During Chinese Lunar New Year, families travel long distances in order to celebrate together. They eat special foods which are not only delicious, but also symbolize important values, such as long life and prosperity. A particular theme of many dishes is the symbolism of coming together and staying together, demonstrated with dishes such as lions head meat balls, dumplings, and food made using glutinous rice.
A Confucian value often cited, even today, is the ideal concept of family life: four generations living together under one roof. This concept represents the family coming together, experiencing harmony and happiness, longevity, and the continuity and success of a large family supporting each other.
A concept used in brush painting composition is also referred to as “four generations under one roof”. In the context of painting, it suggests that a harmonious, balanced, and aesthetically pleasing painting will have 4 variations displayed: four different sizes and forms of rocks in a landscape; four different sizes and types of trees; four tonalities of sumi ink from black to grays to silver; four different degrees of wet ink to dry ink; four views of a flower including front, back, side, top; birds or animals facing in four differing directions; four sizes of leaves; and so forth.
However, this does not mean that each object exists independently on the page. Just as a family enjoys facing each other around a table together, sharing and passing the dishes, talking and gossiping and getting into each other’s business, so do the varied objects in a painting need to relate to each other. They need to talk to each other: each is unique in their identity, yet as members of the same family they are interdependent within the story being told by the painting. Each flows towards the others, communicating with their posture and technique. They are separate parts of a unified and balanced whole.
When we consider how to organize four generations, we look for distinctly different ways of presenting the objects. The stones, trees and birds do not line up, evenly spaced, the same height. Instead they lean into each other, perhaps cross each other, different in height and width, and even in age. The flowers placed on the page show different faces, but all derive from the same plant and so they relate to a common central core. Similar objects can be grouped in clusters; there can be a cluster of three, another cluster of two or five, and one alone. The spacing between the clusters varies as well. These related differences produce an aesthetic tension, but at the same time a harmonious balance.
Brush painting is an organic and dynamic entity, created with pre-determined intent by the human hand and the human mind. Harmony, balance, and energy are conveyed by following the rule of four independent yet interacting generations under one roof.