The elaborate polyphony and ornamentation of Baroque music. The innumerable strokes and saturated colours of an oil painting. The meticulous turn of argument in a sonnet’s volta. This is perhaps what makes up the European “sublime” that, mesmerically and almost overwhelmingly, leaves us frozen in awe.
So perhaps you may wonder, what is there to listen to in a piece of music with only a single melody line? To see in a painting that is only a few strokes in monotonous ink? To read in a poem composed of short, standalone lines of simple imagery?
And yet, these artworks are praised to might as well be the epitome of Chinese art.
Many works of Chinese traditional art are, in essence, quite minimalist. The distinctly Chinese sense of minimalism takes the form of liú bái, or “leaving blank,” plays a significant role. This parallels the Daoist philosophy of wú wéi, the “act of inaction.” However, liú bái is not keeping just any part of an artwork entirely untouched, just as wú wéi does not mean indifference or laziness.
Wú wéi is not simply inaction, but the deliberate act of inaction—the idea that instead of paddling against the current in pursuit of some place in the distance, we achieve our goals by adjusting our sails. The Taoist never travels towards their goal, but allows themselves to be brought to their destination. Similarly, liú bái is an artistic idea that teaches artists not to use any elaborate techniques to painstakingly carve out every precise detail of the desired effect, but simply to hint at it and allow the audience to experience the message in their own heads. Chinese art is not an answer, it is a prompt, and one that exists only in the minds of the observer. It leaves infinite space for the audience’s imagination to experience and recreate the artwork from a perspective in their minds that is uniquely theirs. Arguably, Chinese art belongs to the audience just as much as it does the artist.
Finally, liú bái is also another way of addressing the limitations of the art form in which the artist works. It is a way of communicating ideas that sounds, lines, words, and movements are not enough to encapsulate. In a space of nothingness, the artist whispers to the observer:
“The medium is limited, yet imagination is infinite. Ideas are never-ending. Seek out the blanks. Fill them with your mind’s eye…”
Three Variations on the Theme of Plum Blossoms (Mei Hua San Nong)
This is a piece of guqin music that dates back to the Eastern Jin Dynasty, circa 300-400 CE. It is composed of only a single melody line, but has become one of the most recognisable pieces of Chinese music. It depicts the idea of a branch of plum blossoms, untaintedly white, standing proudly amidst the winter snow—a concept very common in Chinese art and often alluded to in praise of someone with good self-discipline or who is resilient. The music may not have elaborate chords or intricate harmonies, but I would like to bring your attention to three aspects: composition, timbre, and the sound of the guqin strings.
The composition of “Three Variations on the Theme of Plum Blossoms” reflects the flower’s unique characteristics, swaying in the winter wind yet resilient to its cold. The music, subsequently, is both lively and serene, with the composer choosing a simple musical motif and occasionally embellishing it with the odd element of ornamentation. Then, one musical phrase demonstrates the harmonics of the guqin: you will likely recognise a different, almost ethereal sound. And in between notes, perhaps you will recognise the sound of the player’s finger gliding across the strings. Although this is unintentional, many call it the sound of the guqin breathing.
Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains (Fu Chun Shan Ju Tu)
This is a crop, roughly a quarter, of the full painting, with the artwork itself dating back to circa 1350. It later suffered an accident involving fire where it split and was separated. Upon first glance, the painting seems to be nothing but a few lines and geometric shapes, yet it is cited by many scholars as one of the ten most famous works of Chinese art.
The idea of liú bái (“leaving blank”) is most easily found in visual art, because the “blank” that the artist leaves takes the form of easily discernible negative space. In this painting, for example, you will find that the background is completely empty. This is the case for many Chinese watercolour (shuǐ mò) paintings. In this specific case, however, the artist painted a detailed mountain in the centre which, if you look closely at it, you will find many hidden stories to uncover. Then, look at the surrounding mountains and the distance, and imagine that they are hidden in a shroud of mist. In your mind, however, you can still see the elements that caught your eye in the main mountain, and these distant peaks serve as a blank slate for you to imagine more sights of your own.
Excerpt from Li Shangyin’s “Untitled Poem” (wú tí)
“Difficult to meet and difficult still to part,
Amidst the feeble east wind and the failing flowers.
Only upon its deathbed does the silkworm’s threads break,
A candle burned to ashes before its tears begin to dry.”
In this poem, Li describes his yearning for a secret lover, yet he offers very little detail on the subject itself. Li first describes how difficult it was to come by a chance for the two to reunite, and once reunited, how difficult it was to say goodbye. The meaning of the remaining three lines of this excerpt, however, becomes less clear. Perhaps he is comparing their fate to the wilting of flowers, his love to the silkworm’s threads that will never end until death, and his sorrow to a candle, whose “tears”—the candle’s drops of wax—will only dry when it has burned to ashes.
The reader, however, still knows very little about Li and his lover. In fact, the word “love” does not even come up in the poem—the reader is assumed to have picked that up. Similarly, his very sentiments are not expressed in the poem, but left blank for the reader to interpret, with the speaker only offering three lines of imagery to set an atmosphere.
Prevalent in each art form, from music to painting to poetry, liú bái offers its audience a great deal of autonomy that is characteristic of Chinese art. The next time you encounter Chinese art, look not for what is there, but also what is not. Then, go forth and see what kind of art your mind creates for you.
“Imagination is infinite. Ideas are never-ending. Seek out the blanks. Fill them with your mind’s eye.”