Chinese Panorama

The Implicit Authority in Chinese Panorama by Siyuan Ma (Max)

Word Count: 1191

Reading The Art of Narrative – Towards the Floating Work of Art, I can’t help connecting an old Chinese panoramic painting in my mind, described as “Chinese Mona Lisa” by Wiki. It is a panoramic view of Kaifeng, the imperial capital of Song dynasty for 167 years. A City of Cathay—literally “Along the River During the Qing Ming Festival”[1][2]— portrays important identifiable sites such as Buddhist temples, groceries, and rivers. This painting meets all the definitions of panorama in the article, which is “a school of perspectives”, “all to see”,  “the dissolving of subjects”, and etc.


link to this painting


link to this painting

[1] [2]A City of Cathay— “Along the River During the Qing Ming Festival”

The painting was finished around the year 1100 and paid tribute to Hui zong, the king of Song dynasty in 1101. Song dynasty[3][4], according to British scholar Joseph Needham, is the most culturally enlightened and technologically achieved period in China history. As well as the comparatively democratic government form, the increasing availability of techniques contributed to fuelling the desire for literacy and cultural needs, which lead to a flourishing period filled with uncountable artists, pioneers, experimentalists and mechanicians. Even Hui zong, the king himself was a master in painting and calligraphy[5]. And in China’s four major technological inventions, 3 were invented in Song period, which are compass, gunpowder, and movable-type printing.

b25d99017ceda59a277fb59011 china_11a

[3] [4]Map of Beisong


[5] Hui zong’s painting

Also, Song dynasty was the most prosperous and the closest to democracy period. The then China’s GDP was $26.55 billion, accounting for 22.7% of the total world economy. The kings were constantly advised, admonished or even criticized by ministers, which was remarkably phenomenal in China. As believed, the Chinese culture, after thousands of years of revolution, reached the peak of perfection in Song dynasty. However, after 126 years from 1101, the year panoramic painting was finished, Beisong dynasty came to an end. The progressive politics, the rare inventions, the masterful paintings and calligraphy works, all vanished in the flames of years of wars. 126 years, from its zenith to grave. The crucial part is that the abortive democratic seed made people suffer in totalitarian society ever since.

Then in the 18th century, the muse of panorama painting came to Europe, hitting an Irish painter Robert Barker, whose panoramic paintings of Edinburgh and London were exhibited in 1792, a time right in the middle of Age of Machines and late Enlightenment Age, which was a flourishing time when various theories in sociology and technology were initiated. Then, a personal curiosity of mine leads me to a shock. The question is what happened in Europe after 126 years from 1792?

The answer is 1918, in which year the First World War ended.

As concluded in this equation,

First panorama in China    +  126 years  =  End of Song dynasty

First panorama in Europe  +  126 years  =  World War I

Then, what do the 2 magic panorama paintings have in common?

Although the paintings both convey a view of human equality, no authority, no central voice, no absolute dominance, I still think there is an assumption implied in these 2 paintings, that in the space created by the paintings, the real center is the viewer. The viewer can experience the privileged position of authority, or a higher power enjoying this painting. The Chinese painting was originally designed for one person, the king himself, who held power and authority, and the Irish painting, for those individuals in Europe starting to treat themselves the center of universe with rational thinking taking over religious tradition. Panorama, indeed doesn’t address individual inside the canvas but its purpose is to please the observers outside the canvas. Art is not for art’s sake. All in short, individualism rising, collectivism fading.

Human are seeking balance in individualism and collectivism all through history. But once in a while we would inevitably fall into extremism. The extreme collectivism goes to dictatorship and the extreme individualism goes to chaos leading to dictatorship or war. So that, to avoid extreme collectivism, individualism is necessary. People should unhesitatingly stand their grounds and fight for their own rights, especially for our easterners whose culture has been cultivated in totalitarian society for thousands of years. And to avoid extreme individualism, we could, maybe, start to “share our ground” by temporarily forgetting our desire to express ourselves on voting, changing, or on being different from others, by sharing the same moment with others and listening to a central voice coming from a book, an oral story, or a movie, the implied traditional old media forms. Nobody would forget the beauty of our fathers’ bed time story because the wisdom was being told through a unidirectional voice with paternal care. Also, modern people would occasionally get comforts from a favorite movie no matter how old it is. Sitting back silently and listening to the central voice coming from the speaker are just like our bed time story told by father. That is just the beauty of old media. Sit, watch, listen, and learn. Calmly, silently, concentratively and curiously.  Without any desire to pause it, to change it or, to interact with it. Because an underlying perception is that the babies, are taken good care of in caring hands. So are the audiences. Good care is expressed through the devoted performances, the directorial sills, the sincere plot and the continuity of the story. Favorite movie can powerfully resonate with our sense of the complexities and contradictions of life and it also makes audiences accept the care by making them feel how the characters feel, comprehending the director’s intention, and understanding a piece of truth revealed in the last ten minutes of the movie after the 60 minutes or more plot foreshadowing. Audiences’ patience in the matting part gets paid at the climax of the movie. And sharing the story with your beloved ones, or other audiences in Movie Theater brings with a sense of recognition. These all belong to the experiences in collective realm. Individualism are unconsciously fading away in this progress and after the progress, a new individual is born. So individualism and collectivism are mutualistic and are both necessary to human growth. If a generation is brought up in a pure atmosphere, bad things will happen. Keeping balance between individual and collective, new and old, and interactivity and independence is crucial to people. And the emphasis on old media can add to the comprehensiveness and application of new media.

In addition, in all the media forms, the ruler to measure its humanistic value lies in care. Without care for consumers’ mental need and personal convenience, a new media form is a flashy technique form used in media field without life. With care, it all makes difference.

Just like what has happened in the history of China. A common cognition is that as long as people get care from government, the form of polity is the last thing to concern. From the perspective of utilitarianism, it sounds reasonable, but maybe it is too rational. Without individual’s care in humanistic world, all we have experienced and are experiencing right now is the circle of democracy[6] through the ever changing yet identical dynasties for ages, even though the wisdom of panoramic painting, a seed of equality hit our ancestors as early as the year 1100.



Works Cited/For More Information:

Soke Dinkla, The Art of Narrative – Towards the Floating Work of Art

Alexander Fraser Tytler, Cycle of Democracy

Introduction of Song dynasty on Wiki

Introduction of Hui zong on Wiki

Introduction of Along the River of the Qing Ming Festival

images from google and wiki


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