Yang Jian was born in Ma Anshan, Anhui Province, China in 1967. He has held a number of solo ink-and-brushing painting exhibitions in recent years. The “Snow Scene” series were used to create the questions for the interview; the “Alms Bowl” series came as part of the answers. He began writing poetry in 1986, and since the 1990s, has won a number of poetry awards, including the 1st Yiu Li’an Poetry Award, Rougang Poetry Award, Yulong Poetry Award, and the 6th Chinese Media Literature Award. His poetry collections in Chinese include Dusk, Ancient Bridge, Repentant, Cry Temple, and Selected Poems of Yang Jian. A collection of English translations by Ye Chun, co-edited by Gillian Parrish and Paul Roth is available Tinfish Press: https://tinfishpress.com/?projects=book-of-cord-2-2-2
Mothership: The subtle art of brushwork is seen as the common root of traditional Chinese painting and poetry. The nature of the brushwork enacts an aesthetics (way of sensing) rooted in Taoist and later Buddhist ideas of emptiness.In Empty and Full, Francois Cheng (Chéng Bàoyī) describes how painting teaches space and “go[es] beyond the descriptions of the spectacles of creation to enter into the very gestures of creation” (1). Elsewhere he speaks of “li (the inner laws, or inner lines, of things)” and quotes Tsung Ping’s (Zong Bing/Shaowen) 5th century treatise on landscape painting, the Huashanshuixu: “…the idea is to trace the inner lines of things by means of brushstrokes inhabited by shadow and by light…” (63).
Much has been said about the brushstroke. So this question will have a few questions within it: Cheng quotes Tang Dynasty painter Jing Hao as saying “The brush possesses four substances: muscle, flesh, bone, and breath” (69). And while all of them are interesting ( such as the structure-making quality of “bone”) the one we hear most about is the breath. Everywhere you read of the brushstroke, there is this idea of the brush being an extension of ‘the vital breath’ (Chinese: qi; Sanskrit: prana). And on one level, this statement would point to a linking of the breath with gesture. But then underneath the idea of rhythm and clarity in the gesture, this yoking of brushstroke to breath seems to point to, to express the emptiness nature (or as Cheng wisely calls it, the “empty-full” nature). Is this sense of breath something you try to keep close to in your painting?
Yang Jian: Certainly, because the secret of keeping a painting alive is not light and shade, but breath that transcends dualities.
MS: If so, what is this like for you?
Yang Jian: Only when one transcends dualities, one can have autonomy. A world without autonomy is a world of sufferings. Our civilization is one of neisheng [translator’s note: cultivating the inner sage], but throughout the twentieth century, we’d lost ourselves by looking outward. Without the recovery of our inward vision, our ink-and-brush can have little value and will eventually be overcome by time. Due to the drastic changes of the twentieth century, both our human spirit and ethics have fallen to their lowest point. What used to be ordinary–the formless form, thoughtless thought, consciousless consciousness—is rare now. The biggest obstacle posed to us by the twentieth century is the obstacle from communicating with that spirit of neisheng. We may have to spend our lifetime cleansing these black-or-white, right-or-evil dualities in our thinking, so as to approach that spirit.
MS: Do you practice other body-based meditations to strengthen this relationship between “breath” (qi) and brush?
Yang Jian: Yes, sometimes.
MS: Many have noted the pivotal moment of first brush stroke, which has a boldness in it, a first stirring of life, a first visible thought, all of which sets the tone for the other forms that follow. Can you share any sense of your experience(s) with this moment of the first movement/mark on the paper?
Yang Jian: How to make the first mark is a question of how to begin, which is in reality a question of how to emerge. Every era has its own emergence, each distinct. For example, Buddhist statues look completely different from the Northern Wei to Northern Qi to Tang and Northern Song Dynasty, because their images emerged differently in each era. Like America’s Rothko, who also found new emergences, new languages and forms. That’s how I understand the question of how to begin, how to make the first mark. I also face the same question. When I was painting snow scenes before, I was still working under artistic tendencies or habits. Later, when I started to paint alms bowls, it was because I needed to find new emergence.
MS: Given the living quality of the paper and the ink in Chinese painting, I’m curious about how some of your learning to paint may have happened through “fortunate accidents.” For instance, learning to flow with a spot of ink or an odd stroke…Can you share a glimpse of what it is like to work with your materials—the nature of the ink and the paper?
