Peng Feng | The Aesthetics and Arts of China

On March 20, Professor Peng Feng, Dean of the School of Arts, Peking University, gave a lecture themed “The Aesthetics and Arts of China”. This lecture, the seventh in the China Studies Lecture Series for the 2023‒2024 academic year, was hosted by Lu Yang, Director of Graduate Studies at Yenching Academy and Professor of the Department of History, Peking University.

Interview Notes

Prof. Peng first stressed the importance of presenting Chinese arts to the world, particularly considering the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the sector. He called for efforts to introduce Chinese arts to other countries post-pandemic, emphasizing the significance of people-to-people exchanges. He expressed hope that more teachers and students would engage in sharing their story of Chinese arts. Last summer, the School of Arts organized a study trip for its students to Italy, facilitating fruitful cultural exchanges and intellectual discussions between the students and local teachers enjoyed. Prof. Peng underscored the efficiency of two-way communication, particularly as international mobility between China and the rest of the world becomes more convenient post-pandemic.

Prof. Peng then discussed his teaching and research experiences as a professor, curator, and screenwriter. Initially engaged in academic research, he transitioned to curation and screenwriting, which in turn has been inspiring to his teaching and research endeavors. He emphasized the importance of understanding the practice of modern arts as a means to integrate theoretical research with the contemporary art, advocating against the indiscriminate adoption of established theories. Professor Peng noted his intention to delve into theories of contemporary arts, which motivates his engagements with modern art practices.

Towards the end of the interview, Prof. Peng focused on his experience in intercultural studies. His doctoral studies focused on the theories and aesthetics of traditional Chinese arts, particularly those of the ancient pre-Qin period. Upon graduation, he went to Yale University to study the Western aesthetics and arts, which provided him with new perspectives to view and admire traditional Chinese arts. Quoting the saying, “knowing only one aspect of a thing leads to nothing but utter ignorance,” Prof. Peng highlighted the significance of adopting a comparative lens. He noted that one is entitled to a better understanding of English-language documents if examining them from the Chinese perspective, and vice versa. Thus, he called for a high-level foreign language proficiency in academic research and mentioned ongoing efforts at the School of Arts towards bilingual education, including plans to employ native-speaker professors for its English-language doctoral program. Bilingual programs like this will be a great help to students’ academic career.


Review of the Lecture

Before starting his lecture, Professor Peng Feng posed the question: “Why is there is an entry on ‘Japanese Aesthetics’ in a Western encyclopedia but not one on ‘Chinese Aesthetics’?” He further inquired about the essence of Chinese aesthetics, specifically its core concept. Professor Peng argued that the essence of Chinese aesthetics lies in the meaning of art (xieyi), rather than the form of beauty.

Prof. Peng distinguished between aesthetics based on “beauty” and those founded on “meaning.” Drawing on the Outline of History of Chinese Aesthetics, he noted that “beauty” is neither the core nor the highest level in classical Chinese aesthetics compared to Western notions of aesthetics. He emphasized that the history of Chinese aesthetics would appear boring, inadequate, or dull if solely observed through the lens of “beauty”.

With the concepts “betweenness” and “twofoldness”, Prof. Peng explained the characteristics of xieyi painting of China, which seeks a balance between likeness and unlikeness, and between medium and object. From this characteristic of xieyi painting, Prof. Peng further elaborated on the theory of the object and the medium, referencing Richard Wollheim’s work, which claims that “the seeing appropriate to representations” allows for the simultaneous examination of both the represented and the representation, as well as the object and the medium. In the process of art appreciating, objects of our focal awareness and subsidiary awareness vary, depending upon the type of painting, and consequently we have different forms of seeing. He discussed how the tension between medium and object in xieyi painting enables it to be linked with nature and society.

Professor Peng identified a “threefoldness” in Chinese painting: form, meaning, and brushwork; contrasting Wollheim’s “twofoldness.” “Meaning” emerges as a distinctive characteristic in Chinese painting. This is akin to the sentiment expressed by Wang Lü (1332–1402) in his Preface to the Newly Painted Scroll of the Mount Hua. Wang described that painting primarily concerns meaning depicted via shapes and forms, adding that without sufficient meaning, a painting is considered shapeless. However, meaning must manifest in depicted forms; there is no way to express or represent it. This, Wang stressed, underscores the unity of shape and meaning, highlighting the significance of shapes in conveying meaning. Both “betweenness” in traditional Chinese aesthetics and “twofoldness” in the modern Western aesthetics suggest a fuller experience of painting rooted in the relationship between the object and the medium, rather than solely depending on either one of the two.

Prof. Peng provided more examples of xieyi evident in various art forms, including theater, music, garden, and calligraphy, all of which seek to construct and explore the concepts of “betweenness” and “twofoldness”.

Q&A Time

Q: As someone involved in art criticism, curation, and screenwriting, how do you manage these roles?

A: Art criticism is far more different from art creation. While I primarily engage in art criticism, art creation serves as a hobby. Hold multiple roles allows to perceive art from various perspectives, providing diverse opportunities to engage with different aspects of art. As an art critic, I interpret and critique works of art to promote dialogues and understanding of the arts pieces and their creators. Additionally, as an artist, I incorporate artistic expressions into screenplays, enhancing the audience’s direct emotional connections with art through theater, movies and other forms of performing art.

Q: Chinese modern dance dramas have been on the stage these years, like Only Blue and Green and Su Dongpo in Hainan. How do traditional Chinese aesthetics and philosophy manifest in modern dance dramas?

A: Many modern dance dramas embody the essence of ancient dances, presenting ancient literature, historical stories, and classical philosophies in a contemporary context. Through various elements, including the dancers’ body language and stage design, modern dance dramas draw inspirations from ancient works of art, such as murals, to more accurately depict scenes that closely resemble their historical contexts, providing audiences with a glimpse into ancient life, clothing, and customs.

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