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Q: Chinese submissiveness towards nature ( Answered,   2 Comments )
Subject: Chinese submissiveness towards nature
Category: Reference, Education and News > Teaching and Research
Asked by: kariny-ga
List Price: $5.00
Posted: 05 Feb 2003 08:49 PST
Expires: 07 Mar 2003 08:49 PST
Question ID: 157632
I am looking for evidence that will help support this statement: 

"Traditional Chinese have always maintained that nature is a revered
power which dominates human life, to which humans submit".  That is,
traditional Chinese submit to the forces of nature (unlike their
Western counterparts who dominate it.)

I am looking for specific examples in Chinese landscape paintings,
poetry, classical texts, etc. to support this. 

You need not direct me to
<<>> as I've already found it.
Subject: Re: Chinese submissiveness towards nature
Answered By: bcguide-ga on 08 Feb 2003 16:23 PST
I agree with websearcher-ga that the essense of Chinese, specifically
Taoist, philosophy is to be balanced - to achieve harmony with all
elements. This acceptance of the natural order - go with the flow,
become as water - can, and has been interpreted as submissiveness.

Searching for: chinese submissiveness nature fate

In this page, which deals with a simple introduction to Taoism, the
submissive aspects are brought up twice.
- "Lao Tzu (lou-dyuh), is the purported author of Tao-te ching
(dou-duh jing, The Book of The Way and Its Power), the first book of
Taoist thought. Called the "Patriarch of Taoism," the "Old Boy, Old
Fellow," and the "Grand Old Master," his thought stressed yielding to
the way of nature rather than being bound by society and its
formal/informal rules."
- "With its emphasis upon natural simplicity, infinite potential and
distaste for confining rules, limiting regulations and excessive laws,
Taoism may seem to advocate little more than a mindless submissiveness
and lack of involvement in societal issues. However, this school of
thought exerted a strong influence on Chinese society-- especially
concerning the position of women."

- "In focusing upon the lowly individuals in society (natureí»s
"valleys"), Taoist practitioners upgraded the position of women and
curtailed murder of female infants. The philosophical ideals of
passivity, adaptability and a sense of yielding all flowed from
traditional understandings of "female" virtues."

The Taoist or Daoist philosophy of submitting to nature removed man
(civilization, culture) from the prominent position that Confucians
had striven for. "A notable absence in many Daoist-influenced
paintings is human beings and their structures. Typically, they are
not completely absent, but they are minimized, often greatly. People
are small and indistinct as they walk along paths or scull their
boats. Their houses, too, form just a small part of the overall
landscape. This de-centering of humans points out that people are but
a small part of nature and, according to Daoist aesthetic standards,
should be depicted as such."

"In the world there is nothing more submissive and weak than water.
Yet for attacking that which is hard and strong nothing can surpass
it. This is because there is nothing that can take its place." Taoist
influences gave rise to the painting style that featured water or mist
- the most submissive being given the most prominent place. 

Another symbol of submission that dominates landscape art is the
valley, í░The Valley Spirití▒(╣╚╔˝) is a case in point. In Chinese,
the valley provides the image of having a capacity to accept
criticisms and alien views. There is the expression í░xuhai ruo
guí▒(╠“‘Đ╚˘╣╚), which means literally í░humble and receptive like the
(page 5)

Valleys, mists and circular water currents - another submissive yet
powerful symbol - are featured in many Chinese paintings and drawings.

Ritsuko Taho
Taho is the second artist - not at the top of the page. The
description of the galley show falls into your question's range. The
exhibit strives to show people as sheep to illustrate the submissive
nature of people in society.
Raise the Red Lantern is a Chinese film that speaks to the
submissiveness within relationships in traditional Chinese culture. A
discussion of the film can be found at

Hope this helps,

Request for Answer Clarification by kariny-ga on 10 Feb 2003 07:26 PST
Some aspects of the answer were helpful, especially the stuff on
landscape paintings.  Note that the artist Taho is Japanese, not
Chinese.  I was looking for more info on submissiveness to physical
nature rather than in human nature - stuff on apathy to societal
issues, role of women, relationships is not applicable to my work.

Request for Answer Clarification by kariny-ga on 10 Feb 2003 09:03 PST
In retrospect, this answer is less helpful than expected.  Only two of
eight points satisfy the question (the statements on Lao Tzu and
"Daoist-influenced paintings").

