China (part IV)

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If, at about the time that Marcus Aurelius was sending embassies to China, there had not been the strange essay at sculpturing the walls of the temple of Hiao-tang-chan with flat silhouettes that look like shadows on a wall, or if we had not begun our acquaintance with certain archaic figures that date back at least to the beginning of our era, we might still believe, as we did for a long time, that not a stone had been sculptured in this land until the conquerors of the northern provinces had, in the fifth century, introduced the moral contagion of the religion of Buddha. Here, as in the Indies, we find mountains hollowed out and rocks submerged by the great wave that rose from hearts filled with hope to overflowing. When the flood had receded, it left behind it colossal figures with pure faces and lowered eyelids, seated giants whose two hands lie open across each other; palm branches and fans are waved over the processions that pass with mighty rhythm across the walls of the temple, ten thousand gods, smiling, silent, and gentle live in the darkness.

[The monolithic temples of Ta-t'ong-fou, of Long-Men and of Kong, were discovered by M. Edouard Chavannes in the course of his admirable and fruitful explorations in 1907. I thank him most warmly for having authorized me to reproduce the innumerable photographs that he brought back with him, and of which I have been able to reproduce only a few because of lack of space. (Note to the first edition.)

Also, thanks to Charles Vignier, I have been able to recast completely the illustrating of this chapter of the present edition. It is to him that I owe the information concerning origins and chronology which has permitted me, as far as possible, to get a fresh estimate of Chinese archaeology, a subject that is barely advancing beyond its embryonic stage. I hope that this rare spirit will pardon me if I do not venture to use the ordinary formulas in expressing my thanks to him. The distant and slightly ironic character of the Chinese sages has exercised so charming an influence on the education of his sensibility that he must not hesitate to recognize a reflection of that influence in the very affectionate sentiment entertained toward him by his unworthy pupil in Sinology.]

The cliffs, from top to bottom, were sculptured, the walls of every rift in the rock became alive, the glow of the spirit descended from the pillars and the vaults as they were hewed out along the lines indicated by the accidents of their projections and their hollows. A hundred sculptors worked in the shadows to complete the summary modeling of some gigantic statue; and such was the unity and power of the creative energy which animated them, that the divine monster seemed to issue from two hands and from one intelligence; it seemed the cry of love that a single breast prolonged across the ages. And it is here perhaps that Buddhist sculpture attained the supreme expression of a science of light for which there is no equivalent elsewhere, even among the greatest sculptors. The light does not seem to mingle, as in Egypt, for example, with the planes of the statue in order to render subtle its passages and profiles. One would say that it floats round the statue. The form seems to swim, to undulate in the light, like a wave that passes without beginning and without end. But we have here a specifically Buddhist quality, shared by this school of the northern conquerors with the statue makers of India and Korea, of Japan, of Cambodia, of Tibet, and of Java. It is held in common by all the representatives of this strange international school of Buddhist sculpture, in which the Greek influence is always manifest, through the nervous purity of the Occidentalized profiles, the harmony of the proportions, and the manner in which intelligence sums up and idealizes objectivity. China proper did not share fully in the faith which the invader from the plateaus of central Asia brought within her borders. Doubtless, it was but for an hour that she consented to abandon herself to the supreme illusion of the promised paradises. The most meditative, but, perhaps because of that, the least idealistic people in history had consented only against its will to go with the current that swept all eastern Asia and gave it that impersonal, secret art, of a spirituality so pure that ten centuries passed before China had freed herself from it.

To tell the truth, it was in this land that the wave of Buddhism lasted the shortest time. China reverted quickly to her habits of positivist meditation. Buddhism, with its brief climax of love, was still to give a greater depth and weight to her thought, as happens on the morrow of a passion tender and too clear-sighted. She turned again toward death, and as the men who had hollowed out the mountains under her eyes had taught her to bring out of chaos the architectured form on which the light and shade paint the spirit of life, she was able to give to the funeral chant which she sang for a thousand years, from the seventh to the sixteenth century, a plenitude and a gravity of accent that had been forgotten since the days of Egypt. There is a heavy, categorical strain to it as of a settled thing—like the final conclusion of an intelligence that has turned round itself in a complete circle with - out discovering a single fissure through which doubt could enter.

Certainly, we do not find in the funerary statues of China that secret illumination which mounts from the depths of the Egyptian colossuses to unite, on the plane of their undulating surfaces, the mind of man with the light. The Chinese people, as the masters of their soil and their culture, never suffered enough to seek inner liberty and the consolation for living in a constant hope of death. They looked on death with placidity, with no more of fear than of desire. But the fact that they did not lose sight of death gave to Chinese positivism a formidable importance. Meditating on death causes one to see essential things. The anecdote, in which one loses oneself when one is concerned with the adventures of life, leaves the mind forever. The things that interest and hold the majority of men cease to fetter the mind, which realizes that it passes like the daylight between two flutters of an eyelid, and that in the light of this flash it must seize the absolute. And because it perceives nothing beyond life its hymn to death gathers up and confides to the future everything that is immortal in life.

