Issue 3 – By; Claudio D. Lucchi (Part I)

The Philosophy of Life in the Philosophy of Art in Shitao 石涛 ’s Huayulu 《画语录》

1. Introduction

Since its writing during the early Qing 清 dynasty (1644-1911), Shitao’s treatise on painting Huayulu 《画语录》[1] has never ceased to startle and fascinate generations of readers, artists, and scholars alike, through the shrewdness of its remarks on the very essence of the art of painting.

Although short in length, Shitao’s essay presents itself to the reader as a solid, well-rounded text that dives straight at the heart of its subject, bravely tackling a topic that had become highly critical in an era that saw Chinese mountain-and-water painting (shanshui hua 山水画) reach un-precedented heights of codification and conventionalisation, i.e., the very essence of painting, its origins, purpose, and meaning.

The Huayulu’s most prominent feature is, undoubtedly, its deep philosophical nature. This is not a unique characteristic per se. One would only have to go over some of the most important treaises composed in ancient times — such as Zong Bing 宗炳 ’s Hua Shanshui Xu 《画山水序》, Jing Hao 荆浩 ’s Bifaji 《笔法记》, Guo Xi 郭熙’s Linquan Gaozhi 《林泉高致》, or Shen Zong-qian 沈宗骞 ’s Jiezhou Xuehua Bian 《芥舟学画编》— to find out that they all touch, in one way or another, upon the philosophical nature of art. None of them, however, has gone so far as to treat the art of painting, even its most technical aspects, from a philosophical perspective. Through his bold and unconventional approach, Shitao’s artistic view finds its roots firmly planted at the origin of the universe, and expands itself way beyond the borders of the artistic field, thus reaching out into the infinite.

The Philosophy of Life in the Philosophy of Art in Shitao’s Huayulu
Shi Tao《四季山水圖冊》Mountains and Streams in the Four Seasons
Album leaf, ink and colour on paper
21 x 31.4  Metropolitan Museum of Art
Shi Tao《四季山水圖冊》Mountains and Streams in the Four Seasons
Album leaf, ink and colour on paper
21 x 31.4 Metropolitan Museum of Art

We should not be surprised to find that some of the ideas developed by Shitao reverberate throughout Henri Focillon’s Vie des formes (The Life of Forms in Art) and resonate in harmony with certain philosophical concepts put forth by Wassily Kandinsky in his monograph, Über das Geistige in der Kunst (Concerning the Spiritual in Art), and his 1912 essay, Über die Formfrage[2]  (Concerning the Problem of Form).

In this sense, one may better understand why the Huayulu has been hailed by both Chinese and Western scholars as “one of the highest and most complete expressions of Chinese aesthetics”[3] . Its philosophical dimension turns it into a bridge, a platform on which Eastern and Western artistic thoughts and concepts may effectively meet and transform each other. Although they expressed themselves in distinctly different ways, and thus developed respective styles that were quite contrasting in both form and content, it may not be irrelevant to point out that Shitao and Kandinsky equally probed into the metaphysical nature of the art of painting, grounding their artistic corpus on a comprehensive philosophical system of thought. Both painters started from the finite and tended towards the infinite, and endeavoured to express “all variations through the invariable” [4] 不化而应化[5].

2. Prominence of Shitao’s Huayulu in Western studies.

A brief assessment of the position attributed to the Huayulu in the field of Western Chinese studies, and to existing translations and commentaries in particular, will amply illustrate the high es-teem in which this particular treatise is held by Western scholars. In English alone, Shitao’s treatise has already been translated over four times. In 1936, Osvald Sirén proposed a first partial translation in his study The Chinese on the Art of Painting: Translations and Comments (New York: Schocken Books, 1936, reprinted 1963), which he revised and presented again to his readers two decades later, in Chinese Painting, Leading Masters and Principles (New York: The Ronald Press Company, 1956-58, 7 vols.). A first unabridged translation by Lin Yutang 林语堂 was published in 1967, in The Chinese Theory of Art (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1967).

