Taiwanese art historian: The colour white in Chinese aesthetics and in life

If white could be a state of being, it would be yourself, says Chiang Hsun. Under light and shadow, its true shade sometimes becomes blurry, but it never loses its essence. With that confidence, white in art or in life also means negative space — the void that is at ease when it is not filled, the voice that gives itself the freedom to just be.
A cluster of white azaleas. (Facebook/蔣勳)
A cluster of white azaleas. (Facebook/蔣勳)

In the pale light of early spring, perhaps the easiest thing to spot in the city is the azalea. Reddish-purple, orange or white, these beautiful and vibrant flowers can be found everywhere — along road shoulders, in parks or at schools. They bloom in tight clusters; like spring brimming over, pouring forth onto the city in rivers or seas of flowers.

Perhaps the flower that is most frequently seen is also the flower that is least noticed.

Because the azalea blooms are so densely packed, it is sometimes hard to make out the shape of each flower, making it difficult to paint an azalea flower using the classical realism method. The flower is perhaps a more suitable study for impressionists, the masters of colour and intricate layerings of light and shadow.

Take the azalea before me, I see a sea of different shades of white: white with a tinge of green; white with various undertones of grey; a glowing white scorched by the dazzling sunlight; and whites in the warm colour palette, carrying with them accents of the colour yellow, like the whites of rice and those of milk... all in an interplay of light and shadow. 

Tight clusters of pink azaleas. (iStock)

“White” is not a one-dimensional word. The human retina recognises 400 shades of white which occupy the largest area in the visible spectrum.

White is almost like a mirror that reflects a plethora of colours. When it reflects blue light, it becomes moon white (月白, yuebai). When it reflects red light, it becomes rouge powder-white (粉白, fenbai). Pearl white and jade white also reflect light of different colour temperatures. But white is not exactly a mirror — even as it reflects a variety of colour shades, it does not lose itself.

The word “white” combines with various other words in Chinese to form a universe of words and phrases. However, to comprehend the “white” in Tang dynasty poet Zhang Ruoxu’s poem, such as his description of “snowflakes falling through moonlight in emptiness” or “invisible white sand on the waterfront”, observing a cluster of azaleas in spring's light would probably bring us closer to that world than studying the colour pigments of zinc white, titanium white, silver white, clamshell white, or lead powder white. 

Is becoming "invisible" the visual apex of the colour white? Under the moonlight, even snowflakes and sand have turned into visual emptiness.   

In oriental art, “white” represents a shift from visual reality to the inner state of mind, such as in liubai (留白, lit. “leave white”), or the incorporation of negative (white) spaces as seen in Song dynasty paintings. While liubai is “not drawing”, its existence is even more essential than “drawing”. It exemplifies the understanding that images are like life — there is no need to fill it all up, but leave a little more space, and give a little more leeway.  

Ma Yuan, Angler on a Wintry Lake (《寒江独钓图》), Tokyo National Museum. (Internet)
Ma Yuan, Solitary Angler on the Wintry River (《寒江独钓图》), Southern Song period (13th century), Tokyo National Museum. Along the concept of liubai, an angler is seen in a small boat on a vast river. (Internet)

Liubai is the heart’s blank space. Imagine a room — a space with furniture is “filled up”, while a space without furniture is “empty”. In our daily activities of walking, running, sitting and sleeping, sometimes we are “occupied”, and at other times we are “empty” of activities.

I hope that one day, after experiencing love and hatred, I would finally understand that “letting go” is the liubai of “holding on”.

A line in Tang dynasty poet Wang Wei’s poem says, “The river flows beyond the heavens and earths.” This expresses emptiness in our visual spaces, just like the next line which says, “The mountains loom and fade.”

When “silence conveys more than words”, it is about auditory liubai; when a taste is “light”, it describes liubai in our gustatory experience. What about when one is liberated, could it be about liubai in our tactile senses? Passing through a fragrant pine forest, I yearn for liubai in my olfactory senses after experiencing a rich floral scent. 

People watch Lunar New Year fireworks while wearing protective masks as they wait to enter a temple in Taipei, Taiwan, 12 February 2021. (Ann Wang/Reuters)
Lunar New Year fireworks go off as people wait to enter a temple in Taipei, Taiwan, 12 February 2021. (Ann Wang/Reuters)

Life is filled with endless events, piled up by way too many memories, and shrouded in conflicts and hearsay. Is the liubai that I long for “forgetting”?

“Too much colour makes one blind, and too much sound makes one deaf.” Lao-Tzu has long warned us of the dangers of sensory overload. “An overindulgence in sensory-stimulating activities makes the heart go crazy” — can we still find the heart’s liubai after our blind pursuit of the colourful world outside? I hope that one day, after experiencing love and hatred, I would finally understand that “letting go” is the liubai of “holding on”.

I stared at this cluster of azaleas for a long time until the light and shadows shifted, as if my gaze had found a reason to persist.

Related: As pure as the driven snow, in a virtual and surreal world | What is the colour of 青春 (qingchun), or youth? | Did Confucius abhor the colour purple?