China (part III)

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Here we have at once the anchor that holds firm the soul of China and its pitfall. The architecture of luxury, the pagodas and the palaces, reveal this in the clearest light. Everything in them is preconceived and artificial, arranged for the demonstration of a certain number of immemorial rules of metaphysics and common sense. The faïence and the enamel of the roofs, the blues, the greens, and the yellows, shining in the sun under the veil of dust always hanging over them, exist above all for the joy of the eyes, although each one of them symbolizes a meteorological phenomenon, or the forests, the plowed land, the waters, or some other strip of the earth's robe. And if everything is blue in the temples of heaven, everything red in the temples of the sun, everything yellow in the temples of the earth, everything blue-white in the temples of the moon, it is that there may be established, between the harmonies of the senses and the harmonies of nature, an intimate and continuous coherence, in which the serenity of the heart fixes itself, becomes immobile, and demonstrates to itself its certitude and necessity. But beneath the great need for unity and calmness, fetishism and magic patiently assert their rights. The placing of the edifice, the invariably uneven number of roofs superimposed on one another and turned up at the corners—a memory of Mongol tents—the little bells jingling at the slightest breeze, the monsters of terra cotta on the openwork cornices, the moral maxims painted everywhere, the scrolls of gilded wood, the whole mass of thorn bushes, arrises, crests, bristling and clawlike forms—everything shows how constantly the Chinese were concerned with attracting the genii of wind and water to the edifice and to the neighboring houses, or of keeping them away. We observe a similar idea in the great artificial parks, where all the accidents of the earth's surface, mountains, rocks, brooks, cascades, forests, and thickets are imitated to the point of mania. It is as if the Chinese who, outside of the cities, never change the original aspect of their native soil, were expressing the respect it inspires in them by bringing it down to the scale of human luxury. The Chinese people is more submissive than religious, more respectful than enthusiastic. It is not that it lacks gods or that it does not believe them to be real. Those men who called themselves the disciples of the profound Lâo-Tsze, the Taoists, introduced among the Chinese as many divinities, perhaps, as are born and die every day on the soil of India. Moreover, all those beliefs that are interpreted only by the practices of popular superstition grind one against another and interpenetrate, so that in the same individual we almost always find them existing side by side. In reality, whether he is a Buddhist, a Taoist, a Moslem, or a Christian, the Chinese believes what he has been advised to believe, without experiencing the great mystic need to increase, to modify, or to impose his faith on others. His gods are abstractions of a practical and positive kind: longevity, riches, sensuality, literature, charity—or they are demons, protecting or hostile genii, the spirits of the earth, of the sky, the sea, the stars, the mountains, the cities, the villages, the winds, the clouds, and the running waters; or again they are deified scholars and writers. But they have no other importance. If the Chinese conducts himself properly, observing filial respect, obeying his ancestors and the Emperor and the mandarins who represent the Emperor, if he takes care to place his house in such a way that the spirits shall not be disturbed and that their watery, aerial, or subterranean dwellings are preserved—all of which reveals Chinese mastery of hygiene, meteorology, and agriculture—he does not doubt then that these spirits will look upon him with benevolence. No disquieting thoughts plow the depths of his soul. When one roots out desire one kills remorse, but one also makes an end of the life of the dream.

What increases, in this age-old habit of discipline and moral obedience, is patience. The Chinese does not permit himself to imprint on matter the symbol of his abstractions until he has scrutinized forms for so long a time that all of them are defined in his memory by their essential character. When the flash of intuition illuminates our minds and we need to reach the law, we do not hesitate to thrust aside the accidentals that mask it. The Chinese, on the contrary, collects these accidentals, catalogues them, and uses them in order to demonstrate the law. His audacities cannot shock those who know his science. Since his abstraction is fixed, he may express the fact more clearly if he bends, warps, and twists form in every direction; and so he makes the wrinkles in his faces so deep that they must cut into the bone; he arms the mouth with a hundred teeth, and the shoulders with ten arms; the head is surmounted with a monstrous skull; the features grimace; the eyes stick out of the sockets or are sunk deep in them; he accentuates laughing or weeping with the most improbable lines; the breasts fall in folds on the fat of bellies; hips, arms, and legs are all awry, and fingers are knotted like tendrils of grape vine. Because of his philosophy he can cause monsters to crawl on his cornices, unfurl them in the yellow silk of his standards, and raise them up at the threshold of his palaces; he has created a whole army of heraldic dragons, of phoenixes, unicorns, and writhing chimeras, which are perhaps nothing more than a vague memory, transmitted by the old legends, of the last primitive monsters straying among the first men. In all of this we see the spirit that forces the literary men to obey a ritual until all their gestures are studied, that causes the historians to deform history in order to make it fit the outline of their systems, that causes the gardeners to gnarl the trees and manufacture flowers, the fathers to crush the feet of their daughters, and executioners to cut men to pieces. Traditional morality will destroy life rather than adopt its free movement.

