ten thousand things

Last Fri­day brought an unex­pect­ed sur­prise.  Ear­li­er in the week, Michelle Ger­ling had accost­ed me in the mid­dle of a con­ver­sa­tion about GPS traces and aer­i­al imagery at the Vovi­to cof­feeshop in Belle­vue, where a cou­ple of us were rude­ly block­ing the aisle with our open lap­tops and talk­ing over each oth­er as usu­al.  She accused us of the usu­al sin, “hav­ing no life”, for talk­ing shop instead of drink­ing cap­puc­ci­no.  (Although we were in fact also drink­ing cap­puc­ci­no.)  I rose to the bait and issued a two-pronged retort amount­ing to a) we’re on the east­side, not in Seat­tle, and b) what we’re doing is legit­i­mate and cre­ative cof­feeshop activ­i­ty.

In the end this led to Ido drop­ping a very odd book off in my office at Michelle’s behest, accom­pa­nied by a typ­i­cal­ly under­stat­ed note,

Hi Blaise,

My wife decid­ed you must read this book I placed on your desk.

(if you are not inter­est­ed, I can keep it with me for a week and tell her you real­ly enjoyed it...)


Michelle explained at more length,

Your argu­ment was the first of the kind I had heard from a ‘local’ that actu­al­ly con­nect­ed space, con­tent and cre­ativ­i­ty.

For the past 50-odd years [sic] I have been writ­ing a the­sis that dis­cuss­es sim­i­lar con­nec­tions– only in Bei­jing, and with a bunch of ruins as the cen­ter of dis­cus­sion.  That evening while ‘writ­ing’, I need­ed a ref­er­ence from the book I gave you, of course, instead of just search­ing and clos­ing the book I start­ed read­ing it for the mil­lionth time– any­thing is bet­ter than actu­al­ly writ­ing a the­sis, real­ly.

Any­way, what you said came up while I was read­ing, and I asked Ido if you were the one who liked Hockney’s doc­u­men­tary.  That was it basi­cal­ly.

I’m glad you find it inter­est­ing, it is an excel­lent book, very rel­e­vant to many dis­cus­sions going on today about the way things are done in Chi­na.

[...] the copy you have is pirat­ed.  I had it pho­to­copied at the local copy-sweat­shop at Bei­jing Uni­ver­si­ty.  Cof­fee & bev­er­age stains are all authen­tic and were made by myself and sev­er­al friends.  Respect.

Enjoy read­ing it, my advice is that you should do so at a cafe in the east­side, so as to intro­duce the con­cept of orig­i­nal­i­ty where it is so lack­ing.  It will also ward off peo­ple who want to talk to you about work.

Well, this book was indeed excel­lent as adver­tised, though it ward­ed off no one.  The cen­tral the­ses can be summed up so:

It’s a tru­ism that Chi­nese art embod­ies a very dif­fer­ent sys­tem of val­ues from West­ern art.  (We leave aside for the moment the dif­fi­cul­ties aris­ing from the very dif­fer­ent def­i­n­i­tions of art in Chi­na and in the West, and how these have evolved through the cen­turies.)  While in the West repro­duc­tion is typ­i­cal­ly seen as art’s oppo­site, Chi­nese art has been char­ac­ter­ized for mil­len­nia by process­es of mass-man­u­fac­ture, stan­dard­iza­tion of com­po­nents or “mod­ules”, fac­to­ry pro­duc­tion meth­ods, and care­ful­ly con­strained vari­abil­i­ty with­in arche­types.  The result is a kind of bio­mimet­ic pro­duc­tion sys­tem– hence analo­gies like the ten thou­sand leaves of a tree, all pat­terned the same way, but no two pre­cise­ly alike.

Led­derose makes a provoca­tive and pos­si­bly nov­el claim about such pro­duc­tion sys­tems: that the moth­er of them all is the Chi­nese writ­ing sys­tem.

Char­ac­ters decom­pose into strokes, which one can inter­pret as mod­ules (between 8 and 70-odd, depend­ing on how one clus­ters– the scheme shown above is a pop­u­lar one from Liu Gongquan, 778–865).  Through recom­bi­na­tion and vari­a­tion, one can form the tens or even hun­dreds of thou­sands of ideograms.  I found this pas­sage intrigu­ing:

The Chi­nese found a mid­dle way between the extremes of reduc­tion to the math­e­mat­i­cal min­i­mum and bound­less indi­vid­u­al­i­ty.  In their char­ac­ters the aver­age num­ber of strokes is high­er than four, and they did not set them into neat quad­rants.  Rather, they allowed for a great vari­ety in size and rel­a­tive posi­tion of the strokes.  The char­ac­ter sys­tem has to be more com­pli­cat­ed than math­e­mat­i­cal­ly nec­es­sary, because the human brain does not work like a sim­ple­mind­ed com­put­er.  An essen­tial part in all per­cep­tion process­es is the recog­ni­tion of known ele­ments.  [...]  It is eas­i­er to remem­ber slight­ly more com­plex shapes in which some parts are famil­iar than shapes in which the rep­e­ti­tion is reduced to a min­i­mum.  If we miss a bit of the infor­ma­tion, recog­ni­tion of famil­iar forms allows us to grasp the mean­ing of the whole unit all the same.

For “rep­e­ti­tion” I’d use “redun­dan­cy”, but this is oth­er­wise a fair­ly clear infor­ma­tion-the­o­ret­ic argu­ment about the trade­off between com­pres­sion and error cor­rec­tion.  Per­haps Chi­nese script is near some­thing one could char­ac­ter­ize as an opti­mum of spar­si­ty for human visu­al pro­cess­ing?  Per­haps one could think about the most extreme cur­sive scripts, like the exam­ple I’ll paste in short­ly from Huaisu, as per­tur­ba­tions that probe the lim­its of the error-cor­rect­ing cells?

Let’s now shift from gram­mar to seman­tics.  Rather than accept­ing the Euro­pean mod­el of a Chi­na far ahead of its time 2500 years ago but in a kind of intel­lec­tu­al sta­sis ever since, Led­derose argues that the longevi­ty of cer­tain aspects of Chi­nese cul­ture owes much to the longevi­ty of mod­u­lar pro­duc­tion sys­tems, which in turn owes its longevi­ty to the his­tor­i­cal con­ti­nu­ity of the char­ac­ter sys­tem, as both an embod­i­ment of the con­cept of mod­u­lar­i­ty and a medi­um for its trans­mis­sion.  Because char­ac­ters are sig­ni­fiers of mean­ing rather than pho­net­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tions, they have a stay­ing pow­er lack­ing in West­ern lan­guages.  Pro­nun­ci­a­tions evolve; seman­tics don’t.

[...] an edu­cat­ed Chi­nese can read most texts writ­ten in all parts of the empire at any time in his­to­ry, be it hun­dreds, even thou­sands of years ago.  Script in Chi­na thus became the most pow­er­ful medi­um for pre­serv­ing cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty and sta­bi­liz­ing polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions.  And if one won­ders why the bureau­crats in Brus­sels have not yet been able to unite Europe, the answer may be that they use an alpha­bet.

I think there’s some­thing here, though each claim on its own is fal­si­fi­able.  The seman­tics of char­ac­ters do evolve, and when spellings are stan­dard­ized, pho­net­ic lan­guages drift while their writ­ten rep­re­sen­ta­tions remain fixed, or we wouldn’t have words in Eng­lish like “enough”, “wry”, and “knight”.  (Indeed, it seems like­ly that Eng­lish, as stan­dard­ized today, is well on its way to being a world­wide and long-lived “lan­guage of empire”, though today the empire in ques­tion is the glob­al econ­o­my.)  The pow­er­ful and long-lived cen­tral­ized polit­i­cal pow­er of Chi­na has cer­tain­ly rein­forced the writ­ing sys­tem, and ben­e­fit­ted from it in return, but the same was true of Latin for the Roman empire.  If Rome had held togeth­er, would we have a “Euro­pean Chi­na”, advanced yet some­how sta­t­ic, as envi­sioned by many writ­ers of alter­nate his­to­ry pulps?

The main body of the book is orga­nized into chap­ters treat­ing spe­cif­ic mod­u­lar sys­tems: ideograms, bronze cast­ing, ter­ra cot­ta armies, art fac­to­ries, build­ings, print­ing, and sets of paint­ings lit­er­al­ly depict­ing “The Bureau­cra­cy of Hell” (pro­duced in the 13th cen­tu­ry in what is now the Zhe­jiang Province).  The book clos­es with a chap­ter called “Free­dom of the Brush?”, in appar­ent coun­ter­point to the relent­less mod­u­lar­i­ty of the pre­vi­ous chap­ters.  Using ency­clo­pe­dias and aes­thet­i­cal­ly-moti­vat­ed col­lect­ing as ref­er­ence points, it delves into def­i­n­i­tions of art in Chi­na, which his­tor­i­cal­ly cen­ter on cal­lig­ra­phy— in the West, con­sid­ered only a minor “low­er­case a” art.  The literati defined this art in terms of the ideals of “spon­tane­ity” and “nat­u­ral­ness”, empha­siz­ing per­son­al expres­sion, even to the point of idio­syn­crasy or mad­ness— for exam­ple,

Huaisu embod­ies this ide­al in his Auto­bi­og­ra­phy, with his gor­geous­ly flu­id “Mad Cur­sive Script” (kuang­cao) and match­ing per­son­al­i­ty, roman­tic in the sense of Byron or Van Gogh.  The evi­dent “action” of such paint­ing inspired Robert Moth­er­well, Cy Twombly and Jack­son Pol­lock, but Led­derose points out the obvi­ous dif­fer­ence.  As wild as Huaisu’s Auto­bi­og­ra­phy is, it remains a text, because the strokes con­vey, how­ev­er kinet­i­cal­ly, a dis­crete and mean­ing­ful phys­i­cal gram­mar.  If one is a flu­ent writer in Chi­nese, these char­ac­ters are leg­i­ble, in the same way that an opera singer’s melody is per­fect­ly clear to us even dur­ing long, com­plex runs in which tremo­lo varies the vocal pitch over a com­pass greater than the scored inter­vals.  The singer isn’t cre­at­ing splat­ter art, but per­form­ing a piece with well-defined notes.  Like­wise Huaisu’s art is the “per­for­mance” of a text in char­ac­ters– the embod­i­ment of a mod­u­lar sys­tem.  The vari­a­tion and fla­vor of the per­for­mance is like tremo­lo, or ruba­to, cloth­ing the under­ly­ing for­mal and seman­tic struc­tures with rich per­son­al­i­ty but nev­er oblit­er­at­ing them.

Inter­pret­ed one way, this implies that the ideals of literati art in Chi­na are more geared toward per­for­mance than com­po­si­tion.  A piece of cal­lig­ra­phy may be prized as unique, but will be char­ac­ter­ized this way not because of the con­tent, but because of the inspi­ra­tion imma­nent in and evoked by the per­for­mance of a par­tic­u­lar artist, at a par­tic­u­lar time and place— like Glenn Gould’s 1955 record­ing of the Gold­berg Vari­a­tions.  “A”, but also “the”.  Jazz stan­dards are anoth­er con­tem­po­rary exam­ple, per­haps more fit­ting, since we tend to con­nect a piece much more with the artistry of a per­former than with the orig­i­nal com­pos­er.  My Fun­ny Valen­tine: Richard Rodgers or Chet Bak­er?  Body and Soul: John­ny Green?  No, rather, Miles Davis, Bil­lie Hol­i­day, Cole­man Hawkins.

Although the literati scorned fac­to­ry and arti­sanal pro­duc­tion, like that embod­ied by the mass-man­u­fac­ture of tomb fig­ures, the same prin­ci­ples of mod­u­lar­i­ty togeth­er with vari­a­tion apply there.  Our Han tomb fig­ures, which an old friend of Adrienne’s nick­named Ping and Pong, are exam­ples:

Ping and Pong had tens of thou­sands of broth­ers, yet each has a per­son­al­i­ty, ren­dered by arti­sans exploit­ing inten­tion­al degrees of free­dom and vari­abil­i­ty in an oth­er­wise effi­cient mass-pro­duc­tion assem­bly line.

There seems to be a well-estab­lished West­ern tra­di­tion of curios­i­ty, to put the fin­ger on those points where muta­tions and changes occur.  The inten­tion seems to be to learn how to abbre­vi­ate the process of cre­ation and to accel­er­ate it.  In the arts, this ambi­tion can result in a habit­u­al demand for nov­el­ty from every artist and every work.  Cre­ativ­i­ty is nar­rowed down to inno­va­tion.  Chi­nese artists, on the oth­er hand, nev­er lose sight of the fact that pro­duc­ing works in large num­bers exem­pli­fies cre­ativ­i­ty, too.  They trust that, as in nature, there will always be some among the ten thou­sand things from which change springs.

Some pro­found ques­tions about scale, con­text, cre­ativ­i­ty and agency emerge from think­ing about these things, which is why this blog post has bal­looned.  If a naïve West­ern art crit­ic were to unearth Pong as an iso­lat­ed arti­fact, he might con­clude, “wow!  Gia­comet­ti had a Chi­nese twin!”.  Of course we know that there was no Chi­nese Gia­comet­ti; yet sol­diers in Ping and Pong’s armies are still sold at Southeby’s and regard­ed as art objects, along­side minor but “unique” works by famous Euro­pean and Amer­i­can artists.  If we fol­low Pong back through the years, through the hands of the tomb raiders, into the dark of the under­ground pro­ces­sion­al halls and back out again, when does their unmould­ed clay touch the hand of the “artist”?  It doesn’t– and not just in the sense that glass anemones from the Hot­shop nev­er pass through Chi­hu­ly’s hands.  The “artist” is the entire pro­duc­tion sys­tem, and that sys­tem has no clear bound­ary.  It’s like nature– or rather, it is nature.

The ten thou­sand things are pro­duced and repro­duced, so that vari­a­tion and trans­for­ma­tion have no end.

    – Zhou Dun­yi (1017–1073), Dia­gram of the Supreme Ulti­mate Explained

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