CLP 174: "Good Grief, Not the Six Laws Again!" written for publication in Kaikodo Journal, but for complicated reasons not published there.

Good Grief, Not the Six Laws Again! (Ching Yuan Chai So-shih 4)

The above title is the one originally given to my 1961 article about the Six Laws of Hsieh Ho, and about why the new reading of them that had recently been proposed by William Acker could not be correct. (My article was an appendix to a review of Acker's book in which he proposed this reading and argued for it.)[1] I was dissuaded from using this title by Max Loehr, who thought it frivolous. Now, with an editor more tolerant of frivol (Kaikodo Shujin, a.k.a. Howard Rogers), I will attempt again to use it, with the implication: Haven't we had enough argument about the Six Laws already? But I feel now as I did in 1961, that so long as what I take to be a serious misreading is accepted by a substantial part of the sinological and Chinese art-historical community, the question needs to be kept open. My intent now, however, is not so much to re-open the argument--all useful contributions I could make to it were in my 1961 article--but rather to make public, and so add to the materials available for consideration by anyone interested in the controversy, some passages from correspondence I have had about the Six Laws problem over the years since then.

I will assume that readers are familiar both with Acker's writing on them (pp, XX-XLV in the Introduction to his book) and with mine, and so will offer here only the briefest summary. The main issue is whether the laws should be read as four-character phrases, as all Chinese writers from Chang Yen-yuan in the ninth century down to very recent times have read them, is (as I believe) correct, or whether, as Acker maintained, they should be divided into pairs of two-character terms. In the first case, the First Law would read, more or less, "Engender [a sense of] movement through spirit consonance," and the Second, "Use the brush [with] the bone method." In Acker's renderings, these two are: "Spirit Resonance which means vitality" and "Bone Method which is [a way of] using the brush." (In Chinese, the traditional readings are: "I, ch'i-yun sheng-tung shih yeh" and "Erh, ku-fa yung-pi shih yeh"; or else, as Acker would have it, "I, ch'i-yun; sheng-tung shih yeh" and "Erh, ku-fa; yung-pi shih yeh." The difference may not sound so great when they are put simply this way, but in practice our understanding of the Six Laws will be very different depending on which reading we follow.

My arguments against Acker's reading were basically three. I cited closely parallel four-character phrases from critical and theoretical literature of the time to establish the pattern or type to which I believed the Six Laws belong, as integral and indivisible four-character phrases. I pointed out that for Acker's reading to work, an additional character or word, probably yue, "is called," would have to be inserted after the numbers, so that the Laws would then read "The first is called ch'i-yün; sheng-tung is such," and so forth, Minus this character, the Laws read like "One spirit consonance, engendering movement is such" would in English. And I argued—and was the first to do so--that the six should be read as three pairs of syntactically parallel four-character phrases. This meant that the sheng-tung of the First Law, for instance, since it paralleled yung-pi or "use the brush" in the Second, must also be a verb-object phrase, renderable as " engender [a sense of] movement" instead of the "Life's motion" (Waley), "vitality" (Acker), or "animation" (Soper--Petrucci, with his "engender le mouvement [de la vie]" had got it right.}

While I was planning and writing my 1961 article, I talked with several colleagues whose opinions on early Chinese painting texts I especially respected, asking them what they thought of Acker's new reading. Shimada Shujiro and Wai-kam Ho, and later Kohara Hironobu, all said, in effect: Of course he's wrong. But none of them was inclined to write anything on the matter, as I suggested they should do, all of them being far better qualified than myself.

Over the years that followed, I heard numerous responses from people who either agreed with my arguments or sided with Acker, and engaged in numerous discussions of the issues. I had the pleasure of spending several days with Acker himself when he came to Washington, D.C.; he seemed not to hold against me my criticism of his great discovery, and we talked of many other things, while avoiding that one subject. I did not, in fact, return seriously to the Six Laws problem until the mid-1970s, when the project to produce an anthology of early Chinese texts on painting in translation was nearing completion.[2] I had conceived and sponsored this project as a member of the Committee on Studies of Chinese Civilization under the American Council of Learned Societies, which had funded it; it was being carried out by Susan Bush and the late Hsio-yen Shih. Reading through the manuscript and finding quite a few translations and renderings of terms with which I disagreed, I kept up a lively and lengthy correspondence with Susan that now fills a binder. If we had had the advantage of the computer and email, it would have been much longer--this was the age of typed letters sent by regular mail. a slow process that gave one time to formulate arguments and reread them several times before sending. Susan and I are both stubborn and reluctant to budge from positions we have adopted (as has proven true of the participants in several more recent controversies.) I will not try to quote or summarize our positions; they go on for many densely typed (single-spaced) and densely argued pages, each of us citing texts and adducing authorities to bolster our sides of the matter. The letters were not, of course, only about the Six Laws: we also argued other matters such as the meaning of the term yin, which in some context means "hidden" but in special contexts of painting has the sense of "raised from the surface." This matter deserves a separate account and discussion. But I was especially disturbed to learn that Susan intended to quote Acker's as the basic English rendering for the Six Laws.

