Ch’i K’ung Spirit Voids

The Tao is made manifest in art as ch’i, or spirit. If an artist caught ch’i, everything else followed; but if ch’i was lacking, no amount of likeness, embellishment, skill, or even genius could save the work from lifelessness. In the phrase ch’i-yün sheng-tung, the second half of the phrase means “life-movement,” but this can only be present if the ch’i-yün is present: spirit-resonance.

Ch’i, being spirit, can only be known indirectly, by its fruits. The Chinese never listed those fruits, but they constantly returned, in their discussions of the presence of ch’i, to a few basic notions, namely:

• naturalness (tzu-jan)
• effortlessness (i)
• universal principles (li)
• “bone-means” (ku-fa), or individual forms with inner strength created by the painter’s brush
• structural strength for the composition as a whole (shih)
• pictorial reality (ching)
• seasonal aspect (ching)
• life-movement (sheng-tung)
• brush qualities (pi)
• ink qualities (mo)


“Far from being a void, a typical sky in a Dutch landscape painting is a painting of tangible cloud forms, defining a definite space. The clouds in Chinese painting belong to the mountains and most of the skies are empty voids, yet these voids may be the most important parts of the design.

“In the T’ang and Northern Sung periods [in China], the empty places [in painting] began to represent space, which became the vehicle of seasonal and atmospheric moods; ‘Mountains without mist and clouds are like spring without flowers and grass.’ But as long as the T’ang and Northern Sung artists depended upon the solids of the mountains to establish their space, the voids served chiefly to increase the scale of the solids or to suggest depth. It was only when the solids began to be obliterated in Southern Sung times that the voids reached their final significance. The vastness of nature was no longer conveyed by a multiplicity of solids but by the quality of the void,---a void which was never mere atmosphere but the vehicle of the ch’i spirit.

The emptiness must be alive. Ch’i may reside in an ink wash as well as in a brush stroke, in white paper or in silk, and it sets up forces of movement and tension which must be resolved in a dynamic equilibrium of solids and voids.

---from George Rowley, Principles of Chinese Painting. Revised Edition. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1959. Especially pp. 34-35, 71-73.

K’ung, the void


empty immanence of all

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