In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Aesthetics

  • Introduction
  • Journals

Chinese Studies Aesthetics
Cheng Jiang, Zong-Qi Cai
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0160


Chinese aesthetics is largely a grand reconstructive project. The term “Chinese aesthetics,” usually translated as “study of beauty” 美學, did not exist in pre-20th-century Chinese text. The term has been adopted since the 20th century to denote a theoretical study of general principles and ideals that govern the production, transmission, and reception of all forms of Chinese literature and arts, including poetry, calligraphy, painting, sculpture, architecture, gardening, and music, among others. Distinct features of Chinese aesthetics lie in its well-integrated interdisciplinary approach, its avoidance of rigid dichotomies, its balancing of binary opposites, and its firm grounding in the sociopolitical realities. In particular, Chinese aesthetics prizes an integration and transcendence of objective representation and emotional expression. Strong personal feelings are often transformed into collective sentiments of human relationships and experience. In this sense, Chinese aesthetics stresses not objective imitation but rather emotional communication, foregrounding the refined refinement and edification of natural desire. Therefore, Chinese aesthetics cannot be said to be either representational or expressive, in any absolute sense. Chinese aesthetics also develops a rich repertoire of concepts, terms, and categories. By manipulating the polysemous key terms, scholars of premodern Chinese aesthetics strive to create new perspectives and narratives, while inheriting and incorporating the tradition of both native and Western aesthetics. Modern critics endeavored to reinterpret those traditional views within the frameworks of modern aesthetics. In developing the Chinese theory of aesthetics, Chinese scholars have endeavored to acknowledge the polysemous terms and concepts, and create new critique perspectives derived from traditional Chinese writings on literature and arts. The integration of poetry, painting, and calligraphy is another hallmark of traditional Chinese aesthetic thought and practice. The so-called “three perfections” (in poetry, painting, and calligraphy) has been a lofty ideal of Chinese literati. Chinese aesthetic pursuit goes beyond the three perfections. From the three perfections in high literati art, the pursuit of Chinese aesthetics encompasses all forms of arts, including the “art of living.” Also falling into the province of Chinese aesthetics is the philosophical base of governance, social and cultural ideals, and the pursuit spiritual transcendence, among others. Artistic and literary production in China has always been intertwined with political aspirations, social critiques, and intellectual endeavors. Therefore, aesthetics has always played a key role in shaping Chinese understanding of society, humanity, and cultural identity.

General Overviews

Given its distinctive provenance and continuous development, Chinese aesthetics constitutes a most coherent and inclusive system encompassing a broad spectrum of disciplines. This overview presents major works on Chinese aesthetics under four headings. Under History of Chinese Aesthetics are either works on comprehensive histories of Chinese aesthetics or studies of its development in particular periods. Selected works in Comprehensive Studies consists of works on fundamental principles and ideals in the history of Chinese aesthetics. Based on the first two subsections, Terms, Concepts, and Methods suggests works consisting of in-depth inquiries into unique, key terms, and concepts in the Chinese aesthetic tradition, in an effort to investigate unique features of Chinese aesthetics. Intellectual Foundation features works that investigate the intellectual underpinnings of Chinese aesthetics, focusing on the intricate relationship between Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist thought.

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