Growing up (and old) with Chinese philosopher Li Zehou

Think of how the switching between languages, cultures and epistemologies can itself be an integral part of reading and writing, and extend this to a thinker’s broadest philosophical opus, in concepts, articulations and communications — that is the work of Chinese philosophy great Li Zehou (1930-2021), says former Singapore Art Museum director, Kwok Kian Chow.
Renowned Chinese philosopher Li Zehou. (Weibo)
Renowned Chinese philosopher Li Zehou. (Weibo)

Li Zehou (1930-2021) once said that he would quietly depart and no one needed to know. That did not happen as the Colorado-based Chinese philosopher, who passed away on 2 November, was far too important for the cultural world not to mourn his passing.

A leading thinker in Chinese aesthetics and philosophy, Li was a foremost intellectual of the so-called “1980s Chinese Intellectual Enlightenment”. Li moved to the US in 1992. Apart from his many philosophical texts, Li was best known for The Path of Beauty (《美的历程》Mei de licheng, 1981), which enjoyed enormous general readership. The Path of Beauty even had a children’s edition published in 2016.

During the early 2000s when I read Li’s Historical Ontology / Five Essays from 1999 (《历史本体论 》Lishi bentilun / 《己卯五说 Jimao wushuo), it was very comfortable reading for me in that Li had all the Western names spelled out in their original alphabets, rather than using Chinese transliteration. While many of us read across languages, when it comes to the transliteration of names, particularly between non-phonetic and phonetic writing systems, it is a different level of challenge, if not a sheer disruption to the flow of reading. 

On the other hand, to spell out Kant, Nietzsche and Marx within the Chinese text is also awkward. 康德 (Kangde),尼采 (Nicai), 马克思 (Makesi) are Kant, Nietzsche and Marx. These names are so deeply ingrained in Chinese-language discourse that to suddenly return to their alphabetical spellings is equally strange.

Think of how the switching between languages, cultures and epistemologies can itself be an integral part of reading and writing, and extend this to a thinker’s broadest philosophical opus, in concepts, articulations and communications — that is the work of Li Zehou.

You can’t see the salt [in water] but you can feel it, but it will not be crystal clear; art is multidimensional, lacks lucidity and is even elusive. What an amazing introduction to not only art, but thinking and feeling in a broad sense for readers young, and old, I would add.

The path of beauty

During the 1980s, for most readers of Li, The Path of Beauty would have been the first encounter with the philosopher. The “path” brings us from the totem signs of prehistoric China to Ming-Qing aesthetics. Li’s key philosophical thoughts were already on the path of revelation, so to speak.

The path comprised the richest web of art and cultural history trails. Two key concepts were “measures” (度 du) and “sedimentation” (积淀 jidian) which I understood better with the subsequent reading of Historical Ontology (2002). At the onset of Historical Ontology, Li stated that measures were techne and ART, spelling out “ART” in capital letters.

Li Zehou's books. (Internet)
Li Zehou's books The Path of Beauty, Historical Ontology, and Five Essays from 1999. (Internet)

Li selected three short excerpts from his own writings for his introduction to the children’s edition of The Path of Beauty. I gleaned some key points on art, by Li’s own selection:

Firstly, artworks attest to the lived cultural/spiritual experience (精神 jingshen) of humans, and become the foundations and conditions of the cultural life thereafter.

Secondly, whereas art has its specific temporal and historical contexts, art is able to integrate time and space to become a timeless contemporaneity.

Thirdly, comprehension is ingrained within art, like adding salt to the water so as to know its flavour. You can’t see the salt but you can feel it, but it will not be crystal clear; art is multidimensional, lacks lucidity and is even elusive. What an amazing introduction to not only art, but thinking and feeling in a broad sense for readers young, and old, I would add.