The points on women/female have no relevance.  Water/valleys as
symbols of submissiveness in landscape paintings suggests that nature
is weak, rather than humans.  As mentioned in my first clarification,
Taho is a Japanese artist, and Red Latern speaks of submissive social

Clarification of Answer by bcguide-ga on 10 Feb 2003 22:10 PST

The female/submissive element of the philosophy is not referring to
the role of women in society, but the male/female:dominant/submissive
elements of the universe.

The lack of humans actually submitting to nature is due to the Taoist
influence. "A notable absence in many Daoist-influenced
paintings is human beings and their structures. Typically, they are
not completely absent, but they are minimized, often greatly."

The presence of nature and the down playing of humans and their
accomplishments is the key to understanding the artistic
representation of the role of man in the universe. The submission of
man to natural elements is not represented by people bowing or
cowering, but by the representation of the power inherent in elements
of nature. The valleys and water - submissive elements of nature -
prevail over human form and structures.

More ancient Chinese artifacts may reflect humans in submissive poses,
but these problably stem from the earlier dynasties:
Hsia ( c. 2100 - 1600 B.C. ) 
Shang ( c. 1600 - 1100 B.C. ) 
Western Chou ( c. 1100 - 770 B.C ) 
Spring and Autumn Period ( 770 - 475 B.C )
During these period slavery was a powerful force in Chinese society. 

"Chinese Art of Figure Characterization and Representation vis Chinese
Civilization" is a good synopsis of the human form in Chinese art.

"Slavery was current in the Shang (16th-11th century BC) and Zhou
(11th-221 BC) dynasties, which were milestones in the development of
Chinese arts. With the decline of the primitive society, the
brilliance of the colored clayware dimmed, giving way to the bronze
art. As the journey from primitivism to civilization incorporated a
portion of blood and fire-- this period was an age characterized by
the cruel slavery system-- the figures on the bronze wares were
entirely deprived of the lively, natural and free style peculiar to
the preceding times. Great amounts of unearthed bronze figurines are
small in size, often as a constituent of a functional object for daily
use. Bearing dull, humble, submissive and indifferent looks, they were
slaves for certain. The makers of these slave figurines must have been
slaves themselves, who might be condemning the savage regime through
these works."

"In Chinese art some humble evidence of a human presence is generally
included in works that denote nature, thus displaying man as one among
other natural phenomena." 

If you want to show the representation of man's submissiveness to
nature in the visual arts, the insignificance of human form and
endeavor is the key.

When concentrating on depicting people, they are generally shown in
human pusuits such as court settings, leisure or work and not in
connection with nature. In Western art the human form is often seen in
relation to natural surrounding - and the human is the focus of the
art work. The Chinese landscape tradition includes humans only as a
part of the pisture - not the focus or even a major player.

One Chinese painting shown on this page is based on a poem about a man
on a boat moored near a temple in the outskirts of Suzhou.
"The moon's down, the crows cry and the sky's full of frost
Under the riverside maples, lit by the fishing lamps, my 
sadness keeps me awake.
- Zhang Ji (? - 780)

The elements in this painting and poem focus on the natural. While the
man in the boat is the focus of the scene it is dominanted by the
natural phenomenon. The frost, the falling leaves and the environment
are more powerful forces than the man or the temple in the background.

A western painting would have brought the temple and the man more into
focus. The subtle message of man's lack of domination over the natural
is clear.

In the Arts of Asia Lecture Series, Mae Anna Pang writes in the
introduction to her lectures on "SPRING FLOWERS, AUTUMN GRASSES: THE

"These paintings, scrolls, screens and ceramics all express the
Chinese and Japanese philosophical aesthetic that perceived all living
creatures, whether human, animal, flora or fauna, as different
manifestations of life’s one invisible and harmonious animating force,
the Dao. This philosophy dictated that everything in nature is part of
one unifying whole; that humans are a microcosm of the universe, or,
Nature manifest as people."

This same lecture series includes a discussion by Edmund Capon
"The human figure, so crucial, so fundamental to western art and as
we've noted, the origin of naturalism in western art, has played but a
minor role in the visual arts of Asia..."
This page contains many references and examples.

Hope this helps to clarify the issue.
Subject: Re: Chinese submissiveness towards nature
From: websearcher-ga on 05 Feb 2003 08:55 PST
What I've been able to find and from what I've heard in the past, it
is Chinese tradition to neither submit nor dominate nature, but to
live in harmony with it.

It is not surprising that to Western culture, this appears like

Subject: Re: Chinese submissiveness towards nature
From: kariny-ga on 06 Feb 2003 14:28 PST
There is merit to your observation, but I'm still hoping a researcher
will be find evidence of Chinese submissiveness even if it is from a
Western perspective.

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