Figure 1. Tai Xiangzhou (b. 1968), Improvisation on a Fan Kuan Landscape for Wang Shaofang, 2014. Ink on silk, 202 x 127 cm. Collection of the artist
Figure 1. Tai Xiangzhou (b. 1968), Improvisation on a Fan Kuan Landscape for Wang Shaofang, 2014. Ink on silk, 202 x 127 cm. Collection of the artist

Tai Xiangzhou 泰祥洲 (b. 1968) is an artist and art historian who uses both painting and text to investigate, interrogate, and transform the landscape tradition in China. Both his textual research and his art are rooted deeply in his knowledge of the history of painting materials in China. For Tai, style is a function of the materials and processes employed in different periods; thus, in his work, art history does not function as a metonym for past issues newly relevant in the present, nor is irony a major part of his practice. In Tai Xiangzhou’s work, art history is both a root and a resource for acquiring the technical means to visit worlds never before seen. E-mail:

Martin Powers, PhD (University of Chicago), 1978, is Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan, formerly Sally Michelson Davidson Professor of Chinese Arts and Cultures. His research focuses on the role of the arts in the history of human relations in China, with an emphasis on issues of social justice. In 1993 and 2008, respectively, his first two books received the Joseph Levenson Prize for best book in Chinese Studies, pre-1900. Together with Dr. Katherine Tsiang, he co-edited Looking at Asian Art and the Blackwell Companion to Chinese Art. His latest book, China and England: The Preindustrial Struggle for Justice in Word and Image, was recently published by Routledge. E-mail:

MJP: In 2017 at the University of Michigan, I organized a conference on Art Historical Art in China. Although the conference papers focused on the Song period (960–1279), I was aware that many contemporary Chinese artists have made use of art-historical references in their work. Tai Xiangzhou’s use of the past was quite distinct from that of many other contemporary artists, from both East and West. I wanted to understand more about his sense of the role of art history in his art, so in July of 2018 I visited Beijing to interview him there. This transcript is based on several hours of interviews conducted in Mandarin on July 31, 2018, but it is not a verbatim transcription of the recording. It has been translated, edited, and amended by both interviewer and interviewee.

We just noted that this painting we’re looking at (fig. 1) is very different from your more abstract works. In fact, it resembles a Northern Song painting, yet you said that the principles underlying the two kinds of painting are the same. Could you elaborate on that?

TXZ: Styles, of course, change from period to period, but (in this case) the techniques and materials we use are still the same: ink, water, silk, and brush. Within this body of constraints, we want to be able to grasp the skills of the Song-period masters. Of course, in our current moment we want to develop skills appropriate to our own period as well.

MJP: The theories of art held by the Ming-dynasty critic Dong Qichang (1555–1636) had an enormous influence on painters of that period, and continued to influence some artists right up into the twentieth century. As a result, artists would reference canonical types of texture strokes, but the strokes were in fact far removed from the originals. In paintings such as this, your texture strokes actually look very much like those found in Song-dynasty paintings. Your goals appear to be quite different from those of earlier artists. Would you care to comment on that?

TXZ: Actually technique, in the end, is inseparable from the larger question, “What is a painting?” In the present moment, in the final analysis, what kind of expression does a painting convey? When I wrote my dissertation, the topic was the conceptual underpinnings of landscape painting. My point of departure was the relationship between people and nature; how did people view the world at a particular moment in time? For instance, in Song times, people were much concerned with dao 道 [the principles underlying natural processes]. In a Song-period landscape painting, what we normally encounter is the nearby shore and the distant shore, or what presently exists and that to which we aspire. So, for instance, take the tenth-century landscape painting that was found in a Liao-dynasty tomb. The owner of that tomb had the artist portray a scene of immortals playing chess in the mountains. For someone of that time, this scene was regarded as something that truly existed, and it was also a realm to which [the tomb’s owner] aspired, hoping to dwell there someday. Now in our time, such a scene would not convince us of its actual existence. It has become nothing more than an image in a painting, for nowadays we have airplanes and all manner of scientific inventions. Now, we can quite easily inspect personally all of the various scenes that we might encounter in this world. Yet, in this world of science and technology, is it possible for us to move to some other place different from our own? What I want to accomplish in my study of Song painting is to transcend this Earth, to enter into a spatial realm different from our own. I hope that, by mastering the spatial techniques of Song times, I can thereby explore a new and different world.