Many read The Path of Beauty and Li’s writings on the arts in general as an introductory text to Chinese aesthetics seen through the broad philosophical categories of Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism

Back to the full works of The Path of Beauty. The Taotie Motif in the Bronzes, an early chapter, entailed a discussion on the evolution of the “line” towards calligraphy (and painting). Li worked through the complex relationship of signs, representationality, verisimilitude, ideation, expressiveness and a Marxist emphasis on materiality. From thereon, art history unfolded into philology, anthropology and philosophy. Needless to say, these were vastly different “paths” from the usual genealogies in Western art history. The Path of Beauty even by virtue of this contrast alone was highly educational.

Many read The Path of Beauty and Li’s writings on the arts in general as an introductory text to Chinese aesthetics seen through the broad philosophical categories of Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism (two other fountainheads highlighted by Li were verses of Chu and the Wei-Jin spirit/style). While Li worked through how these schools of thoughts interfaced with artworks (including literature) and aesthetics, Li’s work was not about any neat alignment of art and aesthetics, with ideas and isms.

An interlocution of various isms

Following Li Zehou’s passing, a quote of the philosopher was widely circulated in the social media: “Buddhism understood emptiness but became too insistent on it; Daoism understood emptiness but became too playful with it; Confucianism understood emptiness but insisted instead on the reverse. As none of these (categories) could be fully relied upon, one had to struggle on one’s own.

Notwithstanding life’s dissolution, illusion, and absurdity, one nevertheless thrust oneself into worldliness. Invoke “emotive subjectivity” (情感本体 qinggan benti) to dissolve nihilism. Although the heart is empty and all things are persistent and tenacious, the free and easy spirit advances and retreats with ‘measures’.” 

Buddhist monks are seen next to the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho in Bangkok, Thailand, 2 November 2021. (Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters)
Buddhist monks are seen next to the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho in Bangkok, Thailand, 2 November 2021. (Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters)

Philosophy for Li was about an interlocution of the various isms, and not just of the Chinese ones, but all inspiring sources. Li’s ease with categories reminds me of another philosopher, María Lugones (1944-2020) of Argentina, whose work on decolonial feminism I am keenly interested in. Lugones critiqued a “categorial” logic that confined us to think within categories, locking epistemology and knowledge inside a system of normative categories. 

Chinese aesthetics in China vs Chinese aesthetics in Singapore

In 1988 during Li Zehou’s stay in Singapore as a visiting scholar at the Institute of East Asian Philosophies, National University of Singapore, the Straits Times related an incident when Li was asked what he thought of Chinese aesthetics in China versus Chinese aesthetics in Singapore. For the labyrinth of “categorial” logic assumed in this peculiar question that one needed to unpack, Li naturally declined answering it.

Li was a key intellectual in the 1980s “enlightenment”, an intellectual movement not unrelated to the emergence of an open market economy in China...

As someone growing up in Singapore with a career in museum work, I find close affiliations with Li Zehou’s writings for two main reasons. During my youth, I was inspired by Western philosophy, primarily existentialism (which was why I thought the above social media quote sounded somewhat familiar), and later on, very generally, Western postmodern discourses in the methodology of the so-called “linguistic turn”. Li critiqued postmodernism and also had much to say about the “linguistic turn”. For me, the history of Chinese thought was always there at the back of my head, in conversations with Western theories, so to speak. Li’s writings helped me consider and comprehend many of the issues in much more effective ways.

For the many art theory books I read in English earlier, I managed to re-read them in Chinese translations, during the above-mentioned “Chinese intellectual enlightenment” period in the 1980s (and 1990s) when many of the Western art titles were translated. Li was a key intellectual in the 1980s “enlightenment”, an intellectual movement not unrelated to the emergence of an open market economy in China for which, on the economic side of things, Singapore played the role of a reference point. Reading Li Zehou and other Chinese texts, including Western texts in Chinese translation, helped with my personal reconciliation and integration between ideas, cultures and work.