Shi Tao《山水圖冊》Mountains and Streams 14.9 x 27.3
Shi Tao《山水圖冊》Mountains and Streams 14.9 x 27.3

Dissatisfied with Sirén’s and Lin Yutang’s versions, which he regarded as “highly literal” for one, and as “highly literary”[6]  for the other, Prof. Earle J. Coleman (Virginia Commonwealth Univer-sity, Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies) proposed a new translation of the Huayulu in 1978, with an in-depth, chapter by chapter analysis, which put particular emphasis on the treatise’s Taoist character and Shitao’s philosophy of art. Another distinguishing feature of Coleman’s version, in contrast with Sirén’s and Lin Yutang’s, is his choice to translate the Huapu 《画谱》 (Manual on Painting, dated 1710 and discovered in China in 1961) — instead of the previously translated Huayulu —, considered by some (including Prof. Coleman) to be a later and refined rendition of the original Huayulu[7]. When discussing purely painterly aspects, Coleman’s study may be found to be somewhat lacking in coherence. This may however be accepted as a minor excusable point, given that Prof. Coleman’s speciality was Chinese philosophy, and in this area, his monograph truly accomplishes the purpose it set out to conquer in the first place, videlicet to explore and expound the philosophical dimension of Shitao’s treatise.

In 1966, thus one year prior to the publication of the Huayulu’s first integral English version, the magazine Arts Asiatiques presented its readers with Les propos sur la peinture de Shi Tao, the treatises’s first French version, translated and thoroughly commented by Pierre Ryckmans. A more exhaustive version was later published under the title Les propos sur la peinture du moine Citrouille-Amère (Éditions Hermann, 1996). Les propos sur la peinture de Shi Tao remains to this day the only French translation of Shitao’s work and has been saluted as a brilliant work by François Cheng 程抱一, who quoted large extracts from it in Vide et plein: Le langage pictural chinois (Éditions du Seuil, 1991), a philosophical study of Chinese mountains-and-waters painting featuring a case study of Shitao’s oeuvre.

More recent translations of the Huayulu include Helmut Brinker’s German version, Aufgezeichnete Worte des Mönchs Bittermelone zur Malerei (Mainz: Dieterich’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 2009), as well as Discorsi sulla pittura del monaco Zucca Amara (Jouvence, 2015), a complete Italian translation by Marcello Ghilardi.

Among the monographs dedicated to Shitao and his art may be cited François Cheng’s Shitao: La saveur du monde (Phébus, 1998) and Jonathan Hay’s Shitao: Painting and Modernity in Early Qing China (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

The Philosophy of Life in the Philosophy of Art in Shitao’s Huayulu
Shi Tao《山水圖冊》Mountains and Streams 27.6 x 24.1
Shi Tao《山水圖冊》Mountains and Streams 27.6 x 24.1

Perhaps one sentence by Pierre Ryckmans, from his opening remarks to his Les propos sur la peinture de Shi Tao, may best explain the reason lying behind this impressive corpus of translations and in-depth analyses that have been dedicated since the early twentieth century to this one single treatise on painting:

Le traité de Shi Tao occupe une place privilégiée dans l’ensemble des théories chinoises de la peinture: il se situe tout à la fois au terme et au sommet d’une longue tradition dont il rassemble les ri-chesses essentielles; puisant de manière syncrétique aux diverses sources de la pensée classique, il donne à la théorie picturale la forme d’une synthèse philosophique originale qui, de l’aveu général des critiques chinois et occidentaux, constitue une des expressions les plus hautes et les plus complètes de l’esthétique chinoise.[8]

Shitao’s treatise occupies a privileged place within the body of Chinese painting theory: it stands both at the end and at the top of a long tradition of which it brings together the essential riches; drawing in a syncretic fashion from the various sources of classical thought, it gives to the pictorial theory the shape of an original philosophical synthesis which is recognised by Chinese and Western critics alike as constituting one of the highest and most complete expressions of Chinese aesthetics.[9]

The Philosophy of Life in the Philosophy of Art in Shitao’s Huayulu
Shi Tao 《山水圖冊》Mountains and Streams 21 x 31.4
Shi Tao 《山水圖冊》Mountains and Streams 21 x 31.4

3. Tone and flavour of Shitao’s Huayulu

As one takes up the Huayulu, the uniqueness of its tone and nature, as well as its author’s literary disposition, reveal themselves instantly.