MJP: As you know, in Song times critics often assumed that one could enter into a landscape painting in imagination and wander around inside, and artists pursued a more naturalistic style so as to facilitate such wanderings. When you paint a landscape in the Song manner, such as this improvisation on Fan Kuan’s landscape, is this something you aim to accomplish?

TXZ: Fan Kuan’s painting depicts the landscape of Danxia in the Zhaojin district of Tongchuan City in Shaanxi, northwest China. This region today has been made into a National Park District; I’ve been there many times. When you go there you will discover that Fan Kuan’s painting matches that region’s actual appearance closely. In those days when Jing Hao (855–915) or Li Cheng (919–967) wandered and rested there, their aim was not merely to immediately transcribe what they saw. I have no doubt that they first made multiple sketches of details that they observed there, such as oxcarts, mountain streams, or trees and foliage (so as to incorporate those details into the final work). Today you can still see these kinds of things in that park. However, the comprehension of nature’s details was only the beginning of their work. They developed the means to represent the multiple and varying textures and surfaces of natural objects, and so they were thereby able to present a miniature world that they created.

MJP: What about the techniques themselves, such as the moss dots and texture strokes (fig. 2)?

Figure 2. Detail of figure 1
Figure 2. Detail of figure 1

TXZ: In my view, their dotting technique can be understood as an integral part of their organizing principle. For instance, during the Tang and Five Dynasties periods, these dots and texture strokes had not yet appeared. You can see that they’re still in the experimental stage. Even down to Fan Kuan, I feel that he is still responding to the actual, physical conditions of things. He did not have a concept corresponding to “texure stroke,” and so every stroke or dot is different from every other.

I could send you some photographs of Danxia, and then you would see the soil and rock formations peculiar to that region. For Fan Kuan, those dense dots that create such a sense of weight and solidity were the major elements that he created for representing that region’s appearance. In my view, even at the time Fan Kuan was active, texture strokes had not yet reached the stage of being formalized as set patterns. Fan Kuan’s texture strokes and moss dots are different in this way from later canonical brushwork, for he was responding to the actual conditions in nature. The details in Tang and Five Dynasties paintings are even closer to nature, for before canonical texture strokes had been developed, Tang and Five Dynasties works functioned like the genetic reservoir or the stem cells for painting. In this way, from a small detail they could generate an entire life system, gestating entirely new paintings. Previously I spent a great deal of time studying and analyzing Five Dynasties works in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, such as Riverbank [attributed to Dong Yuan (934–962)]. With that work as a point of departure, I was able to create multiple modifications, adapting Dong Yuan’s special method for creating a sense of air and space, and then applying the method as well for my large-scale paintings.

MJP: It’s difficult to think of any post-Song-dynasty artist whose strokes, like yours, resemble so closely those of the Song masters.

TXZ: This is related to changes in the making and application of painting materials. From History of Painting by Mi Fu (1051–1107) you can see that, not only professional artists, but many literati masters as well made their own painting materials. The choice and preparation of painting materials constituted a part of their creative work. In the history of art in China this practice had a long history, [the same case for both] East and West. In Europe this practice continued right down to the Dutch masters, with artists normally grinding pigments and preparing the painting surfaces themselves. In Song China after the Southern Song period, whether in the palace or among the people, we gradually find specialized workshops, some for mounting paintings, some for producing silk suitable for painting, some producing specialty types of paper to meet the various needs of painters. The emergence of such specialized producers was more convenient for the artists, but on the other hand, the work of literati painters slowly became disengaged from the process of producing materials for painting. Prior to the Ming dynasty, landscape artists often began their work with raw, unsized paper, but after Ming times, most artists worked on pre-made, sized paper.

“Raw” (unsized) and “processed” (sized) are important terms in Chinese painting. Sometimes they refer to aesthetic ideals, but sometimes they refer to the characteristics of the painting ground. With regard to the latter, “raw” means that the paper or silk has not yet been treated to resist water. “Processed” means that the paper has been treated with a solution of dilute glue and alum so that the paper will be more resistant to absorbing liquid. “Completely processed” silk or paper is highly resistant to water, but paintings on this kind of paper can appear a bit flat. There are actually many ways to process paper and silk—the use of glue and alum is only one. You will find that, from Ming times up until the present, landscape artists typically have used processed paper or silk. This creates a divide between them and the Song masters that would be difficult to traverse.

