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Gao Jianping on Chinese aesthetics

REN GUANHONG | 2022-05-12 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

Gao Jianping is a research fellow from the CASS, director of the Institute of Aesthetics and Literary Criticism at Shenzhen University, and president of the Chinese Society for Aesthetics. PHOTO: COURTESY OF GAO

As a senior scholar, Professor Gao Jianping has long been devoted to the research of aesthetics, literary theories, aesthetic education, contemporary cultural studies, and criticism. In a recent interview with CSST, Gao shared his studies of Chinese aesthetics and suggestions for the academic exchanges in the field.

CSST: How do we understand aesthetics?
Gao: The definition of aesthetics has been repeatedly discussed in academia, as the object of this discipline has undergone many changes, and its theoretical basis is also in a state of flux. The birth of aesthetics was originally due to people’s attempt to use basic concepts to capture their different feelings in daily life. When faced with concrete objects, human beings will have various feelings, which is an abstraction. This abstraction is based on concrete things, and human beings need abstraction to understand concrete things, otherwise they will only have vague feelings about everything. The mission of aesthetics is to describe this abstraction.
People often directly equate aesthetics with beauty, which may be related to the translation of the word “aesthetics.” Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten derived the term “Aesthetica” from the Greek term for sensory perception. Afterwards, generations of scholars have had different interpretations of this term, which resulted in different translations. It is generally recognized by academia that a Japanese scholar named Nakae Chōmin translated the term “Aesthetica” into 美学 according to the Japanese understanding of “Aesthetica” as a philosophical discipline at that time. Later, Chinese scholars introduced this discipline to China and directly adopted the term 美学[literally study of beauty]. Because of this translation, aesthetics is often understood as the study of beauty in Chinese culture. In fact, there are many kinds of beauty, and what pleases humans is only a narrow sense of beauty. The richness of human sensibility determines that aesthetics should not only study beauty in a narrow sense, but include all kinds of aesthetic objects in a broad sense. Things that can win people’s affection are not necessarily beautiful, which may relate to other categories of aesthetics besides “the beautiful,” such as “the sublime.” 
CSST: According to you, in addition to the classic aesthetic categories such as the beautiful and the sublime, aesthetic objects should also be considered for their “sense of history” and “sense of novelty.” Can you elaborate further on this?
Gao: The value of time in aesthetics has long been ignored by Western academia. The Chinese scholar Wang Guowei was the first one who noticed the relationship between time and aesthetics. Wang offered “gu-ya” [gu in Chinese means ancient or age-old, and ya grace or elegance] as a new category of beauty, which he believed only existed in art. My interpretation of the sense of history was inspired by Wang. Aesthetic objects, especially art, embody a sense of time, or a sense of history. The sense of history can make something more beautiful, or turn an ordinary object into an aesthetic object. The beauty of cultural relics not only lies in design and appearance, but also in antiquity. The onrush of time not only turns non-art into art, but also enhances the value of artworks.
Different from Wang, I believe that the sense of history also exists in nature. For example, the beauty of an ancient pine mostly comes from the vicissitudes of the world it has witnessed. The historical sense of natural objects comes from the humanistic connotations given by humans. 
The sense of novelty is an opposite category to the sense of history, which refers to things that are not easily seen in daily life. Such things are novel or imagined. The sense of novelty is commonly found in Chinese and foreign myths. In addition to the beautiful and the sublime, myths are dominated by the sense of novelty [from the perspective of aesthetics]. In addition, the sense of novelty also exists in exoticism. It is the sense of novelty that makes foreign-style things attractive.
CSST: What are the unique features of Chinese aesthetics?
Gao: As we all know, Chinese and Western aesthetics originated from two completely different ideological systems. Rooted in a culture that has been deeply influenced by Greek rationalism, Western aesthetics research has been systematic from the very beginning, not only attaching importance to the definition and interpretation of concepts and categories, but also featuring obvious logical thinking.
Chinese aesthetics originated from the philosophical thoughts of the pre-Qin period (prior to 221 BCE). It took a completely different path from that of the West. In the pre-Qin era, according to The Analects, Confucius distinguishes between music that is beautiful and morally good [Shao music], and music that is beautiful but not morally good [Wu music], which expresses the Confucian aesthetic concept: beautiful and meanwhile morally good. The core of this concept is moralism, revealing the Confucian ideal of good governance and social stability. Therefore, Confucian beauty depends on moral goodness, with a strong sense of ethics and politics. In addition to Confucianism, Taoism and other schools have their own understandings of beauty. On the whole, however, the exploration and demonstration of beauty in ancient China focused more on sensibility, intuition, and individual perception, rather than rationality and logic. Therefore, in ancient China, there was not an ideological system of aesthetics as integrated as that of the West, and many Chinese aesthetic thoughts were scattered in writings and essays.
From the perspective of literature and art, under the influence of the spirit of science, the West tends to view objects in a static state and make objective analysis. However, the Chinese believe that everything in the world is in motion, and advocate that literature and art should present a fluid or dynamic process. For example, representative types of European gardens often present geometric neatness and symmetry. Chinese classical gardens, on the other hand, stress a dynamic visual tour through the winding paths and zig-zag galleries, which lead visitors from one scene to another.
