Friday, February 20, 2009

Lotus and Water-Lily 睡蓮非蓮

Just completed my 2nd oil painting project. This time, I tried to paint flowers and hope eventually I will be able to do a series of unique flowers of different seasons. I thought I would start with lotus (也稱為蓮花) using a photo I took not long ago at the New York Botanical Garden. What I did not realize till late in the project was that I was actually painting water-lilies, a completely distinct family of aquatic plants although their flowers look similar! What I also found out was that the Chinese common name for water-lily is 睡蓮or literally “sleeping lotus”. Unfortunately “sleeping lotus” is not lotus (and of course, water-lily is not lily either)! Their scientific names are Nymphaeaceae and Nelumbo, respectively, with many distinct characteristics.

You may argue who cares. You may also argue that in arts and literature, one needs to stretch and trade precision and logical consistency for imagination and creativity. The fact of the matter though is that significant ventures in arts/literature and sciences both begin with acute and detailed observations, although their subjects and processes could be quite different. Have you ever seen origin sketches and records of some biologists?

Indeed, classification, following observations, is a basic method that both children and adults use to summarize their experiences and formulate concepts. In natural sciences, seemingly mundane and tedious taxonomy plays important roles that articulates and reflects the understandings and sometimes, extrapolates and anticipates newly encountered animals and plants which are too numerous to count. Curiously, as far as I know, Chinese had not done a whole lot in this regard despite its fantastic accomplishments in science and technology in history. The last major and original contribution of taxonomy by Chinese was probably the celebrated Compendium of Materia Medica 本草綱目 published in 1578 by Li Shizhen 李時珍 that focused on medicine and included 1892 distinct herbs.

That reminds me of the famous "Needham's Grand Question" posted by Joseph Needham 李約瑟,a trained British biochemist turned into a historian who became a leading expert of the accomplishments in science and technology in ancient China. The Needham Question essentially asks why was China overtaken by the West in Science and Technology despite its earlier successes. While there have been many speculations and suggestions by various scholars, Needham’s own works attribute significant weight to the impact of Confucianism and Taoism but I do seriously question his conclusions that may have confused correlation with causality.

In any case, it is impossible to know exactly why and how with complex interacting factors, and to de-correlate (thus blame easily) Confucianism from anything happened in China. It is however much easier to look at and agree on what Chinese civilization has exhibited. For one, it appear to have been much more preoccupied with practical applications and solutions. The inventions have been more about technology than fundamental science and were often experimental and statistical based. Insufficient resource and attention paid to methodology and theory ultimately limited the advances and breakthroughs, in my opinion.

Another significant factor, I believe, is the lack of competition, challenge, and exchange of ideas as China enjoyed being a single dominant power in Asia for a very long time. As a result, it became complacent and stagnant that even periodic purges and changes of dynasty could not have overcome. It was not an accident that modern science and scientific revolution took off first in Europe in early Modern Period around 16th-18th century. Prior to it in late Middle Ages, theocracy was weakened, Nation States started to form in Europe, intellectual pursuits began to flourish and culture movements of Renaissance had begun to blossom. No longer dominated by church, people began to explore all possibilities, recognizing church was also fallible. Brilliant minds gathered and challenge each other the old notion and beliefs that eventually laid the foundation of the new discovery and modern science, not to mention the tremendous economic and trade incentives by merchants and interested political forces. Most importantly, philosophical and theoretical aspects of the whole scientific methods and approach were also developed in parallel that laid the foundations for further advancement.

In contrast, strong totalitarian monarchs remained in China during Ming and Qing dynasties (and for the matter, in India and some Islamic empires as well). While shinning civilizations and discoveries from mathematics to technology had thrived earlier in those societies, Western civilizations had surpassed them and continue to dominate in science and technology till this day. There are signs that the gap is shrinking and the balance of powers is changing as we are speaking. However it is not obvious that any other civilizations will rise again anytime soon to lead in science and technology.

Well, back to water-lily and a final note: the most famous western painter of water-lily is probably the French impressionist master Claude Monet. He had painted about 250 Water-lilies in his life, housed in a number of major art museums across the world. Short of traveling to Giverny outside Paris for the scenery and atmosphere of his residence, you can find a light attempt to create a miniature setting of it including his famous flower garden with a water-lily pond and bridge at the Grounds for Sculpture in New Jersey.

Talk to you soon!

No comments: