East Asian Aesthetic Terminology: China

Forbidden City


While preparing to start my doctoral studies I took the opportunity to first travel to Japan, and South Korea: to perform, and do some adjunct research on Japanese and Korean Buddhism (Soto, Rinzai, and Son). Thus, I ended up first travelling all across Japan and then Korea – evetntually travelling to Tongdosa, Haeinsa, Bongeunsa, and finally Seoul’s Jogyesa Temple, studying temple architecture, chant practices, Buddhist art, and so on. This information would later on provide valuable context for the research I did in Beijing on traditional Chinese painting, art aesthetics, Tibetan Buddhism as it is practiced in northeastern China, Taoism, and so on.

(Note: one of the many truly profound pleasures of the intellectual life is being able to “read” living history and appreciate the vast scope of humanity summed up in a single moment, structure, word, or sound. Being able to visit The Forbidden City in Beijing (especially in winter) was a life-altering experience. The picture above is one of the dozens of small streets/corridors within The Forbidden City in Beijing. Built in the early 15th century, it was not open to the public for hundreds of years until the early 20th century, and literally billions of ordinary Chinese throughout that time gazed upon its walls and wondered what lay within, never to know. And, while all the thousands of tourists would be busy queuing in line and making their way to the Hall Of Supreme Harmony (Emperor’s Throne), I would arrive early at the back entrance and wander through the empty, snow filled alleys and corridors by myself, lost within a wintery reverie, dreaming of all the lives and aspirations of those who came here before and disappeared long ago. Though I was there for a lot of anthropological work, it was wonderful to spend time just being there… sitting on stone steps, watching the snow fall silently on this ancient marvel.)

In my studies I saw many terms repeatedly coming up in the conversations I had with the monks, lay practitioners, and musicians I met, so I thought I would share them with you all. Many of them are not well known outside of classical Chinese art and music circles, so they may be helpful to anyone with a general interest in East Asian aesthetics, Buddhism, the practices and standards of classical Chinese art, and so on. These terms are especially important if one is to understand the historical context of China vast artistic legacy, as the terminology more often than not describes a mindset/state of Being necessary for artistry as much as technical skill (liao fa, ling, ch’i-yun, i-hua, etc.). Thus, to understand classical Chinese painting is to understand the roots of its influence on the rest of Asia, especially Japan.



Bao tou: “belly exploding”; contemporary term for speech and behavior that deviates from the staging instructions in Cantonese Opera. The term originally and is still considered by some to refer to comic improvisation that included foul language and innuendo.

Biji: “trace of the brush”: the brush mark quality and form represent the physical “presence” of the artist (related to ch’i-yun).

Ch’an: “one” + “sun / stars”, at one with the universe; Chinese Zen Buddhism.

Ch’i: “within shapes, instrument”, material.

Ch’i-yun: the ‘spirit resonance’ of an artwork; how alive with qi it is.

Ching: seasonal impact.

Ch’ü: “appealing quality”.

Dau Zy: to cover up or correct a mistake using improvisation (Cantonese Opera).

Fei-pai: “flying white”; the blank, parallel gaps in a brushstroke created by a drying brush, “filled in” by psychological anticipation of closure. Considered natural/part of the nature of a brush running out of ink, possibly containing ch’i-yun.

Ga-fa:  to add ornaments (Cantonese).

Gongshi: “Chinese scholar stones”, the Chinese tradition of the aesthetic contemplation of stones (see: Japanese suiseki). The four main aesthetic qualities desired in a stone are wrinkling (zhou) thinness (shou), perforations (lou), openness (tou). The highest ranked stones are named lingbi after the county in Anhui Province where they are usually found.

Hau!: (‘how!’); a cry of encouragement and appreciation from an audience member in the Peking Opera.

Hsi-pi: “playing with the brush”; spontaneous wu-wei painting after mastery of technique.

Hsü: “emptiness: the power of spiritual suggestion through emptiness.

Hun tun: the great cosmic chaos vs. sacred order state that all things spring from and return to, and that the Taoist master seeks to be at one with; the primitive life-order hidden by conventional language and culture.

i: effortlessness.

i-hua: “the painting of a single-stroke”; creating one essential idea-form and using it to create a myriad of things form that essential idea. A kind of “inductive” creative originality as opposed to studying classical forms for years and synthesizing an ‘original’ style from one’s technical studies.

