Classical Chinese education, both in medicine and art, places a high value on three phases:
1) Memorize the Classics
2) Practice from the Classics
3) Teach the Classics
When I was teaching English in Taiwan, a high school student was on the path to being a traditional watercolor painter. I liked his waterfalls and his rocks, and we had many conversations about Chinese art. I asked him if he had ever been to Taroko Gorge, a Taiwanese scenic are with many waterfalls and rocks.
A city boy, like most kids in Taiwan, he hadn’t. But, he told me, to study traditional Chinese landscape painting, it was more important to copy the past masters than to look at the real subjects yourself. In fact, it is frowned upon to paint your own compositions until you’ve spent years meticulously copying the masterpieces.
I really like Chinese brush painting, and while I’m only a so-so cartoonist, I am inspired by Sumi-E brushwork. Here are some pretty horses:
The most famous Chinese horse painting is “Eight Galloping Horses.” It has the special meaning of success in your career (“Horses Come and Bring Success” is the saying on many of them).
It’s amazing what one brush stroke can convey in Chinese and Japanese scroll painting!
You can see in a few of these examples how the composition is nearly identical–generations of Chinese painters have copied it. This is not forgery, it is tradition.
I recently read the Wikipedia entry on “scientific method” and was pleasantly surprised to see Joseph Needham, esteemed author of _Science and Civilization in China_ and _Celestial Lancets, A History and Rationale of Acupuncture and Moxa_, quoted next to a famous animation of a horse galloping.
Beliefs and biases
Belief can alter observation; human confirmation bias… leads a person with a particular belief to see things as reinforcing their belief, even if another observer might disagree. Researchers have often noted that first observations are often somewhat imprecise, whereas the second and third were “adjusted to the facts”…
Needham’s Science and Civilization in China uses the ‘flying gallop’ image as an example of observation bias: In these images, the legs of a galloping horse are shown splayed, while the first stop-action pictures of a horse’s gallop by Eadweard Muybridge showed this to be false. In a horse’s gallop, at the moment that no hoof touches the ground, a horse’s legs are gathered together—not splayed. Earlier paintings show an incorrect flying gallop observation.
To the credit of the Chinese painters, one of the horses I selected does have the feet together, and the horses in the traditional “flying gallop” pose are still pretty and nice to look at. It is undisputable, however, that generations of artists, whether they were around real horses or not, learned to paint the “flying gallop” from the Classics of Chinese painting. This happened in Western art as well.
The same tradition of observation and confirmation bias is well-established in Chinese medicine. Often attributed to a taboo against mutilating human bodies, generations of Chinese doctors memorized that the human body had 360 bones, 360 acupuncture points, that the spleen sends the best parts of digested food directly to the heart where it is made into blood, and many other maxims passed down as truths. Many things were force-fit into the calendar system (such as 360 bones) and five element system (they had to get tricky to line up 5 elements with 12 meridians, so they paired the organs to get to 10 and then doubled up on the fire element).
This does not mean that traditional Chinese medicine as taught from the Classics isn’t beautiful or doesn’t contain useful insights or therapies. But observation bias and confirmation bias are firmly entrenched, and sometimes do modern people a disservice. Of course, my most current example is the toxic Chinese herbs which cause permanent kidney damage and drastically increased bladder cancer risk due to Aristolochic Acid. Some dedicated proponents of honoring the Classics of Chinese Medicine are determined to keep using these herbs on their patients because they insist that the Divine Farmer (the legendary founder of Chinese herbal medicine from around 3000 BCE) found out which herbs were toxic back then (through eating them all until his face turned black) and we should just stick to his revelations as communicated through the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing (from around 250 BCE). They insist that Chinese herbal medicine is safe when practiced according to the old classics, and teach that acupuncturists should do “whatever it takes” to obtain and use these banned, toxic herbs, including growing them here to escape import restrictions. Arnaud Versluys, a Belgian who studied in China and now lives in Oregon, travels to teach his dedication to Canonical Chinese Medicine. He has stated his view on substituting less toxic herbs for banned herbs very clearly:
You cannot substitute it, I’m sorry, but I don’t believe in substitution. You can approximate maybe, and I have, you know, maybe a few ideas of what you could do, but ultimately, but when you practice this medicine from the perspective that these herbs are actually like stars in the sky and cosmic forces that just, you know, drive the movement and the physiology of this planet, then therefore you are able to restore physiology of the human being on a microcosm. Then you really can’t substitute these plants.
I’m sure there are many Chinese painting instructors who would argue that art students should still learn to paint horses in a splayed leg flying gallop. After all, that’s what people expect of them, and it’s been done that way for centuries. I wouldn’t try to argue them out of it, as the paintings are still beautiful and it really doesn’t harm anyone to have a painting with a flying horse.