Yang Jian: I’m not picky in terms of materials. Because everything is changing and the way we see beauty is changing as well.
MS: Can you tell us how fortunate accidents may have played a part in your paintings?
Yang Jian: Such fortunate accidents happen everyday.
MS: To delve a bit deeper into the ink, earlier I mentioned the “brushstrokes inhabited by shadow and light”—the ink can range from deep black to a nearly transparent wash of grey. Cheng notes this versatility in “expressing the infinite nuances of nature,” calling its “double quality of being at once one and many…like the brush” (79). This versatility of texture and density, the transparency possible in the ink reminds me a bit of how a bell-sound reverberates, dissolves into space, a glimpse of something nearing emptiness. Can you share with us what is like for you to work with the ink?
Yang Jian: This is a classical technical question. However, the center of the question is not this, but is the breath that you mentioned earlier. How to hold this breath, how to keep it inexhaustible in a form that’s unprecedented, how to keep it both dry and infused? That’s what I’m concerned about.
MS: Often quoting the old painters, Cheng speaks in many places of the yin-hsien “invisible-visible,” whole pictures seen in glimpses, such as a dragon seen in the gaps of clouds or peaks of mountains in the mist. He quotes T’ang I-fen (Tang Yifen 汤贻汾) : “A mountain, when it is too full, must be made empty with mist and haze; when it is too empty it has to be made full by adding pavilions and terraces…” (77). The paintings I have for reference for this interview are ones of snowy mountainsides obscured by clouds. And these are traditional themes, the many shifting views of a mountain, the use of clouds as materials of hiddenness and revelation–and you are doing interesting work of making the cloud and mountainside align with their seeming opposite poles of emptiness-fullness. In your work here, the fullness of the mountainside, the at-first-glance solid form of the wall of snow, slips into a feeling of emptiness, even as the clouds feel full, solid forms. Can you tell us a bit about this series?
Yang Jian: I seldom paint snow scenes anymore. My era of snow scenes is over because my complex of painting the landscape ended with them. I’m very aware that landscape can no longer be expressed this way. I need to look for new ways to express, so as to be closer to time.
MS: T.C. Lai notes that Bada Shanren (Zhu Da 17thc) signed his later paintings “written by” rather than “painted by” (13). So, again, in the practice of working with brush and ink, there’s a sense of fluidity between poem and painting in the Chinese tradition.
Yang Jian: Poets are by nature painters, which is how things were in the old time. Because China’s ancient education used to be connected to grasses and woods, life and death, with its ultimate place at life’s transit, which is where our language came from as well.
MS: I understand that you are a self-taught painter. Did you turn to painting after working for some time in poems? Or before poems? Or at the same time?
Yang Jian: After. But when I was writing poems, the way I looked at the world had painting in it as well.
MS: Most people would say that we are saying something when we put down a mark or a word on paper. In contrast to the idea of art as expression, as assertion, I like to think of the process more as sensing something. And the Chinese brush and ink do feel like wonderful tools for extending the senses: In particular, the sensitivity required for skilled Chinese brushwork feels especially attuned to listening.What do you think of this distinction between asserting and sensing?
Yang Jian: The responsibility of a writer or a painter is to express, to feel, to express, to feel, the two alternating year after year. To express as subtly as the ancients is almost impossible now. Chinese brushes, rice paper, and ink are all extremely sensitive materials, which is related to the personalities of Chinese literati.
MS:And this idea of listening through the brush and ink?
Yang Jian: I agree with you. Good paintings bring one to the silence of listening, and with the silence comes wisdom, which is especially true with Chinese classical paintings.
MS: Your poems have tended to be vivid half-narratives of life in a place, so feel more aligned with the aspect of form. Does painting teach you more about the aspect of emptiness, the space and silence?
Yang Jian: Yes, the three are what a painter dreams for. Emptiness is not nothing, but a state of qiwu [equalization, non-differentiation of things]. And the space and silence it arrives at is unconceivable. When I paint a bowl, it looks like a bowl on the surface, but it’s in reality an alms bowl. My goal is to reach that qiwu state through this material object, or to the emptiness, the space, and silence as you said. Painting does teach me about qiwu, and qiwu is the root of happiness in life.
