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The Four Manifestations Of Beauty

October 2, 2008

There's a passage from Amy Tan's novel The Bonesetter's Daughter which won't leave me alone.

It's the section describing a book of Chinese brush paintings called "The Four Manifestations Of Beauty." According to an interview with the novelist in Fate! Luck! Chance! , Ken Smith's new book about the making of the opera version of The Bonesetter's Daughter, Tan filched this idea from her friend Bill Wu, an Asian art expert. Wu had developed his ideas about aesthetics through studying the calligraphy of the famous Chinese artist C. C. Wang. I'd like to quote the passage as I think it's one of the most resonant descriptions of beauty I've ever come across:

'With any form of beauty, there are four levels of ability. This is true of painting, calligraphy, literature, music, dance. The first level is Competent. 'We were looking at a page that showed two identical renderings of a bamboo grove, a typical painting, well done, realistic, interesting in the detail of double lines, conveying a sense of strength and longevity. 'Competence', [Kai Jing] went on, 'is the ability to draw the same thing over and over in the same strokes, with the same force, the same rhythm, the same trueness. This kind of beauty, however, is ordinary.

'The second level' Kai Jing continued, 'is Magnificent. 'We looked together at another painting, of several stalks of bamboo. 'This one goes beyond skill' he said. 'Its beauty is unique. And yet it is simpler, with less emphasis on the stalk and more on the leaves. It conveys both strength and solitude. The lesser painter would be able to capture one quality but not the other'.

He turned the page. This painting was of a single stalk of bamboo. 'The third level is Divine,' he said. 'The leaves are now shadows blown by an invisible wind, and the stalk is there mostly by suggestion of what is missing. And yet the shadows are more alive than the original leaves that obscured the light. A person seeing this would be wordless to describe how this is done. Try as he might, the same painter could never again capture the feeling of this painting, only a shadow of a shadow.'

'How could beauty be more than divine?' [LuLing] murmured, knowing that [she] would soon learn the answer. 'The fourth level,' Kai Jing said, 'is greater than this, and it is in each mortal nature to find it. We can sense it only if we do not try to sense it. It occurs without motivation or desire or knowledge of what may result. It is pure. It is what innocent children have. It is what old masters regain once they have lost their minds and become children again.'

He turned the page. On the next was an oval. 'This painting is called Inside the Middle of a Bamboo Stalk. The oval is what you see if you are looking up or looking down. It is the simplicity of being within, no reason or explanation for being there. It is the natural wonder that anything exists in relation to another, an inky oval to a white paper. A person to a bamboo stalk, the viewer to a painting.'

Kai Jing was quiet for a long time. 'This fourth level is called Effortless,' he said at last.

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