic transformation of “letting the nothing do the doing.” How can
this principle be transformed anew? This method cannot be simply repeated. It
must be transformed.
Let us return to the white of a blank painting. It is both the disappearance
of the object and the presentation of that object’s disappearance. “White” pro-
duces space and the marks of separation. White is the turning of spacelessness, the
empty level of the turning space. White is an elegant rhetoric of blankness. White
or blankness opens up permeation, embodied in concrete form as a “permeating
qi (breath, vitality, energy).” We find it in the architecture of traditional Chinese
landscape gardens, or the empty permeation of landscape paintings where the
“leaving of white” or “leaving blank” is the best embodiment of a sense of perme-
ation. In this regard, it is not to be understood in terms of the tension between the
visible and invisible in the West. Instead, it operates within the tension between
permeation and blockage. White is manifest in concrete form as a white vapor or
qi, one which pulses about the curves of light and rigidity. In Chinese calligraphy,
it is a snaking curve or the quivering breath of the blankness left by “flying white.”
While holding us within the texture of form, it possesses cool balance and dilu-
tion. Pure white is dazzling, bringing a sense of vertigo and dizziness. Whoever
can grind down the extreme white, whoever can penetrate back through the space
on the extreme lines, that person can turn temperature into intangibility, which
will melt back down to the “pill of immortality” (a mysterious material pursued
by Daoist alchemists), and white will be his reward. White is the principle of
permeability, the life principle of the sense of permeation. It brings tolerance, and
tolerance requires breathing.
The great blankness makes us halt. How should we respond? This is the
“emergence of white” through the cessation of emptiness. It is yielding and
non-action, and it is also the closest to visual contact and the boundaries of the
inner mind. Blankness is hollowing out, the highest form of poetry in Chinese
culture. It is a perception rooted in the Dao.
Since Chinese culture does not have the complete rift seen in Western cul-
ture, its task becomes all the more arduous. It must have a rift but also continu-
ation. In other words, it must have the dripping and non-action of Pollock, but
28 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

it also must have the comprehensive restoration. Pollock opened up a rift, and
did not restore the entirety of tradition, thus leading towards the end of painting.
This has actually occurred in Chinese culture as well. The rise of Zen art led to a
crisis in painting. Zen art was very simple and sparse, shifting towards action and
performance (similar to the theater of Minimalism). Chinese landscape painting,
however, restored the vitality of nature. It maintained the conditional require-
ment of “form is emptiness, emptiness is form,” but it opened up the richness
of nature, particularly the endlessly proliferating changes brought about by the
touching of the atmospheric margins by blankness. As discussed above, ink in
Chinese ink painting differs from other materials in three regards: it is a special
material, a material material, and an immaterial material.
The question of how to engage in more self-aware expression of these three
aspects is the great test of every contemporary ink painter. There are three require-
ments here. First, there is the question of how to convey the uniqueness or special
character of ink painting as a material. What makes it different? Here, the artist is
no longer expressing the subject but the uniqueness of the material itself. Second,
the artist must answer the question of why ink painting is not just a material but
material itself. It is because naturalness (water) has itself become a material. It is
not a readymade or a manmade object. Instead, it is the insertion of naturalness,
this naturalness becoming the primary element. Third, ink painting as a material
is not a material. This is because of the arrival of emptiness. It is the marvel-
ous integration of non-manmade emptiness and naturalness, allowing for ample
expression of this emptiness to the point that the material aspect seems to have
been reduced to the bare minimum. These are necessary requirements for any
contemporary ink artist.

Adorno, T. W. 1997, Aesthetic Theory, Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann (eds.), Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press.
Cheng, F. 1979, Vide et plein: Le langage pictural chinois, Paris: Éditions du Seuil, p. 106.
————. 1994, Empty and Full: The Language of Chinese Painting, Boston: Shambhala, p. 97.
Duve, T. D. 1991, Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp’s Passage from Painting to the Ready-
made, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p. 157.
————. 1998, Kant After Duchamp, Cambridge: MIT Press.
Frascina, F. (ed.). 2000, Pollock and After: The Critical Debate, 2nd edition, London: Routledge.
Fried, M. 1998, Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews, Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
p. 169.
Color and White, the Blank Canvas | 29

Joseph, B. W. 2000, “White on White,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 90–121.
Rauschenber, R. 1977, National Collection of Fine Arts (U.S.), Washington, D.C. 1977, p. 3.
Rosenthal, S. (ed.). 2007, Black Paintings: Robert Rauschenberg, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, Frank
Stella, Berlin and Stuttgart: Hatje Cantz.
Serres, M. 1995, Genesis, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, p. 48.
Wittgenstein, L. 1978, Remarks on Color, G. E. M. Anscombe (ed.), California: University of Cal-
ifornia Press.
Xia, K. 2012, Infra-Mince: Duchamp and Chuang Tzu, Nanjing: Jiangsu Fine Art Press.

Remnant and White, Color

and Blankness, Qi and White


Wittgenstein: If all the colors became whitish the picture would lose more and more
depth. Lichtenberg speaks of “pure white” and means by that the
lightest of colors. No one could say that of pure yellow. We often
speak of white as not colored. Why? (We even do it when we are not
thinking about transparency.) (Wittgenstein 1978)
Jacques Derrida: Toward the epekeina tes ousia: a hymen (a closeness and veil) between
Plato’s sun and Mallarme’s lustre. This “materialism of the idea” is
nothing other than the staging, the theater, the visibility of nothing or
of the self. It is a dramatization which illustrates nothing, which illus-
trates the nothing, lights up a space, re-marks a spacing as a nothing,
a blank: white as a yet unwritten page, blank as a difference between
two lines. (Derrida 1992)
Thierry De Duve: Not until the Renaissance, when a painting began to be seen as an
illusionistic window, did it detach itself from the wall, distinguish
itself from the mural, gain mobility and autonomy from architecture
and become “a plane one or two inches in front of another plane, the
wall, and parallel to it,” as Judd said. There is nothing essential to
this plane’s flatness, nothing essential either to its whiteness. The easel
painting may share its rigid flatness with the retable and with the wall;
it doesn’t share it with the baroque cupola, the Greek vase, or the Chi-
nese scroll. And the painter’s virgin canvas shares its whiteness with
the writer’s blank page more than it does with other artifacts belong-
ing to its own tradition, linen fabric included. The Venetians didn’t
gesso their canvases; they used a red undercoat. Not only are all con-
ventions historical and not ontological, specific in the sense that they
32 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

are embedded in a tradition rather than in the nature of the medium,

but the one convention that modernism has not relinquished, the one
that has heightened its purist sensibility for the surface so much, owes
more to Mallarme and the symbolist crossover of painting and poetry
than it does to its own history since the Renaissance. (Duve 1998)
Heart Sutra: Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form is no different from
emptiness, and emptiness no different from form. All that is form is
empty, all that is empty is form.
Wang Yu: Pure emptiness—that is the supreme state toward which every artist
strives. It is only when one first apprehends it in one’s heart that
one can reach it. As in Ch’an illumination, suddenly one becomes
absorbed in the full-blown emptiness.
Huang Binhong: In the executed stroke, there has to be the rhythm: one, two, three
ripples…In painting, connecting one line with another does not
amount to grafting one branch onto another. A graft has solidity in
view, whereas the execution of brushstrokes seeks not to stifle the
breath…A line is made up of points. Each of the points has an exis-
tence of its own: It promises a multitude of transformations. To place
a point is to plant a seed. The seed must grow and develop…Even in
making a point, it is suitable for there to be emptiness in the fullness.
Only then does the point become living, as though animated by the
spirit…A picture begins with the marks of brush-ink and seeks to end
up with the non-marks of brush-ink. To start from the distinct and
tangible and attain full-blown emptiness-that is not within reach of
the beginner. (Cheng 1994)

When the sentence “Form is no different from emptiness, emptiness no different

from form, form is emptiness and emptiness is form” of the Mahayana Buddhist
Heart Sutra was translated by master Xuanzang (602–664) and stripped of its
specific context, simplified and cut off in a Zen fashion, it became a maxim of
Chinese cultural life, something that anyone was prone to randomly utter. “Form
is emptiness and emptiness is form,” without any conditions or presuppositions,
can be appropriated at will, as if it is the magic elixir of life.
1. But when we confront this sentence itself, its internal tension opens up the
“principles” that distinguish between materiality and the world. I will now engage
in a separate reading which contains distinctions or boundaries:
1.1 On one hand, everything in the world is the result of harmonious cause
and effect, and thus it is the phenomenal world of appearance, completely lacking
in self-essence. It is semblance and illusion, and thus it must be broken and emp-
tied, because it is not real, but empty. One must constantly clear out false names
and appearances, constantly renounce the world. But for people in the world, no
Remnant and White, Color and Blankness, Qi and White | 33

matter how much is emptied out, there will always be remnant appearances as
well as the shadows of cycle of life and death. This is the retention of “remnants.”
1.2 On the other hand, emptiness is the entry into a tranquil state of release.
But emptiness requires the governing principles of the world in order to mani-
fest—it cannot devolve into the emptiness of itself, becoming utterly deserted.
After renouncing the world, it must return to the world. To be a Bodhi is to suffer.
The Bodhi must turn knowledge into wisdom, returning again to the world of
man to transform the sentient world. Meanwhile, emptiness must “empty itself,”
but this “empty emptiness” will retain certain remnants, as well as concern and
redemptive benevolence towards all of the infinite things in the mortal world.
This is the afterimage that remains after the emptying or the removal of all rem-
nants, the afterimage upon which empty emptiness rests.
2. This passage, however, must be read together. One must break it up for
expanded reading while also linking and folding it together for connected read-
ing. In this way, a subtle fold is produced:
2.1 There are two types of “remnant visages” (after-image with aura of empty):
The first is the “remnant visage” that remains from the negation and removal of
“all form is empty.” The second is the “remnant visage” of the affirmation of emp-
tiness itself found in “all that is empty is form,” as well as the remnants placed
onto that emptiness. Between these two “remnant visages,” there are fine distinc-
tions and overlaps. They are both remnants, one a superfluous or extra remnant,
the so-called vestiges of remnant nirvana. The other is the remnant of no-rem-
nants, the so-called vacancy or remnant thoughts of the no-remnant nirvana. The
two, however, have differences:
2.11 The former consists of the remnants of the various desires of the world
of man. They are mere remnants, the inveterate habits that cannot be dislodged,
the leaky, clinging habits accumulated over time that require more time to dispel.
They require time and patience, but these habits are not necessarily affirmed.
2.12 The latter is the sentimental concern that remains for the world itself
when there are no thoughts or desires regarding the world of man (not the things
in the world, not the vestiges of habits from above). This world has no self-nature,
but there are still infinite hopes or boundaries clinging to it.
2.2 Thus, the two overlap, stacking and alternating over one another:
2.21 On one hand, there will always be remnants no matter how much is
cleared away from the world of man. These, however, are just remnants. They are
not whole, and not independent, and they are constantly being remnantized.
2.22 On the other hand, there are the hopes for the world itself, the limited
time of unlimited coming, the temporal markers of the coming of redemption.
34 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

This temporality is the limitation of the limitless. Much of the time, it is entrusted
on the remnant, choosing that which will remain. Many other times, it is the
direct coming.
3. With these principles, the contributions and related limitations of Zen
become apparent:
3.1. First, when directed at the in-between area of folds, Zen apparently
enacts dual simplification quite well. It is the harbinger of demythologization, an
early self-deconstruction of Buddhism. That is to say, there is only the slightest
difference between the so-called mortal world and nirvana. In other words, it is all
the mortal world. In Buddhism after demythologization, all we see is the mortal
world, this world and only this world. But our way of seeing it has changed. First
is the method of the mortal world, a method removed from the mortal world
(but still of the mortal world; there is no other world or separate nirvana realm),
but there are intersections in the ways of seeing it, while there are fundamental
differences as well. It opens up a fissure, a crevice.
3.11 On the one hand, there is the simplification of the former, the removal,
through the simplest methods, of all emotional vexations of the mortal world. In
particular, the method of remnantization has been found. Zen master Huineng
(638–713) was a remnant of life. From the very beginning, he came to the mar-
gins. Compared to Shenxiu (606–706)’s “The body is a bodhi tree, the mind a
clear mirror / we must always strive to polish it, and not allow dust to collect,” this
remnantization is more total.
3.12 On the other hand, however, Zen also does well at reducing all of the
fantasies about empty desolation. In the notion that such simple acts as boiling
water and chopping firewood can lead to enlightenment, it shows that any action
can embody the Dao. Thus, “The Bodhi has no tree, the clear mirror no stand /
Buddha-nature is always clear and pure / where does the dust itself collect?” There
is still a clear mirror, an object. There is no way to refute these external things.
Instead, one faces these things anew, and within that, there is enlightenment.
3.2 The result, however, is the oversimplification of the tension between form
and emptiness. Zen has folded up the superfluous remnants and the remnant
notions of no-remnants, often stacking them together, to the point that Zen
becomes a narrow space between renunciation and engagement with the world, a
small crevice between the two, one which either seals or separates.
3.21 On the one hand, one can vacillate between renunciation of the world
and engagement with the world. There is no longer the difficulty of shifting
consciousness to attain wisdom, and the trivial cultivation methods of the past
have been discarded. Now there is nothing but swaying between remnants and
Remnant and White, Color and Blankness, Qi and White | 35

remnant notions. This is particularly evident when directed at “thought.” The

concept of “unconscious thoughts” is evidently the most direct and important
contribution of Zen.
3.22 On the other hand, it is in the in-between, the maintenance of this
between state, the wavering in-between, the use of wordplay to constantly expand
this crevice. It does not cling to or rely on either renunciation or engagement, but
takes place within linguistic games such as deliberation. It completes itself and
depletes itself, and is even more apparent when it is solely directed at the shifts
and removal of notions. This would have a profound impact on Wang Yangming
(1472–1529)’s philosophy of mind and the various schools which followed.
4. The question then, is how to return to the relationship between “form”
and “emptiness”—emptiness is form and form is emptiness. In this pursuit, the
Zen simplification must be maintained, but the rich tension of the world must
also be restored. How is this possible? How can the small amount of difference or
superfluity be turned into infinite richness, infinite surplus?
4.1 First, we must affirm the conditions that Buddhism has already estab-
lished, and respect these conditions, namely the condition of remnantization.
4.11 But we cannot simplify in the Zen way, yet Zen simplification must be
the precondition. This is a necessary condition for remnantization.
4.12 Though we want to return to the richness of the relationship between
form and emptiness, it cannot be the kind of richness that already exists in the
world of man. Remnants without remnants is a necessary precondition.
4.2 How, after the remnantization of the remnant and no-remnant state can
there still be the richness of the relationship between “form” and “emptiness”?
There is the possibility of surplus, and of course there is another kind of surplus.
Here we see the emergence of literati painting, or the ink landscape painting that
began with Wang Wei (701–761). Wang Wei’s name has a somewhat Buddhist
ring to it. His nickname was “Mojie,” and he would often sign paintings and
poems as “Wei Mojie,” which is a reference to the Vimalakirti Sutra. In his Epi-
graph for Zen Master Huineng, he writes, “Having nothing to abandon brings one
to the source of all activity. Having no emptiness in which to reside is to know the
essence of emptiness. To be motionless in solitude, one gains nothing and nothing
is lost.” And the statement “The Way permeates the four types of birth, relying
always on the six destinies” in particular is connected to “The Dharma is of this
mortal world, not apart from awareness in the world; seeking the Bodhi outside
of this world is like seeking the horns on a rabbit.”
4.21 On one hand, Wang Wei faced the brilliant gold and green landscape
paintings of the High Tang, particularly the Buddhist story depictions such as
36 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

those found in the Dunhuang Grottoes, which were used to spread doctrines
derived from very complex reasoning and needed to be simplified, totally sim-
plified. Wang Wei, who had a close relationship with Buddhist master Shenhui
(688–758), apparently had a strong affinity for the Zen spirit. Simplification was
a must, and for this, the colors had to be reduced, and so he used the writing
brush by his side. Whether or not this was inspired by the white paintings of Wu
Daozi (685–758) and others, this simplification or remnantization was essential.
4.22 On the other hand, mere simplification was not enough. It also had to
contain the richness of the relationship between form and emptiness. Wang Wei’s
own poetry sought to open this rich relationship, seeking it out in the return to
nature: “There is no rain over the mountain path; it is the emerald green of the sky
that wets my clothing” (from the poem In the Mountains). That is because nature
is not of the world of man. The world of man is composed of fame, fortune and
the connected desires and greed. In this world, stubbornness is born of the excess
of desire. After simplification or remnantization, however, there is still naturalness
within human nature, and this is something upon which Confucian and Daoist
religions rely. Once the social principles and hierarchal order are removed from
the world of man, what about the naturalness of human nature, the naturalness
of external nature? How do we bring attention back to it? How do we reaffirm it?
5. Thus, the discovery of naturalness becomes the key to reopening the rela-
tionship between form and emptiness:
5.1 Naturalness includes two types of naturalness. This is the restoration of
the remnantization of “form is emptiness” within the relationship between form
and emptiness:
5.11 On one hand, there is the naturalness within man, those principles that
stand before animal nature and the excess of desire in human nature (this is the
lack of self-nature, the force and violence of human nature); how can this natu-
ralness internal to human nature be awakened? This naturalness clearly does not
possess the stubbornness that grows out of greed. Nature itself cannot fall into
moral judgments. Of course, the natural principle of the weak getting eaten by
the strong must also be removed, so one must return to a state of primal chaos,
a state which precedes the principles of the natural world. This is taking Bud-
dhism back to Daoism, a mutation or a return to a neutralized natural state, like
Confucianism going back to a point which transcends kinship and family ties, to
a state of mutual awareness and perception with nature. Wang Wei’s poetry con-
tains this kind of emotional, neutral relationship with nature. Du Fu (712–770)’s
poetry also sometimes contains emotional sentiments regarding nature. These are
Remnant and White, Color and Blankness, Qi and White | 37

feelings in a natural state. Thus, it is an infinite affirmation of naturalness, rather

than a descent into desolate emptiness.
5.12 On the other hand, there is the naturaness of nature, the natural state
of this nature, before the principles of animal nature. It is the vitality of nature’s
birth, growth and change, possessing an affirmation towards the perceptivity of
life, a limitless affirmation. It is like Nietzsche going back to the primal chaos and
rediscovering life’s will to power. It is will derived from this will, the methods of
endurance and adaptation compelled by primal chaos, and thus, there is then the
need for diffusing restoration from the Dao. This is a natural state in the midst
of diffusion and change, nature within birth and death. This birth and death is
like the communication between form and vision in the Buddhist phenomenal
world—things in the mortal world truly lack self-nature; karmic relationships are
fleeting (just as Nietzsche’s objection to the grammatical violence of cause and
effect and unity). Everything is in a state of instantaneous birth and death, but
this birth and death at once possesses the vitality of change. This is a more total
transformation of Daoism towards Buddhism.
5.2 So, after discovering such naturalness, we must accept another, more total
transformation, the remnantization of “emptiness is form” in the relationship
between form and emptiness:
5.21 On one hand, how does a relationship take place between “emptiness”
and the natural world? This brings us back to the valley spirit, the female mystery
and the great ravine of Laozi and Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu). This great ravine con-
stantly swallows the clouds, but it does not retain anything, nor does it spit them
out. The transformation of this swallowing is just a transformation and a passage.
It is the open and receiving field of emptiness. The transformations of the open
field and the clouds are similar in terms of temporal and spatial games, just like
Heidegger’s mystification of time, play and space.
5.22 On the other hand, how can “emptiness” possess “formness”? That is the
color or appearance that nature can retain. It is not a certain color of nature itself,
but something that must undergo a more total remnantization, once more receiv-
ing the mystification of Daoism, returning to the transformation of the mystery
beyond mystery. This is a dark mystery, but it is not black, nor is it white; it is in
a constant, subtle process of shifting between black and white, like the bound-
ary colors of which Goethe spoke. The underlying color tone, however, is black,
or more precisely, dark, because if it were still black, still a color, then it would
belong to a certain natural color view, when it should be the non-color color left
behind by the restoration of no-remnants, i.e. dark.
38 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