Similar differences are also reflected in the art of painting. The European art of painting generally emphasizes the grasp and application of geometric forms, and seeks to accurately represent scenes and landscapes. Chinese painting, which has been influenced by Chinese calligraphy, breaks the layout of geometric figures and emphasizes the movement and strength of the brush, making the painting a trail of movement. The hidden logic in Chinese painting is that viewers can imagine how the artists move their hands on seeing their calligraphy or paintings, and then associate the artists’ movement with their innermost feelings. This is where the spirit of Chinese calligraphy and painting comes from. In this way, we can understand the core concepts of Chinese art, such as qi-yun [verve, spirit resonance] and feng-shen [vim and vigor]. 
What I’ve said is only the tip of the iceberg. Whether in the East or the West, aesthetics has evolved through an extremely long process, and its content cannot be easily summed up in a few words.
CSST: Do you have any advice for contemporary Chinese aesthetics research?
Gao: A big problem in the comparative study of aesthetics is simply dividing the world into two parts: China and the West. This way of thinking is wrong. The term “West” is very general. Western countries are different from each other in different ages, while traditional Chinese culture is not only about Confucianism and Taoism. The simple classification of China and the West actually ignores cultural pluralism and diversity. The attitude we should have is that we are people from different cultures, living in modern societies and sharing many intellectual resources.  
Furthermore, different cultures have their own problems. Many Chinese modern aesthetic ideas were imported from the West. There have been problems of acclimation in the process of introducing Western ideas into China. I have carefully studied the ideas and views imported by Zhu Guangqian [one of the founders of the study of aesthetics in 20th-century China] from the West, and found that when he cited Chinese examples for theoretical explanation, he often made subtle changes to these imported ideas. Hence, China’s modern aesthetic study is not a simple combination of Chinese and Western ideas, but the absorption of the essence of Western aesthetics and the inheritance of refined traditional Chinese culture. It is continuously adjusted to adapt to China’s changing and developing reality.
CSST: “Going global” is a hot topic in Chinese academia. What is your opinion on the international communication of Chinese aesthetics?
Gao: In my opinion, what scholars should pay attention to today is how to promote China’s modern and contemporary cultural achievements to “go global.” In a sense, ancient Chinese culture has already “gone global.” Many ancient texts, such as the Confucian classics, have been translated and introduced overseas. Western sinologists’ research on China mostly focuses on ancient Chinese thought and culture. For many Western scholars, China refers to ancient China. When they talk about Chinese aesthetics, they often think of ancient Chinese aesthetics. The other countries with ancient civilizations also face the same problems. In these countries, researchers are mostly engaged in the study of Western aesthetics and traditional aesthetics, while the modern aesthetics of these countries have been warming the bench. In fact, just like China, these countries have made achievements in localizing Western aesthetics and modernizing their own ancient aesthetics, but these achievements have not received much attention.
Many people watched the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics opening ceremony. It was really exciting and stunning. However, the Chinese cultural symbols contained in this opening ceremony were still the achievements of ancient Chinese civilization, such as the “Four Great Inventions.” This reveals an old way of thinking in international communication: looking for Chinese symbols in the minds of Westerners, and then showing them to Westerners. It is said that someone asked the ceremony’s director Zhang Yimou whether modern China has its own symbols. Zhang answered yes, but he thought that it was hard to find. Zhang’s answer reflects a sense of helplessness, as Chinese modern culture has not stepped out into the world to some extent. In terms of aesthetics, it is necessary to summarize the innovative achievements of Chinese aesthetics in the 20th century. I’m writing a history of Chinese aesthetics in the 20th century, and I’m going to translate it into English after finishing the book, with a hope to help Chinese aesthetics “go global.” 
When it comes to the international communication of Chinese culture, it is also necessary to prevent those communications from becoming a mere formality. Giving a speech to a group of foreign scholars at an international conference is not really “going global.” Increasing the exposure of Chinese academic achievements is not enough to promote international academic communication. The key is to participate in the construction of aesthetics in the world. Providing foreign scholars with some knowledge about Chinese aesthetics without bringing them theoretical inspiration, is no more than a practice of satisfying their curiosity, which doesn’t do much to increase the influence of Chinese aesthetics. China must participate in the theoretical construction of aesthetics in the world, otherwise it can only be a “transporter” of knowledge without any power of discourse.
Whether we can “go global” depends on whether our academic researchers have the ability to “go global.” It requires scholars to establish a good grounding in their academic fields and produce real stuff. “Going global” is not our “terminal,” and good scholars won’t spend all day thinking about how to get Westerners to recognize their research, but focus on the value and significance of the research itself. Therefore, the most important drive for the international communication of Chinese academic studies is that our research must be valuable, cutting-edge, and high-quality.