In March of 1976 I drew into the controversy Professor John Cikoski, who was then teaching in the Oriental Languages Department at U. C. Berkeley. How that happened I related to Susan in a letter of March 31:

"Last week I came out of our house and saw standing in the street John Cikoski of the Oriental Languages Dept... He is a specialist in early Chinese texts, especially grammar and syntax. His car had become stuck in the mud across the street, and he was waiting for the tow truck. So I saw this as an opportunity--a captive sinologue--and approached him with a cheery 'John, Have you ever considered the problem of the Six Laws of Hsieh Ho?' He hadn't, so I made up a Six Laws Controversy Packet for him consisting of the relevant pages of Acker, my article, and some of our correspondence. . . Today I received the enclosed. As you see, he joins those who believe Acker was not only wrong, but clearly wrong, so much so that his idea shouldn't go on being perpetuated." I have not been in touch with Cikoski for years, and hope he will have no objection to my quoting from his letter:

"Acker's rendering is untenable. As you correctly point out, the absence of yueh ["is called"] after the number constitutes a quite fatal objection to dividing the four-syllable expression into two two-syllable expressions. If we all knew our Classical Chinese as well as we ought to, you would only have needed to publish that one paragraph to shoot Acker down in flames; that his analysis has been widely accepted for so long is a sad commentary on the competence of too many people who deal professionally with Classical Chinese texts." He gives lengthy commentary on a number of the terms in the Laws, and concludes: "Acker is right in saying that four-syllable phrases are not normal in prose, but these are not normal prose; they are aphorisms, and already by the 4th C. B.C. the four-syllable line has become the standard form for proverbs, maxims, aphorisms, folk sayings, catch-phrases, mnemonic rules of thumb and the like. Two-syllable phrases are standard for rubrics, but to split each of the six into two rubrics is to violate the sense and the syntax irreparably." John Cikoski's rendering of the Six (which he calls procedures) is:

"Although in painting there are six procedures [that lead to good results], it is rare that one is able to master them all; rather, from ancient times until now, in every case [a painter] has been skillful in one of the disciplines [in particular]. What are the 'six procedures'? First, if you make the harmony of forces organically dynamic, you're doing it right. Second, if you use the brush calligraphically you're doing it right. Third, if you portray forms so as to resonate with objects you're doing it right. Fourth, if you draw on your palette so as to accord with [metaphysical (Taoist?)] affinities, you're doing it right. Fifth, if you make your composition architectonic you're doing it right. Sixth, if you conform to and carry on a tradition, you're doing it right."

Cikoski adds a postscript telling me that he had sent a copy of our correspondence to Edward Schafer, "in the hope that he may have something of value to add to what I've said." Schafer's single-page communication is dated only a day after Cikoski's, March 30th. It begins, "I have no special wisdom on the Six Whatchamacallits--although i continue to believe firmly that only strict attention to linguistic principles (rules of syntax, morphology, contemporary lexical usage, and avoidance of slippery, anachronistic interpretations in lieu of exact knowledge) can produce anything useful. . . In general I'm in accord with you, but rather than nit-pick I will provide (for you or Jim to make a mockery of, or utilize as horrible examples, as you will) my own versions:"

[1] "The Six Laws and How to Read Them." In: Ars Orientalis, 4 (1961), pp. 372-381. This was an appendix to my review of W.R.B. Acker, Some T'ang and Pre-T'ang Texts on Chinese Painting (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1954), pp. 440-444 in the same volume of Ars Orientalis.

Schafer's versions spread over the rest of the page, arranged in columns headed IF WITH -- YOU -- THAT'S IT! Inserting those headings in the right places, his Six read:

"1. IF WITH consonance of [vital] breaths YOU give vital movement, THAT'S IT!
"2. IF WITH bony module YOU employ the brush, THAT'S IT!
"3. IF WITH follow the genus YOU distribute the pigments, THAT'S IT!
"4. IF WITH response to the thing itself [individuality of species] YOU duplicate the form, THAT'S IT!
"5. IF WITH tracing the template YOU assign positions, THAT'S IT!
"6. IF WITH transfer by tradition YOU copy from [authentic] relics, THAT'S IT!"