6. Here we have the moment of Wang Wei’s discovery of ink landscape paint-
ing. His main discovery was how to create an encounter between water, ink and
scroll paper, depicting natural objects without falling into Zen simplification yet
still opening up the richness of the relationship between form and emptiness, a
relationship even richer than that found in Buddhism, while also serving as an
affirmation of the perceptivity of life. This opened up an entirely new and fresh
world, a new world that had been narrowed by Zen “in-between games.” It is the
natural world opened up by landscape painting:
6.1 When the materials water, ink, natural landscapes and scroll paper col-
lide, how to do so in a way that meets the above requirements?
6.11 Water is not just a readymade object; it is a natural object. This natu-
ral object, however, is colorless and transparent. With its fundamental colorless
nature, it can serve as a stand-in for emptiness as form.
6.12 Ink is a readymade object, a readymade material that is at hand because
of its use in calligraphy and writing. It is also the color of darkness, the remnant of
the remnant nirvana. As the dark color or the color black, it is an allusion to the
desolation of death. It is the remnantization of color and the mortal world. It is
also connected to material itself. The ink forms a natural contrasting relationship
with the white of scroll paper.
6.13 Thus, the encounter between water and ink, the so-called mutual
destruction of ink and water, wherein ink penetrates water and water penetrates
ink, comes to form an internally relational language, the language of water-based
ink. Here, painters began to discard the views on color found in the green and
gold painting of the past. Of course, mineral pigments and other fixed colors
would be restored, but it would happen through dilution and control under a
plain color view. This language of mutual destruction between water and ink is a
fold of remnantization. It is not, however, merely a fold or merely “in-between.”
It is not a Zen reduction, because that is a mere ink game, merely the so-called
simple brushwork and Zen painting of the Song dynasty (960–1279). This new
approach contained the richness of the turn. Once it became connected to the
bearing of the natural landscape, as seen in Guo Xi (1000–1087)’s rolling clouds,
it would constantly turn and spin, and would no longer be an “in-between fold.”
Instead, it would approach the natural bearing of diffusion more closely.
6.2 This language of water and ink is also an encounter with nature, particu-
larly the confluence between the natural landscape and materials:
6.21 On one hand, there is the depiction of the natural landscape, and there
really were regional depictions, as well as travelers, but these people were either
hermits or passersby, and so were under the control of passing time. They were
Remnant and White, Color and Blankness, Qi and White | 39

people outside of the scene or people who had already been remnantized. What
landscape painting captures is that state of change. This was effected through the
emergence of the chapped brushing technique. Chapping is merely the leaving of
the tactile sense of stone, but with vivid changes and the movement of the clouds,
it is naturally remnantized by the vapor of clouds. Here, “qi” and “white” have
produced a new activating relationship.
6.22 On the other hand, this qi (breath, vitality, energy) of natural change
contains the vividness of vapor, but it must be further emptied. This is done
through the leaving of blank spaces in the picture. This was derived from early
snow-scape paintings, as remarked by Wang Wei, because the snowy white of
snow-scape paintings is a kind of emptied white. It is not the same as the empty
form of Buddhism. Instead, it is a much richer emptying that is connected to
naturalness. Later on, the snowy white was expanded to become the unpainted
painting of the scroll paper. This linked the empty form of Buddhism together
with Daoist non-action, using the ground as snow, emptying out the white of the
scroll paper. This blankness catalyzes, in a reverse manner, the vividness of the
atmosphere, making it all the more marvelous and mysterious.
7. In this sense, ink painting provides a principle of transformation.
7.1 It must meet the requirement of “remnantization” in the “form-empti-
ness” view, and so “water-based ink” creation has, from its outset, been a form
of philosophy or religion. It is far from just a technical or artistic endeavor. It
requires much of the artist or creator, just like Wang Wei, the founder of ink land-
scape painting, whose spiritual character was of the highest caliber. It is clearly
quite difficult to reduce materials to such an extent while also opening them up
so much.
7.2 It must also bestow richness on the world, reactivating the rich folds or
spinning vitality of the form-emptiness view through the discovery of new natu-
ralness, while not falling into empty nihilism.
7.3 The aim of engaging in this thinking is to respond to the crisis of West-
ern contemporary art. The minimalism that emerged after American abstract
expressionism was a kind of Western response to Eastern Zen. Minimalism was
an inevitable result of Western abstract art, just as literati painting confronted the
simplified brushwork of the Zen painting that arose in the Song dynasty. Now,
after minimalism, zero art and China’s so-called maximalism, a richer natural
world unfolds before us. The only question is how to open it up. The key is in
Western minimalism’s shift towards thingness, the so-called theatricalization of
material production and thingness, and in how to pull it back in and remnantize
40 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

it while also opening up rich naturalness. The occurrence of a new relationship

between “thingness” and “naturalness” has become the key for future art.
7.4 It is in this sense that contemporary Chinese ink art differs from tradi-
tion, particularly in the nomenclature of “ink art,” which highlights the impor-
tance of material itself. The ample use of wateriness and the leaving of blankness
on the scroll paper or silk are connected to the principles of remnantization. I call
it “remnant blankness.” This is certainly not the term used in tradition, which
called it “left blankness.” Perhaps the term “remnant blankness” seems a bit Japa-
nese, but it does bring about consciousness. Even though traditional approaches
applied the principles of water and ink, they did not consciously reflect on them.

Cheng, F. 1994, Empty and Full: The Language of Chinese Painting, Boston: Shambhala, p. 70.
Derrida, J. 1992, Acts of Literature, New York: Routledge, p. 160.
Duve, T. D. 1998, Kant After Duchamp, Cambridge: MIT Press, p. 251.
Wittgenstein, L. 1978, Remarks on Color, G. E. M. Anscombe (ed.), California: University of Cal-
ifornia Press, p. 44.

Empty and White, Empty—

Substance, the Empty Room
Filled with Light


M. Serres: When Zola, in the Dream, returns to a completely blank book, where
proper names are lost, where the traces of bodies are erased, where
the marks of sins are effaced beneath the immaculate cotton, under
the chrism of extreme unction, when Melville, across the seven seas,
chases the white whale to the death, white with fright, white with
ecstasy, when the whaler dies from meeting up with it; when Musil
constructs a space and a being without qualities, when I call forth the
ballet of Alba, we are all in search of what Plato named the chora, a
smooth and blank space prior to the sign: it is the dancer’s body and
it is the blank page, the virginal wax, where the choreographer writes.
(Serres 1995)
Wu Jingxu: There are empty poems and substantive poems, empty-empty poems
and substance-substantive poems. Some are substantive and empty,
the two running in parallel and overlapping, but how do we tell? If
there is anything taboo in such writing, it is emptiness within emp-
tiness, or substance within the substantive. A poem must have sub-
stance in emptiness, emptiness in substance.
Fan Ji: Paintings can contain emptiness and substance. The emptiness is
clear, and the substance is never not clear. People know that the places
unpainted are empty, but they do not know that the substantive parts
42 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

are not devoid of emptiness. When the brush touches the paper,
contains both emptiness and substance, and the brush remains agile,
what about the imagery? People are even less aware that there is sub-
stance in the unpainted portions. Though the brush has not touched
that place, the painter’s intent has. In the empty portions of the
painting, substance is equally in effect. The places covered in fog and
clouds, which are called blank, embody the floating, flowing feel of qi,
spreading and surging. From afar, it appears to be a stretch of white.
We see the substance through the emptiness. This floating, flowing
qi is used to finely tune the contrasts between dark and light in the
mountain forests. If such a layout is used simply to cover mistakes, for
decorative effect, or to enhance emptiness, then it loses its vastness,
because one can see that its substance lacks a clear path. The empti-
ness must be clear, the substance always clear.
Da Chongguang: The substantive emptiness of the landscape is found in the clouds
and fog; the empty substance is found in pagodas and pavilions. The
mountain forms wish to turn, to spin against their bearing; the trees
wish to rise up, towering over themselves. The thickest parts of the
mountains are the deepest; when water is tranquil, it is in motion.
The dark shadows of the forest build themselves in the mind. Where
does one set down the brush out in the open, away from the moun-
tains? It is difficult to approach the essence of emptiness. When the
actual scene is clear, the empty scene emerges. The spirit cannot be
painted. The sprit is born from the true circumstance. Positions halt
each other, and the painted areas are often so many warts. Emptiness
and substance generate each other, and that which is untouched by
the brush is truly miraculous.
Dong Qichang: Hardly does the brush touch the paper and already shapes in relief
appear! (Cheng 1994, p. 74)
Yun Shouping: The vaporous tone of nature, the mutual generation of emptiness and
substance, this is the essence of Ju Ran. Those who understand this
may encounter him for a short while.
Zong Baihua: In Chinese painting, blankness is not just the outline of the myriad
things. It permeates and fuses into the myriad things, taking part in
the “Dao” of their internal motions. The interplay between emptiness
and substance, light and dark in a painting produces a hazy, floating
atmosphere, just like the true mountain landscapes we see with our

Empty—Empty—Substance—Substance, Substance—Substance—Empty—
Empty. This is a difficult expression, as well as an overly smooth pretext.
Once modern Chinese begins to repeat these language conventions, it will
begin to become too smooth and slippery, thoughts sliding around as if on a
Empty and White, Empty—Empty—Substance—Substance | 43

blank surface, radiating light at will. But thoughts must be rigorous and self-
limiting, able to come to a sufficient stop in vocabulary while also discovering
crevices and blankness within these smooth language conventions, making
the hidden or concealed interval blankness vivid, making these apparently
completely vanished infra-whites to become vivid again.
The relationship between infra-emptiness and substance forms a category or
vernacular of thought that is unique to the Chinese language. It is unlike the
nouns and verbs of Western linguistics, and does not completely correspond even
to the so-called plerematic and cenematic words. Thus, it also differs from the
distinction between existence and nonexistence in Western philosophy, or the dis-
tinction between existence and production, and of course it also differs from the
distinction between concrete realism and abstract forms in modern Western art.
The relationship between infra-emptiness and form also differs from the simple
and slippery dialectic approach. After having been subjected to the Hegelian and
even the vulgar Marxist treatment, the relationship between emptiness and sub-
stance in the Chinese language awaits re-sorting, awaits its folds to be opened up
to present its intricate texture. They are not mere folds, but also constantly shift-
ing and turning movements.
How can the production of “infra-emptying” be different from Western exis-
tentialism? The relationship between infra-emptiness and substance contains two
implied preconditions. First, from the beginning, it does not use the nouns and
verbs of West languages to create sentences, instead being linked through exis-
tential copula. In Chinese language thinking, “infra-emptiness” has always been
connected to the primordial chaos. This protective chaos cannot be cleared out,
because it has always played an indefinite role, and thus infra-emptying has always
possessed possibility. This is not understood in terms of the distinction between
existence and nonexistence, and there is no opposition between existence and pro-
duction. Second, in teleological or eschatological terms, “substance” is the actual,
the extant, but does not possess the certainty or teleology of reality. There is no
end. Instead, there is always the possibility of extra room to maneuver. The begin-
ning has never begun, and the end can never be completed. Meanwhile, there
has always been a mutual connection between infra-emptiness and substance. It
cannot be broken, because it is elastic. The opening of this elasticity is the flexi-
bility of that extra room, the formal embodiment of remnantization as well as the
spatio-temporal field where form opens up.
Empty—empty—substance—substance, substance—substance—empty—
Dao is the mutual production of emptiness and fullness.
44 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

In the repetition, the language has fractured and aerated. Within, there are
roughly three distinctions:
(1) If we set out from the extant actuality, then there really is an actual, con-
crete thing, one with a substantive form or the semblance of the concrete thing,
but it is accompanied by the empty form, the infra-form, the substance within
emptiness, the emptiness brought by substance.

Figure 4.1: Wang Shen (1048–1104), Misty River and Layered Peaks, handscroll, ink and
color on silk, 45.2 × 166 cm.
Source: Shanghai Museum, Shanghai.

(2) If we focus our attention on the infra-empty, then the infra-image becomes
the dominant component, and in this way, emptiness avoids form, emptiness
replaces form. Emptiness and substance play off of each other, but emptiness is
the main component.
Then there is the movement from “infra-emptiness” to “white.” There is no
longer just the relationship between infra-emptiness and substance, but instead,
there is movement from emptying to blankening, entailing a reverse reconstruc-
tion of the actual through “infra-white.” The substantive form is not discarded,
but it is not necessarily the substantive form. It possesses actuality, but it is no
longer the initial actuality.
These three layers appear to have the formality opened up by Hegel’s dialectic,
but the reverse-reconstruction of infra-white cannot be learned—it always main-
tains the possibility of openness. As the relationship between form and emptiness
opens up, it actually becomes very concrete, possessing a sense of rich layering. It
is not so mysterious. In what follows we will use landscape painting as an exam-
ple, in order to better explain the methods operating between emptiness and form
(a more specific opening up of the emptied light filling an empty room). The
reason we choose landscape painting is that it has opened up the complexity and
richness of the relationship between emptiness and substance more broadly than
figure painting or flower and bird painting have. (Before ink landscape paint-
ing, of course, there was the remarkably realistic Tang dynasty [618–907] colored
landscape painting, whose method differs from the emptying of the chapped
Empty and White, Empty—Empty—Substance—Substance | 45

brushing technique. We will not discuss it here, but will focus on the following
four layers and set aside the layer of pure “realism” for now):
1 Substance—substance—empty—empty: substance as the principal, emp-
tiness as the subject.
1.1 The “chapped brushing technique” of landscape painting sets out from
actual scenery. It is based on actual scenery, on the regional features of water,
rocks, grass, and trees. Song dynasty landscape painting emerged because every
painter had his own chapping technique. The chapping technique involves the
visual extraction and tactile remnant of the concrete texture of stone. It was no
longer purely realistic, because each painter lived in a different region, with the
natural features differing in different places. Thus, we have the emergence of the
northern “hatchet chop” chapping technique and the southern “draped linen”
chapping technique. The difference is that there is less foliage in the north, owing
to the harsher climate, leaving the rocks bare to be buffeted by the wind and
rain, directly revealing cracks in the rock face. The south, on the other hand, is
very humid, with a rich profusion of foliage covering the rocks and connecting
them together. It would appear that the reason this chapping technique became
the basic vocabulary of landscape painting is that it was the formalization of the
observation of objects in nature. This was an extraction that brought the distance
closer. An example is the northern landscape painting of Fan Kuan (ca. 950–
1132). The “dewdrop” chap strokes in Travels in Xishan have a clearly mottled feel,
which is the product of visual extraction and formal enhancement.
1.2 The emergence of the “moss point”: the embellishment known as the
moss point led to the emergence of an empty form. If there was only the tex-
ture of the stones, then the resulting painting would not be much to look at,
particularly with the forcefulness and simplicity of the northern “hatchet chop”
chapping technique. Thus, there emerged the embellishment of the moss point.
There is a great controversy over when this particular technique emerged, and it is
as yet unclear whether or not it was restricted to the south. It serves, nonetheless,
as a pointillist adjustment of vision, or the perspective of extreme distance—
like Western perspective technique; or it was used as a catalyst for vitality—moss
points added foliage on an otherwise barren rock. Either way, it is an allusion
to vitality. Because it establishes distance, and because of the murkiness of the
distance, the empty form begins to emerge with the moss point. This is much
more readily apparent in the landscape painting of the south, as in the works of
Ju Ran (10th century). In the albums of the south, we also see the emergence of
moss points as an independent vocabulary. It was no longer just the visual hint of
foliage, but an independent vocabulary of formal embellishment.
46 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

1.3 The stacked “three distances technique” brings about a light sense of ver-
tigo, as well as the emergence of clouds and “alum tips.” Aside from chapping and
moss points, there are also clouds and fog, because both the north and south can
be foggy. Both places produced a sense of cloud vapor, particularly at the peaks of
high mountains. When distant mountain ridges are depicted, aside from the allu-
sions made by moss points, there are also the more thinly rendered peaks, alluding
to the endless depth of the background. The three distances technique in partic-
ular (high distance—deep distance—flat distance) brings a light sense of vertigo.
For instance, because of the presence of a high distance and deep distance in
Guo Xi’s (1000–1087) Early Spring, the roiling, spinning motion of the chapped
brushwork brings a sense of vitality and vertigo. It has been emptied to an extent,
but overall, it is a substantial form. This is why Chinese art did not move towards
concrete, realist expression, towards the imitation and re-creation of the West—
that emptied sense of vertigo was always maintained. Southern landscape painting
differed from northern landscape painting. For instance, Ju Ran’s paintings fused
the “alum tips” and moss points together, making the stones puffy like snow, accu-
mulating layer after layer, bringing about an emptied sense of illusion.
1.4 So, in substance—substance—empty—empty, the actual form or con-
crete naturalness was something that early landscape painting had to confront
on a technical level, particularly northern landscape painting, which emphasized
regional traits, apparent realness and density. The south was much more scattered.
This can be seen in the works of Dong Yuan (ca. 934–962) and Ju Ran with the
emergence of clouds and fog.
2 Empty—empty—substance—substance: emptiness as principal, substance
accompanying emptiness, emptiness connected to form, emptiness avoiding form.
2.1 Clouds as the principal: vaporization emerges, shifts in the clouds and
fog. Most southern landscape paintings are shrouded in fog, and so the question
of how to convey vaporized clouds and fog becomes central. The resulting clouds
are clearly not so certain; as Hubert Damisch’s A Theory of Cloud points out, the
expression of clouds in the West is particularly dull and uninteresting, but in Chi-
nese culture, in calligraphy, the practice of filling the paper with nimble clouds
has become the mainstream. Perhaps the most important moment in the history
of this practice was the emergence of the Mi Family. Mi Youren’s (1074–1151)
cloudy paintings were mainly made up of clouds and fog, with very selective
depictions of the concrete forms of the landscape. The Mi-style chapping tech-
nique even permeated the rocks with a sense of vaporization. Here, there was no
longer any depiction of reality, just the direct emptying of the mountain rocks.
Empty and White, Empty—Empty—Substance—Substance | 47

2.2 The multiplicity of qi (breath, vitality, energy), filling the paper with
clouds: It is not merely the direct depiction of clouds and fog—the entire picture
is made up of clouds and fog. Thus, the rocks are cloud rocks, the trees are cloud
trees, the rivers are cloud rivers. The whole picture is controlled by an expanding
sense of vapor, and emptied clouds have begun to shape the entire picture, form-
ing into a layout of qi bearings.
2.3 The vaporous bearing of shifting clouds and fog, the triple “enchanting
distance”: Beyond the concept of three types of distance described above, there is
the emptier “roaming view,” a newer set of three distances that differ from the old
ones. After Guo Xi, Han Zhuo proposed the so-called “vast distance, enchanting
distance, and dark distance.” These three are evidently quite different from the
relatively clear enunciation of the former. Because of the obscuring effect of the
clouds, this roaming view is more blurred and indistinct. This is why southern
landscape painting eventually came to replace northern landscape painting. In
this sense, Dong Qichang (1555–1636) was quite poignant in creating the dis-
tinction between the northern and southern schools. In the Yuan dynasty (1271–
1368), many painters began consciously painting clouds and fog; for instance,
Gao Kegong (1248–1310). In terms of art history, particularly regional politics
and regional art studies, the replacement of rocks with clouds implied that natural
flow and emptiness began to gradually form the mainstream.
2.4 Thus, “infra-emptiness” constantly replaced “substance.” Because of the
vaporous natural view and cosmological view, vaporous clouds and the empty-
ing techniques began a constant process of replacing realistic depiction in Chi-
nese landscape painting—there was a transition between infra-emptiness and
substance. Once the writing-based brush techniques of the literati emerged, and
people became consciously aware of this vaporous aesthetic taste, the form and
impact of vision itself began to be diminished.
3 Empty—empty—substance—substance: How do we make “emptiness”
even emptier, and then return from this further emptiness back to a new sub-
stance? This is the shift from empty to white, and within it, there emerges a
new infra-white. This infra-white transcends the reciprocal relationship of emp-
tiness and substance, having moved from empty to empty, from empty to null
emptiness, and from null emptiness to blankness or empty whiteness, and then
from blankness, reverse-reconstructing emptiness and substance, producing infra-
white. It is not just vacant emptiness, not just the emptiness of empty-substance;
it is a shift from empty to white, the mutual emptying between infra-empty and
white. It is in this sense that it is virtually impossible to properly translate this
usage of empty, infra, and infra-white into Western languages, and so we can only
48 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

resort to creating new words out of Duchamp’s “infra-mince”. (See Infra-Mince:

Duchamp and Chuang Tzu, Xia Kejun, 2012).
3.1 From infra-empty to infra-empty: This is the maintenance of infra-emp-
tying, where we begin to move towards the most internal requirements of rem-
nantization and subtraction in ink painting. After the cloud-vaporization of other
concrete forms, now there is the emptying of the clouds themselves. This is not
the direct pursuit of paper completely filled with clouds, but the weakening of
vaporous forms. If the cloud-vaporization goes too far, the clouds become either
decorative or clamorous, and we lose sight of the requirements of remnantization
or empty-substantiation in ink painting. The infra-emptying of clouds is done in
order to give the overall picture a vaporous spirit. This is particularly apparent in
Zen landscape painter Mu Xi’s (ca. 1210–1270) cloudy depiction of West Lake,
which creates an impression approaching modern abstraction.
3.2 From empty to white: Integrating blankness and emptiness brings about
artworks such as Snowscape. Snowscape paintings began with the use of white
powder to imitate the texture of snow. Later snowscape paintings used left blank-
ness to hint at the traces of snow, and then finally, the snow was not painted at
all—the purity of blankness itself alluded to the idea of snow—a shift closer to the
unconscious idea, as in Dong Qichang’s 董其昌(1555-1636) Guanshan Snows-
cape or the white that emerges from the contrasts of Gong Xian’s (1618–1689)
accumulated ink technique, like the white of snow. Blankness serves to construct
the entire picture, or the uneven borders of emptied blankness.
3.3 Alternating infra-white: If too much is left blank, it will diminish the
vividness of the picture, making it too desolate and empty, and so this blankness
must be made vivid again. The blankness must be made to touch on all that is
actual, producing an overall sense that the world itself has been emptied, cata-
lyzing even emptier uneven boundaries that permeate the entire picture. This
is the reverse reconstruction of blankness. The left blankness is not preserved as
blankness. Instead, this blankness touches upon the boundaries of existing shapes,
or permeates all existing shapes, so that the entire image is reconstructed by blank-
ness. Here, the actual is touched again, producing new possible actualities, but it
is no longer the original actual form. Thus, it still possesses actuality. For instance,
in the work of Ni Zan 倪瓒(1301–1374), the blankness of the river seeps into the
crevices of the distant mountains and between the rocks in the foreground, but
the edges of the riverbank and the distant mountains quiver with water-like rip-
ples—the ceaseless light rippling of remnant waves. Moreover, in the outstanding
works of Wang Yuanqi 王原祁 (1642–1715), the snow-white depressing atmo-
sphere seems to be built through the accumulation of clumps of living abdominal
Empty and White, Empty—Empty—Substance—Substance | 49

qi. The clumps grow, but they are not specific things. This is full utilization of the
blank material qualities of silk paper, and the active properties of the spinning
ink brush to give blankness a powerful elasticity. Wang Yuanqi studied Huang
Gongwang’s 黄公望 (1269–1354) “alum tips” (a Daoist emptied alchemical lab-
oratory), and gave it a more conscious formal warping.
3.4 In this sense, we have broken the code of the traditional concept of
“emptiness in substance” and “substance in infra-emptiness,” as well as the
inner harmony of infra-empty—empty—substance—substance, because from
substance to substance, from substance to infra-empty, and then from infra-
empty to infra-empty or infra-empty to substance and back to infra-empty,
there are many shifts and leaps. Within these movements, the opening up of
texture comes to form “infra-white,” as well as “interval blankness,” because, if
blankness permeates between things, it will open up the latent harmony of the
interval blankness.

