Metamorphosis pp 175-186 | Cite as

The Primacy of Gesture: Phenomenology and the Art of Chinese Calligraphy

  • Stephen J. Goldberg
Part of the Analecta Husserliana book series (ANHU, volume 81)


Shufa 書法 the Chinese ‘art of writing’, commonly referred to in the West as ‘calligraphy’, addresses us, across generations and geographies, as embodied viewing-subjects. It ‘appeals’ to us, as it were, in its visuality and performativity as the material expression of an ‘interlocutor’ from the past. Interpreted as gestural expression, it elicits zhiyi 知己‘recognition of the true self of the writer. This is often referred to in traditional writings on calligraphy as xinyin 心印, or ‘inscription of the heart-mind’. Xin 心, or ‘heart-mind’, is a traditional, non-dualistic conception of the embodied subject. What is at issue is precisely how recognition (zhi 知)— the basic relation we have with others and the world — functions in a distinctive way within calligraphy. Interpreted within the context of traditional Chinese culture, these ‘signs of self’ are motivated by the writer’s desire (yu欲) forzhiyi zhe 知己,1 ‘one who recognizes the self.


Perceptual Experience Literary Text Traditional Chinese Culture Brush Stroke Gestural Movement 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    This comes from the phrase “A man dies for one who appreciates his value,” in Sima Qian’s Shiji, Vol. 8, p. 2519.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Indirect Languages and the Voices of Silence,” in Signs, trans. Richard C. McCleary ( Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964 ), p. 51.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Ibid., p. 12.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Ibid., p. 25.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Ibid., p. 13.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
  7. 7.
    Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “The Primacy of Perception,” in James M. Edie The Primacy of Perception and Other Essays on Phenomenological Psychology, the Philosophy of Art, History and Politics ( Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964 ), p. 13.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Elizabeth Grosz, “Merleau-Ponty and Irigaray in the Flesh,” in Dorothea Olkowski and James Morley (eds.), Interiority and Exteriority, Physic Life and the World ( Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999 ), pp. 146–147.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, Trans. Alphonso Lingis ( Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968 ).Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Eye and Mind,” in The Primacy of Perception, p. 163.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    This was implicitly recognized in traditional Chinese treatises on calligraphy in their invocation of a correlative discourse that draws a general sense of analogy between nature, body and sign. Bizhen tu (Diagram of the Battle Formation of the Brush), an early treatise on calligraphy attributed variously to Wei Furan (272–349) and Wang Xizhi (321–379), speaks of qualities of brush work in terms of corporeal imagery such as: ‘bone’, ‘flesh’, ‘sinew’, ‘heart’, and ‘blood’. In another passage from the Bizhen tu, the patterned relations of configurational forces experienced in a written character are conceived as the visual correlative of the dynamic patterns of vital forces (qi) in nature. Among the natural imagery evoked in a description of the proper execution of the individual brushstrokes of the character yung, referred to as the “diagram of the battle formation of the brush.” are: “a cloud formation stretching a thousand li; indistinct, but not without form’’; “like a stone falling from a high peak, bouncing and crashing, about to shatter the ground”; “a withered vine, ten thousand years old”; “crashing waves or rolling thunder.”Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Helen Fielding, “Envisioning the Other: Lacan and Merleau-Ponty on Intersubjectivity,” in Dorothea Olkowski and James Morley (eds.), Interiority and Exteriority, Physic Life and the World (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999), p. 191. Despite his inclusionary concept of visual perception as entwined with other sensory modalities, Merleau-Ponty persists in privileging ocular experience. This is true as well of Jacques Lacan, whose concept of the “self” is constituted in imaginary relation to the specular other. It originates in the child’s relation to his image, during what Lacan, in 1936, called “the mirror stage.” Merleau-Ponty and Lacan, each in their own ways, both imply a notion of the self as “ocular subject” which is axiomatic in Western representational theories, but is incommensurate with Chinese cultural practices.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    David L. Rolston, ed. How to Read the Chinese Novel, 1990, pp. 95–96.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Ting Wen-chun, Essential Principles of Calligraphy (Shufa jinglun), published in 1938, quoted and translated in Jean François Billeter, The Chinese Art of Writing, (New Yok: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc. 1990 ), p. 184.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • Stephen J. Goldberg
    • 1
  1. 1.Hamilton CollegeUSA

Personalised recommendations