Previously I underwent five years of training as a mounter for Chinese paintings. This made me more sensitive than most artists to the way in which Five Dynasties and Song artists prepared their materials, so in my own painting I generally begin by painting directly onto the raw silk. I’ve never used glue and alum, yet in the process of painting I can change the state of rawness or processing at will, either for a detail or for the entire painting. Moreover, every state of the process is reversible to the point where, for any given detail, I can change the state of rawness or processing. So, for example, when laying out the outline of a mountain, in order to create the impression of gradual recession in space, this area will be treated so as to become raw silk, and this can be repeated such that, if it becomes necessary to paint the hard, sharp outlines of winter branches, then the silk can be made processed so as to render the outlines sharply. This knowledge and these techniques were kept secret through the ages, transmitted from master to pupil for generation after generation. It wasn’t something that could be learned in an art school, because it was the product of experience gained over generations, and by each individual artist personally.

You can see the difference in this painting that I’m working on right now. When I produce a painting, before applying any solution, I begin by painting a rough composition onto the raw, unsized silk. Having painted on that layer, I then partially size the silk in sections and then add another layer, and so on.

MJP: Do you think Song masters used this technique?

TXZ: No doubt this is how they did it; this is the technique employed during the Five Dynasties and Song periods. There are numerous references in early texts of the need to “wash” the silk of brush marks repeatedly, and after washing, paint on the silk again, repeating this process throughout. Nowadays when we look at Ming and later paintings, we find only a few layers at best—not layers for shading but layers in the treatment of the paper or silk. The procedures used in Five Dynasties and Song times, on the other hand, were much more complex. Sometimes there could be as many as ten layers involved. These techniques and practices were mostly unknown to the literati painters of later times.

(Unlike Ming period and later paintings) the ground for Five Dynasties and Song paintings wasn’t a white ground but rather atmosphere. You can see how rocks, trees, and architecture gradually disappear into the mist. This technique resembles Leonardo [da Vinci]’s atmospheric perspective. If we put Leonardo’s landscape details alongside Northern Song landscapes, we can immediately find many marvelous features in common: remarkably accurate and richly subtle details. This penetrating sense of atmosphere imbues their work with a most convincing naturalism.

MJP: So, you use the practice of “copying” to conduct research on the techniques used by earlier masters?

TXZ: Right. I study the methods of Song painters step-by-step, just as they worked. If, in researching their techniques, I run into any obstacles, then I turn to literary sources looking for clues to their process, using both the technical experience and the text to check one another. Because the middle-period authors used an extremely abbreviated style to express themselves, our interpretation must be verified using other sources, resolving doubts by following clues in order to grasp the original idea. It’s necessary to spend a lot of time paying mind to small details. My sense is that Song-period writers used a unique method in comparison with later scholars. Sometimes it’s no more than one or two key terms or a single technical term that provides the clue to a passage’s meaning.

MJP: It would appear that you’ve invested a great deal of time conducting research on early-period painting as well as theory.

TXZ: Yes. More than ten years ago I encountered a bottleneck, a very basic question that I lacked the means to answer, namely, “why do I paint?” And, “now, today, do we really need what is commonly known as landscape painting anymore?” In the process of pondering this question I realized that I could not answer it through practice alone, so I turned to research. This was the original reason why I went to Tsinghua University to get a doctorate, so I could trace things back to the beginning and understand the origins of landscape painting.

MJP: So, when you produce these “research” paintings, the various techniques that you employ all belong to a particular historical period, but when you paint in a more contemporary mode (figs. 3, 4), you sometimes juxtapose techniques from different periods in one painting, and you also create brushwork and methods of organization that did not exist in earlier times.

