Echoes of One Hand Clapping Picturing Sound in Asian Art

Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847–1915), Japanese, Meiji period, 1868–1912, Private Onoguchi Tokuji Destroying the Gate at Jinzhou, 1894. Woodblock print (ōban tate-e triptych); ink and color on paper, 34.9 × 70.3 cm. Princeton University Art Museum, Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Japanese Print CollectionSound cannot be seen, but it can be heard and felt as vibrations, and it has the ability to move the spirit through music and memory. These experiences allow the knowledge and presence of sound to be visualized in painting, calligraphy, poetry, and photography. Featured in this special installation are Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Asian-inspired works of art ranging from the twelfth century to the present day that are drawn from the Museum’s collections and from the collection of Gérard and Dora Cognié.

Artists picture sound in various ways. Some depict actions or things that generate noise, such as a gurgling stream or booming waterfall. In Kobayashi Kiyochika’s rendering of a wartime explosion, a flash of light, fire, and flying debris are used to convey the impact of sound. Sometimes the very process of applying ink or color is used to emulate sound, as in Li Huasheng’s brooding grid, painted in a way that mimics ritual chants. Inspired by the sound of Buddhist prayer chants in Himalayan monasteries—and their purpose of focusing the mind—Li began painting vertical and horizontal lines as a visual, instead of aural, means of achieving mental focus.Li Huasheng (Chinese, born 1944), Untitled, 1998–2000. Ink on paper, framed: 144 × 183 cm. Collection Gérard and Dora Cognié. © Li Huasheng

Calligraphy captures in traces of the brush and ink the sounds of languages, some almost forgotten. A barely remembered calligraphic script in Vietnam conjures the sound of the past and joins it to the country’s rapidly changing present. Married to painting and calligraphy, poetry can evoke or activate the echoes of sound, as in the case of Shitao’s Echo. The brevity of Shitao’s brush and ink expresses an intimate dialogue with lonely mountains and silent clouds. Like the sound of one hand clapping, here the poem fills the land with quiet reverberations. The artist’s calligraphy quotes a couplet by the famed Song dynasty poet and calligrapher Su Shi (1036–1101):

Shitao (1642–1707), Chinese, Qing dynasty, 1644–1912, Echo, ca. 1677–78. Album leaf mounted as a hanging scroll; ink on paper, 22.1 × 29.4 cm. Princeton University Art Museum, gift of the Arthur M. Sackler FoundationAn echo rebounds with every whisper;

Startling, on the empty mountain, the white cloud.

Minor White (American, 1908–1976), The Sound of One Hand Clapping, Pultneyville, New York, 1957. Gelatin silver print, image: 25.5 × 30.3 cm. Princeton University Art Museum, museum purchase, gift of David H. McAlpin, Class of 1920. © Trustees of Princeton UniversityThe question of picturing sound also resonates in Minor White’s photographic sequence The Sound of One Hand Clapping. Paradoxical statements of questions, known in Japan as kōan, are used in Zen Buddhist meditative practice. White was well acquainted with the kōan “two hands clap and there is a sound; what is the sound of one hand?” which is attributed to the monk Hakuin Ekaku (1686–1768). White wrote, “After several months of intensive work on this kōan, I saw rather than heard any sound.” When White saw his earlier photograph The Sound of One Hand Clapping, Pultneyville, New York, the kōan sprang to his mind, and later he added another nine photographs to his sequence of echoes.


Cary Y. Liu

Nancy and Peter Lee Curator of Asian Art