Funerary sculpture increased in grandeur as the power of China increased, and decreased when Chinese power began to wane. From the time of the T'ang tombs to that of the Ming tombs, from the dynasty that represents China at its apogee to that which marks the end of the period, the red and yellow desert that runs in slow waves to the distant mountain chains where copper and iron repose—the desert of China saw the rise of massive forms: men, elephants, camels, rams, horses, and ostriches; some are standing, some lying down—all are motionless and on guard over the sleep of the emperors. [These tombs of the first great dynasties, from the seventh to the eleventh century, were discovered also by M. Edouard Chavannes in the course of his exploration.] The whole plain was a work of art, like a wall of decoration, and the sculptors used the curves, the projections, and the perspective of the plain to give value and accent to the giants of stone. They were seen advancing from the horizon, marching like an army, climbing the hills, descending the valleys, and when they had once arisen for their march or parade, they heeded neither the grasses nor the briers that began to grow again as soon as the hewers of images had disappeared. They followed one another and gazed upon one another; and the crouching lions witnessed also the passing of men laden with tribute —now hidden, now revealed by the undulations of the soil. Separated, absolute and definitive, the lone and silent multitude of forms rose up in the dust, under the sky, as if to bear, to the ends of the earth and to the time when the sun itself should be burned out, the formidable testimony that man had passed this way.

Starting with the tombs of the T'ang dynasty, from the powerful, bas-reliefs that remind one of an Assyria visited by Greece, the Chinese sculptors, already possessing the most direct vision, condense their science gradually to arrive at a more summary expression. Under the Sungs they were able to conceive an object as a mass so full, so shorn of details and accidents, so heavy and condensed, that it seemed to bear the weight of thirty centuries of metaphysical meditation. Thenceforward they could permit themselves all the stylizations, all the deformations, all the audacities needed for the affirming of the moral truths revealed to China by the sages of the ancient days. Under the Mings, at the moment when the artists were about to lay down their tools, when China, then only marking time, was about to let Japan slip from her embrace, to rush into the life of freedom and self-conquest, the Chinese had acquired an imposing virtuosity. They cast enormous iron statues to guard their temples. They decorate walls and vaults with strange figures that form melodic lines undulating in curves which, while irregular, are as continuous and rhythmic as the ripples on the surface of the water. Along the colossal avenues, the grimacing monsters and the chimeras alternate with the massive elephants, the dromedaries, and the warriors as straight and as pure in line as towers.

Thus we reach the same conclusions whether we study this race in the forms farthest removed from the realism of the early ages, or whether we consider the sculptured stones that best recall the living masses one sees outlined against a dusty plain at the approach of evening—the real domestic animals, the herds, and the caravans: we may seek in one type of art as well as in the other for the center of the Chinese soul. It is a soul devoid of imagination, but so firm and so concentrated that it is not impossible that its motionless realism will one day drive back the upward-looking idealism of the Occident and impose itself on the Western races when they have become eager for repose. Chinese art is an immensity. The art workman plays a role in China that is as important in the life of his people, and as permanent, as in Egypt. For thirty centuries he peoples the dwellings of the living and the dwellings of the dead with furniture, carpets, vases, jewels, and figurines. Three-quarters of his production perhaps is still buried. The valleys of his two rivers constitute a mine of art that is doubtless as inexhaustible as that of the valley of the Nile. Also, the forms that it yields vary to as great a degree—from the grave or terrible to the charming, from the pots of bronze that the Chinese buried for centuries so that the juices and minerals of the earth should slowly give them their patina to the swarms of ''Tanagras" that issue from the necropolises. These latter are less picturesque, certainly, than their Greek sisters, but they are also purer and more summary; they are conceived with more fleeting contours, more decisive planes, and rounder masses, and they offer a more touching homage to feminine grace, chastity, and majesty. What matter if this infinite art seems paradoxical at first sight? As in the case of that Egypt which at first appeared so monstrous, we are beginning to perceive here the simplicity, the unity, the grand coherence of the strangest conceptions. Under the grimaces of the statues, under the complicated robes that cover them, under the outlandish cornices of the architecture, the bristling masses of the varnished monsters, and the flaming of red and gold in the sanctuaries, there is present a real and indestructible principle of construction. Sculptural modeling, which is sinuous and balanced among the Greeks, a thing of movement with the Indians, and rectangular with the Egyptians, is spherical with the Chinese. Under the ornaments and the symbolic attributes, under the most disordered coilings and twistings of the monsters, the passage and the plane of the sculptor penetrate each other in a slow and continual progress, as if to produce a closed block. In its essential examples, one would say that this sculpture causes form to rise slowly to abstraction, that the abstraction descends slowly toward form, and that lightning flashes from the two as they fuse, eternal, compact, and pure. At such moments China, like Egypt, Greece, India, and the France of the Middle Ages, attains one of the summits of the mind.

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