They strove to cultivate and refine this qi so that their work could be created directly from it. This aesthetic yearning for unity and harmony is expressed in the phrase, They strove to cultivate and refine this qi so that their work could be created directly from it. This aesthetic yearning for unity and harmony is expressed in the phrase, yi qi he cheng, which literally means, “one breath of qi and it is done.” It is used of literary compositions to imply a particular fluidity of the movement of ideas from start to finish — the momentum of qi. This concept is not limited to a single discipline or mode of expression. It runs throughout all of Chinese art. In fact, this phrase is commonly used to describe the accomplishment of anything done in one fell swoop, without interruption or pause.
The following passage is from the Confucian classic known as the Book of Rites (Li Ji) from the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BCE). In the volume entitled Records of Music (Yue Ji), we read:
Poetry is the expression of the will or aspiration. Song is the recitation of sounds. Dance emotes and mobilizes form. These three originate in the heart, aroused by music. Thus deep feelings enlighten writing. It is the flourishing of qi that thus transforms the spirit. Its accumulation and harmonization in the center will draw out the excellence of the spirit. Thus must music be created without the slightest falsity.
Honesty and righteousness have long been fundamental requirements of Chinese art. They arise from an understanding of the forces involved in the process of artistic creation and reflect the profound roots of morality in Chinese culture. This morality is not based in the Western dichotomy of right versus wrong or good versus evil. It develops from inspection of nature and an understanding of how life should be lived to harmonize human action with the forces of the natural world.
In the Liang period of the Southern Dynasty (502–557 CE) Zhong Rong expanded upon this ancient theme in a book entitled Classes of Poetry (Shi Pin Xu).
Poetry is an act of will. It comes from the heart. A poem embodies words. The feelings arise from the center and give shape and substance to the words. Language is not enough. To rely on language is to sigh and lament. Sighing and lamenting cannot result in reciting and singing. Even to recite and sing is not enough. Thus we must dance it. This is all to say that the creation of art is guided by the spirit.
Zhong Rong’s work was one of the earliest bodies of literary criticism in China. It focused on the “Five Character” form of poetry in vogue from the Han Dynasty until Zhong’s era. His work had an enormous influence on successive generations of writers and readers in China. Through such influence, the movements of qi came to be guided by the spirit, informed by a sense of profound moral obligation to achieve balance and natural harmony. These movements drove traditional art in China steadily forward through the ages. The vast and complex tapestry of the traditional arts in China is indeed woven from this one, single thread.