Yi Pai: A Synthetic Theory Against Presentation



Gao Minglu


In the beginning of the 21st century, there is a demand of rethinking of modernity and contemporary art in non-Western cultural area, even the modernity or contemponeiraty in the West. 

But what is the theoretical ground, and its inner logic, that has driven Non Western, such as Chinese contemporary art? In other words, can we continue to apply Western modernism or postmodernism as a play ground of influences to interpret twentieth century Chinese art without considering the different social context, the specificity of Twentieth century Chinese historical conditions, and China’s longstanding ties to traditional cultural forms?

If it is no longer proper, then what would be an integrative theory that could be applied to the future study of Chinese contemporary art? Recently, I published a theoretical work titled, Yi Pai: a Synthetic Theory against Representation. In the book, I demonstrate an investigation and critique of Western theories of classicism, modernism and postmodernism from a broad view of comparative studies.[i] I argue that no theory from Western art history can be defined without reference to the notion of representation, which regards art as a substitute for human reality, concepts and logic, namely a mimetic substitute for truth and reality.

            It is this notion of representation’s relationship to “truth” that has set the foundation for realism and conceptual art, as well as abstract art, three vital domains in Western modern art. Therefore, modernism, postmodernism, the contemporary avant-garde, the historical avant-garde, and the neo-avant-garde, all these categories of Western art are, in fact, in pursuit of a real, authentic, original representation of the truth, either from the outside world or from inner thoughts, even though they may claim a deconstructive approach against conventional visual representation. It is just another extreme gesture in the pursuit of mimicry of truth. The question is, how one can fit this theory of representation to those cultural areas where there has never been an idea of a substitute for “truth,” in an absolutist sense? For an equivalent example, the real, or truth, in Chinese is zhen. In ancient China, however, almost all philosophers who discussed good (shan) and beauty (mei) in artistic expression, never touched upon the issue of “the truth” (zhen), because they had no desire to let art mimic the real.


In Chinese aesthetics, art never bears the responsibility to substitute for visual reality or true thought logic. Ancient Chinese theory always respects yi, or “something that comes from your mind,” which in the Chinese context, always merges image, concept and scene. This synthetic-resonance tendency has been embodied in the theory of Chinese Literati landscape design, calligraphy and poetry. All of them never bear the responsibility of mimetic representation, nor do they pursue an extreme expression or conception in the sense of Western aestheticism.       

            The consequences of the philosophy of mimicry of truth and the theory of representation in Western art lead visual art, in particular contemporary art, toward revealing certain portions of the world in terms of fragmentation, transience, and extremity as well as isolation. This theory  has departed far from a synthetic outlook on humanity. Most philosophers and theorists of the 20th century, worldwide, have fallen into this fragmentary, deconstructive framework with the exception of a few, exemplified by the linguistic theories of Constructivism, Marxism and Heidegger’s Existentialism.  

            The domains of realism, abstraction and conception, all address their autonomy from one  another, assuming their own positions extremely distant from one another. Otherwise, there would be no autonomy for each of them (Fig.  1). Accordingly, Western art has transitioned from a tactile perspective in Egyptian art to single vanishing point perspective which generated the classical realist style in the Roman and Renaissance periods (Riegle). This three dimensional  illusion met the modern revolution under the slogan “painting is painting itself” and saw a parallel liquidation of literary narrative. Modernism believed that its method directly represented the “idea,” the supremacy of which has been underscored in Western metaphysics since Plato, and therefore modernist flatness became a teleological priority and advanced over (perspective) three dimensional illusions (Fig. 2). This debate, however, merely reveals the dichotomous model of representation of an absolute truth throughout modernism’s history.

            Conceptual Art (as well as postmodernism in general) began to challenge this model by getting rid of dimensional issues and challenging the materialization of art, by insisting that any objects, even ready-mades, can be applied directly to substitute for truth, as long as they would bear a conceptual logic (or an imbedded social critique). Although Western Conceptual Art attempted to transcend the dichotomy of modernism, its revolutionary concept of “what is art” is still compartmentalized in an object world. Although it has broadened the manner of art expression, which was only confined within the issue of flatness vs. three dimensions in classical and modern arenas, and it reached the realm of free choice of objects (ready-made, earth work, human body, even words, writing and voice), the fundamental idea of “what is art” still remains the same, namely, that art functions as something that should substitute something, e.g. the truth or the real. Therefore, the revolution of postmodernism only minutely advanced over the classical and modernist representational world view in a broader context of subject matter. This broader view was caused, however, by the disillusionment of postmodernists who knew that representation would never be able to reflect something we can see or think about, such as a text, as the old semiotitians and modernists believed. Instead, for Conceptual Art, or the neo-avant-garde, representation itself was framed by an institutional (as well as a linguistic) power which we are not able to discover through texts (or artworks), per se. Therefore, representation is a discourse of power, rather than a language that arbitrarily presents a truth, as Michel Foucault, Roland Bathes and Derrida pointed out. It seems, however, that there is still a fundamental connection between the two as the diagram shows (Fig. 3 and Fig. 4).

