Section 3: Historical problems encountered in studying the first Zen Buddhist paintings


This section will examine the setting of Zen Buddhist painting and then follow its own history. It is considered from the point of view of an interested observer in the West today.

The Setting

The Sung period is a time of introspection, of political defeat and of high achievement in painting, religion, and philosophy. The Sung emperors ruled from 960 to 1279 -- the Zen painters flourished just before the first total foreign occupation of China. China was conquered slowly during the whole period of the dynasty by the Mongols from the North and half-savages from Manchuria. Early in the dynasty the barbarians had pushed past the Great Wall. In 1126 the emperor Hui-tsung was deported to Manchuria and the capitol was sacked, marking the end of the Northern Sung period. The Sung survivor moved south and finally reestablished the dynastic succession in Hangchow, in 1132.

The new capitol was set beside the beautiful West Lake in the hills. During the Northern Sung period, government reformers had tried to make China a welfare state. The effort contradicted the existing economic system and the landlords, divorced from the interests of the masses, ruled during the Southern Sung period. Waley writes a scathing paragraph of the life of the nobles:

"Their thought deliberately averted from every aspect of life but its beauty -- sunk in the sensuous lethargy which won them Marco Polo's scorn." {Waley: Introduction to the Study of Chinese Painting, p. 204.}

Many Zen monasteries were established outside the city in the mountains.

The Sung painters were nobles who painted in solitude, monks, or members of the Painting Academy. This had begun as a division of the private library established by the first Sung emperor, T'ai Tsu. The last ruler of the Northern Sung line, Hui Tsung (1101-25), later to be carried off by the Mongols to Cambulac (Beijing), separated the painting section, and it was made the "Bureau of Picture Painting", equivalent in status to the "Bureau of Medicine", at Pien Liang. The senior officers, "tai chao", were allowed to wear an important badge, and scarlet and purple robes.

In Hangchow, the Academy was reorganized as an independent government institution of the Southern Sung resurrection, with a separate campus in the temple district around the West Lake. A painter was appointed to successive sinecures, and could rise through four ranks: Student, Scholar of Art, Painter-In-Waiting, Painter-In-Attendance. The leading painter wore the Golden Girdle. Admission and promotion to the Academy was by competitive examination for which the applicant did a personal version of a pet theme. It is noteworthy that Liang Kai, the innovator of Zen painting, rose to be the leading painter of the Academy but walked out on the post.

The Southern Sung is the only period of the Painting Academy in China. Some official histories ignore it altogether. "Its precise status is a matter of disagreement among scholars," says Willetts. No wonder there is little information about the Zen monasteries, even more esoteric, from the populace's point of view.

Zen Buddhist paintings are controversial, even today. All the facts about them have been distorted during their ups and downs of popularity. Apparently, in their time, the paintings were not well-received. A critic, contemporary of Mu Chi, expresses a negative opinion of that painter, which is translated:

"His conceptions were simple and without ornamental elaboration. His style was coarse, summary and ugly; not at all in accordance with the ancient rules, nor for refined enjoyment." {Siren: Chinese Painting, Volume Two, p. 138.}

Some sources say the monk painters remained forgotten in China. But the tradition was carried on in the monasteries and mingled naturally with secular painting. The monasteries were weakened by the Mongol invasion when many of the monks fled not long in advance of Kublai Khan, to Japan, where his repeated assaults were repulsed.

Fate of the paintings:

Ming dynasty critics divided Sung painters into two schools, putting the ones they like into the "Southern" and the rest the "Northern" school. These words do not refer to the earlier Sung Dynasty and the succeeding Southern Sung Dynasty, but to the split in the Zen sect between Hui-neng and Shen-hsiu. Both the Academy painters and the Zen painters were called "Northern" and were unpopular in Ming times. The adjective was a lie as the Zen painters not only lived in the South but followed the Southern Zen of Hui-neng.

The Japanese at this time (15th century) liked Zen paintings very much, and imported as many as they could. The Chinese thought the Japanese were fooled and the Japanese, trusting their own taste, wondered why they bought masterpieces so cheaply. It is as though a whole section of late Sung culture were broken off and floated off to the isles of Japan to become prominent in their culture two centuries later.

Many of the Zen monks had fled to Japan, bringing their art and their religion. The Ashikaga shoguns in the 15th century made Zen the state religion. They built monasteries and the monks were the chief officials of the state. Many were engaged in cataloguing, copying, and establishing the late or Southern Sung paintings in Japan. The body of paintings naturally lost their history. But the paintings attributed to Liang Kai, Mu Chi, and Yu Chien are still among the choice pieces of Japanese collections.

Western art historians, working from Chinese sources, ignored the Zen school of painting until at least 1930. Fenollosa, who went to Japan before 1912, mentions it. The position of the Zen paintings is still unstable and their worth is, at best, still controversial. During the World War II many of the private collections were destroyed. Those remaining from this decimation are in museums or still at the mercy of the collectors' descendants. Two quotes from Eastern art historians, voicing opposed opinions, illustrate the ambiguous status of the Zen work even at this late date:

"The high point of Southern Sung painting was attained by the great masters of the Zen Buddhist school." {Siren: L'Histoire de la Peinture Chinoise, II, "L'epoque Song et L'epoque Yuan", Paris, 1935, p. 90.}

"Personally, I believe that this passion for nature worked more favorably on literature than on painting. The typical Zen picture dashed off in a moment of exaltation -- perhaps a moonlit river expressed in three blurs and a flourish -- belongs rather to the art of calligraphy than to that of painting." "In his more elaborate depictions of nature the Zen artist is led into the common pitfall of lovers -- sentimentality. The forms tend with him to function not as forms but as symbols." {Waley: Zen Buddhism In Its Relation To Art, p. 24.}

Perhaps Waley, who is the author of the latter, is criticizing the historical development of Zen painting. It is hard to see that the paintings of the innovators could be treated so callously, e.g., as mere calligraphy, fine writing. It would seem that symbol is not distinguished from form in the best Zen paintings.

There are many fine paintings among the surviving Zen works. Their worth would be naturally established in the West if good reproductions of the works were made available. There is a monograph on Liang Kai available on import from Japan, which reproduces all his works and the copies of them, with numbers of actual-size details. The text, unfortunately, is in Japanese kanji. {See the bibliography.}

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