Cheng, Xiangzhan. Sheng-sheng Eco-aesthetics (Aesthetics of Creating Life) Analects, People’s Publisher, 2012.
Written By: Yiyi He
Chinese ecocritic and aesthetician Xiangzhan Cheng’s anthology, Sheng-sheng Eco-aesthetics Analects (2012) collects a decade’s worth of his Chinese academic essays. Cheng demonstrates an evolution throughout his research that covers the transition from literary aesthetics (文艺美学) to the construction of ecological aesthetics (生态美学), along with the relationship between ecological aesthetics and environmental aesthetics (环境美学). He also pays attention to urban aesthetics as well as somaesthetics. His research includes perspectives from ancient and modern times, in both Chinese and foreign contexts. Cheng’s book serves as a helpful guide for researchers who are interested in the field of ecocriticism, eco-aesthetics and comparative literature in both the East and the West and paves the way for the construction of a Chinese school of ecocriticism and eco-aesthetics.
In this anthology, Cheng compiles major research results and clarifies the key theoretical concepts that have absorbed his attention between 2002 and 2012. One of the major contributions of this book is Cheng’s working definition for “Sheng-sheng eco-aesthetics,” or the aesthetics of creating life. Sheng-sheng eco-aesthetics is a response to contemporary ecological and universal ethical movements, taking the traditional Chinese idea of life as a philosophical ontology, value orientation, and civilizational concept that moves seamlessly between “天地大美” (the great beauty of heaven and earth) as the highest aesthetic ideal (5). Cheng cautions against new terminology for the sake of attracting academic attention without a solid theoretical grounding (1). Cheng’s “Sheng-sheng eco-aesthetics” is based on his unique understanding of ancient Chinese ecological wisdom and philosophy as well as a critique of the negative aspects of civilization or what he calls “文弊” (civilizational evils). He urges the Chinese academy to take a role beyond serving as a contemporary cultural “footnote” by focusing on the transcendence of these “cultural evils,” which is both more critical and revolutionary in scope (5-7). To this aim, Cheng provides a new analytical method called “互动诠释” (interactive interpretation) which reciprocally engages with texts from both the East and the West, and ancient and contemporary times (12-13). He suggests Marxist theories can serve as a foundation for the interpretation of ancient Chinese literary theories such as the germinal text 文心雕龙 (Wen Xin Diao Long), the first systematic work of literary theory and theoretical criticism in China, written during the Northern and Southern Dynasties by Liu Xie (13-14). Alternatively, Chinese literary theories can also serve as foundational texts for the reading of western theories (14-17). This mutual process may become helpful in the promotion of a better Sino-Western conversation.
Heated debates between the East and the West have been waged concerning the actual existence of “philosophy” or more specifically “aesthetics” in the Chinese context. Cheng calls the study of “美” (beauty) of arts in China “境界” (Jing Jie), a system first proposed within Chinese literary theory by the Chinese literati and aesthetician Guowei Wang and later developed by Chinese philosopher Youlan Feng. Jing Jie provides a similar focus as does the Western notion of “aesthetics.” They both fundamentally insist, for example, that aesthetical pleasure can be gained from an entanglement or interflow between humans and nature. However, Cheng believes that the Chinese approach to aesthetics and, more specifically the aesthetics of objects, promotes the reception of aesthetic pleasure in a way that serves as a departure from the holistic philosophical construction of aesthetics in the Western world. Along these lines, Cheng references Chinese philosophers Fuguan Xu’s and Pu Pang’s positions, which place Chinese philosophy as a mediator between physical and metaphysical dimensions. Xu begins by pointing out the basic characteristic of Chinese culture, a culture of the “心” (heart) and cites the bridging of these dimensions through their definitions. He explains the notion “形而上者谓之道，形而下者谓之器” in the Book of Changes further as what is above humans is called Tao or Heaven; what is below humans is called the artifacts (Xu 213; qtd in Cheng 97). Xu’s approach places humankind in the middle of these two realms yet tethered by “形而中者谓心” (213) or what is in the middle is called the heart, while Pang, refers to the middle place as “象” (the form), namely “形而中者谓之象” (Pang 231; qtd in Cheng 97). Both reveal a tendency to position Chinese philosophy as existing as an intermediary which highly values the heart, located in the middle of the human body, emphasizing the emotional faculty of the human being as a core feature in the Chinese way of thinking/being.
Cheng’s “Sheng-sheng eco-aesthetics” also positions Chinese aesthetics as a form of ecological aesthetics in that its core values offer a new perspective into the intersection between ecology and aesthetics (Cheng 2). It applies an ecological lens to the understanding of aesthetics, and conversely, views the ecology aesthetically. Cheng points out the major differences between ecological aesthetics in China and Western environmental aesthetics. According to Cheng, environmental aesthetics is often considered to be the antithesis of artistic aesthetics, serving instead as a critical transcendence of artistic aesthetics (especially in the West), while he argues that the antithesis of ecological aesthetics is actually the traditional “non-ecological aesthetics,” that is, “aesthetics without ecological consciousness” (Cheng 203). In short, environmental aesthetics is a theoretical perspective on the “aesthetic object or target” (203). It asks whether the aesthetic object has to do with the artifacts of artistic production or whether they are products of the environment itself (203). Meanwhile, another core concern centers on how one may conduct aesthetic activities with an ecological consciousness. In a word, ecological aesthetics develops a theoretical perspective on the “aesthetic approach” (203), the way one can better understand and appreciate the aesthetic object. In one of his anthologized essays, “The Differences between Eco-aesthetics and Environmental Aesthetics,” Cheng points out that there are five academic positions researchers tend to take concerning ecological and environmental aesthetics, among which he sides with the fifth: to develop ecological aesthetics with reference to environmental aesthetics (Cheng 187). Cheng’s research forms a productive dialogue with Western aestheticians. Canadian environmental aesthetician Allen Carlson responds to Cheng’s question concerning the lack of clarity between Eastern eco-aesthetics and Western environmental aesthetics.
Cheng’s anthology serves as a foundational work for the construction of Chinese eco-aesthetics in general and Sheng-sheng aesthetics in particular. One drawback of this Chinese anthology is that Cheng’s English essays, which have directly influenced Western academia, have not been included due to necessary limits in the overall scope set by the publisher, so one may consider the book to serve as a key feature of research without encompassing the entirety of Cheng’s influence to the field as a whole.
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Cheng, Xiangzhan. 2012. Sheng-sheng Eco-aesthetics (Aesthetics of Creating Life), People’s Publisher.
Carlson, Allen. 2017. “The Relationship between Eastern Eco-aesthetics and Western Environmental Aesthetics.” Philosophy East and West, 67, no.1 (January): 117-139.
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