MS: In looking at other contemporary artists, such as Gao Xingjian, Wucius Wong, Zhang Yu, we find them doing what Chinese art has done down the centuries, innovating whilst remaining rooted in the tradition. What exquisite twists in the branches have come from the tension of rooting down in the ground of tradition whilst unfolding into new forms. In the past century, this innovation has come to include incorporating some parts of modern art in West—which then turns into a deepening and clarifying of the traditional Chinese art in wonderful ways. And what is balancing about this too is that modern Western art, grappling with the dehumanizing, denaturalizing pressures of industrialization, came about in large part from through encounters with Eastern forms, i.e. ways of perceiving the world. And now it’s a cross-pollination a few times over. And so it’s fun to see your work, rooted so deeply in the Chinese tradition, that at times tips into a chaos of ink that could find its brother in Jackson Pollock. I understand that Bada Shanren is a favorite of yours. Are there others? And why? Do you feel any particular kinship with any contemporary Chinese painters and with any painters in the West?
Yang Jian: All painters are influenced by someone at the beginning, myself no exception. Although I like Badashanren, I understand that poets or painters in different eras have different aesthetics and responsibilities, so I soon walked away from such influences to look for what I should be doing. I painted shoes. I painted alms bowls. Those are my reactions and resistance to this materialistic, objectified, and dehumanized world.
MS: Ah–the alms bowl feels like perfect medicine! And it fits perfectly with my next question: Many artists in these bewilderingly speedy and greedy times want to return to the roots of form, to revive our hearts/lifeworlds, to create spaces for slowing down our senses, to find better ways of seeing. I think of Song dynasty landscape paintings, which Ortiz describes as being “vehicles” (257) for “dream journeys*,” for what one emperor called “woyi youzhi, roaming the mountains while lying down” (262). (*This function of art takes different yet similar forms: Fellow space traveler, nature-artist Chris Drury makes dream huts in his work, which you can see here: https://spacecraftproject.com/chris-drury/) Speaking of Ma Lin’s painting “Listening to the Wind in the Pines” (Qingting songfeng) Ortiz remarks that the painting is not merely an artifact of a “sophisticated culture” but a way to look at things” (269). *Could you share a bit about the contemplative space, the meditative space that you wish to create in your paintings?
Yang Jian: When I paint a bowl, I really hope that its image and meaning can achieve the best combination of this era. A bowl is the closest thing to the Chinese people. On the one hand, it bears heavy burdens. On the other, I put the burden down, because I let the bowl suspend in the air. It appears to be a bowl, but it looks more like a tripod, an alms bowl, with nothing to compare to. How should I say it? It’s a spontaneous world where fullness and emptiness are one. To put it lightly, it’s like a will in the time of darkness. It seems I have to come back here, to be really back to the starting point. Before this, I must confess that I was in the ruins, in the graveyard, I must mourn, and call back the souls. Afterwards, poverty after poverty till wuwei [nondoing,inaction]. It’s very simple, but is self-sufficient. I am looking for a self-contained inner world, which is my original world.
MS: This image of the alms bowl certainly feels like a powerful one in our times. Something to help shift habits of vision cultivated by our global consumer culture.
Yang Jian: A bowl, a tripod, or an alms bowl: it depends on how one sees it. One, two, or three, it depends on how one looks at it. The darkness of the twentieth century had to create an alms bowl; otherwise, the darkness was here for nothing. An alms bowl, a bowl, and a tripod together protect the world. Everything can be assimilated, except for the alms bowl. How to understand an alms bowl in terms of time and origin? “Empty are thousands of worlds, full is an alms bowl.” After all, why do I want to paint a bowl? The main reason is that the world of meaning, or the symbolic world (plum, orchid, bamboo, chrysanthemum) of the Ming and Qing Dynasties and the Republic Era is dead. We must establish new meanings, a new symbolic world. The Cultural Revolution, or the era of entertainment and consumption, has destroyed the meanings. How to reconstruct meanings is the main subject facing China’s current ink-and-brush painting. We can no longer view the world as we once did.
Closing note by Yang Jian: “Empty are thousands of worlds, full is an alms bowl” – by Song Dynasty poet, Wei Liao Weng
(Interview translated from the Chinese by Ye Chun.)
More about Yang Jian’s life and work: http://www.earthlinesmagazine.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Yang-Jian.pdf