Contrarily to Zhang Yanyuan 张彦远, who greets the reader at the beginning of his Lidai Minghua Ji 《历代名画记》 with a few chosen words on the moral value of the art of painting, or Guo Si 郭思, who likewise unveils the Linquan Gaozhi 《林泉高致》 through a few general considera-tions on the role played by painting in a gentleman’s (junzi 君子) moral cultivation, Shitao dives straight at the heart of his subject, while simultaneously taking his reader back at the origin of the universe, revealing from the start his one-stroke concept (yihua 一画) and his metaphysical stance.

The Huayulu may indeed startle some by its detached, confident, and profound tone, yet marked in places by a flame of proud defiance mingled with hints of gentle mockery. Various scholars have both acknowledged the high artistic and literary value of the Huayulu, and found them-selves baffled by the great difficulty it posed during translation.

In The Chinese Theory of Art, Lin Yutang appraised Shitao’s treatise in the following terms:

It is completely original and shows a psychological insight into the process of artistic creation not found elsewhere in Chinese literature. In style, it is archaically beautiful, terse and taut with meaning, and very difficult to render into English. But of all Chinese essays on art, this is the most profound ever writ-ten, both as regards content and style.[10]

Osvald Sirén, on the other hand, while recognising the high value of Daoji 道济 [11] ’s essay, seems to have found its rendering into modern English rather an ordeal:

… the Hua Yü Lu is one of the most extraordinary contributions to the discussions of the theory and practice of painting, but couched in terms which, in part at least, offers evasive problems of interpre-tation. The terminology is largely borrowed from Taoist sources and it is applied with an abundant use of antitheses, repetitions and cosmological metaphors of a very abstruse kind.[12]

However, Sirén’s decision to abridge[13]  the Huayulu, deeming a full version to be unnecessary and “hardly enjoyable to Western readers”[14], is highly deplorable, and denotes a mindset too preoc-cupied with issues strictly related to pure theory and art history to realise that an artistic essay, just like a work of art, is an attempt to reach the infinite and must needs be appreciated in its integrity in order to understand (emotionally as well as intellectually) its full scope and purpose.

Shi Tao 《山水圖冊》Mountains and Streams 14.9 x 27.3
The Philosophy of Life in the Philosophy of Art in Shitao’s Huayulu
Shi Tao 《山水圖冊》Mountains and Streams 14.9 x 27.3

Truly, only a full text as provided by Pierre Ryckmans and Earle J. Coleman offers Western readers a chance to savour the dense and complex taste of Shitao’s treatise, along with its discreet hints and undertones.

The author of the present essay feels that even more than Prof..Coleman, it is Mr. Ryckmans who best succeeded in bringing out in his French version some of the particular literary flavours pre-sent in the original Chinese text, displaying in his chapter by chapter analysis an outstanding command of Chinese classic literature, philosophy, and painting.

Admittedly, any uninformed reader — that is, lacking a fundamental knowledge of classic mountains-and-waters painting literature, of Shitao’s work and life path, and of the main artistic trends of that period — might find it quite hard to appreciate the true value of the Huayulu. On the other hand, it would be a mistake to believe that a high level of specialisation in one particular field would allow a better reading of Daoji’s essay. Academic specialisation, as it is known today, is a rather recent phenomenon that became prominent only throughout the second half of the twentieth century. In the field of humanities, excessive expertise in one particular subject presents two main dangers: it may cause its practitioner to lose himself in abstractions, which could in turn lead to a very narrow and unilateral understanding of reality, or any given topic. More than specialisation, more than profound knowledge, what is required in order to enjoy an essay as unconventional and individualistic as the Huayulu is a creative mindset, a certain familiarity with the creative act, and a highly developed sensibility vis-à-vis the universe and emotional reality.

Without such characteristics, it would become difficult to grasp Shitao’s subtle and apparently conflicting undertones — all directly linked to his tormented and equally conflicted inner nature —, as he boldly unfolds the quintessence of his artistic and philosophical vision under the reader’s eyes.

Furthermore, one ought not to feel surprised or confused by the seemingly abstruse manner in which Shitao addresses his readers. Every painter knows that images reach way beyond the written word. Hence, it is never easy to discuss painting in writing. But besides this technical difficulty, there exists another reality that may elude the accomplished theorist, for it belongs to the painter’s whimsical nature: unlike academic scholars, painters are not necessarily keen to express themselves clearly, preferring to see their viewers toil to extract spiritual nourishment from their works. After all, what pleasure or sense of accomplishment is there in presenting the viewer with a ready meal?