I sent these to Susan Bush; they were obviously not suitable for quotation in her anthology, but we agreed that they were fresh and valuable. We both felt that there were obvious limitations in renderings by people who were not familiar with the art-historical context, especially with the early painting to which they were in some sense meant to be applied. A similar point was made by Howard Rogers, to whom I sent copies of these letters; he responded with a long letter that attempted just that, a reading of the Six Laws that took account of what followed them, Hsieh Ho's assessments of painters up to his time. [Howard: do I add that this letter is reprinted in this issue?]

With these two renderings by authorities on early Chinese texts in hand, I found myself wishing that I had submitted the problem to the most revered authority of them all (revered, that is, by those who studied with him), Peter Boodberg, while he was still alive. Shortly afterwards, like a voice from the other world responding to some invocatory ritual, a two-page handwritten letter from Boodberg dated January 3, 1960 emerged by chance from a neglected file: I had sent him a draft of my article before it was published, to get his opinion, and then had forgotten that I did it. I had especially wanted his sanction for a suggestion made toward the end of my article: that the Six were made up of three pairs, in each of which the two four-character phrases were syntactically parallel. (This would work, of course, only if the Six were integral four-character phrases, as I believed.) Boodberg, in teaching us to read Six Dynasties texts, had stressed the frequent occurrence of such parallel constructions, and I was hoping for his support in finding them here. He wrote:"The more I think it over, the more I feel that the parallelistic couplets of the Six Laws are to be interpreted along the lines that you suggest in your article but with a greater emphasis on the possibility that each of the first lines refers to a mental process, each second line to the physical realization of the preparatory step in the artist's 'heartmind.' Today, I feel reasonably sure that the Hon. Hsieh meant something as follows:

1. Pneumatic Consonance: to quicken stirring
Osteologic method: to ply the brush.
2. Responding to things: to image forms.
Following similitude: to spread on stripe-and-hue.
3. Lining-coordinates, laying out: positioning, stationing.
Transferring, scale (modeling): transposing, copying."

He adds: "The use of the neutral colon as a punctuation mark obviates the use of prepositions. . . I am sending this to you while the interpretation is still fresh--and before I change my mind."

Afterword. Nearly all the above was written some years ago; I have paid little attention to the matter since then, apart from reading new attempts to deal with Hsieh Ho's "Six Laws" that have appeared in the interim, such as one by Victor Mair.[3] The invitation by Kaikodo Shujin to publish my "Good Grief," at last, in the forthcoming volume of his journal has led me to go back and read over some of the correspondence that I carried on during the 1970s with him, Susan Bush, and Hsio-yen Shih. In doing so I made a remarkable, even mysterious discovery. I had ended my May 9, 1976 letter to Susan Bush, accompanying a copy of the newly-discovered letter from Boodberg, with these words:

"This is again the interpretation of someone who's never worked through the painting texts and doesn't know the context, so that (as in the case of Cikofsky's and Schafer's) it is rather abstract and hard to apply to actual critical and creative problems in painting. Still, another contribution to take into account when, shortly after the turn of the century (since I've decided to do it when I'm eighty) I compose the final and definitive rendering of the Six. If I don't live so long, they will be lost to the world forever. I'm not sure which would be better for scholarship."

As it happens (and herein is the mystery) the invitation to publish came just three months after I had in fact turned eighty. But even this clear-cut message from Heaven does not persuade me to attempt that unrealizable goal, as I now realize it to be. Instead, I will conclude with: The First Law for Translating the Six Laws. IF WITH proper recognition that the Six are integral four-character phrases and are made up of three syntactically parallel pairs, YOU read carefully all the previous attempts and familiarize yourself with related literature of the period and think long and hard about them, THAT'S IT. Let the arguing—serious and informed arguing, that is—continue forever.

Dear Liz and Howard,
I'm embarrassed to tell you this, but: I want to ask you, without explaining why, to withdraw my "Six Laws" piece from publication in the next Kaikodo Journal. I apologize for the time and trouble you have already spent on it.


Copy: Hsingyuan Tsao
No problem! I just have to change the preface and remove the comparison of you to Wen Cheng-ming, still creating! In haste--we leave for India in a week--but with warm regards from us all,


[2] This is the project that produced the annotated anthology, with excerpts from texts translated by the editors Susan Bush and Hsio-yen Shih along with others, titled Early Chinese Texts on Painting (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard-Yenching Institute, 1985.)

[3] Victor Mair, "Xie He's 'Six Laws' of Painting and Their Indian Parallels," in Zong-qi Cai, ed. Chinese Aesthetics: The Ordering of Literature, the Arts, and the Universe in the Six Dynasties (Honolulu, U. Hawaii Press, 2004) 81-122.

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