Figure 4.2: Dong Qichang 董其昌 (1555–1636), Copy of Wang Shen’s 王诜Misty River
and Layered Peaks, handscroll, ink and color on silk, 29.5 × 184.5 cm, 1620.
Source: Shanghai Museum, Shanghai.

Another reason we chose landscape painting as a case study is the triple com-
monality it opened between the natural object of the landscape depiction, the
naturalness of the body’s breathing, and the naturalness of the ink painting mate-
rials. Through them, we can come to a new understanding of the “empty room
filled with light” in Zhuangzi’s “fasting of the mind”. If we approach this notion
through the emptying of landscape painting, we will understand it better:
First, there is the “flying without wings,” which becomes quite simple if we
think of it in terms of clouds and fog—fog and clouds are barely discernible,
knowable without being known, and adapting to change.
Next is the continued emptying of the clouds and fog, rather than a chaotic
activity which results in their diminishing. Looking and ceasing is often under-
stood as the radiant observation, or it actually is radiant observation, further
“emptying the clouds” into empty emptiness.
50 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

After that, there is the emergence of a great amount of blankness, the growth
of blankness. It is not fog or clouds, but the blankness between fog and clouds.
The blankness is allowed to start emerging, to start standing out. Blankness is
extended—and it is static. This is “felicitous influences rest in the mind,” blank-
ness itself extending at rest.
Then blankness begins to grow, to multiply, to become active. It is not the
existing clouds and fog becoming active but blankness becoming vivid. This is the
idea of “the body seated and the mind galloping abroad” in Zhuangzi’s “fasting
of the mind”, because blankness itself has not moved. Blankness is static, but not
only does it extend, it grows and multiplies. Thus, this is a remarkably unique
perceptive method: there is really nothing to see in blankness, but because it is
not seen (non-knowledge), the external and internal are interconnected, and there
is no mental appraisal, no semantic recognition—there is just blankness being
produced, blankness growing and moving, stillness moving.
Lastly, the “spirits take residence” in the “fasting of the mind”. Blankness
grows with such vivacity, even taking flight (like “flying white,” which seems to
move and fly), galloping (“the body seated and the mind galloping abroad”),
bringing about the vitality and sense of form of almost supernatural crafts-
man-ship. It is not made by man, because the reverse reconstruction of blankness
is the unpainted painting. This emptying process simultaneously encompasses
three aspects: the operation of emptying emptiness, the emptying of blankness,
and the emptying of the roiling or rippling of qi, which brings about an almost
hallucinatory state, as if it is the work of spirits rather than men.
It is in this sense that Zhuangzi’s “emptying” and “fasting of the mind” can
help us to gain a new understanding of the concept of “chora” (khōra / χώρα ) in
Plato’s Timaeus (Plato 1992). This dialogue was Plato’s attempt to reconstruct the
universe and reinterpret the birth of the body and soul in the universe, as well as
the origins of the Greeks. It contains another novel interpretation, however— one
that begins in reverse. This time a reconstruction began anew with chora as the
“third kind” (triton genos τρίτον γένος) (48e–53b). Unlike the previous begin-
nings, led by ideal forms (for instance, the ideal construction of the Republic), this
occurs through the “third kind”. The beginning in Timaeus also follows this exist-
ing beginning, but the new beginning starting through the “third kind” or chora
no longer follows the construction of dual connections between ideal forms and
perceptive imitation. At the core of the text there begins an interruption, a reverse
new beginning, one that starts with the “birth” of the universe, and this “change”
does not have an ideal form. We are thus led to the total breakdown of the pre-
vious philosophical distinction between perception and the intellect. (Chora is
Empty and White, Empty—Empty—Substance—Substance | 51

not “indefinite plurality” opposed to “unity” in Plato’s Philebus, as pointed out by

Hans-Georg Gadamer; this distinction is comparable to that between the unitary
supreme void and the dual change of yin and yang). What we have here is a new
beginning. The basic content includes the following:
First, it is directly expressed that it is very difficult to clearly describe the form
of this third kind, this nature. That is to say, it cannot be directly recognized. It
is unrecognizable, but it is not mystical or unknowable, because it is believed to
have some kind of ideal behind it (though it is merely an obscure idea), and so it
is connected to the negative theology that will emerge later.
This “nature” or “trait” of the third kind merely employs a nursing method,
so to speak, to support all generated things. It is like a receptacle or vessel, a nurse
or matrix (ekmageion / ἐκμαγεῖον). Later, among the three generating elements, it
is directly paralleled to the mother. Everything is within it and generated through
it. Later feminism would draw on this idea, returning to the femininity of the
mother and the corporality of the womb. It would appear, however, that, as Der-
rida pointed out, such comparisons and metaphors are problematic, because they
are mere “likenesses” and “resemblances.”
The three generated elements are not the common elements; fire, water, earth,
and air. These have clear properties “like this,” while the third kind is just “such.”
It is not an element, it is not air. It is rather a “plastic material” or a “mold,” in
the same way that gold can take all sorts of shapes, but none of them is gold. At
the same time, this mold (like a wax mold) continuously changes (perhaps like
Zhuangzi’s great wind?); it is not stable. Chora would later come to be understood
as matter (hyle / ὕλη), according to Aristotle’s interpretation of the receptacle in
Timaeus. Do the materials of Chinese ink painting, both as material materials and
immaterial materials, not possess such traits?
This plastic material has no shape and no impressions, and that is why it can
be shaped into a receptacle and leave traces. Although it can leave a trace (ichnos /
ἴχνος), it instantly enters a state of change. What can be understood as a trace later
Platonism merely understood as the extant or imagined form of indistinct per-
ception. But what is more plastic than writing in Chinese culture? From the early
carved inscriptions to the quotidian poetic expression of calligraphy, and on to the
written approach to ink landscape painting, the energy exchange between writing
and nature has always maintained the plasticity of life-force lines.
Chinese writing is itself invisible, shapeless, receiving all things, and through
mysterious means possesses intellect, but it remains an object that is difficult to
understand, and perhaps our understanding is warped and illegitimate. This is
an object that basically remains unbelievable. This “third kind” is intangible, but
52 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

it also has a mysterious ideal form. It is not the perceptive partaking of the ideal
form of the past, but a hybrid and corrupted logic (logismos nothos / λογισμός
νόθος ), even though it is not yet the mysticist idea that would appear later.
It is when the third kind is connected to generation that it becomes chora.
It is indestructible—a persistent existence. It is a certain position or setting, but
that position or setting is perhaps dreamlike, like the impressions we have when
dreaming. Alhough it occupies a certain position or space, it fundamentally does
not exist. It is just a hazy feeling that cannot escape the dream and speak the truth.
It is merely an indistinct impression (phainesthai / φαίνεσθαι ). But actually, chora
is not space or position (topos / τόπος ). To the contrary, space is derived from it. It
is intangible. Beginning with Aristotle, however, this third kind or chora came to
be understood as space or position. Also, it is apparently not the so-called appear-
ance that emerged later and was then discarded by philosophy. Nietzsche’s subver-
sion of Platonism perhaps began here, and was closely connected to the thinking
regarding Dionysus and chaos. Has the diffusion in Chinese art not also main-
tained the passivity of chaos and illusion? And is the “immediately trans-form-
ing” writing of Chinese culture not a retention of dreams? Chinese culture only
believes in the salvation of “remnant dreams.”
Chora, as the concrete form of the third kind, existed before the creation
of the universe, just like existence and generation. It is apparently not the work
of the demiurge. As it is a receptacle, the elements of water, fire, earth, and air
can receive vibrations in this “place” of chora—they can receive indefinite influ-
ences and present novel diversity. There are forces that are neither alike nor bal-
anced, and so they are always shifting and shaking. Within this receptacle, these
four elements are shaken, as if passed through a sieve, and through this sieving,
the non-similar elements are scattered far, while the similar elements are packed
closely together. But here, they at first have no ration or dimension. This is the
state of primal chaos before the universe entered into a state of order. Here, the
elements are constantly shaken and moved within chora, which is extended into
movement performed (chorós / χορός ) and the dance of the sacred space (chōros /
χῶρος). Because the sieve implement and the threshing ground are related to
chora, it formed into dance choreography or writing (chorograph), as well as the
writing economics of icons. Does the landscape painting of Chinese culture not
place the elementality of nature into a state of light diffusion? Is this not particu-
larly the case with Mi-style clouds? Does the writing of Chinese calligraphy, par-
ticularly cursive, not open up such spatiality of dance, maintaining the elemental
movement of nature?
Empty and White, Empty—Empty—Substance—Substance | 53

Just as in John Sallis’ research on this new beginning (Sallis 1999), this is a
reverse new beginning, because this third kind (which is not an actual kind but
something beyond kind, transcending existence), is something that philosophy
had not pondered before, something that it never could comprehend. It cannot
be pondered according to unchanging ideal forms. Plato’s earlier dialogues were
basically aimed at the possibility of ideal forms, though they did later touch on
“non-existence.” As for this incomprehensible third kind, Plato, through Timaeus’
mouth1 offers a complex explanation. Later, Derrida tried to engage in a con-
crete discussion and application of chora with the architect Peter Eisenman, but
unfortunately it was abandoned. Was it perhaps because it is remarkably difficult
to present chora? It requires sufficient emptied space. Maybe this job is left to us.
Could we, perhaps, in painting and architecture, in general art and everyday life,
make this “enchorial-topia” come into being?
Our current effort is to open up the possible “non-dimensional or fifth
dimensional” plane of the infra-white, to make the emptying of chora richer with
tension, to engage in reverse reconstruction, while also preserving deconstruction.
If these three (tension, reconstruction, and deconstruction) can be manifested
within Chinese contemporary art, will they perhaps bring about a new art?

1. Here, Socrates remains silent. Similarly, Zhuangzi had Confucius ask Hui [521B.C.–
481B.C.] why he was “sitting and forgetting,” which is a more total fasting of the
mind and galloping of the mind while the body is at rest.

Cheng, F. 1994, Empty and Full: The Language of Chinese Painting, Boston: Shambhala.
Damisch, H. 1992/2002, A Theory of Cloud: Toward a History of Painting, California: Stanford
University Press.
Plato, L. B. 1992, Timee-Critias, Paris: Flammarion.
Plato. 1977, Timaeus and Critias, London: Penguin Books.
Sallis, J. 1999, Chorology: On Beginning in Plato’s Timaeus, Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University
Serres, M. 1995, Genesis, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, p. 48.
Xia, Kj. 2012, Infra-Mince: Duchamp and Chuang Tzu, Nanjing: Jiangsu Fine Art Press.

The White Layout of the

“Woodcutter Fighting for the
Path”: The Ethics of Remnant


The Story of the Woodcutters Fighting for the Path is a calligraphy story. The
moral of the story is that when the path is narrow, different forces will contend
for it. The beauty is that relationships of ruler and subject, or principal and depen-
dent, can be bent without being broken. The story first appeared in Li Zhao’s
Tang dynasty text Supplement to the Nation’s History. It states that Zhang Xu 張
旭 (ca. 675–750) recounted seeing a woodcutter fighting over passage on a goat
trail with porters carrying a princess, with neither side willing to yield the path.
They were able to pass each other by quickly dodging as they went forward, and
this gave Zhang Xu inspiration regarding the layout of white in calligraphy, where
the various components of a character come together, progressing and retreating
with high precision.

Huang Binhong: In calligraphy, there is the story of the woodcutter fighting over the
mountain path, where there is yielding in struggle. This is the white
layout method of calligraphy. Behind struggle there is qi, and as the qi
is sufficient, each place yielded has power. In the Jin and Song period,
there was writing based on extant forms in nature, reminiscent of an
insect chewing on wood, most embodied in the classics of the Wei-Jin
56 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

period. In the Tang dynasty, meaning yielded to balance, leading to a

loss of both. In the Song, particularly with the Mi Family, light con-
tended while darkness yielded, and these great practices survive today.
Qing dynasty writers were well versed in this, as seen in their works.
Feng Wu: Emptiness is the clear distinction between black and white. Each
character has blank spaces, each line has blank spaces, and each full
calligraphy piece also has blank spaces.
Zhang Shen: In the layout of calligraphy, the blankness must be controlled, sparse
but not distant, dense but not tight, just as in silk weaving or the
cultivation of flowers, there must be the proper amount of space.
François Cheng: Fei-pai (flying white): The hairs of the brush, instead of being com-
pacted concentrically, are spread out in such a way that a rapid stroke
contains of power and lightness, as if the stroke were perforated by the
breath. (Cheng 1994)
Heidegger: The threshold is the ground-beam that bears the doorway as a whole.
It sustains the middle in which the two, the outside and the inside,
penetrate each other. The threshold bears the between. What goes out
and goes in, in the between, is joined in the between’s dependability.
The dependability of the middle must never yield either way. The set-
tling of the between needs something that can endure, and is in this
sense hard. The threshold, as the settlement of the between, is hard
because pain has petrified it. But the pain that became appropriated
to stone did not harden into the threshold in order to congeal there.
The pain presences unflagging in the threshold, as pain. But what is
pain? Pain rends. It is the rift. But it does not tear apart into dispersive
fragments. Pain indeed tears asunder, it separates, yet so that at the
same time it draws everything to itself, gathers it to itself. Its rending,
as a separating that gathers, is at the same time that drawing which,
like the pen-drawing of a plan or sketch, draws and joins together
what is held apart in separation. Pain is the joining agent in the rend-
ing that divides and gathers. Pain is the joining of the rift. The joining
is the threshold. It settles the between, the middle of the two that are
separated in it. Pain joins the rift of the difference. Pain is the differ-
ence itself. (Heidegger 1971)
Derrida: And yet, half-way through the cycle, won’t the discourse on Chora
have opened, between the sensible and the intelligible, belonging nei-
ther to one nor to the other, hence neither to the cosmos as sensible
god nor intelligible god, an apparently empty space—even though
it is no doubt not emptiness? Didn’t it name a gaping opening, an
abyss or a chasm? Isn’t it starting out from this chasm, “in” it, that the
cleavage between the sensible and the intelligible, indeed, between
body and soul, can have place and take place? Let us not be too hasty
about bringing this chasm named chora close to that chaos which also
opens the yawning gulf of the abyss. (Derrida 1995)
Empty and White, Empty—Empty—Substance—Substance | 57

Blanchot: The pas presents problems in translation not only because its meaning
is double and its use in the phrase le pas au-delà ambiguous, but also
because, as Derrida points out, the play is not just a play of words,
but of words and things. The possibilities for translating the whole
title are actually quadruple, since both pas and au-delà can be taken
either as nouns or adverbs (pas is both a step and part of the negative
adverb ne-pas; au-delà means “beyond,” but also occurs as “l’au-delà,”
the beyond); the meaning of the entire phrase changes depending on
the semantic function of each of its parts. However, one chooses to
translate pas, it is impossible to preserve the two meanings at once,
although the simultaneity of meanings in the same word is import-
ant in preserving the sense of prohibition and transgression occurring
at the same time. As the trace is effaced while being written, so the
pas both creates and erases the limit in its crossing. This is perhaps
even more clear in the use of the phrase faux pas (false step) and its
homonym faut pas (do not, you must not). Because of the double
meaning of pas, every step be comes a false step. (Blanchot 1992)
Jullien: L’ « entre » : avons-nous jusqu’ici pensé l’entre ? Ou plutôt, d’abord,
nous sommes-nous jamais tant soit peu arrêtés à le penser ? Y avons-
nous seulement songé ? Car, le propre de l’entre, c’est de ne pas se faire
remarquer, de passer inaperçu et donc de se laisser enjamber par la
pensée. Le propre de l’entre, c’est que, ne donnant pas lieu à focalisa-
tion, à fixation, il n’attire pas l’attention. L’entre renvoie toujours à de
l’autre que soi. Ainsi le propre de l’« entre » est-il d’exister, non pas en
plein, mais en creux, d’être sans détermination qui lui revienne, donc
de ne pouvoir posséder d’essence. Je dis ainsi, porté par la langue :
« le propre de l’entre », mais le propre de l’entre, c’est justement de
n’avoir rien en propre. Par suite, il se refuse à toute attribution qui
soit de principe et ne saurait posséder de consistance. De ce qui n’a
ainsi de statut que de préposition, si modeste, pourrons-nous faire un
concept ? (Jullien 2012)
Arendt: Kafka’s parable reads as follows: He has two antagonists: the first
presses him from behind, from the origin. The second blocks the road
ahead. He gives battle to both. To be sure, the first supports him in
his fight with the second, for he wants to push him forward, and
in the same way the second supports him in his fight with the first,
since he drives him back. But it is only theoretically so. For it is not
only the two antagonists who are there, but he himself as well, and
who really knows his intentions? His dream, though, is that some
time in an unguarded moment and this would require a night darker
than any night has ever been yet, he will jump out of the fighting
line and be promoted, on account of his experience in fighting, to
the position of umpire over his antagonists in their fight with each
other. The story in its utter simplicity and brevity records a mental
58 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

phenomenon, something which one may call a thought-event. The

scene is a battleground on which the forces of the past and the future
clash with each other; between them we find the man whom Kafka
calls “he,” who, if he wants to stand his ground at all, must give battle
to both forces. Hence, there are two or even three fights going on
simultaneously: the fight between “his” antagonists and the fight of
the man in-between with each of them. However, the fact that there is
a fight at all seems due exclusively to the presence of the man, without
whom the forces of the past and of the future, one suspects, would
have neutralized or destroyed each other long ago. Whereby it would
be of some relevance to notice that the appeal to thought arose in the
odd in-between period which sometimes inserts itself into historical
time when not only the later historians but the actors and witnesses,
the living themselves, become aware of an interval in time which is
altogether determined by things that are no longer and by things that
are not yet. (Arendt 1961)
Serres: To take a place or to give up a place, that is the whole question. There
are those who take places, there are those who give them up. Those
who take places take places always and everywhere, and those who
give up places always do so. The perfect symmetry of the struggle, the
gemination of the controversy, the unstable and stable equilibrium
of the strong weighing down on the stronghold, the force fighting
against the counterforce and leaning on it, define place. Those who
give up their places, move and flow. Their blankness is pure proces-
suality. To yield means to take a step. To step aside, we say. Those
who step aside, those who cede their place, begin, by their cession, a
process. The blank place is the place of the continuous cession. There
is no blank white place, there are only the blank white ones who step
aside. There is no blank place, there is only a blank step, the step of
giving up a place, there is only a trace of a step, that white foot, exqui-
site, alive, in the midst of the noise. (Serres 1995)

