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Images make Chinese fables more philosophical

LUO LIANGQING | 2022-05-12 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

FILE PHOTO: “Zhuangzi Dreaming of Butterfly” created by Ming Dynasty painter Lu Zhi 


Chinese fables have a long history with various forms and rich content. There are traditional parables, long verse-style fables, and allegorical fiction. As media and technology develop, fables have been visualized in increasingly abundant forms, fostering fable images with distinctive Chinese cultural characteristics. Fable images refer to allegorical stories presented visually, making the invisible visible by envisioning morals in images. Fable images include allegorical pictures, illustrations, films, and simulacra. They have constantly evolved from single to multiple frames, from static to dynamic images, and from real to virtual formats. 
 
Single-frame fables
From primitive oral folklore creations to written records, ancient Chinese fables can generally be divided into five stages: philosophical fables in the pre-Qin era (prior to 221 BCE), exhortative fables in the Han Dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE), joke-based fables in the Wei, Jin, and Southern and Northern dynasties (220–589), satirical fables in the Tang (618–907) and Song dynasties (960–1279), and humorous fables from the Yuan (1271–1368), Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties. 
 
Among other periods, the Spring and Autumn, and Warring States Period (770 BCE–221 BCE) witnessed the vibrant contention of a hundred schools of thought and philosophical essays flourished, which provided fertile soil for fables to thrive. As the heyday of ancient Chinese fables, the pre-Qin era exerted a huge impact on the development of fables and other genres for generations to come. 
 
Meanwhile, fable images played a significant role in spreading and developing the philosophy which underlies fables. To the general public, the visual presentation of images could express moral truths and demonstrate a line of reasoning more vividly. 
 
From keeping records by tying knots, to the invention of Chinese characters by Cang Jie, and from graphic symbols to the creation of Chinese scripts, ancient Chinese people usually associated the origin of painting with mythology. For example, Fuxi’s invention of the Eight Trigrams, or Bagua, was based on markings on the backs of a tortoise and a mythical dragon horse from the Luo River, a myth made to clarify inexplicable phenomena. 
 
Similarly, fable images also extracted resources from allegorical stories, borrowing from fables and painted on that basis, narrating the stories visually through imitation. In the Chinese image-text relationship, featuring the common origins of calligraphy and painting, motifs of fable images were portrayed over and over in different eras. 
 
For example, in Zhuangzi, an ancient Chinese text written by Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi during the late Warring States Period, a story tells that Zhuang Zhou once dreamed he was a butterfly, flitting and fluttering around, happy and doing as he pleased. As a butterfly, he didn’t know he was Zhuang Zhou. Suddenly, he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuang Zhou. But he didn’t know if he was Zhuang Zhou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuang Zhou. 
 
The parable was painted by Yuan Dynasty painter Liu Guandao and Ming Dynasty artist Lu Zhi, successively, both images titled “Zhuangzi Dreaming of Butterfly.” Later, Dong Xiaowan of the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, and Qing Dynasty Jiang Tingxi each created “A Painting of Butterfly.” In the Qing Dynasty, Huang Shen composed the “Zhuangzhou Dreaming of Butterfly” painting and Hui Shouping created the “Butterfly in the Breeze.” Apart from these paintings, the story was also reproduced as block prints titled “Zhuangzi Dreaming of Butterfly.” These images basically represented story elements of the parable, stressing its philosophical implications visually. 
 
Under the influence of the interpretive technique of “saying this yet meaning that,” Chinese fable images developed further and gradually cultivated a consciousness of criticism and reflection. For example, the allegorical painting “Tumbler,” created by well-known Chinese painter Qi Baishi during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931–1945), satirizes bureaucrats who were inactive in their posts. Another work of his, “A Group of Rats,” sneers at China’s traitors at that time. Huang Yongyu’s Animal Fables for Children carries his profound thoughts on life, history, and culture with clever animal images, integrating wise philosophies and childlike cartoons. 
 
All in all, painters took the initiative to endow their objects with deep criticism, creating narrative images with ingenious moral rhetoric. 
 
Multiple-frame fables
With the development of literature and art, genres for Chinese fables were enriched, from short stories in Zhuangzi, Hanfeizi of the late Warring States Period, and Jokes from the Wei, Jin, and Southern and Northern dynasties; to Wisecrack by late-Qing Dynasty novelist Wu Yanren, which comprises a plethora of fables and parables; further to renowned modern Chinese writer Lu Xun’s allegorical short stories “Crab,” “Ancient City,” and “Diary of A Madman;” and to contemporary writer Fan Fu’s apologues. Due to the diversity of Chinese fable styles, multiple-frame fables, including fable comics, developed rapidly, contributing greatly to philosophical image narratives. 
 