            The postmodernist theories initiated by the French School have inspired me to think about the methodological issues concerning the interpretation of Chinese contemporary art. The sophisticated discussions of the relationship between text and context have also stimulated my interest in transforming Chinese traditional concepts in art into contemporary theory, which I have now named Yi Pai. This is perhaps also a project of the synthesis between East and West, or zhongxi hebi on the theoretical side, with an obviously tough challenge of a grand theory. As Jean Francois Lyotard noted, the Grand Master Narratives of the West, were not only an incomplete project, but a failure (perhaps because they assumed the hegemony of the West).  However, monsieur Lyotard had not encountered the rise of China and the full fruition of globalization in the 21st century, unfortunately, before he passed away. I have been assured by people who knew him that he would have loved the challenges that the Chinese avant-garde represents for historians and the new possibilities for aesthetic interpretation and representational theory.

            With reference to an ancient Chinese theory of Li, Shi and Xing, or “principle, concept and appearance” from the 9th century Tang Dynasty, I constructed my Yi Pai theory. Yi Pai, literally means School of Resonance/Synthesis. Yi Pai is formulated in a pluralized structure rather than a dichotomous perspective. Furthermore, Yi Pai theory demonstrates a world view continuous from the ancient period, which valued synthesis, rather than fragmentation.  From a methodological perspective, Yi Pai favors yizai yanwai or “the truth being always beyond language,” rather than a dogmatic or logical reflection of truth or reality.

            However, Chinese ancient aesthetics, while admitting that yi, or “something that comes from your mind,” is dissociative and elusive, try to overcome this defect of images or “xiang,” as Confucius said, “to establish the images in order to capture the fullness of the concepts in their minds” (lixiang yi jinyi). Therefore, traditional Chinese aesthetics have a high expectation of images or “xiang,”, because xiang, which is an empirical category, is neither a subject nor an object, instead it includes observers, the thing being observed, and the moment and contextual process of observation. The level of complexity inherent to the concept of “xiang” is of an entirely different order than mimesis in the West.

             One thing we should keep in mind is that the “image” in early Chinese aesthetics, for example in the Book of Changes, should not be confused with the illusionistic “likeness” that Western representation speaks about today, because the “likeness” is no more than a state of the “image.” The “image,” in traditional aesthetics, can be divided into three categories as The Book of Changes indicates. The first category pertains to the hexagram, or the “guaxiang”.  This dates back to The Great Treatise of the Book of Changes, which is very much similar to what Chinese find in Western modernist painting, known as abstraction (chouxiang), which literally means “to summarize images into a principle.” [ii]  

            The second meaning of the “image” has to do with the calligraphic connection with statements or “ci.”  Its function is to append statements to give the fullness of what was expressed through both words and images, namely, to express in calligraphic writing whatever is inexpressible in speech. [iii] The third is “what you are looking at” or the actual images. In this context, “image” means “appearance of things.” To summarize, there are three categories of “images” in the Book of Changes, the hexagrams, calligraphy, and the appearance. 

            If yi is a realm of the mind wandering, then xiang is the embodiment and resemblance of yi. The embodiment includes three types, hexagrams (guaxiang), calligraphy (zixiang), and appearance (xingxiang). The three types of xiang also have three correspondences in the manner of visualizing yi, as Zhang Yanyuan from the 9th century in Tang Dynasty indicated were li, shi and xing. Zhang said, “The concept of art expression (tuzai) contains three topologies. The first is the form of principles: the forms of the hexagrams are such (li). The second is the form of concepts: the study of written characters has to do with this (shi). The third is the form of appearance (xing), and this is paintings (Conclusion 5).”[iv] As a matter of fact, principle, concepts and appearance in traditional Chinese aesthetics correspond to three such concepts in the West, notably abstraction, conception and realism in modern art. It is easy to understand the correspondence between li and abstraction, and xing and realism.  