The story of the “woodcutter fighting for the path” is a story of sudden enlight-
enment in ancient calligraphy. It is said that Zhang Xu, the father of caoshu
草書 wild cursive calligraphy, saw a princess’s retinue fighting with a woodcutter
over a narrow path and was suddenly enlightened on the meaning of calligraphy,
especially of fantastic changing among the interval spaces of characters (just like
flying white).
This important story in the history of Chinese calligraphy is like a celebrated
public case. But how can we new enlightenment out of it? Ours is an era of more
serious struggles and, in this era, we must learn how to contend, because compe-
tition is unavoidable. There is nowhere to hide from it. We must also, however,
Empty and White, Empty—Empty—Substance—Substance | 59

learn to gain by yielding the path. Various legitimate paths or lines of reasoning
contend against each other. There is no universality and, as we continue our strug-
gles, we must also maintain our own paths. This dual turning will never form into
a fold, but instead will roll and turn, and even, within a whirlwind, open up the
“path (Dao) of struggle” and the “struggle of the path (Dao).”
In reading this story, what reasoning can we discover regarding the writing
of calligraphy, the rewriting of events, and even the passionate concern for life?
1. First, this is the writing of a realization drawn from an event, a multiple
documentation and writing.
1.1 Struggles under a hierarchical system: “the struggle between the princess
and the woodcutter for the path.” Whether or not this event actually took place,
it was an unexpected, random encounter within a rigid hierarchical order, an
encounter, in the sociological sense, between two different classes. Perhaps the
struggle was over the path forward, a struggle between competing interests. Of
course, if this struggle led to a collision, then the woodcutter would be killed, but
not if it was a mere sudden encounter around a corner, an accidental occurrence.
Apparently, out of self-respect, the princess should not collide with the woodcut-
ter, and so she was very demanding of her porters. They had to avoid a collision
with the woodcutter, but could not allow the princess to fall or be shaken, thus
bringing disgrace. As for the woodcutter, when he suddenly encountered the prin-
cess, he had to do his best to quickly yield the way, but in that sudden situation,
he was unable to retreat. He had to press forward, but also avoid the princess’
porters. He had to follow protocol while also continuing on his path in order to
properly protect himself. This act of both yielding and continuing is an amazing
example of adaptation. This scenario, regardless of whether or not it is a historical
fact, reveals how in most hierarchical societies, when one is faced with the neces-
sity of fighting for his interests, even in a life-or-death conflict, one can engage in
struggle when one is in violation, or the odds are stacked against them, allowing
both parties to pass on the same path, leaving room for both sides, keeping the
path open to flow while also maintaining the justness of the struggle. This is truly
a very difficult skill.
1.2 Struggles on even footing: This story later evolved into “two woodcutters
fighting over the path.” Here, the hierarchical dimension of the struggle between
the princess and the woodcutter is gone, taking out the life-threatening danger.
Instead, it is two woodcutters fighting over passage on the same path. They are
both carrying heavy loads balanced on long poles and must take the shortest route
while remaining steady so as not to tip their loads, while also avoiding collision.
This requires harmonious coordination between the two. Because of their heavy
60 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

burdens, they cannot stop, nor can they yield to the other. They both have to turn
sideways and move quickly, maintaining unity between their fast-moving feet and
the swaying of their carefully balanced burdens, controlling not only their bodies,
but external objects as well. Although the hierarchical struggle is gone, there is still
struggle, yet this struggle is more technical in nature, a struggle of physics rather
than a struggle of protocol.
1.3 Struggle under more threatening circumstances: This story then evolved
into a story of two porters passing each other on a single plank walkway on the
edge of a cliff. This is a more dangerous situation, because with one wrong step,
both people could fall off of the cliff. Making it more dangerous is the fact that
neither can turn back, because the old plank is on the verge of breaking and
can perhaps only withstand one more passage. In such a dangerous, life-or-death
situation, the question of how to allow both to pass is much more difficult to
answer. If the two are to pass each other smoothly, there is surely higher skill
involved. Perhaps when faced with such dire situations or unusual circumstances,
caoshu (cursive calligraphy) can maintain composure, appropriately adapting
while maintaining balance, as well as creating new circumstances. When facing
unpredictable circumstances, confronting their dangers and responding to the
emergency, there can be no principles that can ensure that one can always press
forward, maintaining balance. “circumstances (propensity,disposition)” are per-
haps different from “reason” or “principles,” because they are always in a state of
change (changing circumstances and the circumstances of change), always in a
state of emergency. But they must have a rhythm, a dancing rhythm, just as Gong
Sun always had rhythm in her sword dances. This is a rhythm of steps. After the
question of rhythm, there are the questions of justness, propriety, smooth forward
progression, and adaptation.
1.4 The everyday writing of the struggle over the path: What if it is not two
porters or woodcutters but a calligrapher facing two characters, or many char-
acters? This seemingly simple situation is remarkably complex. How does one
layout the whiteness, the blankness, the interval crevices between two characters,
between lines of characters, all before engaging in writing? Is it controlled extem-
poraneously? This can be quite intimidating, especially in cursive calligraphy. But
it is everyday writing, and in each act of writing, the calligrapher must face this
danger, staying on a high level of alertness. Is this the writing of an event or the
event of writing? Is this a great event or a subtle influence? In this kind of writing,
such emergencies and adaptations, writing endures the tension between urgent
shifts and everyday subtle influences.
Empty and White, Empty—Empty—Substance—Substance | 61

2. This event of the struggle over the path is not only the central figure in a
story. Now we will also consider struggles and paths: this is a double turn, the
“path of struggle” and the “struggle of the path.” Meanwhile, the “struggle” and
the “path (Dao)” have also given rise to a new factor.
2.1 On the one hand, it is struggle, the “struggle for primacy.” This is conten-
tion on a special technical level: on a path that is narrow, the two adversaries must
contend. The circumstances of this contention and the severity of the potential
aftermath, makes the struggle all the more intense. Both sides must vie to be first.
Otherwise, not only will the situation be left unresolved, but both sides will be
left with nothing. This removes the traditional prerogative to yield out of good
manners, or to step back in order to reap better rewards. That happens because
this is an unexpected circumstance (propensity), a crisis. Here, the yielding and
deference in traditional Confucianism and Daoism do not apply. There must be
a new “yielding” method, particularly when facing the rapidity and urgency of
modernity. It is like the old riddle: What happens when the woodcutter meets
Confucius on the narrow path? He does not leave to others what he should do
himself. In this era of global encounters, when various paths cross at rapid speed,
how do people yield and make way? How do we step back when confronted with
so many different evils and dangerous situations? We must struggle for our path.
2.2 On the other hand, this is also the “struggle of the path.” This is conten-
tion on a technical level (the technical aspects of the path). As stated above, the
struggle of the path is also dangerous, particularly when crossing a single plank
on a cliff. This is the struggle of “survivalism” on the path, as well as the strug-
gle of existentialism or ontology—the struggle of the path itself, the struggle of
paths, the struggle ( polemos / πόλεμος in Heidegger) about various paths surviv-
ing within the struggle. One path does not wipe out the other. Instead, both paths
pass unharmed, and can continue forward, continuing to exist. This is mutual
wielding, allowing both to pass through. Likewise, China can be more Chinese,
and continue forward, while the West can be the West, even be more Western,
and can still pass. Both can carry forward, though they follow different paths. The
two have crossed, have interacted, have seen each other.
2.3 Face to face, the adjustment of pace on the path: This is a struggle on the
artistic level, which requires both sides to constantly adjust their art of steps (pas,
step/stop). In such a dangerous encounter, what does it mean to struggle to the
end? It would appear that it is not enough to let both paths survive, to let both
engage in an experiment or measurement, preserving contention as contention.
Letting China be more Chinese and the West be more Western, living and let-
ting live is not possible, because the event has happened, and this encounter is
62 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

fierce—a clash. In this encounter between princess and woodcutter, or between

two porters, there is the possibility of a violation or a conflict, even the possibility
of death. This danger cannot be reduced. If both sides share in the danger, what
if there is no reward? What is the reward? The two sides are not struggling to put
themselves forward; they are adapting to each other. It is mutual adaptation and
reaction, and in this shared attention, as they look at each other, they find the best
response method, open up their paces. There are no existing paces. Instead, they
are constantly adjusting their own paces. The pace belongs to rhythm and dance.
Justice is in this dance step, in each adjustment of writing.
2.4 Between the two sides, there is not just the adjustment of each one’s pace.
There is also the sharing “in-between”—the art of the path. This is the skill that is
the most impossible to learn: encountering without clashing. What kind of pace is
produced by this dangerous experience? What new propensities does such a pace
bring about? What state of affairs does this new pace share? What does each side
take away from this new pace? What is meant when it is said that Zhang Xu’s cal-
ligraphy contains “remnant excitement”? This is the sharing of that “extra space”
that is “in-between” (like Blanchot’s double, indistinguishable thoughts about pas
as stop or/and step). As the two pass each other, a revolving, spare space opens up
between them. Any yielding, avoidance, adaptation or passage takes place under
the precondition of that revolving spare space between them. Faced with the pos-
sible embarrassment of a clash, they maintain that crevice, that partition. The
reason they want each other to survive is actually for the sake of that interval, that
apparently emptied interval, that virtually invisible interval which allows them to
avoid each other, allows them to face each other without clashing. That is what
they are really sharing. All such encounters (rather than just people pressing for-
ward on their own in an isolated fashion) contain such dangerous shared experi-
ences, and the learning of the other’s methods of adjustment, because one cannot
find one adjustment method in isolation that applies to all situations. It requires
constant mutual adjustments, adjustments adapting to the other’s adjustments.
The sharing of this interval is the most difficult skill—the art of the path. If cal-
ligraphy finds redemption through confronting the blank intervals (the so-called
layout of white), then this redemption is constant awareness, awareness main-
tained through every stroke, every act of writing. What kind of redemption is it?
Evidently, it differs from religious redemption or salvation. There is no economy
of exchange, no economy of death. Instead, there is the economy of writing, the
economy of redemption.
3. This is still connected to writing. The story was connected to Zhang Xu’s
caoshu cursive script; Zhang Xu saw the real-life encounter between the princess
Empty and White, Empty—Empty—Substance—Substance | 63

and the woodcutter, and how they handled it, and was inspired as to how caoshu
could be generated in an instant. How does this approach, with its serendipi-
tous layout and spur-of-the-moment decisions, bring about unexpected joy from
within the occurrence of emptiness and substance? This is writing that unfolds
around emptiness and substance, and sets the fundamental guidelines for Chinese
3.1 Zhang Xu gained enlightenment about the principles of cursive calligra-
phy through this struggle. It has been argued that Zhang Xu’s caoshu script has
been called wild cursive, or extemporaneous, but it does not lose its measure.
It is said that he gained his inspiration for this writing approach from seeing a
princess and a woodcutter facing off over a narrow path. The princess and the
woodcutter encountered each other on a narrow path, and brushed past each
other, giving Zhang Xu inspiration about mutual generation and yielding in the
layout of brushstrokes. Music taught him that the pauses in brushwork had to
have rhythm and play off each other with clear notes. Thus, when viewing his
writing, regardless of whether the lines are broken or connected, the channels
of qi stretch throughout. They are right on the mark, precise and measured. The
Xuanhe Huapu (The Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings) states that “Though his caoshu
cursive writing is strange and novel, if you trace it back to the source, not a single
stroke is in error.” We can see that Zhang Xu reached a level of total control over
his calligraphy. Thus in temperament and approach, he allowed each character
to interact with his sentiments upon writing. This writing is stochastic yet reac-
tive, always changing according to the situation, flowing and pausing in perfect
In the preface to his poem On Watching the Student of Madame Gongsun
Perform the Sword Dance, poet Du Fu writes, “This happened in the city of
Yan in the year 715, when I was still young. I watched Gongsun dance the
sword. The sword flew about swiftly and fluidly, whizzing through the air, with
a unique rhythm in its pauses.” The book Yanbei Zaji (Miscellaneous Notes of
Yanbei) states that “readers today often speak of the rhythmic flow and pauses
of a sword’s motion, and the sound of it slicing through the air to praise one’s
swordsmanship.” Chen Yang’s 陈旸 Yue Shu (Book of Music) notes, “Ancient
official music did not contain the shifting tone in the past. It emerged during
the reign of Emperor Wu Zetian 武则天 (624–705), derived from the sound
of a sword slashing through the air. Such an idea reaching official music from
a common sword performance was seen as a violation of the hierarchy, hence
the term fan sheng 反聲 (violation sound) for this type of note.” In the Tang
dynasty, many different musical compositions and dances were named after this
64 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

slashing of the sword. This “shifting tone” was a violation, the sword trespass-
ing upon dance, bringing the potential for assassination. But enter it did, and
thus it had to be transformed, transforming dance in the process. A “violation”
it may have been, but this “violation” brought chaos upon the longstanding
methods of calligraphy, eventually coming to directly influence such masters
as Yan Zhenqing 顏真卿 (709–785), Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037–1101) and Huang
Tingjian 黃庭堅 (1045–1105). It led to violations of sentiment, violations of
calligraphic writing, perpetual violations, but it also brought the poetry of the
singing sword, forming a rhythm of rapid flow and sudden pauses. In any strug-
gle, there must be the potential for a violation, but such potential brings about
the forcefulness and rhythm of the sudden stop.
This is describing the fluid, relaxed motion of the sword, disappearing as fast
as it appears. The concept of the fluid motion of the sword describes the point
when, at high speed, the sword appears to lose its edge, becoming a blur until it
suddenly stops in midair, the beauty of wild motion. In this struggle for the path,
the sharp edge disintegrates, melting into the Dao.
Without the steps of the dance, Madame Gongsun’s miraculous transforma-
tion of the sword could not take place. The key is in the dance steps, the rhythm,
which can redeem or salvage that energy of the emergency, turning it into the
energy of sudden response to crisis, forming a rhythm. It is soft as if boneless. That
unbroken power of transformation uses the soft movements of the body’s limbs
to drive the blade, making it as soft as a strand of silk. Let us take a look at Zhang
Xu’s calligraphic passage Stomach Ache. In the rapid, unbroken movement of the
brush, we see transitions from plumpness to thinness, lightness to heaviness, slop-
ing and flat lines from right to left, and in the vertical connections, there is a tran-
sition between turning and straight movement. All of these elements play off of
each other to form a rhythm of brushwork, a meter of contrasts. It looks at first to
be random and careless, but it contains the breathing tension of the white layout,
an expanding sense of an aching stomach, and a fluid sense of floating. Thus, we
do not say that his works have measure, but that they are at once dazzling and
heavy. This is the body writing an individual life event, as well as the calligraphic
writing of the shapes of written characters.
3.2 This was later expanded into the “layout of white” within characters and
between lines. That is to say, the Dao of writing embodied in the woodcutter
fighting for the path was not only about Zhang Xu’s calligraphic brushwork, but
a certain general layout principle for calligraphic writing as a whole, particularly
regarding the layout of blankness within characters and between lines, allowing
blankness to play its full role. This blankness is the profundity of the unpainted
Empty and White, Empty—Empty—Substance—Substance | 65

painting. The key to such writing is in making an independent force or change

unfold within the character shapes or lines, while also managing the relationship
between blankness and the line, a subtle sense of vibration. This is the approach
that treats white and black as one and the same. Thus, the woodcutter fighting
for the path is connected to the in-between blankness, the yielding that revolves
around the “interval blankness,” opening up the crevice between the two and
allowing them to pass each other. This is the Dao acting through contraries, an
oppositional mutual creation, the use of blankness to support the opening up of
the character shapes. Huang Tingjian’s calligraphy is well versed in this approach.
This principle grew and expanded to form the basic writing method and indi-
vidual calligraphic style. It demanded a new writing approach, one that went
against the flow to move forward, found survival and profundity in danger, and
found the center from the two ends. This contains ideas reminiscent of Heide-
gger’s fuge and Anaximander’s dikē / δίκη (Heidegger 2003). It also opened up
the sense of movement and rhythm in calligraphy. Zhao Mengfu 趙孟頫(1254–
1322) spoke of “people packed in a tight alley, single file, struggling to pass each
other” in describing the composition of calligraphy. Likewise, Wang Duo 王鐸
(1592–1652) spoke of the layout of white as “sleet mixed with snow,” while Zheng
Banqiao’s 鄭板橋 (1693–1766) approach was akin to a “cobblestone street.”
In the preface to On Watching the Student of Madame Gongsun Perform the
Sword Dance, poet Du Fu describes how Zhang Xu, a skilled cursive calligrapher,
watched Madame Gongsun perform her famed sword dance many times, and
through this found ways to improve his cursive calligraphy, and that his great
unconventional style owed a great debt to Madame Gongsun. Huang Tingjian
drew from Supplementary History of the Tang Dynasty and On Watching the Stu-
dent of Madame Gongsun Perform the Sword Dance (with preface) to engage in a
very loose interpretation of Zhang Xu’s calligraphic enlightenment at the sight of
Madame Gongsun’s sword dance: “When the ancients engaged in cursive writing,
they would say that ‘intent precedes the brush,’ while also speaking of such tech-
niques as ‘sand cone brushing,’ ‘scorpion’s tail brushing,’ ‘folded pin bone stroke,’
‘rain dripping from the eaves,’ ‘watching the princess and the woodcutter fighting
for the path’ and ‘finding fluidity in the sword dance of Madame Gongsun,’ and
thus creating remarkable works of art of high quality.”
So-called “white layout” is the method of arranging the framework of the
lines and strokes of the characters, and the spaces within characters and between
lines. The characters and the blankness can possess contrasts of complexity and
simplicity, long and short, while the formal structure can be large or small, sparse
or dense, skewed or straight. When writing, one must use the characters to create
66 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

an overall trend that is nimble and ever-changing. Proper white layout can create
a sense of interlocking and overlapping between characters for a coordinated, har-
monious artistic effect. In addition, the arrangement of the spaces between lines
over the entire artwork is also referred to as “white layout.”
3.3 This is thus further expanded into the shifts of emptiness and substance
fundamental to writing: the white layout influences the line qi of writing. Of
course, this is the arrangement of the overall trends (propensity, disposition) of
the artwork, the overlying qi (breath, vitality, energy), and it contains shifts of
emptiness and substance. Clear distinction between emptiness and substance is
the rhythm that unfolds from writing.
3.4 More importantly, a more total reverse reconstruction can be engaged—
using the blankness within to once again reconstruct the entire writing. That
is because it is the interval blankness at play, the yielding of the interval blank-
ness, the use of the interval blankness within the shapes of the characters which
unfolds the entire act of writing, making the interval crevices vivid and vibrant,
maintaining rich, vivid changes. Each act of writing is different—because the
shapes of the characters are different, the sentiments are different, the circum-
stances are different, then the layout of blankness is different, forming into a
different over-lying trend of the artwork, a changing mentality. It, however,
also forms remnant yielding: each individual character, within the black writ-
ing, uses blankness to effect its own construction. Meanwhile, in the shifting
blankness, the characters are once again arranged. This is a constant process of
yielding. What we see in the end are not the black characters, but the dazzling
white that is illuminated by the surrounding black lines. The invisible or trans-
parent vivid movement is the remnant trend or remnant echo brought about
by the opening up of blankness. This, however, is unfolded through the mutual
yielding of writing. It would appear that China’s literati have more faith in such
remnant white or interval blankness artworks. It appears as if only through rem-
nant yielding can extra space be opened up for life, thus bringing fresh vitality.
This is the power of Chinese-style chora.
Shu Shu Fu (Inscriptions on Writing) speaks of Zhang Xu, drunk, facing the
wall and letting his brush fly across the surface with “remnant excitement,” an
allusion to “remnant qi” or “extra room.” It is not just a principle for calligraphy,
but one for coexistence. This approach of contention on the surface mixed with
quiet yielding is the yin and yang of the Dao, a Daoist transformation, a transfor-
mation within the interval.
Empty and White, Empty—Empty—Substance—Substance | 67

Figure 5.1: Zhang Xu 張旭 (ca. 675–750), Self-statement, cursive script, copy ink on
paper, about “The Story of the Woodcutters Fighting for the Path.” Xi’an Ancient stone
Source: Xi’an Ancient stone tablets, Xi’an.

4. Thus, we must enter into this interval white, into this path of struggle. The
object of our pursuit is new thinking that revolves around emptiness and sub-
stance, as well as the interval blank remnant yielding, revolving around the event
and the writing.
4.1 François Jullien did not only consider the relationships between “pro-
pensity” and efficacy. As well as the contrast between revolutionary events and
unobtrusive influence, he has also recently begun to engage in thinking about
“betweenness,” continuing to deepen his thoughts. In pondering the event, he is
well aware of the rich meaning of this term in contemporary Western thought,
from Heidegger’s “event” to Deleuze’s “individual event” and Alain Badiou’s
“political event,” marked by subjective truth, these are all great events, revolution-
ary beginnings. Chinese culture, however, does not seem to have such great events
or beginning events, or perhaps there is a contrast between great trends and latent
propensities (Jullien 2009). What if we switched to thinking about propensities?
Is this distinction legitimate? For Heidegger, there is not only the appropriation
(Ereigen), but also the expropriation (Enteignen). It would appear that Jullien did
not notice this key unfolding. Thus, this is not only the occurrence of circum-
stances or events, there is also the not-happening of happening, the occurrence of
68 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

retreat. When we touch on propensity, there is non-propensity. How can a latent

propensity be maintained without ever becoming an event? This latent propensity
must always have the possibility of happening, just like the virtual state or tempo-
ral mode that Deleuze pondered. There is also Derrida’s notion of events coming
from the future—spectral events. This event, a gift from the future, is something
that Jullien did not touch on.
4.2 The key point revolves around the contrast between the precipitating
event and unobtrusive influence. Does the writing of Chinese calligraphy, or
writing in general, not open up a latent propensity, the unobtrusive influence
of individual writing, bringing about transformations of greater cultural trends
(propensity)? If we set aside great revolutionary events on the political level, we
can see that writing in Chinese culture has its own historical trends—the opening
up of triple writing and exchanges with natural energy. It has confronted danger,
and through writing, transformed everyday life into sensitivity towards the omens
of impending danger, even into the dissolution of great events. We can see such
dissolution in the calligraphy piece written by Huang Daozhou 黃道周(1585–
1646) as he faced execution. Is this not the dissolution of terror and the yearning
for justice? The writing of justice may be fragile, but it is implicit in every written
stroke. It plays random games, but is also measured. This is the allegory embedded
within the story of the woodsman fighting for the path.
Between changing rules and the rules of change, there is a rhythm of change.
4.3 That invisible interval white writing, that pursuit of the invisible and the trans-
parent, is particularly subtle and requires much control, much back and forth. This
interval white is what opens up the entire rhythm of the writing. The connection
between in-between and blankness is something which Jullien failed to notice1. The
use of interval blankness to make adjustments is an approach unique to Chinese
culture, one which encapsulates adaptation, regulation, and tonality, rhythmically
integrating everything to create a tone. Heidegger pondered the adjustable relation-
ship between order or justice (dikē / δίκη) and disorder or injustice (adikia / ἀδικία)
(Derrida 1994). In this out-of-joint era, how do we engage in the appropriate
adjustment? We must, however, admit to the primacy of injustice and disorder, the
impossibility of eradicating injustice, and so, justice, no matter how absolute, must
be adjusted in some way as it comes, constantly adjusted. That is because injustice
is connected to chaos and disorder, and so it cannot be eradicated. The West thinks
too much about eradicating this chaos and injustice. That is because they are afraid
to confront this chaotic injustice, and so they imagine some absolute redemption of
a Messiah or revolutionary event, which is overly regulated, a unidirectional com-
mandment. Messianic salvation, however, is too monotonous. Attempts to solve
Empty and White, Empty—Empty—Substance—Substance | 69

everything eternally in one swoop have come to form the writing method of great
events. Such an approach lacks adjustability, leading to struggles and the dissolution
of absolutes. Chinese culture, on the one hand, affirms the impossibility of eradicat-
ing disorder and injustice and its primacy, but does not stoop down to opportunistic
defense of injustice. On the other hand, Chinese culture believes in eternal adjusta-
bility, constant adjustment, the method of so-called unobtrusive influence, repeated
fine adjustments. The West underestimates chaos, fears its uncertainty and nihilism.
Diffuse white, however, is the preservation of chaos. Interval blankness leaves space
for the possible coming of the future other.
4.4 More than that, we must engage in more profound thinking within the
writing of interval blankness. This betweenness, because of infra-blankening,
because of infra-thinning, spiritual emptying, has opened up an “interval” realm
of the “in-between” (Gegend), letting it take flight to bring about even greater
propensities. This is opened up through a remnant yielding stance. Without the
vividly changing postures that revolve around interval blankness, this interval
blankness could never become so active. At the same time, as the two face each
other, there is the sharing of the dangerous experience, the reception of each oth-
er’s methods of response. Likewise, when one studies from the masters in cursive
calligraphy, one must ponder their brushwork without becoming limited by it,
eventually writing out one’s own experience of blankness in a free manner. The
more the infra-white flies, the greater the role played by lankness. Of course, this
is the writing of unobtrusive influence, with the difference that this “unobtrusive
writing” must now enter into a greater struggle and open up a new interval blank-
ness—the writing field of this spatiotemporal game.

