Qiu Zhijie’s take on “Playing John Cage”

UPDATE Dec 3: A severe mis-translation was corrected, thanks to iSub (see his comment on this post).

UPDATE: the translation of Qiu’s blog post is now completed. (4:14 am, Dec 1)

Chinese video artist QIU Zhijie(邱志?)blogged about his visit to Arnolfini (center of contemporary art) in Bristol, UK. I’ve translated the part about the ongoing sound installation exhibition “Playing John Cage”. Participants of the exhibition includes Alvin Curran, Ryoji IKEDA(池田亮?), Rolf Julius, TAKAGI Masakatsu(高木正胜), Kaffe Matthews, Carsten Nicolai, Akio SUZUKI(铃木昭男), Michael Prime and more.

In case any of you are going to read the original Chinese version, it would be necessary to note the two mistakes made by Qiu.

1. The name of the exhibition was mis-typed as “Playing with John Cage”.
2. The name of the art center was mis-typed as “Anotoni”.

Also, Qiu’s blog is hosted by Blogcn.com, which is one of the most famous and most notorious blog hosts in China, do not feel frustrated if you have problem accessing the blog. In fact, I can’t access it right now (no, it’s not about censorship), the original text appeared in summary on my Bloglines RSS feed, so yes, it’s imcomplete, I’ll finish it as soon as I load Qiu’s blog.

Zen is about robustness, vitality & being truthful, not deathly stillness & silence

by QIU Zhijie, translated by Lawrence Li
(the following text is an abridged translation of the original one)

…An exhibition titled “Playing with John Cage” (sic) is also on, this is mainly a sound installation exhibition, the scale is much smaller than I have expected, and I don’t see too many good works either. One passable exception on the 2nd-floor is an installation composed of mushrooms attached with alligator clips, all put inside of a glass container. Another work is nothing but a bunch of boskage up-side-down, arranged into a circle to enclose a couch, on which the audience would listen to the sounds in the venue. It’s amusing to hear YAO Yirong(姚??)said that the sound of the piece is actually audible to him. So, to have this piece exhibited is valid & justifiable at least in his case. Most sound art compositions are derived from John Cage’s so-called “chance operation”: picking up some daily noise & making them into music. One example [on the exhibition] is a sound art piece called “Music on the Table”, which is played from iPod and must be listened to via earphones.

In fact, Cage’s understanding of eastern culture is very superficial, in my opinion. He only knows that nothingness is good, void/blankness is better than fullness, he thinks this kind of thinking of Chinese is cool and he just follows it. The fact that English-speaking people translated I Ching into “I Ching: A Philosophy Based on Chance” also shows their limited understanding of our system: the indeterminacy of giving, the inevitability as a result of intentional control. Westerners can’t wait to express their appreciation of indeterminacy and void/nothingness because they think it’s so subtle, sophisticated and esoteric to be like this. Therefore, their perception of Zen Buddhism has always been limited & pretentious. The fact is, Zen is always about robustness, vitality and being truthful, not about deathly stillness and silence. The western approach to Zen is bound to lead to that kind of total stillness and silence. This is fake Zen mis-interpreted by Japanese.

It’s true that the Chinese thinking system has never been in favor of rational control on any level, hence we have tons of discourse about the superiority of void over fullness, “to change according to the circumstances” has always been our philosophy. But, this kind of thinking shall not be automatically equated with Dada-ist indeterminacy or chance. Rather, it’s about facing the actuality with skillfulness, not about invalidating the rule-breaker with mis-teaching. The Diamond Sutra says: The Buddha-teaching must be relinquished; how much more so mis-teaching! We relinquished words in order to free our perception, but this was never meant to sing praise for ignorance: The knowledge must be relinquished; how much more so the ignorance! Therefore, after we transcend the mundane into the divine, we still have to descend upon earth again; after we perceive the void in the fullness, we still have to return to fullness, thus we will be more rich, calm and tranquil inside. So The Buddha can be found in this mortal coil, Zen can be found in the seams on the walls. The saints are not born divine, they achieve divinity through their labour for the mundane. Or even, on a higher level, we regard the act of differentiate between void and fullness as a barrier to a higher truth.

People like John Cage, all they know are to abandon knowledge in favor of ignorance, to abandon action in favor of inaction, can’t imagine that such a figure is regarded as some kind of gurusin the west.

[The English version of the script in The Diamond Sutra is that of A. F. Price’s translation, which can be read here.]



  1. iSub said

    That writer’s understanding of John Cage, of sound art, of art history, and of the west in general, is typically utterly ignorant, typically chinese. What else is new? Give us something new!

    BTW, one mistake in your translation: “eyujia” is “alligator clips,” small clipping devices used in electronics testing and experiments (search Google for pics) – not “crocodile traps.”

  2. Lawrence said

    Haha, that’s funny, I’ve corrected it, thanks!

  3. a said

    “Westerners can’t wait to express their appreciation of indeterminacy and void/nothingness because they think it’s so subtle, sophisticated and esoteric to be like this.?
    Unreservedly, it’s a bit self-conceit to conclude that western ppl still enjoy exoticism of China, and resort to their contemporary art works as the result based on some kind of “shallow understanding? and imagination. As I know, some western guys treat I Ching (better say the way of divination) as the earliest programming language, just like Qiu said in his article: it’s about indeterminacy and intentional control. They concentrate on technical aspect of this ancient intelligence rather than literature or philosophy like what we Chinese did, nothing wrong with it.

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