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Contemporary Philosophical Aesthetics in China: A Re-reading of the Aesthetics Notion of Ganxing
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Eva Kit Wah Man

1. Modern Aesthetics System and the Notion of Ganxing

It is said that aestheticians today, including art critics and philosophers, yearn for a return to aesthetic experience, which would act as a foundation enabling resistance to pure discursive reflection and intertextuality. These debates, concerning ontologically based norms, are among the most important in contemporary Western aesthetics. Yet the same concern is shared by a younger generation of aestheticians in Socialist China in the 1990s. The so-called “aesthetic Ganxing,” a term suggested to replace the old term “aesthetic experience,” has become the central concept of an aesthetic system these scholars are developing. The new development reveals issues concerning subjective autonomy and the social context in contemporary Chinese aesthetics.

The new system of aesthetics was first developed in a book entitled Modern Aesthetics System edited by Ye Lang, the leading aesthetician at Beijing University, and was published in 1988. The book was written collectively by a group of young aestheticians, aimed to form a basic textbook for colleges and readers nationwide introducing aesthetic theories using a new aesthetics model. The book sought to describe the system at its present stage of development with the understanding that it was part of a long-term research effort to construct a new form of aesthetics in China. The agenda is to manifest the four constructing principles: acting as a dialogue of traditional and contemporary aesthetics, acting as the merger of Chinese and Western aesthetics, integrating aesthetics with related studies, and enhancing the advancement of both theoretical and applied aesthetics.
One can note the overall Marxist tone both in its basic structure and intention. An examination of the core notion of the system will enable us to better understand this trend of contemporary aesthetics in China, which deals with issues of autonomy and social context.
2. Analysis of the Aesthetic Notion Ganxing

Modern Aesthetics System offers what the authors describe as the “semantic anatomy” of the term “ganxing” and a description of its process. The term is intended to replace the older terms “aesthetic experience” or “aesthetic consciousness.” Their claim is that ganxing represents a more realistic picture of the processes of aesthetic psychology. This claim reflects the scientific and psychological inclinations of young Chinese aestheticians, which are clearly under the epistemological influences of the new Marxist regime. The term “ganxing” is used in traditional Chinese aesthetics. “Gan” means the perception of an object and “xing” means the subject’s response to the perception. In the contemporary appropriation of the term, it refers to an interplay between the aesthetic subject and object in a manner that is analytically richer than “aesthetic experience.”
The process of aesthetic ganxing has three stages: aesthetic preparation, aesthetic response and aesthetic extension.3 The stage of aesthetic preparation includes aesthetic attention and aesthetic expectation. The result of this stage is an orientation system or a psychological attitude toward the object. With aesthetic attention, the interest and attitude of the subject is attracted by the mode, style and content of the object, which anticipates an immediate aesthetic experience. The authors borrowed Roman Ingarden’s term “anxious desire” to describe this state.4 We note that in this initial stage, the subject is disinterested. The aesthetic response includes aesthetic perception, imagination and insight. Aesthetic perception is regarded as the ground of aesthetic response in which the perceived data has formed a “gestalt” of the schema or integrated image, which also constitutes its preparation as an aesthetic object. We note that the perceiving subject is not passive, for one conducts the selection of data according to one’s inclination and aesthetic feelings. The response is read as the result of both the physical properties of the object and the attitudes of the subject. The former may be the material, volume, color, sound, speed, toughness or luster of the object that form what is called an “energy entity” to be appropriated by the perceiving subject. Out of this arise the feelings of a “corresponding structure” between the physical field of the subject and the “energy entity” of the object.

The aesthetic imagination that follows aesthetic perception claims to allow more freedom. While the form of perceptual image is usually formed according to the physical properties of the object, imagination acts on it, reorganizes and reformulates it in arbitrary and creative ways corresponding to the attitudes of the subject. As a result, an aesthetic image is formed, which is the art itself – and called “aesthetic insight.”5 One can see here that the final stage of aesthetic ganxing is the aesthetic extension. The authors describe this stage as an “aesthetic aftertaste” in which the subject is more relaxed and reflects on and enjoys the aesthetic images thus formed.

The proposed new system conducts qualitative analyses and defines the five natures of aesthetic ganxing as disinterestedness, intuitiveness, creativity, transcendence and pleasantness.6 Disinterestedness is said to be the nature of the aesthetic attitude when the subject is attracted by the aesthetic values of the object and succeeds in holding an appropriate psychic distance with it, enabling the subject to be free from practical considerations. (This reminds one of Edward Bullough’s theory of distancing which was introduced to China and translated by Zhu Guangqin in the 1930s). Intuitiveness happens when the subject contemplates the sensuous form of the object and formulates an aesthetic image via imagination. This is a process of intuition in which the fullness and the richness of the object is grasped and created. Creativity is the aesthetic activity of the subject’s imagination, which has gone beyond the discovery process of the object and works on the schema perceived. At this stage, the subject “invents” an image. We note that authors of Modern Aesthetics System have used the concept of constitution suggested by Ernst Cassirer and that of “intentionality structure” in phenomenology to explicate the creativity concerned. They emphasize the confinement presented by the physical form of the object in relation to the freedom of imagination. Transcendence, again, refers to the creativity of aesthetic imagination, which enables the subject to transcend the physical conditions of the object. Finally, pleasantness is the freedom and resonance gained from the corresponding structure formed during aesthetic perception and the creative responses in the process of imagination.

While the authors use descriptive terminologies in Chinese that are usually applied to the realm of the metaphysical Dao or Nature in traditional Chinese aesthetics, they are, in fact, referring to a Western mode of subject and object duality. The discourse is different from that in traditional Chinese aesthetics, which present aesthetic process as a stage before the differentiation of the subject and the object and which happens in the realm of the Dao with subjective engagement.
3. A Review of A New Proposal in Contemporary Chinese Aesthetics 

What the authors claim to achieve from their notion of aesthetic ganxing is to avoid old problems in the history of Western aesthetics. They say that in the past, the subject and object dichotomy and the objective observation model have created problematic discussion of the origin of beauty. The old question remains: “Is beauty in the subject or in the object?” Here they quote Marx’s criticism of old materialisms, which understand objects or reality from an objective and static point of view, instead of understanding them in the form of practical activity of human beings.7
The authors have also drawn on Western theories of empathy, especially the ideas of Theodore Lipps, which has also been introduced to and translated in China by Zhu Guangqin in the 1930s. Lipps’s theory is read as “a dissolution of the separation of subject and object” which is identified as the aim of the Modern Aesthetics System.This orientation is also recognized as being part of what they call “Western experiential philosophies” and their aesthetics. The term includes the various phenomenological positions of Husserl, Heidegger and Gadamer. Husserl’s notions of intentionality and phenomenological reduction, Heidegger’s “Dasein” and Gadamer’s “Erlebnis” are all evoked as descriptions of the intentional structure they suggest in which subject and object are integrated. They also claim that the aesthetic structure suggested resembles that of Classical Chinese aesthetics.9 Finally, to ensure that their theory is all encompassing, the authors also insist that the basic tone is Marxism. 
It is the attempt to hold such disparate theories together that becomes problematic. They have to have it both ways: on the one hand insist on a full integration of the subject and the object, on the other, hold a separation of subject and object in order to ensure the objective, material status of the object and to avoid being accused of falling prey to Western idealism.10 This tension appears from time to time when they adopt a philosopher’s notion and then criticize it. For example, after drawing on Lipps’s notion of empathy as a model of subject and object integration, they then criticize it as over-emphasizing on the objectification of the subject leading to the conclusion that beauty is in the subject.11 
One question one might ask at this point is: how new is this notion of aesthetic ganxing? As pointed out, the problem with aesthetic ganxing is its attempt to combine and position itself amongst diverse and conflicting philosophical positions. The attempt swings among Marxism, classical Chinese philosophies, Western theories of empathy, phenomenologies and psychologies etc. Such a diverse and confused combination produces ambiguities and contradictions.  On the one hand they emphasize a physical correspondence structure between the subject and the object, taking it as the ground of aesthetic process, on the other, they rely heavily on the faculty of imagination that transcends the physicality of the object. This results in what they call a “resembling or not” correspondence relation. Finding the balance between objectivist and subjectivist positions is the core challenge. Modern Aesthetics System sounds at times objectivist and at times subjectivist. 
The authors’ relationship to Marxism is also difficult to settle.  At one time they try to solve the old aesthetic problem regarding the subject and object dichotomy and draw support from traditional Chinese aesthetics, at the same time they keep Marxist thesis of the separate spheres of subject and object and stress on the function of the object, as they claim that their new proposal is “fundamentally Marxist and unique.” They may have appropriated many ideas from classical Chinese aesthetics into the notion of ganxing and describe the spiritual response of the subject, but there is no further explication nor discussion on the possible merge of the classical Chinese aesthetics and Marxist aesthetics in this modern proposal.
4. The Deweyan Influence in Contemporary China 

One important reference and scheme that is waiting to be mentioned is the strong Deweyan fervors in the notion of ganxing. It should not be a surprise that John Dewey’s pragmatic philosophy has also become a strong influence on young aestheticians in China. Since Dewey’s visit to China in the 1920s, he has gained popularity for his philosophy and education ethos except during the eras of the cultural revolution. His works are translated in numerous Chinese versions, including Art as Experience, his representing work in aesthetics. The work is still frequently discussed and debated in China in the 2000s. In the heat of the revival of Chinese traditional thoughts, guoxue, under the promotion of neo-nationalism stressed by the party leaders of the PRC today, it will be interesting to see how the Deweyan model is incorporated into new Chinese aesthetics.

Both models state the relation of art and value and trace it down to what happens in the aesthetic experience. The Deweyan model represents a belief in the biological and natural needs of a human subject, regarding aesthetic experience as an intense, direct, immediate and integrated manifestation of the interaction of human and the natural living environment. Dewey has also recognized a sense of happiness as the product of the subject’s physical adjustment, leading to an experience with a satisfying emotional quality, for “it possesses internal integration and fulfillment reached through ordered and organized movement.”12 The fulfillment refers to a feeling that things are “just so,” and that is the rightness and coherence manifested in art. Hence, the aesthetic experience is described as the live experience of value of human beings, referring to the equilibrium and the harmony attained in the interaction and the adjustment, which is so “delightful.” It is interesting to see the similarities and parallel readings between Dewey’s notion of “art as experience” and the five natures of aesthetic ganxing as disinterestedness, intuitiveness, creativity, transcendence and pleasantness.
One can also detect the harmonious state in the aesthetic experience in traditional Chinese aesthetics, yet the differences between them are both epistemological and metaphysical. The Daoist, for instance, emphasizes that the achievement of this state requires effort of transcendence of all human epistemological constraints. The more clear and tranquil is the human mind, the more it is able to know, in the light of the tranquil state, that things will present themselves in the way that they are, not as an object, but as an ideal state, which is also a “just so.” While the “just so” or the rightness described by Dewey refers to the successful adjustment between the subject and the living environment, the “just so” in traditional Chinese aesthetics results in an ontological manifestation of things under the light of the human mind, which can see things-in-themselves when it is engaged with the metaphysical Nature and Heaven. The happiness or delight in the Deweyan sense, if based on a biological dimension, should be different from that being at the spiritual level or in the light of the wisdom implied in the traditional Chinese aesthetics. The former is lacking of the depth in the meaning of ultimate concern with what things and their values should be. In brief, successful environmental adjustment is not equal to a completion of essential manifestation in their inputs to an answer related to art and value, though both claims are debatable.
One can describe the traditional Chinese aesthetics (the Daoist specially) as the “ontological aesthetics of the realm of the Dao,” which has its own problems to solve, as it has to answer the problems of the art world, the mediation process, and artistic knowledge, for example. Yet it is clear that contemporary Chinese aestheticians in the PRC have not advocated the ontological aesthetics in the faithful sense, which one may say is an aftermath of the Marxist influences. They are more enthusiastic in re-exploring the Western aesthetics and the Deweyan aesthetics, digging down in them and finding things that would fit with their newly proposed aesthetic notions like ganxing. If the end of aesthetic experience has now become a common concern, linked with the worry that people are losing the capacity for deep experience and feeling in the contemporary age of living, an aesthetics that is concerned with and has the belief in the capacity and the potentiality of the human mind may provide a way to reflect on the reconstruction of the experience. Chinese aesthetics in the contemporary scene has more concerns to add on, which is the reflection on the differences and the possible integration between its traditional aesthetics and Western aesthetics, and the application of its new aesthetical thoughts to its rapidly developing art scenes and social living environment.13


1. Ye, Lang. (ed). Modern Aesthetics System (Peking: Peking University Press, 1988), 2.

2. Ibid., 167-171.

3. Ibid., 171-202.

4. Ibid., 173-174,

5. Ibid., 188.

6. Ibid., 202-238.

7. Ibid., 529.

8. Ibid., 542.

9. Ibid., 565.

10. Ibid., 541.

11. Ibid., 546.

12. Dewey, J. Art as Experience (New York.: Perigee Books, 1980), 35.

13. This article is a revised version of “Contemporary Philosophical Aesthetics in China: The Relation between Subject and Object,” Philosophy Compass 7 (2012): 164-173.
 2013 © Eva Kit Wah Man

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