1. Likewise, the “cunning mutuality” of Mou Zongsan’s 牟宗三 (1909–1995) “lim-
itation is limitlessness” also failed to totally open up this “in-between,” leading to
overly slippery discourse and self-repetition while being unable to open up a new

Arendt, H. 1961, Between Past and Future: Six Exercises in Political Thought, New York: Viking Press.
Blanchot, M. 1992, The Step Not Beyond, Albany: State University Press of New York, p. xvi.
Cheng, F. 1994, Empty and Full: The Language of Chinese Painting, Boston: Shambhala, p. 71.
70 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

Derrida, J. 1994, Specters of Marx, New York: Routledge.

Derrida, J. 1995, On the Name, Thomas Dutoit (ed.), California: Stanford University Press,
p. 103.
Heidegger, M. 1971, Poetry, Language, Thought, New York: Harper & Row, pp. 201–202.
Heidegger, M. 2003, Holzwege (1935–1946), Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann Verlag.
Jullien, F. 2009, Les Transformations silencieuses, Paris: Grasset, p. 67.
Jullien, F. 2012, L’écart et L’entre, Paris: Gallilée, p. 50.
Serres, M. 1995, Genesis, Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, pp. 77–78.

Jade and White, Snow and

White, Light and White


Wittgenstein: Nor can we say that white is essentially the property of a-visual−
surface. For it is conceivable that white should occur as a high-light or
as the color of a flame. (Wittgenstein 1978)
Heidegger: The spirit is flaming, and only in this sense perhaps is it something
flickering in the air. Trakl sees spirit not primarily as pneuma, some-
thing ethereal, but as a flame that inflames, startles, horrifies, and
shatters us. Flame is glowing lumination. That flame is the ek-stasis
which lightens and calls forth radiance, but which may also go on
consuming and reduce all to white ashes. (Heidegger 1982)
Derrida: In the affirmative determination of spirit—spirit in-flames—the
internal possibility of the worst is already lodged. Evil has its prov-
enance in spirit itself. It is born of spirit but, precisely, of a spirit
which is not the metaphysico-Platonic Geistigkeit. Evil is not on the
side of matter or of the sensible matter generally opposed to spirit.
Evil is spiritual, it is also Geist, whence this other internal duplicity
which makes one spirit into the evil ghost of the other. In the passage
I am going to quote, this duplicity affects all the thinking up to and
including that of ash, that whiteness of ash which belongs to destiny
consumed and consuming, to the conflagration of the flame which
burns itself up. Is ash the Good or the Evil of flame? (Derrida 1991)
Zhang Yanyuan: Object and self-forgotten, he (Ku K’ai-chih) departs from forms and
leaves knowledge behind. When the body can truly be made to be like
dry wood, and the mind can truly be made to be like dead ashes, is
this not to have attained mysterious principles? It is what can be called
the true way (Dao) of painting.
72 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

Hua Lin: Beyond black, thick, wet, dry and dilute, there is also white, making
for a total of six colors. White is the surface whiteness of the paper.
This is the white used in the sunny side of rocks, the slippery slopes of
boulders, the depths of the sky beyond the painting, the clear bright
spots of clouds, the hazy reaches at the foot of the mountains, the
indistinct treetops. It is used to make the sky and water, to make fog,
clouds, paths and sunlight. Without being touched by the brush, this
white can become part of the painting, rather than just unpainted
paper. It must contain emotion; otherwise, the painting will be life-
less. Life can be sought out within the “white” areas of the painting.
When putting brush to paper, it must be like clouds. Zen practi-
tioners say “form is no different from emptiness, emptiness no dif-
ferent form from. Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.” This
perfectly describes whiteness in painting, both the painting within the
painting and the painting outside of the painting. I fear that I did not
reach this state in my early days, not understanding and seeking out
a clear explanation. It is also important for the ink and blankness to
be in accord. One cannot only paint with the brush or expect the eye
to only see what is painted. The eyes are also drawn to the blank por-
tions. The blankness is opened up through extreme blackness, making
the white extremely white and the black extremely black, according
in discord. Likewise, in writing, the clearer the distinctions, the more
they fuse together.
Tang Dai: Many artists have painted snow-scapes. Wang Youcheng painted
Snow Accumulating at Wang River, Ju Ran painted Snow. Li Yingqiu’s
approach to the snow-scape has a very subtle charm. His Withering
Wood in the Winter Forest truly captures the feel of a harsh winter. Xu
Daoning painted Snow Over a Fishing Village. Though later painters
each approached the snow-scape with their own unique style, none
surpassed Li Yingqiu. Snow-scapes are painted with a gloomy feel
and a cold atmosphere. In brush technique, the painter should use
chapping on the shady parts of the rocks, leaving the high, flat areas
of the rocks white. This white is the snow. For a stone under the
snow, the chapped brushstrokes should be abbreviated, while the base
should be dark. This requires multiple applications in order to form
a contrast with the white of snow. For the trees, the upper sides of
the branches should be left white to show they are covered in snow.
Evergreens should be weighed down by the snow. Any travelers
depicted in the snow should be wearing heavy felt clothing to show
they are warding off the cold. Steep rock faces and ravines can be
linked together by narrow mountain paths and bridges. Temples and
homes should be partly obscured to reduce any sense of clamor. There
is no trick to painting snow-scapes. The key is the delicate contrast
between black and white, making the mountains appear as if made
Jade and White, Snow and White, Light and White | 73

from white jade. The ancients fancied the use of highly diluted ink
to create the sense of snow. Snow-scapes made with white powder
are inferior.
Yun Shouping: As flowers die out, they send off their final fragrance into the night. At
such times, one should not think about flourishing, but create an icy
mind.…Dong Qichang excelled at painting winter forest scenes, cap-
turing their unique beauty. He attributed it to the use of the “flying
white” from calligraphy. His remarkable accomplishments in this
regard were not recognized at the time.…When painting snow, one
must convey the sense of cold. The forests, ravines and human settle-
ments all descend into a murky abyss, wandering in silence. Things
should appear piercingly cold, the light dark and dismal. Such paint-
ings should have a faint sense of floating and waving, but should not
be forceful. In this way, one can create an allusion to snow.

Leaving blank: leaving white spaces: remnant white.

Blank, aka snow.
Blank is not the color white but empty space.
“Blankness” is not “snow,” though it can be snow. When traditional Snows-
cape painting (Ink of Snow—Mountain—Water) began to “treat the ground as
snow,” the “blankness” of the scroll paper, the unpainted portions, came to allude
to snow.
White is not a vacuum. White contains color but also emptiness. “Form is no
different from emptiness, emptiness no different from form.” Form and emptiness
can both emerge from “white.”
Remnant white: leaving white, the leaving of white.
White is not the color white, nor is it blankness.
What is white? White is not something!
White is nothing. White is merely coming, the emptying of itself.
White is born, emerges out of emptiness.
There is no white in this world.
Everything we see in this world has already been colored. It is all phenomena
and surface appearance. These phenomena are colored, particularly in artificial
colors, but “white” is not a color. In this world devoid of white, how can we see
Remnant white? What is leaving out this white?
White is merely the “whitening” of white.
When white incandesces, the collected energy is released in the form of light,
illuminating our world and giving color to the phenomena around us. White,
whitening, can only be a verb, only taking place.
74 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

Remnant white: the non-remnant is making a remnant: blank.

White—we cannot see it. It is invisible. White is the line of visibility, like
light in the West.
White is merely the leaving, the empty remnant of nothing left behind. But
white is not merely “empty,” it is also “remnant.”
White is the color tone of remnants.
The color white, as the color of remnant white, is the color tone of no-remnants,
not a color.
When we understand “white” as a color, we lose the relationship between
“white” and “remnant.”
As the color tone of “remnants,” “white” is the color tone of no remnants: the
tonality of no colors and no tones.
“White” is the sound of no tone, like a rest note in music.
In painting, snow becomes “white.” It is not only a certain color—white—
but emptiness.
When painting consciously leaves space for “white,” when painting paints
snow, it is not painting snow. When painting paints snow but doesn’t paint snow,
it is between semblance and non-semblance. Meanwhile it is also snow-white
opening up a realm of remnant space in the painting.
White is the tone of remnants of no remnants.
How does white leave out itself? Only when it leaves itself out as a remnant
on the verge of no remnants does white emerge.
White does not exist. White is the pause at the verge of no remnants. White
comes in blankness.
White, no remnants? The remnants of blankness and no remnants?
White is the tone of remnants. White and remnants, remnant white, left
white, first leaving white.
Why first, like Kant’s a priori conditions? Remnant white is actually more
like the regulative principle in Kant’s Critique of Judgment.
No-remnants, non-existent, even remnant space is gone. Though nothing
is left, no remnants exist, and there are no remnant spaces in the world, then
remnants as remnants are merely no-remnants, so where do they remain? Why
do they touch on no-remnant? It would seem that the “remnant” is merely the
remnant of no-remnants.
The “remnant” is merely a regulative principle, just as Kant, through reflec-
tive judgment, required the assumption of God and free will. These were merely
assumptions, not an assertion that God and absolute freedom existed, could be
proven—just saying that they needed to be assumed a priori as regulative and
Jade and White, Snow and White, Light and White | 75

guiding principles, otherwise this world, even just the noumenal world, would
not be complete, would lack direction. Remnants or no remnants, remnant white,
are the same to art.
Like God and freedom, mere non-remnants do not have their own existence
in the world. They are merely there, coming, otherwise they would be objectified
and idolized. The remnant as the remnant is merely coming. Though we live in
this world, our living existence itself seems to be a remnant, but this is not the
case. When we face this remnant state of life, the rootless state of life, the utter
lack of connections between individual life and the world, then there is no space
for individual life. We are standing on an abyss.
What is strange, however, is that individual life has survived for a time. How
is this possible? How can there be these small remnant spaces? Life is already apart
from the no-remnants: such fleeting life exists in a remnant state. It has retained
a moment, a fleeting moment to attest to its existence, leaving out a position
for its existence, even if this existence is not its, because it is merely “borrowed,”
borrowed to become snow, to become a propensity, borrowing scroll paper or the
contrast of dark ink to carve out room to breathe—this is the gap of remnant
white, the invisible margin.
This “remnant” is regulating life. The remnant is not the hand of God but
a reflexive requirement. We in our limited existence do not know the universal
principles, only special examples, but it is not that we do not want principles, and
so we must suppose them. There is a god of the absolute present and a god of the
absolute past, bringing preexisting requirements that man must passively listen to
commands to follow, a series of absolute orders: to leave space, to leave white, to
have blankness, to make blank.
Where do these orders come from? Is it the “remnant” speaking its own voice?
Where does this “remnant” speak from? From the “white.” It is the “white” giving
form to this voice.
Where do we hear this sound?
In the snow.
Snowscapes are depictions of the snow that comes in winter, the last of the
four seasons. Snow, snowflakes, snowdrifts, snow falling. The sky sends out a
gentle command: make room for snow. When snow falls, when it drifts down
from the vast sky, snow is making a gentle command—it comes from the heavens,
and in Chinese tradition, the mandate of heaven is destiny, a command from the
sky. Of course, now the heavens are just the natural sky, not an anthropomor-
phized heaven. So, when this natural sky sends out its command, that command
76 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

is gentle and soft: make room for snow. Snow covers all things in the land, making
them white with snow.
This is the unique method of sending out commands in Chinese culture,
as well as a unique listening method. Snow falls from up high. It is a “voice”
from nature, a natural thing naturally falling down. It is not a command; on
the ground, snow does not possess its own existence. As it falls, it melts, melting
itself as it falls. As it accumulates, snow takes on a remnant existence, a tattered,
remnant existence. Snow is the incarnation of the “remnant.” Snow does not have
its own noumenal existence. It always melts in the end. Those glaciers on perpet-
ual snow mountains are not snow but crystallized snow, the corpses of snow, the
petrification of snow.
Snow, falling, sends out such a soft command: Give me a place, empty out
your position.
Snow covers, and this covering becomes “white.” This is a command: become
white; as I cover you, you must become “white,” turn white. This is the gentle
command given by snow.
The falling of snow is the “remnant” sending out its own command through
This is not the “mythology of white.”
The Classic of Poetry writes, “I came in the past, and the willows swayed; today
I come, and the rain and snow are falling.” The rain and snow have opened up
a space and gap for leaving and reminiscing, but the rain and snow do not fill
this gap; they simply make it spread. In the poem Composed and Presented to my
Cousin Jing Yuan in the Twelfth Month of the Year Guimao, Tao Yuanming 陶渊明
(352-427) writes, “As the winter draws to a frigid close, the day is veiled in snow.
My ears can hear no sound, and my eyes see a brilliant purity.” The word “veiled”
is an allusion to darkness. In a place where even the faintest sounds are absent, the
eyes see pure white snow. This is the silence only heard after a great snowfall, an
incomparably desolate silence.
How can we hear this left blank command?
Doesn’t snow fall every winter? Why have we not heard this command? Why
do we only hear this gentle command after the emergence of Chinese landscape
painting, particularly the emergence of snowscapes?
How can we hear it? What kind of ears do we need? What state do our souls
need to be in?
Facing a snowscape painting is listening to that order, listening to that blankness.
The sound emitted from the snow-white places is the empty cold brought by the
blank, remnant white—snow white.
Jade and White, Snow and White, Light and White | 77

The snowscape attempts to paint the imagery of so-called “empty cold.” The
experience of a great snowfall in winter is of course the feeling of cold, but empty.
The natural scenery and bodily stimulation of “coldness” must be transformed
into the experience of the empty cold of remnant emptiness and empty white.
Empty, white, remnants all gain experience in empty cold; we can only gain a true
sense of them in the empty cold, touch on blankness and empty remnants.
Empty cold is not merely perceptual coldness. When snow falls, the body
feels cold, but empty cold is the movement towards the experience of “empty” and
“white” while preserving the sense of cold, “white,” and “empty” filling the sense
of cold, just as snow floats and spreads. Here there is a great reversal: there may
be a sense of cold, but through the paper, ink and brush in the painting—these
materials are not cold at all—through the touch of the spirit, through the qi of
brush and ink, through the body’s writing and painting, the “emptiness” and
“whiteness” produce the sense of cold.
How do we gain a sense of cold in our experience of “emptiness” and “white-
ness”? Of course, the scenery in a painted snowscape can call to mind associations
with coldness, but the extant cold and associations are not enough—they are
merely surface appearances. How does empty cold grow out of blankness?
It happens through leaving extra space, through yielding, through allowing
the “remnant” to occur. In winter, when the great snows come and cover the land,
everything changes and people have nothing. At this time, one can touch the
nothingness of the world and his own superfluity. He is feeling the tone of empty
The concept of empty cold comprises an empty body, a cold perception and a
tranquil spiritual state. Empty cold is connected to empty silence, reaching empty
quiet through coldness and the sense of cold, producing a unique aspect of the Chi-
nese language, which is the use of the word cold in the term “silence.” Empty cold is
also desolate cold—a return to remote antiquity beyond any trace. It is an experience
of life on the brink of desolation, stripping out all forlornness and entering into the
cold, desolate tone of temporality itself.
Only in silence, in empty silence, can we hear the wordless and remnantless
command given out by “snow”: Become white, turn white, become empty white,
enter into empty silence, and in silence, experience empty cold. This is a ritual of
the purification of life.
There is only the experience of cold. This is the observation of the snowscape.
Although it could be painted very cold, forcing the sense of cold onto people, this
would still be very difficult to achieve. To the contrary, snowscape paintings only
preserve the lingering sense of cold.
78 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

Moreover, painting no longer only conveys coldness but lets emptiness itself
bring a sense of cold. The painting is so empty, that it pushes forth a boundless
sense of cold. Of course, it is a painting of a snow scene, but the focus is no longer
on the snow scene but on the spread of a remnant sense of coldness. One could
even not paint a snowscape, painting clouds or autumn instead, perhaps a sense of
snow—as long as there is the connotation or conceptual imagery of empty cold.
This is the emergence of remnant white, a mere hint of “white.” Snow is already
“white,” and the blankness left in the painting has both the sense of snow and
empty cold. When the clouds are no longer painted but simply left blank, even
if it is not a snowscape, there is the sense of empty cold. It is not the experience
of cold, but a sense of cold that grows out of the experience of emptiness. It is
completely empty, yet it still possesses a remnant sense of cold.
Finally, one may not even be painting snowscapes or clouds, but using certain
methods “to not paint,” though this is not “non-painting,” nor does it resemble
the previous attempts to use certain techniques to paint blankness or left blank-
ness—such as the conscious intent to paint cloud vapor or the sense of snow,
repeatedly painting the sense of snow on the rooftops and treetops. Now it is not
painting, truly not painting. Thus, the qi is non-qi and the clouds, “non-clouds.”
But “to non-paint” is not not painting in the general sense—the whiteness of
the scroll paper already exists, but in time, it will turn yellow. This requires a cer-
tain method to preserve this unpainted white as much as possible. It requires care-
ful painting around the edges of the blankness in order to heighten its whiteness.
Thus, it is not merely a readymade object, yet the white is not directly painted—
the method of using white powder is a craftsman’s method, not an artist’s method,
but is the whiteness of the scroll paper not the product of technique? This is the
utilization of a readymade object.
To not paint is to control. This control has an influence over the overall layout
of the painting, but it is not intentional, otherwise it would be surplus.
As a regulative principle, blankness is a guide. It does not exist and cannot be
objectified. It is always maintained as blank, always first, but it is always coming
from the future. It is not only regulative, because the constitution of nature has
already occurred, and the elementality or materiality of nature has already seeped
in. This is where this understanding differs from Kant’s.
The coming from the future is produced not only from non-painting, but also
from the method of painting. In painting, one does not merely not paint; it is just
that the “painting” is aimed at the relationship with blankness. No longer is paint-
ing technique aimed at conveying the desired clouds and snow scenes. Instead, it is
aimed at the edges of blankness, touching the untouchable blankness. Blankness is
Jade and White, Snow and White, Light and White | 79

not actually touched, not within blankness. It is the edges of the blankness that are
touched. That is to say, constantly working on the edges of blankness—non-action
of blankness—to make the blankness present itself. But it is not blank form. The
touching of the edges of blankness leads to the energy of blankness.
The blankness even seeps, in its entirety, to every part of the painting, forming
non-dimensional spatiality. When a sense of snow filled with temporality covers
the painted surface, four-dimensional temporality and non-dimensional spatiality
fuse together within.
When snow covers the myriad things on the land, the land is a vast expanse
of white, truly clean. Snowfall is a ritual of purification. But in painting, this
is “snow” falling on the paper, reproducing images of the snow scene and the
sense of empty cold in the painting, and thus, each act of painting is a ritual,
each time “purifying” one’s entire living presence with “snow”—also “white”—
blankness and empty cold—remnant white and the leaving of remnants. Paint-
ing a snowscape is unlike painting any other scene. This is a ritual of purifying
life. Just as the snowscape is the last in the series of seasonal scenes, this is a life
entering old age, forgetting death and having no fear. It is a purification ritual
of old-age style.
We have listened to the voice of nature in the falling snow, listened to these
commands from nature, and in our response, in artistic creation, maintained
this voice, preserved blankness. As empty cold is constantly activated, remnant
white grows within, so that remnant white is preserved, and extra space constantly
How is this done?
Why is it that only ink painting can maintain this imagery of empty cold? Ink
allows blankness to be experienced.
The ink of ink painting is not the color black, just as “white” is not the color
white but blankness. Ink is darkness, profound darkness.
Thus, the darker it is, the whiter the white becomes.
Water-based ink as a painting material allows white to be whiter.
Thus, Chinese tradition uses ink painting to resolve the problem of empty
Zen in Buddhism. The shift towards empty cold is the most unique creative cul-
tural transformation.
Ink painting began leaving blankness rather late. During pre-Qin dynasty
times, the time of Zhuangzi and Laozi, there was already the empty room filled
with light. Through emptiness, “white” is produced, generated. It is generated
through “infra-emptiness,” through the “accumulation of infra-emptiness.” This
80 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