A digital recreation of the painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival (清明上河图, Qingming Shanghe Tu) is seen on display at the exhibition, A Moving Masterpiece: The Song Dynasty As Living Art, at the Singapore Expo Convention and Exhibition Centre, Singapore. (SPH)
A digital recreation of the painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival (清明上河图, Qingming Shanghe Tu) is seen on display at the exhibition, A Moving Masterpiece: The Song Dynasty As Living Art, at the Singapore Expo Convention and Exhibition Centre, Singapore. (SPH)

The other reason why reading Li was inspiring for me is how the world of ideas may be accessed through art (history). I had a much clearer picture of why aesthetics was central to thoughts and philosophy, in general, upon reading Historical Ontology. But The Path of Beauty pointed towards this realisation, through “organic” interdisciplinarity, largely through artworks, to a point of not even needing to bother about the usual boundaries of disciplines.

Li was optimistic about the progression of history.

Of ‘measures’ and ‘sedimentation’

Li defined historical ontology as the totality of the relationship between humans and nature without amounting to being anthropocentric by also emphasising the “exterior” (material) and “interior” (psychological, emotive). This relationship is regarded as a phenomenon, a historical progression, not external to the lived experiences (being), and neither is it a priori (where Li disagreed with Kant) nor merely technological and materialistic. Measures then, is about taking control of changing constraints and possibilities, to respond by way of both to progress and to retract, in a measured and considered way. Measures are not merely technical solutions. Neither are they merely an act, a response, or a situation anchored in rationality. 

The cumulated measures, which include interfaces of physical nature, material objects, consciousness, emotions (as in 情感本体 qinggan benti), ideation, and cumulated over long historical times, become sedimentation, a foundation for further action. Li was optimistic about the progression of history. Historical ontology, in turn, is a cumulation of art, emotions and measures. Li went on to state that measures is in fact the ascertainment of beauty (立美 limei). Hence, measures are ART, as said by Li.

Zhangjiajie, a 1997 painting of ink and colour on paper by China artist Wu Guanzhong, on display at the Singapore Art Museum as part of an exhibition entitled: An Unbroken Line: The Wu Guanzhong Donation Collection. (SPH)
Zhangjiajie, a 1997 painting of ink and colour on paper by China artist Wu Guanzhong, on display at the Singapore Art Museum as part of an exhibition entitled: An Unbroken Line: The Wu Guanzhong Donation Collection. (SPH)

To tease out the complex synthesis of materiality and human subjectivity in the continuum of measures and sedimentation, Li created the term “subjectality” (主体性 zhutixing) to be differentiated from the more familiar “subjectivity” (主观性 zhuguanxing). This differentiation is also central to Li Zehou’s philosophy. Li explained in his article titled “Subjectivity and ‘Subjectality’: A Response” that in “the Chinese tradition, the separation between subject and object is not very clear, it is not important...”

The “traditional art discourse in the West had placed greater emphasis on object and physicality, while Chinese discourse looked into functionality, relationship, and rhythm”. - Li Zehou

“Modern Western philosophy, from Descartes to Kant, is a tradition of ‘philosophy of consciousness’ — or, as Descartes put it, ‘Cogito, ergo sum.’ This philosophy is one of subjectivity,” explained Li. Hence, “subjectivity”, the term we commonly use, is primarily concerned with ideas, or the “consciousness of the subject (that is, a human being)”. Li’s critique of Kant is the philosopher’s absoluteness in the a priori as the key source of subjectivity.

Li emphasised the parallel importance of the “material substance of human beings”, in other words, “body” (体 ti), hence the need for the term “subjectality” to incorporate the material body. Another important constituent that makes up the “subjectality” is a practical rationality (实践理性 shijian lixing) based on engagements with nature and the world, and over long temporality, hence, sedimentation. 

I shall now attempt to state my understanding of Li’s measures, which equates art as an action or processual word, but the doer is not just a human being and must include the material, technological, and the cultural in a historical context, which must in turn be seen in a longer cumulation of sedimentations. As for the human subject in this equation, it should not be just one’s consciousness and ideas, but also the emotive, the sensibilities, and these too, in turn, contribute to broader sedimentations. 

