Saturday, October 18, 2008


I am continuing to read and enjoy Jacques Gernet's History of Chinese Civilization, but it is with a palpable sense of the extreme generality needed to cover such a huge subject in a single volume (I started to write "big subject" because the only obvious sign that this text is translated from French is the constant use of the word "big" where most English writers would use "large," "huge" or "enormous.").

The following passage, though, illustrates how even the sweeping generality can arrest one's attention with a hitherto unguessed explanation for a largely unconscious prior impression:

"We can attribute to Buddhism a deep and general transformation of sensibility: the new religion introduced into the Chinese world a taste for ornamentation, for the tireless repetition of the same motifs (a religious practice that was to give birth to wood engraving), a taste for the sumptuous (statues coated with gold, precious cloths, and so on), but also for the gigantic, the colossal. All these tendencies were in opposition to the classical tradition, which aimed at stripping away essentials, at vigorous conciseness, at exactness of line and movement."

This seems exactly right, even if, in fact, it would be surprising if ornament, repetition, and luxury were entirely absent from pre-Buddhist China. Strictly speaking, it might be more accurate to speak of the influence of Indian aesthetics than Buddhist religion. As we know, the beautiful spareness of the tradition will eventually return and itself give birth to the Buddhism of the Chan/Zen schools.