emptiness is infra-empty qi. How can the emptiness of qi be white? Is it because

of the clarity of qi?
Why is ink used to present white? Unlike the empty room filling with light,
this is the unpainted painting.
Qi is non-qi, clouds are non-clouds.
Snow is white, because white is cleansing purity. White is snow. The leaving
of blankness is snow. The purity of snow is transformed into blankness in the
painting. This transformation has astonishing results, and had a powerful impact
on Chinese left blankness, because the leaving of blankness was not only white,
and snow was no longer merely painted using white powder, but instead con-
nected to the pure spirit alluded to by the white of snow, even purified into blank-
ness. It is no longer the color of white. It has received the Buddhist intermediate
perspective theory of “emptiness is form, form is emptiness,” and is subsequently
transformed into: the white of snow—the technique of leaving blankness—the
purity of white—empty forms—pure infra-emptying, the emptying out of every-
thing. The painter becomes the main body of creation, and obtains clarity like
jade, like the soft, jade-like light of rock faces covered in snow.
Here, white is not merely a color—it is the extra, sixth color. This was art
critic Hua Lin’s bold addition, a supplementation to color, a surplus, remnant
color. White is the color of remnants, the color of remnant emptiness, and it
is not only color but the omnipresent white, derived from the material itself.
It is a kind of plainness, the plainness of material itself, like the pure plainness
pursued by Zhuangzi. Of course, it has already been transformed to the white of
the painting. For Hua Lin, this leaving of blankness had profound significance.
Could it be that it is not just the white color and left blankness of the painting,
but a white beyond the painting? What is white beyond the painting? Hua Lin
immediately drew on the Buddhist view equating emptiness and form, so that
blankness is observed first, carefully set aside first, and in its specific realization,
there is a contrast between black and white, between compatible and incompati-
ble, the incompatible resting in the remnant echoes brought about by blankness.
Moreover, this blankness should be calm and unhurried. The blankness must be
fully penetrated, and this requires groundless enlightenment. Only by touching
this blankness can the prosaic be conveyed.
Blankness is the formalization of the empty spirit. Together with the black
of ink as an allusion to the primordial chaos, the two are not only a contrast
between the colors black and white, but are the remnant image of the unseeable
thing. The replacement of “light” with qi is achieved through the empty white or
blankness’s subtle effects on the rest of the painting. It produces as “spiritual light”
Jade and White, Snow and White, Light and White | 81

effect, rather than a contrast between external light and the color of light, and it
transforms air into blankness in the painting.
The snow-scape is also connected to Wang Wei. It is strange that although
Wang Wei left almost no direct artifacts in the Northern Song, so many snows-
cape paintings have been falsely attributed to him. The reason for this is that
snowscapes convey a certain sort of nobility. This nobility lies in the sense of
cold brought about by the snowscape—that texture of life connected to rem-
nant white, to cold white. The white brought by snow is not merely white,
because snowfall or the white of snow brings about the purification of life.
Painting snow is a ritual of cleansing the soul. The sense of snowy white is the
purification of life’s perception, and thus, one must paint snowscapes. It is the
art of time, the experience of age. Winter is the retraction of life, the suffocation
of life.
Beginning with Ju Ran and the emergence of “alum tips,” the sense of snow
emerged in ink painting. Ju Ran’s Snowscape uses only ink lines to outline the cold
mountain peaks, and most of the painting is left blank, highlighting the sense
of snow in extreme cold. But those artworks constructed with alum tips became
a kind of conscious formal language, like the accumulation of snow, a series of
white, fuzzy clumps of qi that continue to grow, softening the rigid stone so that
it maintains the possibility of growth. Here, the growing properties of nature are
conveyed in vivid detail.
Ju Ran’s alum tips had a strong influence over the work of Huang Gongwang.
The alum tips in Stone Cliff over Mountain Lake reduce the sense of softness of
the accumulated snow, making it stronger, but the layers of accumulated snow
and the upward climb of this accumulation adds to the propensity of growth.
Unlike Ju Ran, Huang Gongwang’s alum tips added a platform that extends out
from atop the rocks. There is nothing to this platform; it is just a flat surface, but
the large platform and its emergence in many places are marks of Huang Gong-
wang’s intentional compositional language. What is this alum-tipped platform an
allusion to? It is blank on the top, a stretched blankness that stands out, domi-
nating the picture. It is an alchemical laboratory. For the Daoist, the creation of
landscape paintings is not self-cultivation but the absorption of qi, and so that
alchemical laboratory platform bears the vital qi of the heavens and earth. Huang
Gongwang’s alum tips are like the abdomen’s emptying and reception in qi exer-
cises, and so, this emptied-out alum tip as an alchemical laboratory is still a ritual
of purification and cultivation.
82 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

If the alchemical laboratory in the landscape painting is evolved from alum

tips, then taking it one step further, it is the sense of snow, not snow directly
painted, but left blank.
The related Winter Forest is also connected to the desolation of “snow,” much
like Jia Dao’s 贾岛 (779–843) frequent poems about snow, and it is linked to Zen
Buddhism. Blankness is set aside first. This is an a priori quality that is unique
to Chinese aesthetics. It is not merely “intent coming before the brush,” but the
consideration of the unpainted blankness before painting begins. Of course, this
is not a preexisting, conscious attitude; it is first considering the importance of
blankness within strokes of the brush.
Then there is the question of black-white contrast. Black and white on what
level? We thus enter into the secrets of time. In the desolate, remote past, cold
memories have been retained. Even if you never set out to paint a snowscape, the
sense of cold and the cold colors of the snowscape will seep into your painting,
entering into cold memories. The sense of cold penetrates into the bones of life,
and from those bones will emit a cold, desolate air which collects to form a crys-
talline clean light.

Figure 6.1: Gong Xian 龚贤 (1618–1689), Endless Mountains (detail), ink on paper, 27.8
× 980 cm.
Source: Nanjing Museum, Nanjing.

The black-white contrast, what in tradition is known as “treating white as black,”

must be more clearly explained, particularly Gong Xian’s mystical feel produced
by interchanging light and dark. This is a contrast in color, the contrast between
the so-called colors black and white. Black absorbs all light, while white reflects
all light. Chinese culture, from the physical structure of Chinese eyes to the nat-
ural landscapes of China, mainly consists of black, white, and gray, particularly
dark gray. This has had a profound impact on the visual experiences and habits
of the Chinese people. It is the black and white presented in ink brushwork or
painted surfaces. In ink painting, the distinction between black and white is not
very apparent, owing to the way in which water dissolves ink. The contrasts are
not created by paints, but through the dissolution of ink or the accumulation of
ink, even char ink and flying white, as well as various other such effects creating a
contrast. It is the black-white contrast brought about by the techniques of writing
Jade and White, Snow and White, Light and White | 83

and painting. The so-called practice of “treating white as black” unfolds on this
level. Gong Xian said, “in painting rocks, they should be white above and black
below.” This is particularly apparent when certain small, bright rocks jump out
from wide stretches of black rocks, as seen in the works of Ju Ran and Huang
Gongwang. The accumulation of ink to create rocks is a temporal painting pro-
cess, as much as the process of cultivating mind and body. It is also a conceptual,
poetic contrast—clouds as white and old trees as black, bringing a sense of time,
the temporal experience of the changing seasons.
The tone, as expressed in the paintings of Gong Xian, is the production of qi
through the leaving of blankness. Through the undulating changes around this
blankness, the blankness appears to flow. This is the vividness and lingering qi
of tone and their amazing relationship with remnant qi and left blankness. This
leaving of blankness is also in keeping with the method of cultivating the body
known as “the body at rest but the mind galloping abroad,” as found in Zhuang-
zi’s passage regarding the empty room filling with light. In cultivating viewing,
one touches blankness. This is the use of “mindlessness” to “know emptiness.”
Meanwhile, because of its contrast with the technique of ink accumulation, that
blankness emits a pure white light. This is Chinese landscape painting’s reception
or calm presentation of light.
This patch of pure white has an internal, tactile relationship with the sense of
snow in accumulated snow. The accumulation of ink is the accumulation of black,
but it is also the addition of white. The more ink or black is added, the stronger
the white becomes. This is the repeated seepage on the margins of the blank-
ness. The ink accumulation technique amounts to seepage, penetrating within
the paper, a model of repeated application. It brings out a sense of light. In Gong
Xian’s works, there is a calm reception of the sense of light through the sense of
qi in Chinese culture. In the late-Ming, a time with virtually no remnants, Gong
Xian’s painting left room for this last cultural dream, preserving for us a pure
white enchorial-topia. This is a realm that has been virtually overlooked since the
Qing dynasty.

Derrida, J. 1991, Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question, Chicago and London: The University of
Chicago Press, p. 96.
Heidegger, M. 1982, On the Way to Language, New York: Harper & Row, p. 179.
Wittgenstein, L. 1978, Remarks on Color, G. E. M. Anscombe (ed.), California: University of
California Press, p. 36.

“Black-and-Blankism” and
the Silent Transformation of


Zong Baihua: “Wandering and unconnected” is the expression of the noumenal

“Dao” (the unconnected realm) from the blankness at the root level
of Chinese painting. Zhuangzi spoke of “emptiness, the empty room
filled with light.” This empty white is not the geometric structure of
space, the space of death, the ultimate emptiness, but the eternally
moving Dao that created all things. This “white” is the auspicious
light of the “Dao.”
Fu Zai: When we contemplate Master Chang (Zhang Zao, Tang dynasty)’s
art, it is not painting, it is the very Dao itself. Whenever he was
engaged in painting, one already knew that he had left mere skill far
behind. His ideas reach into the dark mysteries of things, and for him,
things lay not in the physical sense, but in the spiritual part of his
mind. And thus he was able to grasp them in his heart, and make his
hand accord with it.
Bu Yantu: When divine power is operating, brush-ink attains the void. Then
there is brush beyond brush, ink beyond ink. There is nothing to do
but to act in accordance with the rhythm of one’s heart, and then
there will be nothing that is not miraculous. For it is the work of
heaven…The art of ink is magic and almost supernatural!…With the
six colors of ink the painter incarnates the laws of creation. What is
called “inkless” is not completely devoid of ink; it is an extension of
dry-diluted. Whereas dry-diluted remains marked by fullness, inkless
86 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

is totally empty. There exists an intermediate state, which suggests

emptiness with fullness. By alternating emptiness and fullness, one
exhausts the potentialities of ink. If it is easy for brush-ink to paint
the visible, fullness, it is more difficult for it to represent the invisible,
emptiness. Between mountain and water, the lights of hazes and the
shadows of clouds are constantly changing. Now they appear, now
they are gone. Vividly manifest or concealed, they harbor in their
bosom the breath and the spirit. The ancients sought to fathom their
mystery by every means—to grasp their breath by brush-without-ink
and to seize their spirit by ink-without-ink. (Cheng 1994, p. 82)
Shih-t’ao: Yin-Yun: The union of the brush and the ink is that of yin and yun. The indis-
tinct fusion of yin and yun constitutes the original chaos. If it were not
by the one brushstroke, how could one ever tame the original chaos?…
In the midst of the ocean of ink, firmly establish the spirit; at the point
of the brush, let life affirm itself and come forth! On the surface of
the painting, set transformation in motion; at the heart of chaos light
is established and bursts forth!…Starting from the one, the many are
divided; starting from the many, the one is conquered. The metamor-
phosis of the one produces yin and yun, and with that all the potential-
ities of the world are accomplished. (Cheng 1994, p. 119)
Fan Chin: In painting, much is made of the notion of emptinessfullness. It is
through emptiness that fullness succeeds in manifesting its true full-
ness. All the same, how many misunderstandings need to be dispelled!
People generally believe that it is enough to arrange to have a great deal
of unpainted space in order to create emptiness. What interest does this
emptiness have if it is just inert space? It is necessary that true emptiness
be in some way fully inhabited by fullness. It is emptiness— in the form
of hazes, mists, clouds, or invisible breaths—that carries all things, draw-
ing them into the process of hidden change. Far from diluting space,
these forms of emptiness confer on a picture the unity in which all things
breathe as in an organic structure. Emptiness is therefore not at all out-
side of fullness and still less is it opposed to it. The supreme art consists
in introducing emptiness into the very midst of fullness, whether we
are speaking of a detail or of the overall composition. It has been said:
“Every stroke of the brush must be preceded and extended by the idea
[or the spirit].” In a picture activated by true emptiness, within each
stroke, between the strokes, even at the heart of the densest composition,
the dynamic breaths can and should circulate freely. (Cheng 1994, p. 90)
Serres: I call forth the absences, the nudities, the blank pages, the matrices.
I summon the phantoms which fade away the further they come for-
ward. I call forth the court of the un-differentiated. To dance is only
to step aside and make room, to think is only to step aside and make
room, give up one’s place. To leave at last the page blank. I believe that
man is blank and un-differentiated. (Serres 1995)
“Black-and-Blankism” and the Silent Transformation of Invisibility | 87

When one culture chose “black-and-blank” to be the base color scheme for all
of its arts, and even its thoughts, it implied that it had already reached its limits,
minimalist from the very outset. It also implied that it had reached its deep, silent
abyss, and that there was very little left that could still be done, leaving only
dreaming of maximalism from within minimalism, or preserving minimalism
within its own minimalism, yet also being infinitely rich, surpassing the maximal
itself. This also implied that what human beings are capable of is actually very
little, almost nothing. Thus, what is left is this “almost nothing”.1 It manages to
do the unheard-of, to permeate the world with this “almost nothing.” This would
be what Marcel Duchamp would dream of in his “infra mince art”.
In the ancient tradition, ink art, whether it was stele inscription calligraphy
or literati painting, was deeply enchanted with the realms of black and blankness.
Stele inscription calligraphy in the Han and Wei dynasties transformed sorcery by
way of Xuanxue 玄學 (240–420, Chinese Metaphysis or New-Daoism; thinking
about mysterious natural nature), which in Wang Xizhi 王羲之 (303–361) and
his son, shifted towards the written expression of the individual will to live. Writ-
ing in black-and-blank confronts the transience and suffering of life and provides
immediate resolution. Moreover, shanshui 山水 landscape painting followed
Wang Wei’s Buddhism and Zen, with its view of form and emptiness, where all
that is form is emptiness, and all that is emptiness, form, to transform the brilliant
emerald hues popular during the Tang period into the black-and-blank of ink
painting. Even in flower and bird painting, in the late Ming dynasty, Chen Chun
陈淳 (1483–1544) and Xu Wei 徐渭 (1521–1593) drew from the enlightenment
of Wang Yangming’s School of Mind to transform colored paintings of flowers
into great works of xieyi 寫意 freehand ink expression. The Dao of black-and-
blank has always been a path of inner, secret transformation in Chinese art—the
silent transformation of the inner mind—yet we rarely reflect on it from a philo-
sophical point of view.
But then, what about contemporary art, which is led by Western moder-
nity? How can this “black-and-blank spirit” inherent to Chinese culture be trans-
formed? Please take note that here, “black-and-blank” has always been a verb, not
a noun. It is traditionally used as an adjective, as in “treating the blank as black,”
the so-called substance in emptiness, and emptiness in fullness, in the density of
the black lines of characters and the sparseness of the blankness between them.
The Dao of black-and-blank is a gesture of emptying, of “black-blank-ification,”
blackification and whitification, which is essentially obscurification and pene-
tration in the void, therefore, this void transforms into state of xu 虛 (encho-
rialization)—a movement and deliberation between substance and emptiness.
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Unfortunately, 20th century modernism only uses “black-and-blank” as a noun,

making ink just an available material, and the so-called Chinese painting just a
genre of painting. Therefore, we re-enter the silent abyss created by the operations
of black-and-blank, to send black-and-blank into motion once again. The new
Dao of transformation can only be found within the silencing revolution (Jullien


Laozi said, “The Dao that can be spoken is not the constant Dao/the name which
can be named is not the constant name; nameless is the beginning of heaven and
earth/the named is the mother of all things/without desire, one sees its begin-
ning/with desire, one sees its end.” In saying this Laozi suggested that the true
color of the world cannot be named, because it is forever changing and imperma-
nent. Humanity cannot rely on its changing, indescribable nature alone, however,
and so we attempt to operate, in a subtle posture of transgression, back and forth
across the boundary between “nothing” and “something.” Black-and-blankism
has, from the beginning of our culture, contained infinite potential. But entering
into modernity, confronted with the tragic relationship of paradox and struggle
between the self and the other (the imitation and the observation of the other
leads to losing oneself, while self-isolation leads to self-inflicted suffering). Only
Duchamp dreamed of an “inframince intermediary”—maintaining an unlim-
ited transition between self and other. “Inframince,” or “infrathin,” is also a verb,
meaning the infinite transition of enchorializing and thinning. “Black-and-blank”
is the “knowledge of blankness and perpetuation of blackness,” obscuration with
darkness and penetration into void, a transition between their dual emptying.
“Black-and-blankism” demands that ink art return to its own black-and-
blankness. Black is dark mystery, while blankness is the absence of color. The color
is just empty color, but it allows water and ink to destroy and generate each other.
Black and blank, darkness and void, are just two nominal extremes. Between
them there is nothing but emptiness, which leaves a field for the dual operations
of ink art. On the one hand there is the finite and tangible mutual destruction
of black and blank; black and blank are just the boundaries of color, namely the
empty white of water and the thick black of ink. When the two elements meet
and collide, the dilution creates a fluid state of ink color, the so-called five shades
of ink. On the other hand, there is the invisible, intangible mixing. As it is said
in first chapter of the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching): “The two have one origin but
“Black-and-Blankism” and the Silent Transformation of Invisibility | 89

different names/both are called darkness, the mysterizing of mysterizing, the door
to all mysteries.” This darkening means entering the darkness of black, to make
the color perception of black even more empty. In modernity, the experience of
darkness is the experience of the blackness of night, the poetry of entering the
darkness of night (like in French author and literary critic Maurice Blanchot’s
work The Gaze of Orpheus). At the same time, it is the addition of the empty
light of white, which Zhuangzi expressed as “white light emerging in an empty
room (state of xu),” the experience of boundless empty and open brightness. In
modernity, it is the experience of “openness” and “vacancy,” similar to the concept
of chora (xu), as expressed by Heidegger in his analysis of Hölderlin’s poetry, and
by Derrida in “the desert in the desert,” waiting, in the chora, for that open and
limitless space of light that is the other. These two elements overlap in ink art. On
the one hand, there is an operation possessing form or features, especially in the
vaporizing clouds filling the paper, dissolving the concreteness of the image. It is
the shaping of propensity. On the other hand, there is the emptying of the vapor-
ous state, fusing with the unpainted blank space of the painting. This is blankness
using the virtual vaporous state to become fluid. It is the motion of blankness, its
operation within the darkness.
Furthermore, black-and-blankism is a technique of compression. Chinese
culture’s method of observing the world is “understanding instantaneous intu-
ition,” and instantaneous intuition is gained through the compression of the
rhythms of nature, from the four seasons to spring and autumn, and on to the
light and darkness of a single day, and then to the instantaneous birth and death,
and death and birth, of a single moment. Black-and-blank is insight into constant
change and the opportunities of its instants. It encompasses a unique method
for observing the world. It is just that in our time, it must be integrated with the
rationalism of the West and the inspiration of religion.
The mystery of black-and-blankism is not in black and blank, but in the
enchorialized liminal “in-between” between the two, the reconstruction of the
interval. The wisdom of Chinese thought is that it does not just see the thing,
but it has insight into that “empty interval” and connective space that connects
and transitions between one thing and another (like the wisdom of Zhuangzi’s
dexterous butcher). Chinese thought sees that fleeting gap between instantaneous
birth and death (the “wild horse leaping the ravine”), and uses the gap of this
empty interval to effect a reverse reconstruction of the world. This is the root
occurrence of enlightenment. It is like how the painting of bamboo is not about
seeing the bamboo, but about emptying out the space in the joints between sec-
tions, thus better capturing the spirit of the bamboo’s growth, or how unpainted
90 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

space and intervals between forests in shanshui landscape painting construct the
flow of clouds and smoke. Thus, this is a reverse-consciousness form of silent
transformation. Enlightenment arises from reversal, like turns and retraction in
calligraphy. This is not just a tendency in the forward direction of observation, but
the simultaneous operation of forwards and backwards. Only when it is guided
by this reverse-consciousness can this reversal be more than just a progression of
knowledge. This reversal does not depend on any power of will, but is a silent
transformation, because the intervals in between can only be emptied, otherwise,
the “between” will become an objectified space.
Our explanation here brings the traditional method of “treating blank as
black” into a dialogue with the thinking of modernity. Black-and-blankism, in
the silently moving space, expanding and contracting space between presence and
absence, always maintains vitality, and confronts the invasion of Western color
sense and various other such concepts. How can ink art present its weakened
images while also maintaining its inframince? Furthermore, an important back-
ground is the crisis in Western art, the crisis it encountered as it went deeper into
the invisible. Art is about entering the invisible, letting the invisible remain invis-
ible on the verge of the visible. It’s similar to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts
about the conundrum of the profound invisibility of nature (this is not the same
as Monet’s dissolving nature and dramatization of nature), as well as Duchamp’s
late-period work Given, which merely simulates nature and does not possess
any naturalness, and on to abstract painting casting off nature to move towards
the isolation of black painting. Meanwhile, conceptual art and Pop art are too
subservient to the visibility of technology, as with the popularization of internet
image technology. Where has the expression of invisibility gone? Where is the
deep experience of entering the dark, silent abyss?
Also, what matters is that once Western painting and Minimalism, or concep-
tual painting, moved toward the monochrome of black painting (after Reinhardt,
Rothko, Stella, and Rauschenberg) and white painting (as with Ryman), Western
black-and-white encountered an enormous conundrum in its understanding of
monochrome black and white. How to begin from a blank painting? How to do
so without straying towards the end of monochrome painting? This issue is the
juncture where black-and-blankism begins.
With a new black-and-blankism, we should be able to face the crisis of how
to allow the visible to remain invisible within the visible and withstand the excess
of visibility. We have to rediscover the depth of nature.
This demands black-and-blankism to go back to its darkness and penetration.
This is a revolutionary method of silent transformation.
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Double Revolution