But also, when life is in accord with morality, when emotion and will meet in harmony, when the spirits of goodness, kindness, and justice dwell in the mind of the artist naturally, what goodness, kindness, and justice there are in the faces and the gestures of the gods! The great Buddhas of gilt wood sit on their beds of lotus, their hands open, their faces illumined by peace, their whole forms filling the shadow of the sanctuary with the glow of the absolute which penetrates them. To combat them and make men forget their serenity, the Taoist priest gathers from life every engaging expression that he can find—the divine smile and the dance of women, the quizzical kindness of the sages, the childlike joy of the saved, the indescribable and blithe atmosphere in which floats the trinity of happiness. A strange sweetness emanates from all those little works of wood and ivory, of jade and bronze, that people the pagodas and encumber the flat baskets with the colored-paper signs along the crowded streets where the refuse of humanity accumulates. In the heart of this philosophic people the philosopher has indeed extinguished all of that disquietude which racks men, but so often causes them to rise higher. What matter? Situated as they are, they have the strength of those who know little, but who are certain of what they know. Their peace is a little stupid, no doubt; their absence of cares, their absence of dreams, has something that perhaps irritates one in course of time and is even unhealthful. But one reads in it such a certitude of honesty that one feels oneself attached to these men. They have given their singular expression to the moral life by studying the incessant struggle that takes place in the depths of human nature and by realizing that it has its origin in the aspiration toward higher levels. The strange thing is that we should see beauty in that struggle itself and that the Chinese should find it in the victory his ancestors won for him in ages past. He expresses his obstinate, unlyrical enthusiasm for those who gave him repose of conscience for all time. And it is the weight of that repose that we feel in his art.

Therein lies the mystery of this soul which is complex on its surface, but infinitely simple in its depths. It achieves a science of form so sure that it can carry the grimace of its logic to a point that we should call impossible; but it can also attain to essential and profound beauty when it is lit up by a flash of emotion or when it is confronted with the necessity of constructing a durable and immediately useful work. We must not allow ourselves to think that their artificial parks are lacking in freshness and silence. We must not fail to see that the whole Orient is in the torrent of strange flowers they cultivate there. They gather into their triumphal symphonies the color of its coral reefs strung with pearls, its sumptuously figured silks that display the red or blue of the heraldic dragons on the imperial yellow which is strewn with flowers of dark and gleaming enamel. It is, indeed, the whole Orient that they give us: the rising and setting of its hosts of powdery stars in the clearness of rain-swept skies. Neither must we allow ourselves to believe that Chinese architecture lacks science and solidity. The fact that the most ancient examples of it do not date much farther back than the tenth century is due to the fragility of the materials. To protect the buildings from heat and rain, the Chinese know what slope and what projection to give to the roofs, which they support by combinations of demountable framework, as powerful and as light as the creations of nature. There is one thing that they know especially well, and therein they are like the Romans, nay, more, they are like all the ancient peoples of the massive continent in which great summits alternate with great deserts, and great forests with great rivers: they know how to give to their work the appearance of style. Whether an airy or a heavy style, it affords invariably a firm and sublime base on which to rest our certitude of having achieved our aim completely. We find this appearance in the utilitarian edifices of the Chinese, in their bridges, triumphal gateways, and gigantic arches, their battlemented ramparts and the immense walls that inclose the plains and climb the mountains. Like the old sculptors of the valley of the Nile, they have animated the desert with avenues of colossuses, whose modeling is so vast and so summary that they seem to be installed in the solitudes for all eternity; the undulation of the sands, as they spread out to the buttresses of the mountains, seems gathered up into their structure, and the sphericity of the sky as it spans the circle of the plains.

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