Shi Tao 《山水圖冊》Mountains and Streams 21 x 31.4
The Philosophy of Life in the Philosophy of Art in Shitao’s Huayulu
Shi Tao 《山水圖冊》Mountains and Streams 21 x 31.4

4. Philosophical nature of the Huayulu


The Huayulu’s eighteen chapters constitute a whole, complete, and organic system. From nothing to existence, from simplicity to complexity, from one to ten thousand, it develops gradually, and then from existence to nothing, from complexity to simplicity, from ten thousand to one, it gradually re-cedes.[16]

Through the introductory lines of the Huayulu, Shitao takes his reader back, not to the root of the art of painting, but to the very commencement of all things. With a few well rounded sentences, he asserts that painting is not an activity or entity per se, but that it proceeds from Creation itself, to which it finds itself linked through the creative act. In other words, through brush and ink, the painter emulates the elementary process of creation. Seen under this light, painting is not a simple physical or intellectual activity; it becomes a form of life.


Painting is the great way of the transformation of the world. The very essence of the conditions of mountains and rivers, the creation of nature (both ancient and modern), the movement of yin yang forces, all these are revealed through brush and ink; upon sketching heaven, earth, and the ten thousand things, their forms joyfully swim in my mind.[18]

Shitao regularly reasserts this fundamental concept throughout his essay, first “从无到有” (from nothing to existence), and then “从有到无” (from existence to nothing), as may be seen in the opening sentences of Chapter VII:


The union of brush and ink is that of yin and yun. The indistinct fusion of yin and yun constitutes the original chaos. How could one open up the original chaos, if not through the one-stroke? [20]

Having begun his most unorthodox essay with such elevated, philosophical considerations, Daoji naturally anticipated his reader’s astonishment, who, judging by the work’s title — Remarks on Painting —, possibly expected a more technical manual along the lines of the Xie Shanshui Jue 《写山水诀》, attributed to Huang Gongwang 黄公望. In Chapter VI, he thus addresses this issue in the following terms:


Some may say: ‘Painting treatises and drawing instructions manifest quite clearly the application of brush and ink, every detail being very carefully explained. Ever since the ancients, never before has painting the scenery of mountains and seas depended upon empty theories and the prejudice of one’s own preferences. I think Ta-ti-tzŭ’s individuality is too high, establishing a method beyond the world! Does he not disregard the simple rudimentaries?’

These words are strange indeed. Talent is from afar, but what one achieves is right at hand. If one grasps what is near at hand, then he can apply it to what is distant.[22]

At this point, one might assume that even the lofty Dadizi 大涤子[23] might have come to his senses and that from now on, he would duly entertain his reader with such technical questions as are conventionally required. Instead, as the following chapters unfold, the author further asserts his individualistic stance and tackles from a philosophical standpoint such technical topics as scenery (literally, mountains and streams, shanchuan 山川) and texture strokes (cunfa 皴法), seemingly oblivious of the recipe-like rhetoric common to various other manuals and treatises.[24]

The Philosophy of Life in the Philosophy of Art in Shitao’s Huayulu
Shi Tao 《山水圖冊》Mountains and Streams 21 x 31.4
Shi Tao 《山水圖冊》Mountains and Streams 21 x 31.4

What transpires from the Huayulu’s short yet dense eighteen chapters is that Shitao mainly preoccupied himself with philosophical fundamentals, videlicet the unchanging principle of Life and of the universe. Compared to this, everything else is secondary and of lesser importance, for he who grasps that fundamental, invariable rule lying at the foundation of all variable transmutations present in our universe attains true enlightenment and thus holds the key to all truth. And with “enlightenment”, we mean not that inferior, technical understanding obtained through the systematic study of a given subject, but that higher, spiritual form of understanding, characterised by an ineffable sensibility towards all things. This idea is perhaps more explicitly expressed in Chapter XVIII:


In the past, men expressed their feelings through brush strokes and ink wash by painting mountains and rivers. Their approach was to meet all variations through the invariable. They proceeded to action through non-action.[26]

He who is truly enlightened, and hence possesses the underlying truth of all things, is able to act through non-action (wuwei er youwei 无为而有为), i.e., in accordance with all things as they are, or, as Lin Yutang put it, “by the action of nature itself without human interference”[27]

Shitao did not despise the idea of the presence of rules and precise techniques in painting. As he remarked himself:


The ancients did not work without rules. Absence of rules leads to absence of restraints in this world[29]

He did however fiercely disapprove of the institutionalisation of rules and techniques, and strongly warned of the dangers there are in blindly following any given rule without understanding the principle upon which it rests.