            But in the process of development, Western modern art, abstraction, conceptualism and representation are mutually exclusive as we saw in the illustrated model (Fig. 1). However, li, shi and xing in ancient Chinese theory, are always in an inclusive, relational, overlapping and mutually resonant state (Fig. 5). This synthesis has been embodied by poetry, calligraphy and literati painting throughout the ancient period, and is the foundation of Chinese traditional art. This synthetic theory corresponds to traditional philosophy and the three domains of li, shi and xing as the visualization of the philosophy and worldview. Therefore, the synthesis and resonance of these three domains is a different way, epistemologically speaking, as well as a major difference in visual art between the East and West. It has nothing to do with a framework which is based on representation of the real or absolute truth; rather it is an embodiment of the relational structure between man, things and the world.

            It is this different mentality and visual philosophy that has framed the idea of total modernity and the cultural avant-garde in Chinese modern and contemporary art. In total modernity theory there is no desire for the autonomy of art, or a split between morality and science. In visual art, the synthetic theory of Yi Pai indicates that the principle (li), the concept (shi) and appearance (xing) are always in the relationships of cross-fertilization, overlap and correspondence. The May Fourth generation still kept the synthetic mentality, even when Western modern civilization impacted Chinese culture in the twentieth century until Mao’s revolutionary art become the dominant force. Hu Shi’s famous saying, the synthesis of “particular time, specific space and my choice” perhaps is a perfect footnote for the ancient “li, shi and xing” theory.[v] Even in Mao’s mind, art was no more than a part of revolutionary life, although art is a political ideological instrument. It is during Mao’s social realist period that the ancient synthesis theory was almost abandoned. And the generation of the ’85 Movement had to revitalize the early dream, which seems is still a challenge in the current world.

            This is the historical reality which makes me think about the possibility of finding a new methodology. This desire even came early during my Chinese graduate school period, when I wrote my thesis titled Zhao Mengfu's Archaism and the Transition in Song and Yuan Painting Aesthetics. It was an historical study on the transition from the art of the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279) to the Literati painting of the Yuan Dynasty (1279 – 1368). In that period, I carried a strong intention to get away from Mao’s representational theory (art is a reflection of social life), because in it art practice and history became a mirror of the social background. In this philistine method, it was easy to insert a social meaning and subjective interpretation into a ready subject matter of artworks. Instead, I wanted to put art practice into a relationship between political life, poetry, calligraphy and the scholars’ mentality in general, to conclude what was the significant change in the early Yuan Dynasty within the movement of Literati Painting led by Zhao Mengfu and others.[vi]

            Interestingly enough, when young Chinese art historians attempted to break down Mao’s old Marxist social theory after the Cultural Revolution, in the West, postmodernism arose and rebelled against modernism. One of the instruments they employed was Neo-Marxist theory  as adopted by some new art historians, including T. J. Clark and Tomas Crow in the same period. This dislocation in the different cultural arenas seems to have existed forever. In the 1990s, when globalization and urbanization become the dominant theories in general art making in the West, in China, it emerged with Apartment Art and Maximalism, which rejected the economic and ideological framework in place by making something unsalable, un-exhibitable, except in a familial space. In this case, both materials and symbolic meaning are isolated from the outside forces of globalization and the market. It is a kind of meditation involving labor that is both time consuming as well as difficult because it touches upon personal things. From a material point of view, one might like to define the artworks of the Chinese avant-garde as either Minimalist, or Western neo-avant-garde, in an anti-capitalist institutional context. Further study, however, reveals the Chinese contemporary approach is totally different from either Western modernism or globalized postmodernism.

            As I discussed in the last two chapters (e.g. Apartment Art and Maximalism) that concerned the spatial forms of artworks, Maximalism and Apartment Art exist as a search for infinite, non-delineated space. The Maximalists have no interest in the wholeness of their compositions, which emphasize the difference between center and edge. They do not create independent or self-sufficient paintings. On the contrary, they aim to express their spatial concepts through perpetually forms imbued with the concept of continuation to the infinite.  Their "wholeness" is realized in a series of partially completed works. According to the Maximalists, there is no fixed, isolated, or unchangeable space limited by a frame. Space is a kind of relationship, always moving and metamorphosing. It is a kind of Yi Pai spatial theory.

            Therefore, the "space" in Maximalism is neither a composition portraying the spiritual idealism aimed at by the early Modernists, nor is it the closed, unchangeable, theatrical space of the Minimalists, nor something as symbolic as a gesture in the dichotomy of “individual vs. global,” as the popular theory of globalization describes. On the contrary, Maximalism seeks to express the infinity of visual space, not its wholeness. It is anti-wholeness and anti-theatricality.  Furthermore, the space of Chinese abstract art goes far beyond its physical presence; it consists of the presence of both interior and exterior space. One cannot truly understand the "space" inside the artwork without a thorough comprehension of the conceptual space of the artist in the relation between interior and external world. 