A gallery employee looks at the artwork "Unmoored from her reflection (2021)" by British painter Cecily Brown during a photocall ahead of the reopening of The Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House in London, England, on 10 November 2021. (Adrian Dennis/AFP)
A gallery employee looks at the artwork "Unmoored from her reflection (2021)" by British painter Cecily Brown during a photocall ahead of the reopening of The Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House in London, England, on 10 November 2021. (Adrian Dennis/AFP)

While the emotive always played a major part in creating an artwork, Li argued in The Path of Beauty that in contrast with Western art which historically began with representationalism and verisimilitude, the “traditional art discourse in the West had placed greater emphasis on object and physicality, while Chinese discourse looked into functionality, relationship, and rhythm”. Li further commented that the contrast between the West and the Chinese in the realm of philosophy was the same case.

It is interesting that the term “aesthetics” was derived from the Greek word “aisthesis” which meant sensations. In fact, after the mid-20th century, there was also an “aesthetic turn” in Western ideas. Consider this explanation to the compilation of essential texts of Michel Foucault under the heading “Aesthetics” in the introduction by James D. Faubion. The exploration into the “experiential and expressive frontiers… beyond referentiality, beyond limitation, beyond ‘reason,’ beyond the established generic bounds of disciplined invention” took centre stage again in Western scholarship.

The above contrasting and parallel concerns in art, aesthetics, and approaches again underpin the importance of Li’s works in the larger conversations within and between cultures during the turn of the century/millennium.

“When a country is powerful, due to commodification and secularisation in the modern society, the cultural/spiritual dimension (精神 jingshen) is very superficial. Nationalism supplements mediocrity with cultural/spiritual remedies. Hence, when a developing country boasts an expanded nationalism, it is in fact romanticism.” - Li Zehou 

What about nationalism, and any tendency to canonise and essentialise Chinese aesthetics? Well, let us remember that the exchanges between cultures at such an in-depth level had really just begun, and Li Zehou played a key role. Li was himself wary of nationalism (民族主义 minzu zhuyi) and opined that “when a country is powerful, due to commodification and secularisation in the modern society, the cultural/spiritual dimension (精神 jingshen) is very superficial. Nationalism supplements mediocrity with cultural/spiritual remedies. Hence, when a developing country boasts an expanded nationalism, it is in fact romanticism.” 

An urban art exhibition at Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre featuring contemporary portrayals of traditional Chinese mythology, on 9 January 2020, in Singapore. (SPH)
An urban art exhibition at Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre featuring contemporary portrayals of traditional Chinese mythology, on 9 January 2020, in Singapore. (SPH)

I chose “Growing Up (and Old) with Li Zehou” as the title of this reflection on how the writings of this prominent and influential philosopher accompanied my learning journey over the decades.

Li’s inspirations worked on many levels. From an art history entry point, to linkages with long sedimentations — to invoke Li’s terminology — to thinking about cultures, artwork, museums and philosophies. It was also the methodology that I referenced, and Li’s notion of measures works here too.

In an “historical ontology” mode of thinking, one should also review the “sedimentations” of historical times and contexts, and of one’s own journey, and seek out the frontiers of ideas and pulses of history so as to review and work out “measures”.

I highlighted decolonial feminism above, a topic that should be treated with the utmost urgency. I look upon the global ripple to the Black Lives Matter movement as a significant moment of human sedimentation. Li argued in Five Essays from 1999 that Kant’s philosophy was a form of “categorical imperative” (绝对命令 juedui mingling). Li dissolved the “categorial logic” of Kant’s a priori imperative.

Two Chinese calendar cycles from the jimao (己卯) year of 1999 will be the guimao (癸卯) year of 2023. Between now and then and beyond, there will be continuing discussions on the important intellectual contributions by Li Zehou (1930-2021). 

Author's note:

All Li Zehou quotes cited from his “Subjectivity and ‘Subjectality’: A Response” (1999) were originally written in English. Other quotes are my translations.

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