The Huayulu may be regarded as the distilled expression of Shitao’s lifelong meditations on the origin and meaning of Life and of his own life, sad meditations which may be found in a more spontaneous form throughout his correspondence and the colophons inscribed on his paintings.

Shi Tao 《山水圖冊》Mountains and Streams 14.9 x 27.3
The Philosophy of Life in the Philosophy of Art in Shitao’s Huayulu
Shi Tao 《山水圖冊》Mountains and Streams 14.9 x 27.3

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[1]              Also referred to as Shitao Huayulu 石涛画语录 (Shitao’s Remarks on Painting) or Kugua Heshang Huayulu 苦瓜和尚画语录 (Remarks on Painting by the monk Bitter Melon).

[2]              Wassily Kandinsky, Max Bill (ed. and comm.). Essays über Kunst und Künstler, Benteli Verlag, Bern, 1973 (3. Aulf.), pp. 17-47.

[3]              Pierre Ryckmans. Les propos sur la peinture de Shi Tao — Traduction et commentaire. In: Arts asiatiques. Tome 14, 1966, p. 79.

[4]              Earle J. Coleman. Philosophy of Painting by Shih-T’ao — A Translation and Exposition of his Hua-P’u, Mouton Pub-lishers, The Hague, 1978, p. 106.

[5]       道济 [著] 俞剑华 [标点注释].《石涛画语录》;北京:人民美术出版社;2019.5 (重印);p. 13.

[6]              Earle J. Coleman, p. 33.

[7]              The anteriority or posteriority of the two existing versions of Shitao’s treatise, the Huapu 画谱 and the Huayulu 画语录, is a matter of debate. The Belgian sinologist Pierre Ryckmans, for one, saw in the Huayulu the final and later ver-sion of the earlier and rudimentary Huapu.

   For a discussion on the two existing versions of Shitao’s treatise, compare Earle J. Coleman’s Philosophy of Painting by Shih-T’ao (pp. 26-31) and Pierre Ryckmans’ Les propos sur la peinture de Shi Tao (p. 79).

[8]              Pierre Ryckmans, p. 79.

[9]              Personal translation of the original French text.

[10]             Lin Yutang, p. 140.

[11]             One of Shitao’s monastic names (faming 法名).

[12]             Osvald Sirén. The Chinese on the Art of Painting, Schocken Books, New York, 1963, p. 182.

[13]             Ibid.

[14]             Ibid.

[15]             道济 [著] 俞剑华 [标点注释].《石涛画语录》;p. 81.

[16]             Translation mine

[17]             道济 [著] 俞剑华 [标点注释].《石涛画语录》;p. 4.

[18]             Earle J. Coleman, p. 118.

[19]             道济 [著] 俞剑华 [标点注释].《石涛画语录》;p. 7.

[20]             Pierre Ryckmans, p. 107 (personal translation of the original French text).

[21]             道济 [著] 俞剑华 [标点注释].《石涛画语录》;p. 6.

[22]             Earle J. Coleman, p. 122.

[23]             Dadizi 大涤子, translated by Pierre Ryckmans as “Disciple of the Great Purity” (see P. Ryckmans, p. 104): one of the many surnames used by Shitao.

[24]             See, for example, the already mentioned Jiezhou Xuehua Bian 芥舟学画编, by Shen Zongqian.

[25]             道济 [著] 俞剑华 [标点注释].《石涛画语录》;p. 13.

[26]             Earle J. Coleman, p. 140.

[27]             Lin Yutang, p. 153.

[28]             道济 [著] 俞剑华 [标点注释].《石涛画语录》;p. 4.

[29]             Translation mine