            Accordingly, we can compare the early Western abstract art (e.g. Mondrian) (Fit.  6), the later abstract art (e.g. Minimalism) (Fig. 7 and Fig. 8) with Chinese Yi Pai (e.g. Maximalism) (Fig. 9) by the diagram in the following illustrations. It may help to consult the images, for a better understanding about the dislocation of the spatial approaches which reveal a different world view.  

            Therefore, one of the functions of Yi Pai theory is to discover and describe the dislocation. In postmodernism, there are many theorists who have discussed the concept of ambiguity which inspired me to develop Yi Pai theory. However, Yi Pai is by no means a return to dichotomous ambiguity, such as subject vs. object, text vs. context, signifier vs. signified, etc., rather, Yi Pai attempts go beyond dichotomies to establish a structure consisting of triple, even multiple portions, as an interpretative model of dislocation. The synthesis of Yi Pai theory is thus by no means only to commit a “plus” method,  like a + b + c …, rather it is a main method of interpretation of both art and history by discussing the overlapping portions between li, shi and xing, namely the mixture, approach and departure portions between abstraction, conceptualism and realism in the well known terms of Western art (Fig. 10).    

            Although today, in this period of so-called contemporaneity  with the digital revolution in visual culture, the three categories may rarely be applied in criticism. The presumption of the three categories, and of the dichotomy of representational theory, may still provide a framework for criticism and art historical research, in particular, when some critics look at a non-Western contemporary art phenomenon. The discussion of art and history in this book, attempts to demonstrate these presuppositions by unveiling certain misunderstandings of Chinese contemporary art. For instance, the idea of total modernity and the synthetic cultural framework of the avant-garde in both the early twentieth century and in the 1980s; the tie between the avant-garde and Mao’s revolution; the political existence of the “art for art’s sake” faction in avant-garde art during and after the Cultural Revolution; the art with a modernist appearance that reveals a non-evolutionary spatial consciousness (instead a meditative spatial consciousness) in the artworks of Maximalism and Apartment Art, etc. All this dislocation, from the point of view of Western modern art, needs to be understood with a specific framework of history, as well as a synthetic overview.        

            Some of the chapters in this book come from my writings which were already published in one form or another, years ago. Although they do not, perhaps fit my new direction in theoretical work, Yi Pai theory, very integratively, they might send certain messages about Yi Pai theory I have just introduced above.          

            Today when globalization and urbanization have continually swallowed indigenous heritage with various fragmented theories, such as deconstruction and appropriation in the domains of art making, cultural originality has been thrown away, while the coherent and harmonious traditional philosophy of human beings has been replaced by “transience” and “fragmentation.” Is it possible, however, to reestablish a synthetic theory against the fashionable interpretation of globalization and urbanization that favors the “fragmentation” of the human mind and the “consumption of personality” in visual art criticism? Especially, when China has now also joined the world community of industrialization, commercialism, pragmatism, and instrumental rationalization, while facing the similar problem of modernity and the avant-garde that the West began during its own industrialization in the period of Romanticism, roughly in the mid-nineteenth century? Because of this, when I wrote Yi Pai and this book, I by no means meant to establish a particular art form, movement or style in either the material or historical sense, but rather I intended to enforce the true humanistic spirit in art with reference to the specificity of Chinese culture and history in the twentieth century. 




[i] The Chinese version has just published with the title Yi pai: yige dianfu zaixian de lilun [Yi Pai: A Synthetic Theory Against Representation] (Guangxi Normal University Press, 2009).  


[ii] “Fu Xi (a legendary ruler of great antiquity, the first of the Three August Ones) began to create the Eight Diagrams by way of connecting with the essence of the universe and imitating living things on earth, through his observations of celestial phenomena, the geological environment, and the conditions of all living things as well as the changes of the earth, with his body or other living things at a distance being the objects of his experiment.” From Book of Changes.

[iii] As the Book of Changes said, “observing images while understanding ci, or statements.”

[iv] Zhang Yanyuan, A Record of the Famous Painters of All the Dynasties, finished in the year A.D. 847. The English translation of this part, see William Reynolds Beal Acker, Some T’Ang and Pre-T’Ang Texts on Chinese Painting (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1954), 65-66.

[v] See “Introduction.”


[vi] Zhao Mengfu de fugu yu Song Yuan hua feng de bianyi [Zhao Mengfu's Archaism and the Transition in Song and Yuan Painting Aesthetic],” A master’s thesis published three times, summary in Meishu shilun [Art History and Theory], no. 4,(1985):60-68 .; complete version in Shanghai Huayuan Jinian Wenji [Commemorative collected works of Shanghai Academy of Painting] 1985, and in Xin Meishu [New Art], no.3 (1989):40-57.

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