Chinese contemporary art has reached a critical moment. After the decline of
the irreverent Political Pop in 2009, which also marked the end of a two-decade
global trend of Pop art, contemporary art needed a new direction for the future.
After some years of hesitation, in 2013, Chinese contemporary art was even more
in urgent need of a revolution within reflection. This is the “second revolution”;
not only the second but twice the revolution, a revolution in a revolution. Only
in this manner can there be a contribution of principles, China as the path, not
just a matter of how outstanding one artist’s work is, but a new contribution of
“principles”: this is the revolution of silent transformation. “Black-and-blankism”
should be the most suited to offer a new language for this revolution.
It is like how the 1985 New Wave of China contemporary Art started the first
revolution, but it was indiscriminately lapping up all kinds of Western art trends, a
revolution of the self led by the West. This was a continuation of the revolutionary
spirit from the May Fourth Movement, even a continuation of the Cultural Rev-
olution. Keeping in mind that the young people of that time grew up during the
Cultural Revolution, it’s no wonder that they moved toward Political Pop art, which
widely employed the signs of the Cultural Revolution. Meanwhile, New Literati
painting’s continuation of tradition lacked any deep introspection and was insuffi-
ciently deep or silenced. Experimental ink painting was mainly using various West-
ern art techniques to create ink art. But in 2013, Chinese contemporary art entered
into introspection that will soon begin the second revolution. This revolution will
not be a repetition of various Western models, nor will it be a repetition of tradition.
Instead, in introspection and the transformation of tradition, it will revolutionize
revolution, and move toward silent transformation. It will also cause silencing to
undergo a revolution, but this is the second revolution, a new principle of silencing
revolution, rather than the violent method from one revolution to the next.
This is a double revolution. On the one hand, it is revolution of the revolu-
tion, drawing revolution towards silent transformation, no longer copying West-
ern models, and no longer being tempted by violent revolution; on the other
hand, it is the entry into a deeper silent transformation, and bringing this silent
transformation toward revolution. This is a silent revolution that has not given
up on the ideals of revolution. The principle of this new revolution is to silence
revolution and to revolutionize silence.
Why silent transformation? The Western model of constant revolution is
wrapped up in violence, while silencing is a means of unobtrusive transforma-
tion unique to Chinese culture. It requires Chinese artists to follow the rhythms
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of nature, and enter deeply in naturalness, so they passively enter into the
relationships of natural reactions, particularly the interior reactions between the
“sense of ink” in ink art and the “silent operations” of unobtrusive influence. We
must listen closely to the words spoken by the Chinese language. The “black-
and-blank art” is an act of listening closely to the words spoken by the Chinese
language itself. The second revolution in Chinese contemporary art does not
depart from the properties of ink or the spirit of ink art, but turns to the affin-
ity between ink and silent transformation, and finds an inner resonance with
the so-called “black-and-blankism”—another kind of poetics and techniques for
expressing the dark night opening all things. This demands that we stop imitat-
ing the revolutionary model of Western modernity, because ink needs the nour-
ishment of time to cultivate, needs softening and detachment, what Zhuangzi
described as “let your mind wander in dissolution, harmonize your vital energy
in detachment.” Art is an art of cultivation, and observation is contemplation and
tending, not a onetime conceptual consumption, or the repetition and flaunting
of a fleeting individual style.
Silent transformation demands that art is treated as a complete, living world and
established as a vast worldview. It is in the formal construction of the world of human
implements (not only in artificial forms but also in the semblance and richness of
natural forms); in the moderation of the relationship between mind and body in the
corporeal world (a turn towards nurturing cultivation instead of the harm of phys-
ical violence); and in the rhythms of growth and elementality in the natural world
(allowing naturalness to constantly permeate artificial objects and the human body).
By forming resonance between these three worlds, art transcends the cultural and
historical differences between East and West. “Black-blankism” needs a slow process
of silent transformation. This is an internal transformation process of “shifting char-
acter.” In this era of constant technical production, in order to form a new spiritual
cultivation practice and a new artistic language, one which combines concept and
form, an inner skill of silent transformation through non-action is required. Non-
action cannot be learned, it cannot be inherited or transmitted through history. It
must begin anew each time from nothingness.
Silent transformation transforms itself with three enfolds: Let nature come to
act, Let nothing come to act, and Let letting come to act—this is the use of the
useless or non-action of action.
“Black-blankism or Black-blank Art” must uncover a deeper naturalness and
enter into the experience of the silent abyss of silent transformation, for example, the
temporality of age: senescence, fatigue, and death; the temporality of material: the
patina and jade-like texture of porcelain, and the cold feel and smell of ancientness;
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the temporality of nature: instantaneous extinguishment or infinite growth, the vast-

ness and depth of the heavens and the land. Only by entering a deeper, more silent
abyss can we unearth the latent energy of silent transformation. It’s a continuous
process of self passivization and reverse-consciousness transformation that demands
force of character. Inside the bottomless abyss, there are no extant principles that can
be learned. A more total silencing is to be found in the entry into the modern experi-
ence of the void, in taking in the nothingness of individual existence, in enduring the
desolation of the world of spirituality, in quietly contemplating the desertification of
nature. It is a more powerless experience of emptiness and desolation. Those who can
endure and face it are the individual acolytes of postmodernity.
Moreover, after entering the silent abyss, we still must make the silent trans-
formation more revolutionary. How to transform the passive silent transformation
experience into an active form of revolution? How to revolutionize the silent trans-
formation? This is giving new form to the nothingness, discarding and yielding
of the silent transformation, as well as the emptiness and desolation. This is the
gathering of emptiness, gathering of yielding, giving new form to “yielding” and
“emptiness,” bringing inner unity (xu) to naturalness and emptiness. It is like the
faint, roiling clouds of Chinese shanshui landscape painting (enfolding the state of
xu): Let the empty tranquility of unpainted space fuse internally with the vaporous
turbulence of clouds and smoke. The vapor is not vapor, and the emptiness not
nothing. The forms of the edges of the unpainted space have more vivid, vaporous
form than actually painting the sense of vapor. Only in this way can “black-and-
blank” achieve new depth and thickness, and let invisibility stay invisible on the
verge of appearance.
In this era when we lack common space and sense of freedom, when we lack
a yielding attitude and fight for possession, a “black-and-blankism” that sets out
from ink art and is inspired by the “revolution of silent transformation” awakens
an ethics of existence: to learn freedom in freedom, to open space within yielding,
and to let nature generate more freely, so that art can better integrate freedom,
silent transformation and revolution to contribute new universal principles.

Double Bind

What are the principles of ink painting? How to go about extracting them? The
primary principle of ink painting in Chinese traditional culture is “naturaliza-
tion.” The brush absorbs water and ink, water splatters ink, ink splatters water,
and water, ink, brush and scroll paper are all absorptive. This is a principle
94 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

of “seepage” and “absorption” of “application” and “diffusion.” These are not

just material properties. They also contain certain natural principles, and this
is unique to Chinese ink painting, wholly unfamiliar to the West. Of course,
traditional painting was mainly engaged through the writing brush, which is
an effort marked by shifting individuality and the properties of life. This is the
second principle of ink painting—the calligraphic principle. This is because
since the Tang dynasty, calligraphy has been an art largely determined by the
materials of ink and paper, which is quite different from the cloth and bamboo
writing or stone inscription of the Han dynasty. Moreover, strictly speaking,
this earlier writing was not art, but an inscription form mainly based on the
written word. The awareness of calligraphy as an art, which began in the late
Eastern Han period (189–220), was as Cai Yong 蔡邕 (133–192) put it, “the
production of strange forms, only possible with a soft brush,” as well as the
beautiful texture brought about by writing. From ancient inscription writing to
the poetic and expressive writing of calligraphy, on to the written aspect of Yuan
dynasty literati landscape painting, Chinese ink art has always been internally
connected to writing. But how, in contemporary times, do we move on to the
fourth phase in contemporary times, producing a new written aspect? How do
we connect with the touch of Western graffiti, painting and touchscreen tech-
nology to produce a new form of writing?
How does this principle of naturalness engage with the two principles of the
As described above, Western modern art used the geometry of the cubists
to begin changing freely—this marked the beginning of modernity. Another
method was contrary to this. It was the “non-art” method, the beginning of the
so-called post-modern. If the postmodern is a modern condition, then how can
the two be integrated? Duchamp’s making of a readymade was a show of respect
for the unique “thingness” of the object. This “thingness” expanded its function,
expanded its own space and cast off its own traits. This is the individual awareness
of modernity. There is no fixed mode for this individual awareness. It is the expe-
rience of freedom. Geometric abstraction was also an experience of freedom. No
longer would artists bestow forms with concrete shapes as in classical times. Now
they would extract them geometrically. These two paths both amount to a “free”
extraction. 20th century Chinese art, however, did not have sufficient experience
of this “liberation,” so it is in particular need of transformation. Traditional ink
art also has fixed relationships with “objects” (the natural landscape, materials).
How to engage in a “free” modern transformation? First, the principles to be
transformed must be clearly defined.
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The “naturalization” of ink painting is a principle of absorptivity. The brush

absorbs ink, absorbs water, the water and ink mix, and it is “eaten” by the paper,
seeping into the paper. The paper has an absorptive function. From material to
painting methods, and onto the subject (a calligrapher or painter is not painting
words and lines but painting qi, the atmosphere of life), it all follows a principle
of “consumption”—it is a principle of “consumption” or “absorption.” The ink
painting materials, the atmosphere of the subject and the metaphorical shifts in
the natural object work in tandem, following this principle of absorption and
consumption, and there is a commonality between object, material, and sub-
ject. Western art would have a difficult time maintaining this living commonal-
ity between the three. Most Western art is fractured. This commonality and the
principle of mutual absorption and permeation is internalized in traditional ink
painting. Traditionally, although there is much talk of brush and ink, the empha-
sis is not directly placed on these materials but on the properties of the brush and
writing. If we use the creative imagination of the free individual to transform
these natural principles, then we will have integrated “nature” and “freedom.” If
we present this “absorptivity,” and can integrate it with the two principles of the
West, then Chinese art will be much greater. Of course, aside from this principle
of natural absorptivity there is another principle, the third principle—the emp-
tiness of ink.
The Emptiness Principle of Ink. This material is not merely a material. I call
it a “material material” or an “immaterial material”—the two do not contradict
each other. On one hand, it is a material material, because ink painting has nat-
ural material properties. They are not artificial materials. On the other hand, it is
an immaterial material, because the material of ink painting faces the requirement
that “all form is empty, and all empty is form”—it does not lead to lofty illusions
or to the cancelling out of materiality. Instead, it diminishes the ghostly and spec-
tral illusions (the colorlessness of water). While preserving the primordial chaos, it
also allows for the retention of a diffuse materiality (the darkening of ink).
Ink painting was a philosophy. It demanded much of the painter, requiring
the expression of infinite richness with a minimal amount of material. This was
clearly a spiritually demanding pursuit. Many works of contemporary ink paint-
ing use Western materials and techniques to create ink paintings, but this treats
ink painting as a mere artistic form or visual feel rather than as a philosophy.
This philosophy is the “reduction technique,” the “diminishing beyond diminish-
ing,” the “remnantization,” constant remnantization and emptying. Ink painting
in the 20th century has been constantly adding things, constantly engaging in
addition, making it seem coarse. If we can integrate the “absorptive principle” of
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naturalness with the “emptiness principle” of reduction—which I call “remnan-

tization”—finding a new naturalness and a new method of remnantization, then
ink painting will become a new form of living philosophy.
The “emptying” principle of traditional culture is the principle of “doing with-
out doing” or “painting without painting.” You are not using your own abilities and
endurance to engage in art—you are drawing on the power of nature. This is where
this principle intersects with the principle of naturalization. Chinese culture attains
through “letting.” “You can’t do it any way you want” requires “action through
non-action,” letting “nothingness” do the “action.” This is a very lofty concept and
is the reason why ink painting is not just an artistic language but a philosophy as
well. But even though traditional art had room for freedom, this room was filled
later on, and so we must borrow from the West’s spirit of individual freedom to
once again open up this “extra emptiness,” because it is not possible to rely solely
on traditional ink painting to achieve a modern transformation. We must start with
current problems and crises, contributing a global philosophy that truly comes from
China, contributing universal principles. This will be a possible, universal gift from
the future derived from technique, art, and the art of Dao. In art, nothing can be
taken for granted as universal, and so we cannot use any existing theories to enter
into the artistic experience.
Where does the blankness of this “remnantization” come from? In the West,
it is the “white of light”; in Chinese tradition, it is “left blankness”; in the con-
temporary art, it is “remnant white.” The white of light in the West is attained
through contrasts of light and shadow, as well as the volume of light and white-
ness, opening up a relationship between white and light. In contemporary times,
Western art moved towards black painting, leading to the end of painting. The
left blankness of traditional Chinese painting is attained through leaving por-
tions of the painting blank, painting without painting, leaving blankness that
touches or seeps into surrounding shapes, leading to the light vibration of this
blankness. Contemporary remnant white is giving the blankness itself a rich
sense of form and motion after incorporating the Western sense of light and an
abstracted sense of materiality for a more conscious enhancement of the multi-
plicity of white.
Traditional emptying was done through “left blankness,” but it was later filled
and has disappeared. Now it must absorb the openness and sense of freedom in
modernity. This is a new blankness, which I call a new “extra space (enchorial-
topia).” It is connected to the openness of Western space, and we must learn
it. This is not merely a traditional natural principle. It must absorb the West-
ern “sense of freedom,” individual imagination, to open up a principle of free
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and open space, eventually integrating nature and freedom, achieving integration
through the everyday writing of the individual, the true subject of modernity.
This new extra space opened up by freedom is borrowed from the West and is
something we must learn. There are two freedoms, one being the abstract freedom
of cubism, and one being the everyday, individual and extemporaneous freedom
of so-called non-art. Picasso in his early period, Pollock in his late period, Warhol
in his early period and Beuys in his late period were all like this. It was anything
but the mere slogans of “non-art” and “anti-art”; it was an embodiment of the
individual sense of freedom. On the other hand, perhaps maybe this Western
path of freedom has been lacking some sort of limitation since modernism? In the
20th century, the West did not preserve the tension between “you can do it any
way you want” and “you can’t do it any way you want.” After Duchamp, Western
contemporary art entered a state where “you could do it any way you want,” but
the profundity of art lies in “limitations” (the birth of ink painting embodies this
limitation). In limitation, I am met by the demands of “you can’t do it any way
you want,” but I can still “do it any way I want”—the West has not preserved this
tension in the 20th century. Can ink art help us to achieve “you can do it any way
you want” and “you can’t do it any way you want”? This is the crux of the matter.
“You can do it any way you want” implies that you are free, but “you can’t do it
any way you want” requires limitation, requires the “emptying.”
Let us return to Duchamp’s supposition of the “infra-mince.” This concept
is derived from Duchamp’s private notes written in 1937 and has been widely
discussed in contemporary western art history in the past 20 years, because West-
ern art historians, faced with the end of art brought about by Duchamp’s artistic
practice, are attempting to discover new possibilities in Duchamp. This is quite
difficult. In his notes, Duchamp mentioned the question of ink and atmosphere.
It is connected to the emptying of ink painting, such concepts as “the way is the
collection of emptiness,” the “empty fasting of the mind” and the “empty room
filled with light” as discussed in Zhuangzi’s dialogue on the fasting of the mind in
Man in the World. “Emptiness” here is written as “xu,” and actually represents a
concept that cannot be translated into Western languages, often simply translated
as “emptiness” or “the void,” but it is connected to qi, yet non-qi. It is the subtle
vibration of vaporization within emptiness. This is where their connections and
subtle differences lie. This xu is the Chinese people’s unique experience of the
world, their unique experience of Dao, forming a unique artistic perception. Xu
is used to stand in for the “infra” in “infra-mince.” “Mince” is thin, a perception
of extreme thinness or flimsiness. In our era, we have continuously pursued this
thinness. The work of Westerners is often too mechanical, too produced, too
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rigid. In Large Glass, Duchamp was attempting to make something that was not
so produced or rigid, but he couldn’t attain the level of “infra-mince” he was
aiming for. China, on the other hand, cannot merely be infra or merely be mince
because that would be too traditional. In fact, the concept of infra-mince actually
implies a certain thickness, a certain rigidity and strength. It is infra-thick.

Remnant Space

How do we internally integrate Western spatial constructs with the traditional

Chinese flow of time?
Generally, Western art is based on spatial construction, whether it is the
three-dimensional space of sculpture or the illusion of depth created by the
use of perspective in Renaissance painting. Meanwhile, it emphasizes the fixed
nature of the object, and later, the modeling of realistic representations. If we
can do so while avoiding the mistake of essentialism, we can basically say that
pre-modern Western art was art based on the shaping of space, and that sculp-
ture, particularly stone sculpture, strove to resist the corrosion of time. Though
painting does convey temporality, it is through the conveyance of a certain story
or incident in the painting, rather than the conveyance of the form or passage of
time itself. It was until the impressionists went out in nature, painting from life,
that the natural climate and its sense of time began to slowly enter into paint-
ing, and it was until cinema’s reception of time that the sense of time expanded
into modern art.
Chinese traditional art, however, stretching all the way back to the earliest
patterns—excluding the abstract geometric patterns—the patterns of clouds,
lightning and beasts, incorporated temporality and its changes. These patterns
were not symmetric, in keeping with the vaporized view of the cosmos. Once Chi-
nese art entered into the art of calligraphy, the one-time writing and the emphasis
on flaws such as flying white, as well as its confrontation of circumstances, led
to a remarkable level of sensitivity and adaptation to time. The temporality was
embodied in the changes of the object and the conveyance of the circumstances.
In landscape painting, this fluidity of time was more evident, embodied in the
shifts of clouds and fog. Calligraphy possessed the vivid changes of clouds fill-
ing the paper, while in landscape painting, everything was simplified into cloud
vapor. This was particularly the case after the emergence of Mi-style clouds, where
the instantaneous generation and disappearance of clouds constructed the entire
picture, the expression of the subtle changes of temporality.
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This shows insufficient insight regarding the relationship between time and
space in Chinese traditional art. Why does this mainly temporal approach not
exclude space? For instance, Chinese landscape gardens are strongly spatial, but
because of the penetration of temporality and natural elementality, they are mainly
temporal. Why is there such a powerful emphasis on permeability rather than
modeled space? This stems from the unique relationship between time and space,
the leaving of blankness. Chinese traditional art since the Han and Tang dynasty
has been using blankness to construct the relationship between time and space.
What is blankness? It is a spatiotemporal relationship that integrates space
with left blankness. The space is not formed through modeling or geometric
ratios, or through fixing the object but through emphasizing the shifting, moving
relationships between the edges of the existing forms and the emptiness around
them. The space and the areas left white come together to form blankness, but this
blank space is changed by time, subtly influenced by time, so that the forms are
not just the fixed edges of the thing, but the edges as touched repeatedly by the
empty space that has been set aside, which produces subtle changes in the form
of things, to the point that even though the thing is concrete, it is not the object
of our gaze. Instead, those edges touched by nothingness and their subtle changes
become the “object” of our gaze and our touch (in fact, it is a non-object at this
point). As the edges of the thing and its overall form are increasingly touched
by the blankness, it becomes like the vaporization of rocks seen in the Mi-style
cloud paintings; the rocks are no longer marked by the rigidity of their edges cre-
ated through the “hatchet chop” chapping technique and the remnant traces of
blankness, but instead have been penetrated within and without by vaporization,
leading to uneven, overlapping vivid changes. In calligraphic art, they are the
written traces of flying white “sand cone painting” and ink seals, the flaws, the
one-dimensional written lines, the unique use of the power of Dao, bringing out
a sense of convexity and concavity. It appears to be left by the temporality of the
fourth dimension, and this sense of convexity and concavity, together with the
breathing of the blankness and the lines around its margins, creates a relationship
of undulation. We do not directly view the shapes of the written characters but
savor the fine variations in the brushstrokes. The landscape painting that followed
in the Yuan dynasty took the use of blankness, of the unpainted painting, to a
new realm, touching the boundaries of form with blankness to bring about subtle
changes, including tactile richness. Ni Zan’s use of blankness to paint a river.
This sense of space from blankness has been basically forgotten in modern China
because blankness is not the object, and cannot be consciously laid out, seen
as a mere composition technique. The construction of time and space through
100 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

blankness is not a technique; it is spirituality or metaphysics. Allowing the void to

touch the tangible forms is allowing nothingness to act, allowing natural change
to act, rather than the hands of man. When it is merely a marriage of form, such
as the use of Western modeling and Chinese brushes to paint figures, or the use
of natural changes to respond to Western lighting, then it is all external, failing
to grasp this generation of blankness, and it will be unable to penetrate and join
Western modern space with time.
Thus, the question now is how to effect an integration between “space” in the
Western sense and “blankness” of Chinese art. Of course, this is not only a topic
of comparative culture and comparative art, but a necessary condition for moder-
nity, a necessity for life itself. Alhough Western modernity has received temporal-
ity, it led to death, in that temporality reawakened the limitedness and mortality
of the individual. The limitedness of time lead to the constant occurrence of the
gift of death, and in turn, it is constantly ending time. On one hand, the West
opened up space with temporality. No longer was temporality only constructed
by space. This opening was an experience of freedom. On the other hand, because
this temporality was merely limited individuality, it was the manifestation of the
inevitability of death, leading to a mournful scene, with space surrounding this
limited temporality. It is the same with Chinese art under the influence of West-
ern modernity. Alhough it appears to contain lingering echoes of traditional art,
it is merely a half-finished product which lacks both traditional blankness and
Western space-time.
Thus, the key in the postmodern era is now to find a new catalyzing rela-
tionship within space and time. If, as Lyotard said, the postmodern is a modern
condition, then the question of how to preserve the “nothingness” of emptiness,
of the void, while also receiving limitedness, should become the new direction of
artistic experimentation.
The discovery of nothingness by Chinese tradition, once fused with the free
open space of the West, can activate left blankness to form a new remnant white
and use this blankness or remnant white to remnantize space, to reconstruct
space. This is a reconstruction of the plane from non-dimensional space and an
opening of temporality through natural writing. It can then use “empty-white” to
engage in a reverse reconstruction of the world’s richness. This is a new construct
of “five shades of white,” a reverse reconstruction of the traditional “five shades of
ink” and it can become a new starting point for art.
Chinese culture’s unique understanding of thingness is thingness connected
to nature rather than the Western implement—artwork—gift. These elements are
all linked to nature and have been naturalized. They contain a written aspect as
“Black-and-Blankism” and the Silent Transformation of Invisibility | 101

well as artificiality and technicality, but they are not illusory. Materially, there is an
illusory aspect of writing, but this is imagination connected to natural thingness,
and it has been reduced in order to highlight the materiality and naturalness of
thingness itself.

