chrysenthemum in vase by zhu da

The Essence of Chinese Painting (IX)


At regular intervals, I try to analyze various aspects of Chinese painting, its philosophy, concepts, techniques, etc. based on short contributions. I studied Chinese art, lived in China for 5 years, studied at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and wrote my dissertation on Chinese free-hand style painting. My artwork is presented HERE. More articles on The Essence of Chinese Painting can be found at the new index:

nothing – part 1

The term nothing [1], void ( xū) plays an important part in Chinese (Asian) art, and in the following, I would like to try to touch on at least some aspects and try to get to the bottom of its meaning. Since this is not possible in one article, there will be another post published later.

Nothing in Daoism, Chan Buddhism, as well as in Chinese painting is a central concept and of the utmost importance to be able to understand Chinese painting and calligraphy. Among other things, we will try to understand how differentiated “NOTHING” can be. We will understand that there are, so to speak, different “NOTHINGS”.

To get closer to the topic, I want to begin with a gong an ((Japanese 公案; Chinese 公案, Pinyin gōng’àn), better known to us as Kuan, which is relatively easy to understand. [2]

a koan

A monk said to Zhao Zhou: “Master, I have not brought anything for you, what do you have to tell me?” Zhao Zhou replied, “Carry it away again”. (in the original text the word “nothing” is used).

What at first sounds like a paradox means in the core statement: The monk is still so stuck in his old way of thinking that he distinguishes between the existent and the non-existent. (I have put the example in front so that we are aware of the hurdles we have to take).

But now an easier example to start with that illustrates our topic very well, is how Western painting and Chinese painting deal with one similar topic, e.g. the reflecting light on the

waves in the sea. Imagine for a moment, thinking back to a walk by the sea or in the harbor with the approaching sunset. A light breeze comes up and the weaker sunlight is reflected on the many small waves and creates a flicker and sparkle due to the moving waves.

With Monet it looks like this: He applied what the reflected light represents with a brush and paint, i.e. added it.

But if we look at this Chinese example, it is the emptiness, the spots that have not been painted, which represents the light and creates this flickering. These are 2 completely different approaches. In the second case, the reflection of light was created by emptiness, nothing. “To exist by not being non-existing”.

So in these 2 examples, the koan and the paintings, we got to know different nuances or completely different forms of appearance of NOTHING.

empty space

The concept of empty space is a philosophical concept, it is synonymous with emptiness or nothing. Daoism advocates the extension of the boundaries of empty space and the preservation of extreme silence. (Lao Zi 16) Laozi further claims that only the way of Dao accumulates space …… and that the empty space is understood as the beginning of myriad things. Therefore it can be understood as the basis of Daoist philosophy. Now is the time to dedicate ourselves to this Dao phenomenon in Chinese painting. It comes from the Daoist painter par excellence, Zhu Da (Ba Da Shan Ren) [3], and the Chan painter par excellence Liang Kai. [4] 

Li Bai in Stroll 李白行吟圖 painting

At first glance, both paintings look simple. We all probably see the same thing, namely the representation of a branch of flowers in a vase or vase-like vessel. It gets interesting if we look closely at the vase. Apart from the fact that it is more of a hint than a detailed object, as we would expect in European painting, Ba Da moved it so much into the visual focus that we can not help but initially see NOTHING within the boundary lines bump. Besides: the biggest part of the painting is “empty”. And what does Liang Kai? Basically the same. We remember how lavishly Western painters painted clothes during this period, from intricate folds to detailed fabric decorations.

chrysenthemum in vase by zhu da

Since we are talking about Chan and Dao I would like to point to this passage in Lao Zi’s Dàodé Jīng [5] which may help us to better understand our topic: We join spokes together in a wheel, but it is the center hole that makes the wagon move. We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want. We hammer wood for a house, but it is the inner space that makes it livable. We work with being, but non-being is what we use. Of course, this concept can also be found in many other areas such as in the art of seal carving.

han dynasty seal

Chan (Zen) Buddhism [6] also emphasizes that “what is form is emptiness, what is emptiness is form” (quotation from the Paramita Hridaya Sutra, basically a quotation by Laozi ). In the Chinese theories of painting (appropriately taken from Laozi’s Dao De Jing) it says: “Pay attention to black, but adore white“. So what has not been shown, we should pay more attention to. Elsewhere it says: Filling the empty space (NOTHING) with meaning, shows the master’s ability.

the void

For the painter, the empty space is usually more difficult to handle than the fixed one, since he has to convey information through omission, i.e. through lack. And the viewer has to be careful not to stick to the black, to the obvious, and even to use this black, if necessary, to understand what goes beyond the painting. The last example for now, again by Zhu Da, clearly shows us how important it is for a painter to give meaning to the void.

