It has been 8 years since I started Chinese art. My Chinese art teacher told me that it will take 40 years for me to become a decent Chinese artist. What does that really mean? I ask myself. I consider myself already pretty decent in term of bird and flower scene and mountain painting. And I’m proud of my effort to obtain this much skill sets.
However, Chinese art is composed of painting, calligraphy and seal cutting, and I’m still a beginner at calligraphy and seal cutting. And what has been wasting so many Chinese artists’ lives is the fact that artists become attached to calligraphy once they become good enough at painting and that they become attached to seal cutting once they become good enough at calligraphy. Basically there’s no end to this field of study. As to calligraphy, Chinese artist start studying regular script style which is the newest style, and then moves onto semi-cursive script style, then moves onto cursive script style, then move onto clerical script style, and then finally move onto seal script style which is literally used for seal cutting, and studying this particular style makes artists stick to seal cutting. At each steps of moving between different script styles, artists gradually go back in history and become exposed to archeology, classic Chinese poetry and classic Chinese literatures such as body of Confucianism literatures, Art of War written by Sun Tzu and so on. And once artists start studying seal cutting, they study variety of seal script styles like great seal script style curved on stone monument from warring states period in 220 BC, or some people even move onto Chinese bronze inscription style from bronze era in 1700 BC to 1000 BC. And those people even experiment to recreate Chinese characters which did not exist back then by archaeologically guessing based on the combinations of modern regular script parts.
Once artists reach this stage, they become unrealistic and detached from society enough to lose themselves in classic Chinese intellectualism which is characterized by their versatility and wide interests, anti-conventional spirits, amateurism, anti-secularity, solitary, regimen and a tendency of recluse which are often represented by Chinese poet 陶 淵明 (Tao Yuanming). Also this kind of Chinese intellectual recluse is essentially different from western hermits in that Chinese recluses are basically critical resistance force against ancient Chinese despotism. They had thorough knowledge about their own interpretation of Confucianism which is basically about how to run an ideal dynasty as long as possible, yet ended up not being hired by the authority at that time for variety of reasons like they didn’t have a blood relation with ruling elites or didn’t fit into the criterion at that time etc. Many of them hid among mountains to escape from political struggle yet wait for an opportunity of the century when society is about to change, and just in case a man of virtue worth serving for appears, and only if he asked them to help they were ready to help him out to come to ruling power and if succeeded, they would just continue pursuing their versatile studies of Chinese classics while giving advice on how to govern at the expense of becoming his modest house guests. So they were actually extremely ambitious unlike western hermits.
In short, to thrive as a decent Chinese artist, I have to aim to become so called 金石書画 (jīn shí shū huà) who is expert in all painting, calligraphy and seal cutting, and in the process I need to be exposed to versatile studies of Chinese classics including my own systematic interpretation of Confucianism. And in that process I need to lose myself in Chinese reclusive intellectualism waiting for an opportunity of the century while teaching disciples as I age to prepare for a man of virtue worth serving for not appearing in my life time. And if I die trying, my disciples talk about how I died trying to pursue Chinese art enough to leave legacy of my own systemic enough study for other people to comprehend the logic afterward. This is pretty unrealistic yet ambitious enough to make it into my life work, I suppose.