Philosophy in Art: “Primordial Chaos” Painting

We as a class visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and had a tour through the Khubilai Khan exhibition. The exhibition featured Chinese art from the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), which was a time period when China was ruled by the powerful Mongol Empire. The art included paintings, pottery, and sculptures, and it reflected a number of different influences, including Buddhist, Hinduist, Daoist, Mongol, and Islamic.

One of the most intriguing paintings I discovered was the “Primordial Chaos” by Zhu Derun, painted in 1349. It portrays nature, just like many other Chinese paintings of that time. However, this painting is very peculiar for a number of reasons. Firstly, the tree in the painting is drawn in a quite abstract manner, with thin lines trailing off the top of the tree. Secondly, there is a perfect circle smack in the middle of the painting. The circle is central to the painting, and it was the first detail that caught my attention.

The perfect circle reflects the main theme of this work: primordial chaos. Primordial chaos is the transcendent reality that exists before the universe comes into being, and it is this reality that the circle symbolizes. The circle is of great significance in many philosophies, including Daoism. Zhu Derun was  fond of Daoism, and Daoist influences are apparent in his works. First of all, the circle as a shape represents eternity, because it has no beginning nor end (unlike a line, which is always finite). In addition, the circle is complete in itself; it is perfectly continuous and no matter which angle you look from, its appearance does not change. This conveys the idea that primordial reality is not only beyond time, but beyond spacial dimension as well. The empty background in this picture emphasizes the idea of a transcendent reality, which is beyond forms. Individual forms do not exist in primordial chaos, and yet all forms originate from it.

The fine lines that are trailing off the tree in the painting represent constant transformation in nature and the universe. They portray the philosophical truth that nothing in the universe is permanent; everything is in a state of constant change and transformation. The only thing that remains constant and absolute is the primordial chaos, which is represented by the circle. All forms, including the tree, are temporary expressions of the eternal Absolute.

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