Dr. Yan Zhou is an experienced curator and scholar of Chinese contemporary art. Particularly important for the contemporary history of Chinese art is, according to this author, a resurgence of Daoist understandings of the “spirit of ink,” an understanding that has for long left the mundane world with all the different waves of “modernities” throughout the 20th century, and came back by the end of the last century.1
“Modernities” necessarily need to come as plural. Indeed, the modernity of Republican China was evidently different from the modernity of the early People’s Republic of China period or even the early (post)modernity of the Deng Xiaoping Reforms (the late 1970s and 1980s). Still, none of those “modernities” had much interest in Daoist understandings of art whatsoever, with very few exceptions.
Let’s explain a little bit deeper what is in question with the Way of the Ink (Shuimo Zhidao 水墨之道) to which the “spirit of ink” is constitutive. According to Dr. Yan, the Way of the Ink “means primarily a mode, form, and method that incarnates Dao.”2 According to one of Daoism’s primary books, the Dao De Jing 道德经, the Dao is the underlying force from which life and reality come, in all its dynamism and diversity. People might be more familiarized with the complementary opposites of the Yin and Yang. Nonetheless, consider Dao as the underlying principle that reality is a constant flowing process, to which Yin and Yang are the main contributors. In addition, Dao 道 is often translated to English as Way –both as a noun and, more correctly, as a verb, in tone with “way-ing.”
Hence, the Way of the Ink highlights the question of free movement that a water-based medium such as ink allows. It puts emphasis on a non-human-centric understanding of the universe. And, of course, it requires a necessary, correct spirit behind such paintings, where the correct spirit is, according to Dr. Yan, exactly those “Daoist elements that are incarnated through method of ink art with eastern wisdom.”3
This author also affirms that this understanding of art was particularly solidified with 2013’s exhibition Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China, curated by Maxwell Hearn, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York.4 Here, we can find different media artworks, from different artists with different engagements with art. Nonetheless, the MET’s overview of the exhibition affirms that it “features artworks that may be best understood as part of the continuum of China’s traditional culture. These works may also be appreciated from the perspective of global art, but by examining them through the lens of Chinese historical paradigms, layers of meaning and cultural significance that might otherwise go unnoticed of these artists’ creative processes.”5 You can find more about this exhibition on the official MET page.
Considering the different “modernities” of China’s 20th century, it is hard to see how we could designate a return to Daoist understandings as a continuum. After all, both Republican China, the People’s Republic of China, and even the early Opening-Up period had quite a strong anti-tradition discourse when it came to art. Nevertheless, Dr. Yan warns us that anti-tradition discourses never targeted the use of ink art but instead traditional aesthetic engagements (mostly what is called literati art or wenrenhua 文人画). Qiu Zhijie’s “Copying the Orchid Pavilion 1000 times” is a classic example of the use of ink to criticize the literati art tradition.
Aside from the medium (ink) used for the art, literati art had a very particular understanding of art, almost like an orthodoxy. That understanding changed throughout Chinese history, as the orthodoxy changed. Nonetheless, a common characteristic prevailed: the social class with which this art was associated: the literati, scholars-bureaucrats, or scholars-hermits, depending on the epoch and politico-philosophical debates. But I will leave this criticism for another time.
On the other hand, a factor that could justify the resurging of Daoist understandings in contemporary times is that the Daoist philosophy is highly adaptive to new contexts and new engagements with reality. Accordingly, while it is difficult to call this Way of the Ink a movement or even expect the artists to identify themselves as such, this concept appears as a solid understanding to engage with some of the contemporary art done in China.
Eagerness for fluidity, breath, and free performances is long overdue to the stiff-stressed shoulders of 996 working schedules, and the non-human-centric perspective is quite adjustable with contemporary ecological discourses. The “spirit of ink” was probably meant to return to Chinese art to solidify such fluidity and a non-human-centric perspective. Several Chinese artists made these insights a core of their artwork. Hence, the Way of the Ink is, indeed, here to stay.
References / To go further
Yan Zhou, A History of Chinese Contemporary Art 1949 to Present (Singapore: Springer Nature, 2020).
Zhou, A History, 402.
Zhou, A History, 402.
“Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2013/ink-art.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Ink Art.”