Literati: From Manuscript to Artwork

In the beginning was the word

The Mao Preface to the Classic of Poetry describes the rituals of ancient antiquity: “Where words are insufficient, there are sighs. Where sighs are insufficient, there is song. When song is insufficient, the hands begin to move of their own accord, and the feet begin to dance.”

The host of said ritual would have been a divinator, an estimable figure, or a sorcerer. These people were often also the leaders of their tribes. The participants would include the tribe’s poets, dancers, musicians, artists, doctors, craftsman… These rituals often established a kind of memory field, a transcendental realm in which man and god share the same composition, a realm that acts upon the real world: in reproduction, in harvests, in fortune, beauty, virtue, compassion and goodness.

“We are not like the other animals in that we are inspired by memory, and memory enters into our lives.” (Giorgio Agamben)

“The memories here are not ordinary, trivial memories, but the memories of mankind’s true origins and emergent conditions. It is to remember that man has the stuff of Titans, and that these memories conceal man’s divine origins, their cosmic birth. Just as the ancient scrolls say: Tell them that I am the son of the land and the vast cosmos. I am descended from the gods. This you all know. This memory is truly inevitable, memory that can redeem the dead.” (Jacques Lacarriere)

This is the source of inspiration for religion.

The reason China did not go down the religious path is due to the birth of writing. The religion of writing.

The Explication and Analysis of Writing and Characters describes the word “wen,” or “written language,” as “interlocked markings.” Interlocked markings are the appearance of the world. Writing is a form of marking that can be used to preserve memories. The idea of nature following the Dao emerges from this. Interlocked markings are nature. To remember is to engrave. Writing is an act, to remember, to write the body of the world, to use writing to remember the body of this world. The body is always in a state of anxiety, fear of animal oblivion.

The term wenming (writing + illumination = civilization) is unique to Chinese. This notion of civilization denotes illumination through writing, a transcendence of naked life (naked life: Agamben).

The birth of writing was one of the most groundbreaking events in history. This mysterious event resembling a great flash of lightning and clap of thunder was described in the history books as causing the heavens to quake, and the ghosts to cry out in the night. Its influence continues to this day. The word “wen” (文), Chinese for writing, first emerged at least three thousand years ago, and is still a dynamic part of the modern Chinese language.

In the oracle bone inscriptions, this character is inscribed with a mysterious sign:

This sign is said to symbolize a metaphysical concept: the heart.

The heart only manifests within memory. Writing is memory.

The birth of writing implies that prophecies, experiences and spiritual activities can be written down and spread across the world, so that old can inform new.

The estimable figure is at the core of this memory event. The estimable figure summons all to the ritual, and records the prophecy on cattle bones or turtle shells.

The writing is not the mere recording of alphabetical writing.

The Explication and Analysis of Writing and Characters describes the verb “to write” as “the placement of things.”

To write is to symbolically create, to study creation.

To write is to record that which unfolds in time. Meanwhile, it is also an act carried out in space.

After the birth of writing, the role of this estimable figure was replaced by the literati.

The Classic of Poetry: Major Odes—The Jiang and Han writes, “I honor you with a jade ladle, one bucket of black mullet wine. Announce it to the cultured men.”

“When the youth has time and opportunity, he should employ them in the study of writing.” “The Zhou has comprehensive studies of writing. I follow the Zhou.” “The gentleman is extensively read, and is restrained by propriety. They do not overstep what is right.” “The master taught four things: letters, conduct, devotion and truthfulness.” “Yao was indeed a great ruler, so majestic. Heaven is the greatest, and Yao followed it. How vast was his virtue, the people could find no name for it. How great were his accomplishments, hailed they are in many writings.” These are quoted from the Analects.

Literati is different from the 20th century concept of the author. Author implies professionalization. It defines it as one of the many professions. With what Walter Benjamin described as “disappearance of aura,” writing became an accumulation of “symbolic capital” (Pierre Bourideu) through tomes of private rhetoric.

The literati is the estimable figure. After the emergence of the word, the estimable figure gradually transitioned from a Brahman-like leader of collective rituals to a field of the private construction of words: “I examine myself daily on three regards” (Confucius). The individual ritual was still about communion with the spirits: “When your brush touches the page, it stirs the wind and rain. When your poems are complete, it makes the ghosts and gods weep” (Du Fu). Among the traditional Chinese literati, all were accomplished in poetry, calligraphy, music and painting. To stand out in one of these fields required true genius.

“A text consists of multiple writings, issuing from several cultures and entering into dialogue with each other, into parody, into contestation; but there is one place where this multiplicity is collected, united, and this place is not the author, as we have hitherto said it was, but the reader” (Roland Barthes). Roland Barthes was aware of the “death of the reader.”

The word “writing” is richer than the word “text.” Writing is not just a noun; it is also a verb. If the world were a body, then writing would be the markings with which it transcends the naked body.

The literati is not the author: “Strive for the Way, grasp on to virtue, accord with benevolence, and find enjoyment in the arts.” This is a form of cultivation. In fact, the Chinese word for art also means cultivation. The Explication and Analysis of Writing and Characters quotes the Classic of Poetry using the term to describe the planting of crops. Play implies that art is not one-sided. One can write in any way, write the body, establish sincerity through rhetoric, stopping only at perfection, remembering perfection.

Writing is a private game, its first creation being the literati. The literati is one who uses art to create the self, to maintain that estimable figure. Li Bai, Bai Juyi, Su Shi, Cao Xueqin… all examples of such greatness. In Chinese culture, the literati is like a yogi or Zen master of the highest level. “Those who do not study poetry have nothing to speak of” (Confucius). Chinese art has always been performative, the Way become flesh. Art, in the end, has used poetry, calligraphy, music and painting, installations of false mountain landscape gardens, to construct a private shrine for the cultivation of the literati’s soul, and for the redemption of all beings. “Anyone can become a Yao or a Shun” (Mencius).

Writing implies that the act is a construction of a setting. The writing of Ma Yun, and the writing of Yu Jian simply implies Yu Jian hosting the ritual, or Ma Yun hosting the ritual. “Language is the house of being” (Heidegger). This house is first and foremost the house of the literati. This is a way of being for life, a setting, a ritual, a writing of the body. “The author is dead,” and it is precisely because of this that the reader can be summoned and united by the word. “Poetry can form the group.”

“Writing reversed eight dynasties of decline, and the Way united the scattered torrents under the sun” (Han Yu).

Yu Jian

Thursday October 31, 2019, at Purple Cottage, Kunming