chapter  6
10 Pages

Chinese Aesthetics and Kant

ByKarl-Heinz Pohl

Since the reception of Western aesthetics in China at the beginning of this century, the modern Chinese aesthetic discourse appears to be taking place purely in Western terms and categories. According to the main trend of Western aesthetics from Plato to Marx, the focus is on the category of beauty, hence the Chinese modern term meixue – ‘beautology’, if we would try to retranslate the term back into English. With the adoption of Marxism as the fundamental and all-encompassing new Western ideology in China, this trend towards Western discourse, although of the nineteenth century, has only reached a further height. China, however, with its long and continuous civilization, can look back upon an equally long evolution of aesthetic thought and reflection, apparently with a different focus, that of inquiring predominantly into the nature of artistic creativity and the artistic qualities of a work of art. When we examine the names for our discipline in English and Chinese, we

find out that, ironically, both the Western and the Chinese names are misleading: From its Greek etymological roots, the Western term ‘aesthetics’ means ‘theory of sensual/sensational – as opposed to mental – perception’; in reality it stood (and still stands), however, for ‘theory of beauty’. The Chinese term meixue might fit regarding the mainstream of Western ‘aesthetics’ as ‘theory of beauty’, but it does not when applied to traditional Chinese thought on art in which the category ‘beauty’ did not play a significant role. In early Confucian scriptures, the character mei (beautiful) was used almost synonymously with ‘moral goodness’ (shan) – such as in meiren (beautiful person) understood as shanren (good person) – without further differentiation or emphasis on a category of beauty. Apart from this connotation, Confucian discourse on literature and art seems to have slighted formal beauty, deeming it, as outward ornament, less valuable than the substantial ethical or moral content. For Daoist writers, the recognition of beauty only led to the notion of ugliness, as Laozi, chapter 2, succinctly states: ‘When everyone in the world knows the beautiful as beautiful, ugliness comes into being.’ Particularly after the ‘Classical Prose’ (guwen) movement, initiated by Han Yu (768-824) in the TangDynasty, elegance or beauty (most often expressed in themany synonyms ofmei, such as hua, li, yan, zi) in literature and art became close to the notion of vulgarity (su) and thus carried more negative rather than positive associations.