Simply beautiful

YP intern Yuki Cheung

In her new book, Dr Sophia Law Suk-mun aims to open our eyes to the wonders of traditional Chinese paintings

YP intern Yuki Cheung |

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During a recent introductory course on traditional Chinese painting, Dr Sophia Law Suk-mun wasn't surprised to find her students looking uninterested and puzzled when faced with a painting consisting of a few simple black ink strokes set in a vast expanse of blank space.

Although Law described the artwork as 'a painting that tells you a lot', the students' impression of Chinese painting remained unchanged: boring, dull, with only a narrow range of colours, and most of all, difficult to understand.

'It's common to hear students complaining traditional Chinese painting is such a hard subject,' says the assistant professor of the department of visual studies at Lingnan University. She says the preference of the younger generation is clearly shown by the fact more students study Western than Chinese art - sometimes three times as many.

Having taught both Chinese and Western art history for more than 10 years, Law has recently written Beyond Forms and Colours - Six Ways to read Chinese Painting to help explain what these young people are missing out on.

She suggests that one reason many students find it hard to appreciate the art form is that they are looking at it from a wrong perspective. From her 20 years of experience studying traditional Chinese painting, Law realised that almost all traditional Chinese paintings share a common quality: they reflect the moral values Chinese people admire.

'In Western painting, the focus is on being naturalistic, with the painting presenting the scene the way the eyes would see it. That's it. But in traditional Chinese landscape painting, it's beyond just recreating the scene in front of the audience's eyes,' Law says.

'Most students look at traditional Chinese painting using the criteria of Western painting. It's totally the wrong focus.'

Law's lessons not only look at the skills of the painters, but more importantly, focus on the philosophies that make the works what they are.

'I start lessons with questions to evoke the students' interest. The answers are what I want students to find out by the end of the lessons,' she says.

'First, can you label a Western landscape painting 'Shan Shui', the Chinese style which literally means hills and waters? If not, why not?'

Influenced by Confucian and Taoist philosophy, the ancient Chinese people believed strongly in the unification of man and nature. The artists did not seek to capture how a scene looked at a particular time and place, but the grand universal laws and order of Mother Nature.

To do this, Chinese painters commonly use symbolism. One can look at a painting of an orchid, for example, and list a hundred details that help make it so appealing. But in traditional Chinese art, an orchid represents rootlessness and an inability to find a place to call home.

'What fascinates me about Chinese painting is that it tells you more than you can see,' Law says. 'While Western painting strives for a realistic representatin of the external world, Chinese painting is more inclined to express internal feelings.'