A comparison between Chinese and Western aesthetic traditions

By HUANG ZHONGSHAN / 09-28-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

FILE PHOTO: “A Guest down the River” by Shi Tao (1642–1708), one of the most famous painters in the early Qing Dynasty

In terms of etymology, the term “taste” in the West is inherently associated with human senses and has emerged as an important concept in the development of contemporary Western aesthetics. In China, the term 趣味 [qu-wei, which is often translated into “taste”] is not entirely equivalent to “taste” in Western aesthetics in either connotation or denotation. Among Chinese literati and scholar-officials [shi dafu, the elite class of imperial China], “taste” primarily pertains to aesthetic preferences and manners, serving as an indicator of the educated circles and classes. It encompasses subjective aesthetic preferences and personal aesthetic attainments. Nevertheless, whether in an Eastern or Western context, the term “taste” invariably extends to the domain of aesthetic assessment.

Major differences 

Renowned Chinese historian Ch’ien Mu once said that the most predominant power in the Chinese cultural spirit is morality. Politics, economy, literature, and art are all guided by morality. In ancient times, the group that held the discourse power of aesthetic taste was mainly the literati and scholar-official class, who also participated in identifying moral standards and intellectual levels. The French philosopher Raymond Aron pointed out that the doctrine that Chinese scholar-officials adopted to sanctify themselves was more about moral ethics than religious teaching. In contrast, religion holds a significant influence on aesthetics in the Western world. Throughout medieval Western society, the clergy and monks held authority over the dissemination of knowledge. The aesthetic preferences of the clergy remained highly traditional until the Renaissance, when the bourgeoisie emerged and liberated themselves from the confines of Christianity and feudal lords. This newfound freedom led to a substantial transformation in aesthetics.

The traditional Chinese literati and scholar-officials not only formed a political community but also an aesthetic community. They distinguished themselves from other classes through their unique way of “being united by art.” The scholar-official class was intricately interconnected, with one of the most important factors being the family. Fei Xiaotong described the intergenerational relationship in traditional Chinese kinship society as one where social hierarchy emerges between the old and the young, with the elder exerting coercive power over the younger. This dynamic formed the foundation of kinship society. The ethical relationships within this feudal clan system laid the initial foundation for the transmission of cultural taste within families. 

In contrast, Western artists historically tended to be organized under the guild system, which bore similarities to labor unions, serving to protect the interests and privileges of their members. Under this system, the artists’ aesthetic was unable to impose a widely authoritative cultural influence upon society. This situation persisted until the concept of artistic freedom was proposed, transforming “art” into “Art.” Only then did artists substantially demonstrate their aesthetic taste as an independent cultural class.

From art to life

During the gatherings and exchanges among literati, the central focus revolved around the interpretation of taste. This encompassed a refined element of information and involved intricate processes of encoding and decoding. Early literary criticism in China focused on appreciating poetry. In terms of artistic categories, the literati favored art forms that not everyone was capable of appreciating. Zong Baihua, a renowned master of aesthetics, pointed out that the subjects of popular art were usually myths, heroic epics, and novels, while the intellectuals preferred to create and enjoy landscape paintings and lyrical poetry. For example, landscape paintings are considered the epitome of literati painting, and their historical evolution has been imbued with literati taste. Literati painting and poetry share a common artistic foundation.

The literati and scholar-official classes pursued the integration of “Dao (the Way)-Art-Self,” advocating for [seeking the truth from] their body and daily life. Wealth played a crucial role in supporting their ideological pursuit. In an analysis of the social background of the gentry class with rising power in late Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), the Canadian sinologist Timothy James Brook believed that the growing commerce of the time was an important driving force. The Xianqing Ouji [Leisure Notes] by the Qing Writer Li Yu and Fusheng Liuji [Six Records of A Floating Life] by Shen Fu involve extensive descriptions of the art in daily life, covering clothing, interior design, food, and women’s makeup. These descriptions reflect the aesthetic enjoyment of the literati during that period and reveal how the literati, scholar-official, and the merchant classes were interrelated. Although the scholar-official class looked down upon merchants in terms of artistic taste, it was the wealth of merchants that supported the aesthetic pursuits of the literati and scholar-officials. Such relationships were especially evident in the Jiangnan region [the southern part of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River] at that time.

Compared to China’s relatively independent and stable cultural class formed by literati and scholar-officials, Western artists have undergone an evolution from dependence on patrons to artistic freedom. Early Renaissance art creation was still influenced by the patronage system. During this period, painting primarily served utilitarian purposes, such as illustrating religious doctrine or creating portraits of nobility, with limited artistic expression. However, with the rise of democratic and commercial societies, the subjects of art sponsorship shifted to consumers who purchased art products in the open market. This shift also occurred in other artistic fields. The emergence of modern consumers provided opportunities for artists to break away from traditional means of livelihood. Art became a commodity that could be traded freely, allowing artists to feel liberated in showcasing their aesthetic tastes.

Modern transformation 

In modern times, Chinese intellectuals have been increasingly exposed to Western culture. This cultural transformation began in the late Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) and accelerated during the May Fourth Movement in 1910s and 1920s. Correspondingly, the aesthetics of Western elites had a profound impact on the formation of cultural identity among modern Chinese intellectuals. 

Chinese intellectuals in the period following the late Qing era retained certain habits and traditions of scholar-officials to some extent. However, influenced by the prevailing social conditions, their aesthetic preferences were infused with patriotic sentiments. The construction of the intellectuals’ identity was closely linked to their political aspirations of saving the nation and its people. Guided by this consciousness, when asserting their own aesthetic claims, the intellectuals tended to criticize the taste of traditional scholar-officials. They strived to get closer to commoners in terms of art, emphasizing the appreciation of both the refined and the popular.

When observing the aesthetic taste reflected in calligraphy, painting, classical gardens, and the other artworks, and considering ancient Chinese aesthetics as a tradition, what we focus on mostly refers to the tastes of the literati. The reason is that only the “attachments” of literati taste, such as artworks, daily utensils, architecture, and gardens, can be physically preserved or passed down through poetry and texts. In this way culture is inherited, and national cultural traditions are formed. 

Huang Zhongshan is an associated research fellow from the Institute of Culture at Beijing Academy of Social Sciences.