Kaiyan: “eye-opening”: a ceremony in which the pupils are painted on a Buddhist statue, thus changing the statue from a mere ‘form-image’ (xingxiang) to a fully consecrated sacred icon worthy of veneration (benzun). Until then it is merely an object, a ‘shadow image’ (yingxiang).

K’ai wu: “open awareness”, non-judgmental state of reception (Ch’an Buddhism).

Ku – ch’i: “bone spirit”: the essence of structure.

Ku-fa: “bone means”, structural considerations.

Li: “above shapes”, principle, universal principles.

Liao Fa: liberation from method: The end of all method is to seem to have no method (wu-fa).

Ling: quality of being spiritually alive/engaged.

Mei: “beauty”: what is beautiful in comparison to our moral/value/aesthetic values; has overtones of what pertains to our conscience.

Mêng yang: passive, dark, formative dimension of experience; counterpart to shêng huo, one of the two major fundamentals of Chinese aesthetics.

Miao: post-enlightenment playful sense of wonder.

Miao-i: “unnamable ideas”, term used to describe aspects of the Tao.

Mo: ink.

Mo-hsi: “ink play”, “ink play (works)”; the resulting works when one practices hsi-pi.

“Mountain names”: The names given the Ch’an masters according to where they taught i.e. Guishan Lingyou (Mt. Gui).

Pasibutbut: Semi-improvised harmonic songs sung by the Bunu tribe of Taiwan. Legend states that the sound of pasibutbut was originally inspired by the sounds of honeybees and the local trees.

Pi: brush.

Pi Li: skill, dexterity, and mental/spiritual motivation/power behind a “living” brushstroke (shêng i).

P’o: “un-carved block”; original simplicity of the Tao; simple, plain, no color or markings.

P’o mo: “breaking ink: splashed automatic ink painting with a few   deliberate brush strokes (Japanese: haboku).

Qi: life force, the living energy in things.

She-ch’i: “deep, life force-containing spirit”: intangible, impressive quality of a work.

Shen-hui: spiritual response: how the spirit of the copist and artist are preserved together in copies of an earlier work.

Shen-si: spiritual likeness: by achieving shen-si a copyist or artist brings the/an earlier master “back to life”.

Shên-ssu: “unfathomable thoughts”, term used to describe aspects of the Tao.

Shêng huo: dynamic, active dimension of experience; liveliness and/or vitality; counterpart to mêng yang. Considered one of the two major fundamentals of Chinese aesthetics.

Shêng i: “living brushstroke”, direct expression of the mind in action with   the brush.

Shêng-tung: “Life movement”.

Shih: structural strength.

Ssŭ yu: egotism, hindrance to wu-wei.

T’o Su: “to escape from the common,” non-conformity; abandonment of what is vulgar.

Tao: The Way, the Ultimate Principle.

Tao-Chia: Taoist philosophy.

Tao-Chiao: Taoist superstitious religion (alchemy/immortality).

Tzŭ-jan: naturalness; the performance of an activity while absorbed in spiritual effortlessness, like the act ‘did itself’.

Wang-liang-hua: ‘ghost painting’; painting with a watery ink solution that the object hardly appears, whatever appears seems formless and unreal.

Wen xiang: “listening to incense”: (Jap: mon-koh).

Wu-nien: “no-thought”: “To have thoughts as if not having them”(Zen Patriarch Huineng).

Wu-shih: “nothing special”; the ‘ordinary yet deeply spiritual’ aspect of the paintings and poetry of Chinese / Japanese Zen masters.

Wu-wei: “action-less activity” the action of no action, effortless action, doing without doing, obeying the Tao. Though this is an aesthetic term, it is more rightfully a spiritual state and not the commonly understood “just going with the flow.”

Ying ning: tranquility in the action of non-action: grace.

Zik hing: “immediate impulse”; to create in terms of immediate feeling, creative embellishment and elaboration of script/movement in Cantonese opera.



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