With regard to stylistic characteristics, Chinese fables are distinct from short Western fables like Aesop’s Fables, Ivan Krylov’s Fables, and La Fontaine’s Fables from the very start. Chinese fables are unique in terms of style and content. They are neither pure image thinking nor sheer rational criticism. Instead, they pursue hidden meanings in vivid linguistic descriptions, while lit with a flame of poetic rationality. With the content of a complete story, these fables have rich colors for characters, stories, and scenes to be painted. This is highly conducive to the creation of serial fable images, such as fable comics. 
 
For example, contemporary Chinese artist Zhao Yannian turned Lu Xun’s “Diary of A Madman” into a series of woodcut caricatures with exaggerated character images and stark white-black contrast, expressing the hopelessness, loneliness, and blankness of the protagonist fully, and revealing the deep criticism and moral lessons of Lu Xun’s works graphically. 
 
Chinese Fables, compiled and painted by famed Chinese children’s cartoonist Zhan Tong, features watercolor cartoons and caricatures, showcasing the wisdom of the Chinese people with a brush dipped in colored pigments. Another cartoonist, Chih-Chung Tsai, created a comic strip titled Ode to Zhuangzi, which employed a multi-panel comic to illustrate parables in Zhuangzi. With emphasis on likeness of spirit and exaggerated character images, plots, and scenes, the seminal work won wide acclaim for its light style, interesting stories, yet profound moral meaning. 
 
Some Chinese painters even proactively used allegorical techniques alongside humorous and lively images to make their pictorial narratives epochal and ironic. Cartoonist and caricaturist Ding Cong’s comic strip Xiaozhu Joining the Army was published in the Hong Kong-based Sing Tao Evening Post for 100 days consecutively in 1939. The paintings, on the surface, were a record of facts, but they actually had a strong sarcastic tone during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, hinting at mental decay and disingenuousness, denouncing the maladies of the times and playing a positive role in advocating for the war. 
 
Narratives from multiple fable images transcend the temporal and spatial limitations of a single fable picture and shift focus to the illustration of texts, trying to convey deep philosophical messages in a complicated image-text relationship. On the one hand, text-based image creation still needs to selectively edit and adapt the text to form multiple illustrations or comics. On the other hand, fables’ allegorical nature suggests moral lessons amid complementary images and texts, thus integrating the plot, narrative, and philosophy of fable images. 
 
Dynamic fable images 
In the visual age, the greatest change in fable images is the evolution from static paintings and comics to dynamic videos and films. With the development of photography, cinema, and virtual technologies, fable texts have successively been adapted into films and animations. At the same time, the allegorical narrative of video works has become important expressive techniques, giving rise to fable movies and creating a uniquely Chinese fable narrative landscape. 
 
Specifically, early Chinese allegorical films inherited the ink-based modeling approach from traditional Chinese paintings. “Little Tadpole Looking for Mummy” (1961) is the earliest Chinese water-and-ink animation and also the first of its kind in the world. At the beginning of the short film, an authentic ink wash painting is unfolded from a Chinese painting album. The animals are rendered in ink and water, which augments ink’s capability to shade and makes the pictures colorful. The elegance of ink wash and blank spaces create a powerful artistic conception, communicating the general truth that “where there is a will there is a way” through poetic story-telling. 
The animated short film “Three Monks,” which was adapted from Chinese folk proverbs, was produced using a square composition and a cavalier perspective. Valuing blank spaces and spiritual expression, it elucidates the famous saying that “unity is strength” with distinctively Chinese images characterized by mountains and water. 
 
Subject matter for Chinese allegorical films largely originates from ancient myths, folk stories, parables or apologues, and classical novels, forging a poetic philosophical landscape as artists render reality and fiction, blank spaces, artistic conceptions, and poetic expression. 
 
Along with animation, Chinese fable movies have progressively matured. Different from ordinary film and television works that are for entertainment and recreational purposes, fable movies aim to package profound philosophical lessons for everyday life by constructing imaginary spaces with unique sounds and pictures amid the presentation of visual landscapes. They try to demonstrate national, social, and historical realities through narratives of fictitious situations, searching for profundity and contemplativeness of the themes. 
 
In summation, traditional fable literature narratives have not been eclipsed by images in the visual era. Instead, their expression has become increasingly representational in a variety of visual vehicles. Fable images have not only been vital artistic forms from the outset of fable literature, but also show ever richer implications with the development of media, bringing into being the dual trends of image orientation in fables and fable orientation in images. Whichever the trend is, the two coexist in symbiosis, rather than offset each other. Fable images represent an artistic form with a long development course and extremely strong vitality. 
 
Luo Liangqing is a professor from the Arts College at Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. 
 
 
 
Edited by CHEN MIRONG