Zhiyi Yang

Associate Professor of Sinology, University of Frankfurt (Germany)
Faculty Advisor: Martin Kern
Title:  Dialectics of Spontaneity: Art, Nature, and Persona in the Life and Works of Su Shi (1037-1101)
Abstract:  "Spontaneity” is a central albeit problematic concept in Chinese and European aesthetics and ethics. Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037-1101), whose literary and artistic creativity opened a new era in Chinese aesthetics, is regarded as a “natural” and “spontaneous” genius. By examining his life and works, this dissertation aims to reveal the paradoxes and dialectics beneath the ideological construct of “spontaneity.” Through close reading, the rhetoric of spontaneity is found to define Su Shi’s artistic pursuit, justify his material possession (in the form of connoisseurship), fashion a literary and political persona, and provide religious relief. Further, after rejecting the naïve notion of “spontaneity” as unpremeditated, unintentional, and immediate, I attempt to present a more nuanced understanding of spontaneity that embraces mediacy, including materiality, craft, learning, rules, ritual, and tradition. Such a dialectic notion consistently underlies Su Shi’s diverse writings on art and natural beauty and is based upon his theory of human nature. Throughout this project, close reading is integrated with critical thinking, informed by a range of theories and perspectives. Chinese native intellectual traditions that have influenced Su Shi’s thinking are examined as such. Western aesthetic, anthropological, and ethical theories provide systems of reference. The internal logic in Su Shi’s thinking on related issues leads my inquiry from the aesthetics of art to the aesthetics of nature, and finally to ethics (defined as the study of the best-lived life). This dissertation is accordingly divided into three parts, each consisting of two chapters. The first part problematizes the notion of “artistic spontaneity” by analyzing the role and function of art as “skillful means” in the pursuit of enlightenment. Su Shi’s understanding of human nature provides a common basis for his theories on artistic and ethical spontaneity alike. The second part discusses how natural beauty is constructed as the paradigm of art and, in this very process, becomes the after-image of art. Su Shi’s connoisseur literature on flowers and rocks are examined, and the historical transformations in the cultural meaning of related natural objects are discussed. The third part discusses Su Shi’s pursuit of complete spiritual and corporeal spontaneity. He emulated the cultural models of ancient poets and practiced the occult art of Daoist alchemy; in both kinds of activities ritualized behavior and cultural paradigms functioned as medium. Thus his understandings of artistic and ethical spontaneity share the same dialectic model: not only both are mediated, but both mean unimpeded resignation in the course of active and constant self-improvement.