Zhu Da painting with cherry blossoms

The picture, painted in the 17th century, does not look antiquated, in fact, it could just as well find its place in an exhibition of modern art.

瓶菊圖 八大山人(1626-1705)


[1] Emptiness can e.g. never be understood as an absolute term because emptiness is always related to what exists. See also yin-yang philosophy.

[2] In Chinese Chan- or Japanese Zen Buddhism, a kōan is a short anecdote or sentence that, for example, represents a meaningful action or statement by a Zen master. It is often written that the course and punch lines of these special anecdotes usually seem completely paradoxical, incomprehensible, or pointless to the layman.

[3] Zhu Da (He was a descendant of the Ming Prince Zhu Quan, was considered a child prodigy, and began painting and writing poetry at an early age. After the fall of the Ming Dynasty in 1644, he fled to a Buddhist monastery at the age of twenty and became a monk, later even abbot of the monastery. After suffering a nervous breakdown in 1678, Zhū showed signs of serious mental illness. His monk’s robe burned and one day he wrote the sign “yǎ” (啞; “dumb”) on his door and from then on did not speak a word).

[4] Liáng Kǎi (梁楷 c. 1140 – c. 1210) was a Chinese painter of the Southern Song Dynasty. He was also known as Madman Liang because of his very informal pictures.

[5] The Tao Te Ching ( 道德经 pinyin: Dàodé Jīng) is a Chinese classic text traditionally credited to the 6th-century BC sage Laozi, also known as Lao Tzu or Lao-Tze.

[6] Zen (Chinese: 禪; pinyin: Chán; Japanese: 禅) is a school of Mahayana Buddhism that originated in China during the Tang dynasty, known as the Chan School (Chánzong 禪宗), and later developed into various schools.


@ Friedrich Zettl. All rights reserved.


9 responses to “The Essence of Chinese Painting (IX)”

  1. satoriwoman avatar

    Thank you very much!

    1. avatar

      You are welcome!

  2. Cally Blind avatar

    Thanks for sharing this interesting article. I love the idea of ’emptiness’ in painting (& in general of everyday life, of course 😀 )

    1. avatar

      Thank you so much! I hope it was not too abstract. It’s a topic that has lots of aspects related to philosophy and religion. I will try to write more in some time.

  3. Cally Blind avatar

    Herr Zettl,
    gestern bin ich auf diesen kurzen Artikel über Kalligrafiekunst von Zen-Meister Hakuin gestoßen. (
    Ich fand es sehr interessant und dachte an Ihnen! Denn es ist nicht nur Kunst, sondern Philosophie.

    Ich glaube, Sie kennen diesen berühmten Künstler (japanischer Mönch). Aber ich habe davon zum ersten Mal gehört.

    Die Idee des “Klangs einer Hand” lässt mich ziemlich tief wandern.

    1. avatar

      Liebe Frau Blind, vielen Dank für den Link, den ich nicht kannte. Aber Hakuin, einer der bedeutensten Zen-Meister. Ja, Sie haben ganz Recht, es geht vor allem um Philosophie. Zen Buddhismus ist sicherlich der Bereich, mit dem ich mich am stärksten identifiziere. Was ” the sound of one hand clapping” betrifft – ich habe vor vielen Jahren ein Bild darüber gemalt. Morgen scanne ich es und zeige es Ihnen. Man muss es mit einer kleinen Brise an Schmunzeln sehen. Im Zen-Buddismus gibt es immer einen Touch zu Humor. Einem sehr geistigen, der mir sehr gefällt.

    2. avatar

      Ich habe mir das Video in Ihrem Link angesehen, ja, ist sehr gut gemacht. Wie versprochen, meine Version: “My one hand clapping”. (und nicht zu ernst nehmen)

      1. Cally Blind avatar

        Auf diesem Bild fühlt es sich für mich westlicher an. Ich kenne die chinesische Sprache nicht (obwohl ich eines Tages lernen sollte.) Ich weiß nicht, was sie sagt. Aber die Hand bewegt sich! Es ist schön!

  4. avatar

    Dankeschön, Cally Blind! Die chinesischen Zeichen bedeuten Yi shou sheng, Ein Hand Laut. Dieser Terminus bezieht sich auf den buddhistischen Begriff “the sound of one hand clapping”. Da steckt mehr dahinter, als man auf’s Erste vermuten würde und daher die Wichtigkeit dieser Phrase. Was Chinesisch lernen betrifft, das ist wirklich eine Herausforderung…..

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: