Not dull, just perfectly balanced

In Praise of Blandness
October 29, 2004

Blandness is not at first sight a praiseworthy characteristic - indeed we may even see it as the absence of qualities rather than a positive characteristic in itself. But in Chinese thought and aesthetics dan, rendered by Francois Jullien as fadeur and by his translator here as "blandness", has long been recognised as a desirable quality of limpidity and plainness.

In this short book, first published in 1991 as Eloge de la Fadeur , Jullien examines different aspects of blandness in Chinese art and aesthetics, in a series of short meditations rather than a rounded academic monograph. Little of what he has to say will come as a surprise to readers familiar with Chinese aesthetics, though it is useful and thought-provoking to have different aspects of the concept brought together. However, it is towards the non-specialist that Jullien directs his remarks, apparently with the intention of provoking a revaluation of the quality of blandness within Western aesthetics. It is to be hoped that readers who are not primarily concerned with Chinese intellectual history will not be put off by the word Chinese in the book's subtitle, since they will find here an illuminating survey of an unfamiliar value system.

In the interests of simplicity - blandness, perhaps - Jullien has not undertaken a detailed analysis of the place of blandness as an aesthetic value within the whole of Chinese intellectual history. Such an analysis might suggest that it is not such a fundamental value as Jullien's text would lead us to believe. It has always been a value associated with literati rather than popular, aristocratic or imperial culture, and it is no coincidence that so many of the examples of blandness or the praise of blandness that Jullien cites are drawn from the Song dynasty (960-1126).This was the period when literati culture became the authoritative form of culture, with a profound influence on the subsequent development of aesthetic thinking; as Jullien points out, the beginning of the Song dynasty represents the ultimate stage of the development of blandness as an aesthetic ideal.

Nor does Jullien tackle the problem of the extent to which the value of blandness has been retrospectively imposed, for example on Yuan dynasty (1280-1368) painting (from whence most of his examples in the visual arts come), by later aesthetic views. Indeed, Jullien does briefly discuss the very unbland visual world of the Yuan painter Wang Meng, by contrast with the exemplar of painterly blandness, his contemporary Ni Zan, but does not really allow this alternative vision to call into question the dominant position of blandness.

Non-Sinological readers, in any case, may find more illuminating Jullien's discussion of the Chinese concept of blandness by contrast with the "fadeur" of Paul Verlaine, which appears as a much more negative quality. Indeed, one of Jullien's most telling points is that blandness, far from representing the absence of qualities, in fact represents the possession of all attributes equally. In this it is perhaps similar to the European concept of "temperament" - as in Bach's well-tempered clavier - where different potentialities are held in balance. The idea of the bland as multi-potential recalls one of Jullien's other works to have been translated into English, The Propensity of Things: Towards a History of Efficacy in China (1992), another book that takes a standard term of Chinese aesthetics (in this case shi - tendency or propensity) and examines it in new and illuminating ways.

Jullien appears to have been very well served by the translator, Paula M. Varsano, who also contributes a useful introduction, placing In Praise of Blandness within Jullien's work as a whole, and provides "Notes on major Chinese figures mentioned" and a glossary of Chinese expressions.

Alison Hardie is lecturer in Chinese, Newcastle University.

In Praise of Blandness: Proceeding from Chinese Thought and Aesthetic

Author - Francois Jullien
Publisher - Zone Books/ MIT Press
Pages - 169
Price - £16.95
ISBN - 1 890951 41 2

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