Zhu Derun on Primordial Chaos

November 30th, 2007

A 1349 painting by Zhu Derun, reproduced in Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting.

Primordial Chaos

Hunlu tu [Primordial Chaos], handscroll, ink on paper, p163. Click image for larger version.

James Cahill describes the painting: “Hunlun refers to the great undifferentiated matter out of which the cosmos was formed, and the philosophical intent of the work is stated in Zhu’s inscription, which takes the form of a brief essay on this Daoist cosmological concept. Hunlun, he writes, is not square but round, not round but square. Before the appearance of heaven and earth there were no forms, and yet forms existed; after the appearance of heaven and earth forms existed, but their constant expansion and contraction, or unfurling and furling, makes them beyond measuring.

“The work, in keeping with this theme, is part picture, part cosmic diagram. The objects in it represent, among other things, states of transformation, or rates of growth and decay: very slow in the earth and rock, somewhat faster in the pine, faster still in the wind-blown, ‘unfurling’ vines. One might be tempted to read the circle at the right as another symbol of change, the inconstant moon, or its reflection in the water, but it is too large and too abstract to encourage that reading and must in some way represent the circular hunlun itself… The drawing of the swirling vines seems also to have loosened itself from representation and entered the realm of the abstract and diagrammatic. One could also see Zhu Derun’s rendering of the bank, rock, pine, and grasses as similarly driven more by brush momentum than by attention to forms” (p163).

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