Figure 3. Tai Xiangzhou, Enchanted Landscapes, 2014. Ink on silk, 200 x 400 cm. Collection of the artist
Figure 3. Tai Xiangzhou, Enchanted Landscapes, 2014. Ink on silk, 200 x 400 cm. Collection of the artist
Figure 4. Detail of figure 3
Figure 4. Detail of figure 3

TXZ: You can compare paintings to films. I regard films also as an art form, and some of the Western films such as The Matrix [1999] are not merely entertainment but also convey a definite philosophical point of view. I also aspire to convey my point of view. Artists working with brush and ink should also be experimental in method. In the end it depends upon what’s in your heart. For my part, I’ve been influenced by the surroundings in which I grew up. I was born in Ningxia, in the desert lands of the Northwest. There the landscape is vast and boundless, and you find all kinds of strangely shaped rocks. All of this left a deep impression on my memories from early childhood. So, many of the scenes you find in my abstract paintings, though transformed, ultimately derive from the strange landscapes of northwest China.

MJP: That makes sense, but on the other hand, these paintings are not like any real landscape; the composition is much freer than would be possible in natural topography.

TXZ: It’s like Dong Qichang said, “A universe takes shape under the artist’s hands; wherever you look, you see the springs of life.” In my painting I can explore the rhythms of nature, which can transform endlessly, continuously giving rise to new life on the painting’s surface. In traditional painting, the brushstrokes and dots typically serve some specific representational purpose, and so follow the shape of the object and have a definite form, but in my (more abstract) works, I explore first of all the rhythm, and then the transmission and mutual transformation of wave energy and matter. In this I borrow the notion of change of state from physics, so the rocks in my painting sometimes change state and become fog; sometimes they transform into a liquid state. These kinds of changes take place constantly within the painting, so a painting can convey a sense of a constantly changing rhythm. In this way, the work breaks down the barrier between representational and abstract art. The reason is that the forms of matter by nature are indeterminate and inconstant, just as a piece of rock appears to be solid, but under the right conditions could evaporate and turn into mist.

MJP: As you know, Han-dynasty craftsmen adopted a comparable view when they painted the changing forms of qi 气 or energetic matter, which might turn from a cloud into a mountain, or a bird. In your work also, sometimes a form appears as a brushstroke, sometimes as a rock, sometimes as mist (fig. 4).

TXZ: Right. In Han times, Huanglao philosophy was widespread. It’s like what you find in the Laozi: “A formless form; a shape that’s not a thing.” Matter and energy alike are in constant flux; the only thing that doesn’t change is the endless motion of life.

MJP: I notice also that, in your abstract works, as in Han-period cloud fantasies, gravity plays no role.

TXZ: To put it precisely, in my “Celestial Chaos” series of paintings, there is no gravity. Rocks float in space and water flows in the sky (fig. 4). For me, this is a core feature of my work, because what people most aspire to is to transcend ordinary existence.

MJP: I imagine you must be familiar with the first chapter of Zhuangzi, “Wandering Freely.”

TXZ: I’m very familiar with it. Beginning in 1990 I began studying pre-Qin philosophy systematically with Professor Feng Qiyong. He taught using the traditional method, with the copying and memorization of texts serving as the basis for further study. The copying of texts not only has the benefit of making the student thoroughly familiar with a classical text; it also provides training in calligraphy. Later, in my long scroll-format works, I sometimes add some text from “Wandering Freely” or other chapters. In this way, text and image can supplement one another. The exploration of the nature of the cosmos in classical Chinese philosophy is the source of thinking that underlies these works.

MJP: As you know, that chapter explores the absence of constraints, like gravity. Would you go so far as to say that the philosophy in that chapter informs your artistic practice in some way?

TXZ: I would say it likely is related because I’ve read that chapter many, many times, but that chapter is not only about the absence of constraints; it also explores the limitations of scale. Zhuangzi talks about trees for which five hundred years seem like only a single year, whereas for the summer insects, their entire life might span but a few days. The range of things experienced will be very different in the two cases. The insects will have no way of knowing those things that are known to the tree. Today, if we want to understand human history, we need to adopt a much broader historical perspective. Only if we understand the vicissitudes of history can we understand better the human condition.

MJP: It would follow that a serious artist must study the history of art.

TXZ: For me that would be absolutely necessary, but I don’t advocate “art-historical art” for its own sake because, in many situations, this could mean nothing more than to consume or to dilute history. My research into the history of art aims first at looking for origins, such as searching for the origins of landscape, attempting to return to that original, awestruck state of mind. With this as a point of departure, an artist can unfold a journey to a place that the viewer has never been before.

Ars Orientalis Volume 49


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