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Imbalance and the Possibilities Within – Tilted Objects by Zhao Shushi

已有 4445 次阅读  2012-08-10 22:07

Author: Du Xiyun


Images of Zhao Shushi’s paintings are plain to the eyes: tilting of the traditional Chinese objects and cultural classics. But when these images are detached from the particulars of background, they have a symbolic meaning. No more visual element is present except for the tilted objects and blank background. At this point, the symbolic meanings are extensive and dependent on the current political, economic and cultural contexts, relationship with which then furnishes the works more specific, rich and vivid meanings. From another perspective, the extensiveness of the symbolic meanings provides the audience with greater freedom to feel and to experience. 


Consumer cultural goods of a specific era convey the ideological mindset of that era. The traditional objects and classical books depicted in Zhao Shushi’s paintings are the products of traditional Chinese lifestyle, often pointing to the traditional codes of behaviors. These paintings of hers therefore embody the imbalance of the traditional codes and rituals in the present time, an imbalance of which extends to chaos and disorder… But it is an enormously complex topic in the contemporary context of globalization to view such imbalance, chaos, disorder and disintegration of the traditional Chinese ethics, codes and values. 


No fundamental change was brought to the traditional political system in China from 221BC to the 19th century. The society was upheld by an array of complicated philosophies and religions, whose rituals and codes have evolved into a permanent mindset of the nation, stabilizing the Chinese society through over two thousand years. In the political regimes, the emperor was at the center of the network of power, appointing all levels of officials who governed all public affairs of local regions, with the people organized in the system bonded by neighborhood administration. The entire system finds equilibrium only through a group of imperial censors, who had the duty of detecting corruption and abuse of power, and reported to the emperor himself. The system endowed the emperor and the bureaucrats supreme power over the people, who had no right to question affairs that concerned their own interest. To maintain the system unchallenged, the emperor and gentry class formed a strong alliance, making the latter the ruling class.


China adopted the system of civil officials, and invented the mechanism of official selection and appointment through exam from very early on. Therefore extreme significance has been placed on the role of education. The sole purpose of education is to produce a “cadet’s class”, whose ambition is to be eventually chosen to serve the emperor. The education system is not only a means used for brainwashing, but more as a political game that effectively crushed all the capable and ambitious young people, turning them to loyal and passionate supporters of the current state. Subjects of education are not science and technology, but classics of the Confucius teachings and theories instead. History is also considered a key subject as lessons learnt from the rises and falls of the preceding dynasties can be used as lessons for future officials. A well-educated person is also expected to have some calligraphy skills, and be able to boast his outstanding talents and delicate tastes in creating couplets and poems. For the same purpose, an education in artistic painting is also helpful. However, music, drama, sculpture, novel and other art forms are totally casted out of this domain as these were considered indecent. 



Hidden yet overriding above all these political facilities is the official ideology – Confucianism, which proposes that virtues, not laws, constitute the founding stones of society, a society supported by three pillars of relationship; that of the ruler and its subordinates, of the father and son, and of the husband and wife, among whom, the wife, the son and the subordinates must show unconditional obedience to the husband, the father and ruler. Such a society is in fact an enlargement of family, with the head of the family being the emperor, casting absolute power over his subordinates and civilians. On the other hand, all members of the society including the emperor himself must continuously strive to improve their own virtues, constraining themselves conscientiously so that their behaviors are in strict accordance with the expectations of their positions in the society and in family. When the emperor, along with the fathers and husbands show dignity, wisdom and kindness, as expected of a true emperor, father and husband, the society would have its ultimate goal, - eternal harmony, which is what one should be concerned with, not wealth or any other material achievements.


Based on this fundamental morality, the Confucius disciples developed a vast array of complicated moral standards and social rituals, which core lies in the “destruction of human desires and prevalence of heavenly orders”. The scholar-officials who are obstructed and frustrated by the system then resort to Taoist philosophy as a way of evading the reality. The Taoism believes that the uneducated ones are the most content and happy and desire is the root cause of all troubles. The more you want something, the less likely you will have it, and the more frustration comes. This concludes that the best lifestyle is to find content and happiness in everyday life, to search for tranquility in one’s heart with acceptance of what are on offer, Carp diem. For all classes in the society, Buddhism provides the eternal spiritual home. Those well-educated scholar-officials find indulgence in its exquisite and complex philosophy; while for the depressed and exploited commoners, the theory of reincarnation provides true condolence.


The ancient Chinese managed to combine Confucian, Taoism and Buddhism, a fusion of which ideologies and beliefs forms the stability of the Chinese mindset as well as the Chinese society. Dynasties rise and fall, without changing the permanence of the Chinese lifestyle. Meanwhile, such a culture that is based on the denial of human nature, results in the perverted ways for human nature to be presented, the necessity of double moral standards in life and hypocrisy becoming an everyday reality.  


Obstructions were also posed to the development of science and technology. Up until the 14th century, China was far ahead of the western countries in its technological advancement. However, in ancient China, science and technology never were accepted in the cultural mainstream. The gentry’s class despised the “outlandish techniques and indecent skills” as they bear no association with the improvement of virtues. Only those uneducated people and the eccentric one of the intellectuals would be involved. New inventions, feared for their possibilities of stimulating human desires and leading to social upheaval, were neglected, suppressed and condemned by the society from their emergence. Commerce and trade suffered the same fate, as they could not produce food and clothes and could only lure people into material indulgence. Among the four major social classes of scholar-officials, peasants, workers and commerce men, the commerce men were the lowest of all, and were frequently blackmailed and harassed by the corrupt officials and warlords.


There was also the natural protection of the geographical environment, with the desert in the north, high mountains on the west, perils of the forests and beasts in the south and sea on the east, China locates right in the center of east Asia on its own, isolated by the Himalaya. This cultivated the strong belief among ancient Chinese that they were in the center of all known civilization. In both spiritual and material terms, the traditional China survived for two thousand years on its own and the Chinese lifestyle is proven to be well suited to this land.


The full-scale entry of modern Western cultures topped the causes that ended the stable traditional Chinese lifestyle. Despite the invasions and rules of foreign nations that never stopped in the past, this was the first time in history for China to face a stronger civilization that it cannot assimilate nor acquire. The traditional China was struck out of its own track and has not had a smooth transition to adjust itself, just like a bankrupt lord being forced out of his mansion and cannot find a new place to live, yet the values for civility, race, power and privilege prevent him from facing and adjusting to reality. Chinese have since been wandering in the desert between two civilizations, and tortured by the memory of their lost traditions.


China has achieved remarkable economic development through the reform and opening up over the past three decades, but the modern civilization that emerged in the west cannot yet find its root directly and comprehensively in the soil of Chinese culture. This is because the evolution of culture and ideology is a long process, during which differences between collectivism versus individualism, interests versus moral virtues and explicit culture versus hidden culture arising from the clashes and integration of the cultures and ideologies all further complicate things. The visual works of Zhao Shushi provide a trigger of thoughts for those who are concerned with such issues. Yet Zhao Shushi’s own attitude towards such imbalance and disorder of traditional codes of behaviors is hidden behind her works.


Problems can never be solved once and for all. The process of life is a process of continuous encounters with problems. But an open mind allows for new possibilities. The largely blank background of Zhao Shushi’s works leaves people wordless as they offer less specific elements, while at the same time leaves people with more possibilities of the unknown. From this perspective, the question of “What if” points to an open future.


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