Recent archaeological discoveries have led to a reevaluation of the antiquity of civilization and culture in China. What has long been referred to as over five thousand years of continuous cultural development is now considered as a span of at least ten thousand years. Throughout these hundred centuries, Chinese artists and craftspeople have been making art that embodies and celebrates their ideas and experiences.
During the course of our research for A Brief History of Qi, we followed the common thread that runs through the artwork of virtually every age of China’s long past. This thread continues to wend its way into the fabric of artistic and cultural life in China today. Indeed, many of the artists, art historians, and critics with whom we have spoken, and whose work we have seen and read over the past several years, mention this single conceptual thread as the most important element in Chinese art. This thread is qi.
Chinese art emphasizes the expression of motion and strength. This vital dynamism arises from the ancient dialectical unity: substantial and insubstantial; movement and stillness; firmness and softness; gathering and dispersal. This dialectical construction is easily recognized in terms of Chinese philosophy as yin and yang. In Chinese painting it manifests in wholeness; the entirety of the composition tends “to configure the whole world on one foot of the scroll. It manifests as a momentum containing heaven and earth and the whole universe.”1
The tension that holds together this wholeness of composition develops from the most fundamental graphic elements: black and white. This blackness and whiteness, substantiality and insubstantiality, become the internal qi of intelligence, the germ of style and character. Hence the whiteness and blackness, insubstantiality and substantiality, contain the dao of breathing in and out, the yin and yang of the universe, the qi of the highest aspiration surrounding every flowing river. The dao of yin and yang and the qi of high aspiration combine in a visual effect that creates a magical power. Anyone nourished and benefited by such traditions of Chinese culture is guided into an integrated understanding of the universe and life.2 The aesthetic engine, this “magical power,” relies upon qi for its fuel and its motive force.
Nature in Chinese philosophy is understood to be the constant motion that manifests the changes of life. The root of these changes is qi. The concept of qi is used to explain the generation, development, and transformation of all matter. It holds the premiere position in traditional Chinese thought. Not only is qi the principal source of energy and matter, it also establishes the basis of spirit and the human soul. Importantly, it provides the connective medium through which the ancient philosophers believed human beings could harmonize their growth and development with the forces of nature.
This quest for harmony with nature gained its preeminent expression in the philosophy of the dao. Yet all this philosophizing can scarcely compete with the experience of a work of art. After all, the idea that one picture is worth a thousand words is intimately Chinese. Thus, throughout the ages, Chinese artists have sought to manifest the dao of nature in their lives and in their work. They applied their intellect to comprehend the changes of the natural world and to transform their perception of the dao into the emotional power needed to fuel the expression of their art. This emotional vitality, in fact, is their own, individual qi.