1. In music the smallest sound is presque rien—exactly what Theodore Adorno pon-
dered in his Negative Dialectics, namely, how there can be breadth for the future
within this almost nothingness.

Cheng, F. 1994, Empty and Full: The Language of Chinese Painting, Boston: Shambhala.
Jullien, F. 2009, Les Transformations silencieuses, Paris: Grasset.
Serres, M. 1995, Genesis, Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, p. 42.
Appendix: The Ink Art of Chen
Guangwu: Fasting of the Mind
and Interval-Blankness of Chora

Yen Hui said, “My family is poor. I haven’t drunk wine or eaten any strong foods
for several months. So can I be considered as having fasted?”
“That is the fasting one does before a sacrifice, not the fasting of the mind.”
“May I ask what the fasting of the mind is?”
Confucius said, “Make your will one! Don’t listen with your ears, listen with
your mind. No, don’t listen with your mind, but listen with your spirit. Listening
stops with the ears, the mind stops with recognition, but spirit is empty and waits
on all things. The Way gathers in emptiness alone. Emptiness is the fasting of the
Yen Hui said, “Before I heard this, I was certain that I was Hui. But now that
I have heard it, there is no more Hui. Can this be called emptiness?”
“That’s all there is to it,” said Confucius. “Now I will tell you. You may go and
play in his bird cage, but never be moved by fame. If he listens, then sing; if not,
keep still. Have no gate, no opening, but make oneness your house and live with
what cannot be avoided. Then you will be close to success.
It is easy to keep from walking; the hard thing is to walk without touching
the ground. It is easy to cheat when you work for men, but hard to cheat when
you work for Heaven. You have heard of flying with wings, but you have never
heard of flying without wings. You have heard of the knowledge that knows, but
you have never heard of the knowledge that does not know. Look into that closed
room, the empty chamber where brightness is born! Fortune and blessing gather
104 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

where there is stillness. But if you do not keep still this is what is called sitting
but racing around. Let your ears and eyes communicate with what is inside, and
put mind and knowledge on the outside. Then even gods and spirits will come to
dwell, not to speak of men!
This is the changing of the ten thousand things, the bond of Yu and Shun, the
constant practice of Fu Hsi and Chi Ch’u. How much more should it be a rule for
lesser men!” (Watson 1968; Slingerland 2003)

Figure A.1: Chen Guangwu (1967–), Double Yin-Yang Calligraphy, Huang Tingjian
(1045–1105), Passing by the Fubo Temple, Ying-Yang, 2012, ink on paper, 147 × 365 cm.
Source: Artist’s private collection.
Appendix: The Ink Art of Chen Guangwu | 105

Figure A.2: Chen Guangwu 陈光武 (1967–), Huang Tingjian: To the Honorable Guests
(detail), 2011, ink on paper.
Source: Artist’s private collection.

Figure A.3: Chen Guangwu (1967−), cursive script in Huang Tingjian (detail), 2011, ink
on paper.
Source: Artist’s private collection.
106 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

Here, we will attempt to interpret Zhuangzi’s “fasting of the mind” through the
lens of Chen Guangwu (1967–)’s ink art. Chinese contemporary art has already
succeeded in transforming ancient calligraphy through reverse reconstruction
methods. This is a creative transformation, rather than a linear continuation, and
it has provided us with a good model for understanding “chora” and “reverse
reconstruction,” a good example, a new double bind.
Facing Zhuangzi’s text, we can try to distinguish two levels—just as Chen
Guangwu’s artworks are “Yin-Yang double writing,” or more precisely, simply the
“double writing” of calligraphy.
“Yin-Yang” often falls into the traditional Yin-Yang duality of qi (breath,
vitality, energy), but after dialogue with the West, “Yin-Yang” has more of a “dual
distinction” connotation, though the Chinese-style Yin and Yang have an inter-
locked, chiasmatic relationship.
Thus, it is different from the inner Yin and Yang of traditional qi, in that it
possesses an external transformation (because it has been influenced by the West),
while on the other hand, it is not a duality in the Western “oppositional sense”
(Heidegger’s struggle [Streit] and difference [Unter-Schied]) but has mutual per-
There is mutual transformation between the two (Ying and Yang). It is both
external juxtaposition and internal permeation. This internal permeation relation-
ship is an embodiment of naturalness. There is distinction but not struggle. The
two are different, but they also absorb each other.
The two layers of this artwork, one being the upper Yang layer, which is cre-
ated through repeated writing of characters and consideration of their shape, and
the other being the lower Yin layer, which is not written or painted but obtains
its traces through seepage, are related to the vaporization and emptying that are
the focus of this text:
In terms of the “forward” unfolding of vaporization: the process of listening
with the ears to listening with the mind and on to listening with qi follows the
idea that “the qi is empty and so waits for the appearance of things.” The subject
enters into the more tactile machinations of vaporization. When it faces external
things, it must also constantly be emptied.
In terms of the “reverse” unfolding of emptying: the process of collecting
emptiness, engaging in a fasting of the mind and allowing light to fill the empty
room is the process of letting the “Dao” take over. It is the emptying enacted by
the Dao. This process is aimed at the transformation of the myriad things in the
Appendix: The Ink Art of Chen Guangwu | 107

Thus, we can approach Chen Guangwu’s works in this way, because it is an

art form that has emerged out of the transformation of traditional calligraphy,
though it will be clearer if we turn the hearing process into visual perceptive meth-
ods; this is the forward unfolding of the vaporous level:
First, it sets out from the traditional shapes and formats of Chinese charac-
ters. We can see the shapes of various Chinese characters, as well as the calligraphic
written form. This is “seeing with the eyes.”
Second, we can see these character shapes constantly shifting and stretch-
ing in the writing process. Here, the shapes of the written characters take on a
new visual perceptive method. It is the purely formal visual language of the West
(marked by abstract pure lines and spatial properties), as well as the formal lan-
guage of calligraphy itself within the changes (for instance, the formal strengthen-
ing of the grid and line format, the quivering of the boundary lines, etc.). This is
“seeing with the mind,” because it contains formal language sign constructs and a
modern art syntax. Viewers who are unfamiliar with this syntax may perhaps only
see quivering wave lines.
Third is “seeing with qi”: the entire Yang layer is no longer just the forms of
written characters. Through modern visual warping and the purely formal warp-
ing of the calligraphic lines, to the point of illusion, it has cast off the fetters of
character shape to produce pure flowing ink lines. The vibrations of the lines and
blocks, and the shifts in ink shading along the boundary lines create a sense that
the picture is being adjusted by dancing movement, controlled by it. The obliter-
ation of the shapes of the written characters is the “purification” of the fasting of
the mind—there is no longer the limitation of the character shapes.
Lastly, it is “empty and awaits the appearance of things” (but spirit is empty and
waits on all things): through the obliteration of the character shapes, this method
of constantly emptying out the shapes of the written characters, the continuous
seepage, the repeated adjustment of flowing lines, all cause it to soak through.
Using the permeation of ink, the character forms are emptied to the point of
almost total illegibility. This is “emptiness awaiting the appearance of things,” the
use of vaporization to control the entire picture. The “emptiness” is expressed by
the way in which the seeping ink drowns out the color shapes or stretches them
out. The characters have become murky, and within this murky haze, there is still
a grid of blankness and the sense of the vertical lines of writing “swaying” in the
picture. This overall sense of movement creates a rhythmic beauty. Here, we can
see Chen Guangwu’s alteration of tradition. This alteration follows a certain set of
principles, starting out from the shapes of Chinese written characters and callig-
raphy works. They are “principles of change.”
108 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

On the level of vaporization, this is a reverse reconstruction, one which is

particularly apparent on the Yin layer, which is not directly painted. This coun-
terintuitive reverse reconstruction subverts the traditional calligraphic principle
of “treating white as black”; here, we are not viewing the traditional ink traces of
the character shapes but viewing the space between them, the blankness between
the lines of characters:
First, “The way is the collection of emptiness” (The Way gathers in emptiness
alone.): Chen Guangwu’s creative technique does not merely start out from the
traditional character shapes and calligraphic layout, but from a reversed view. It
sees the space within the characters first, gazing only at that blankness and not
at the shapes of the characters. This “not looking,” this looking at the blankness,
is the beginning of the perceptual reversal. It focuses attention on viewing the
blankness, and after this, it is blankness doing the writing, blankness adjusting
the entire picture. We no longer see the brushstrokes of the existing character
shapes, and the overlying patterns and principles of traditional writing are gone.
The viewing of the blankness is a total suspension.
Second is the “mental fasting of the empty” (Emptiness is the fasting of the
mind.): the blankness has already been emptied. It is infra-white. We do not view
the character shapes but instead gaze at the blankness, to the point that the charac-
ter shapes have been completely emptied. This emptying has completely removed
the shapes of the written characters. It is purification by fasting, the suspension
of the writing of traditional calligraphy. The artist no longer uses the writing
rules of traditional calligraphy or the related approaches. He has completely cast
off the set patterns of calligraphy. He allows the boundaries to emerge as subtle
shifts in lines, has the sense of columns lead the entire picture through the spaces
between columns, using the permeation of ink, the effect of ink’s seepage through
the paper, the diffusion of ink and the blankness to adjust the edges of the lines,
giving it a rich sense of layered ink diffusion, which appears all the more subtle
in the contrast with the blankness. Here, Chen Guangwu has invented many
unique creative techniques. It is no longer the traditional writing of the brush. It
no longer follows those rules of writing. It is no longer the “principles of change”
but the “change of principles.”
Third is the “light in the empty room” (the empty chamber where brightness
is born!): when the infra-white above is expanded overall, this “infra-white”
becomes extraordinarily rich. It is a transformation of the traditional methods
of the distribution of white. It includes the blank structures within the charac-
ters (blankness), the empty space between the characters and lines of characters
(interval blankness), and the overall “diffused whiteness” of the Yang layer—the
Appendix: The Ink Art of Chen Guangwu | 109

flow created by the overall blurred white effect—and sometimes, if the writing
is in the caoshu cursive script, there is the overall “flying white” (the dancing
rhythms of the blankness and interval blankness, which give a sense of flight).
The overall picture is adjusted by the leaping forms of the flying white. This is
not adjustment by the vaporized character forms. The artist is using the blank
crevices, the discrepancies of interval blankness and the meter of the diffused
white to repeatedly adjust the picture. The written words appear to be static, but
within the flying motions, they appear to leap into dance.
Finally, there is the “emptying of myriad things” (Fortune and blessing gather
where there is stillness.): the entire construction, or reverse reconstruction, of the
Yang layer must be more total, must be the entire world or any form. That is to
say, the “change of principles” must always be maintained in a state of change; we
cannot let the “change of principles” turn into “principles.” There must be new
change produced, and this change emerges in the unpainted Yin layer, that layer
which is not directly contacted. Chen Guangwu has made ample use of the seepage
of ink. These are the traces left by the writing that takes place on the blank Yang
layer. Sometimes it appears to have the form of written characters, but sometimes
it is just confused chaos, traces of the times, an inscription in stone worn away over
the ages by the wind. The traces of the words have been obscured, or perhaps it is
the remnant light left by time through the process of reading itself. This is a more
total diffusion of blankness. I call it “remnant whiteness,” because it is the retention
of traditional left blankness, the remnant of emptying. They are the traces retained
(rester) after repeated writings in infra-white (Similar to what Derrida wrote about
Blanchot: Reste sans reste [“remains without remains”]). This is “infra-white” emp-
tying itself and whitening itself, or, in other words, it is “emptiness” emptying itself.
Maintaining emptiness makes the change more total. It is not artificial; it is natural
permeability, the permeation of water and the absorptivity of the paper, its aspect
as a container (just as Plato’s chora is a vessel for emptiness), the containment of
emptiness, the reception of everything. This is the emptying of the myriad things
in the world. Since there is no clear reference in the unpainted Yin layer, it is as if
it is the traces of the possibilities of the myriad things. It is the under-layer of the
repeatedly written layer (like Derrida’s deconstruction of Freud’s writing pad). This
is the deconstruction of deconstruction itself.
With this interpretation, we can gain a sense of the importance of Plato’s chora
(a receptor, a non-position position or the occurrence of position) and Zhuangzi’s
emptying. Chen Guangwu’s writing did not simply return to traditional writing
and vaporization, but instead received the sense of light, an elemental property
not contained in tradition, another perception bringing a new element.
110 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

Plato’s chora is a receptor. The unpainted Yin layer is also a receptor, contain-
ing and absorbing. This absorption is more natural, and in this way, chora has
been connected to naturalness, as well as to maternity, to water and to the land
(Heidegger’s concealment).
As a receptor or infra-image, chora has been constantly warped as if in a
dreamlike illusion, with no clear form or eidos. Chen Guangwu’s artworks pres-
ent an emptied form, shimmering diffused white, the leaping of the infra-white
between characters and lines, all marked by an illusory sense of motion. Mean-
while, the Yin layer retains the traces of unconscious writing because it is invisible
and uncontrollable, merely the traces left behind by smearing.
Chora is the empty position, and only the empty position, because the
“non-action” of the Yin layer makes the “action” of the Yang layer appear super-
fluous, though the action of the Yang layer is actually indispensable. Thus, the
“superfluous action” and “non-superfluous non-action” have been integrated. The
Yin layer is in a non-superfluous state because it can be discarded, but it waits,
empty, for the appearance of things, ready to accept all traces of brush and ink. It
possesses the morality of unpretentiousness and open receptivity. It stands there
solemnly and quietly. This Yin layer, because it also possesses the power and firm-
ness of Han dynasty inscriptions, with its variations and profundity, possesses not
only feminine qualities. It calmly stands ready to receive as it is buffeted by time.
Chora has also opened up a spatial position. It is not geometric space but
space possessing perceptivity. This perceptivity, however, is always in a state of
change. The character shapes have their own positions, but within plasticity, the
overall shapes have been stretched, up and down, left and right, back and forward,
completely warped, transformed by the infra-white. The positions of the written
characters are merely nominal, awaiting their own emptying so that they can
have more internal, absorptive connections with the other characters, rather than
external connections. That is why cursive calligraphy has a more emptying, con-
structive vitality, because the connected lines and overlapping of the characters
evoke emptied imaginings. In Chen Guangwu’s works, however, the emptying of
the character shapes is so total that it has opened up an integration of traditional
Chinese blankness and the openness of Western spatiality. This is a new infra-
white. This is the use of infra-white to reconstruct space, to activate space, to
receive space. The Yang layer embodies the construction of Western spatiality and
visibility, while the Yin layer embodies the remnant traces of Chinese temporality
and permeability, but “space” and “blankness” have been simultaneously con-
structed internally and externally. There is spacing (the separate presentation of
the Yin and Yang layers) as well as permeation (filtration: the two layers permeate
Appendix: The Ink Art of Chen Guangwu | 111

each other during writing). This is the axis of the creative transformation of Chi-
nese culture.
What matters is that the Western chora, because of the Chinese contempo-
rary art imagination, has integrated the “principles of change” and the “change
of principles.” The profundity of the written aspect is in this integration. West-
ern culture merely seeks out principles within change, and the price of following
these principles or rules is the sacrifice of life, is death, with no flexibility or room
to maneuver. Chinese culture integrates change and principles well. On the one
hand, there are the principles of change. This is seen in the character shapes con-
stantly changing, and the written aspect is constantly changing as well. But there
are also changes in these principles—the principles themselves must change. One
cannot hold the rules fast. The changing principles are revolutionary, but they are
not violent, and they do not require sacrifice. They are unobtrusive. The problem
with Chinese culture, however, is that when this apparently connected chain of
changes, like a dragon or a snake, becomes tangled up in itself, blurred together,
it appears as if everything can change, while everything also possesses principles,
and these principles are applied separately, different principles for different people
and situations, and so the principles and the changes are both lost. We must uti-
lize the openness of Western free space to reopen the relationships between these
changes and principles, to apply logic to them so that there is clarity between that
which can be operated and that which cannot. This Yin Yang dual writing can
provide insight in this regard.

Slingerland, E. 2003, Effortless Action: Wu-Wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early
China, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 190–191.
Watson, B. (trans.). 1968, The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, New York: Columbia University
Press, pp. 25–26.

A leaving blank (left blankness) 19, 22, 27,

39, 40, 48, 73, 75–80, 81–83, 96,
99–100, 109
aura 33
breath 9, 15, 27, 39, 47, 49, 64, 66, 75, 99,

betweenness 67, 69
black 4, 9, 13–15, 18, 22, 37, 38, 56, 65–66,
Chora 2, 7, 50–53, 66, 89, 106, 109–111
72, 79–83, 87–100, 108
enchorial 2–3, 53, 83, 88–89, 96
blank 1–7, 12–28, 31, 39–50, 56–60, 62–69,
enchorial-topia 53, 83, 96
enchorial space 2
blank canvas 17, 19–23, 25–27, 31
blankism 85, 87–93, 95
Black-blank Art 92
blank space 19, 27, 31, 39, 41, 56, 58, 62, D
65, 69, 73, 75, 76, 85–90, 93, 99–100,
108, 110 double bind 17, 93, 106
dimension 3, 18–19, 24–26, 52–53, 59, 79,
114 | Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Aesthetics

empty 1–3, 5–9, 12–14, 18, 22, 27–28, naturalness 7, 18, 23, 28, 36–37, 39–40, 46,
33–34, 39, 43–50, 53, 69, 73–74, 49, 90, 92–94, 96, 101, 106, 110
76–79, 80–81, 83, 87–89, 93, 95–97, nothing 1–2, 4–6, 8–9, 15, 17–19, 26–27,
99–100, 103, 106–110 34–35, 50, 61, 73–74, 77, 81, 87–88,
emptiness 2, 7, 8, 14–15, 18–19, 23–24, 92–93, 96, 99, 100
27–28, 32–39, 43–44, 46–50, 63, 66, non-dimension 11, 18–19, 53, 79, 100
67, 73–74, 77–80, 83, 87–88, 93,
95–97, 99–100, 103, 106–109
emptying 1–2, 33, 39, 43–44, 46–50, 53, 69, O
73, 80–81, 87–89, 95–97, 106–110
empty cold 76–79 open 2, 5, 6, 14, 17–19, 21–25, 27–28,
empty remnants 77 32, 34, 36–40, 43–44, 49, 52–53, 59,
empty-white 1–2, 7, 12, 100 62, 65–66, 68–69, 74, 76, 89, 92–93,
96–97, 100, 103, 110–111
open space 19, 25, 62, 66, 74, 76, 93, 96, 97,
F 100, 110–111

fasting 14, 49–50, 53, 97, 103, 106–108

fifth dimension 3, 19, 53 P
non-dimensional 18–19, 53, 79, 100
pas 57, 62

jade-like 80, 92
qi 27

in-between 34–35, 38, 58, 62, 65, 68–69, 89
interval 43, 49, 58, 60, 62, 65–69, 89–90, remnant
108–109 remnant 1, 7, 21, 26, 33–35, 37–38, 40,
infra mince 45, 48, 52, 62, 66, 67, 69, 73–80, 83,
infra-mince (inframince) 5–7, 9, 48, 96, 98–100, 109–110
87–88, 90, 97–98 remnant white 7, 26, 66, 73–80, 96, 100,
infra-blankening 69 109
infra-empty 43–44, 47–49, 80 remnant of no-remnants 21, 33–35, 37,
infra-image 44, 110 74–75, 83
infra-white 2, 43–44, 47–49, 53, 69, remnant blankness 40, 66, 74, 77, 80, 96,
108–110 99–100, 109
Index | 115

remnantization 22, 34–40, 43, 48, 95–96 W

remnant space 1, 34, 66, 73–75, 77, 79,
98, 100, 110
whiteness 7–8, 13–15, 19, 31, 47, 60,
71–72, 77–78, 108–109
S white layout 42, 55, 60, 62, 64–66
white light 13, 14, 27, 31, 71, 73–74,
snow-scape (snowscape) 13, 39, 48, 72–73, 79–80, 82–83, 85, 89, 96, 108
75–79, 81–82 white of snow 11, 13–14, 39, 48, 65,
flying white 18, 27, 50, 56, 58, 73, 82,
T 98–99, 109
Infra-white 2, 43–44, 47–49, 53, 69,
transformation 2, 7, 15–17, 23–24, 26–27, 108–110
32, 37, 39, 64, 66, 68, 79, 80, 86–88, leaving of white 13, 26–27, 72–74, 77
90–96, 106–108, 111 White Painting 4–5, 9, 14–15, 18, 22, 27,
36, 48, 72–74, 76, 78–83, 90

xu 2–4, 19, 87, 89, 93, 97