Rumi's Mathnawi (selections)

Week 6: Middle East - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

The Chinese and the Greek Artists

Reading time: 4 minutes. Word count: 700 words.

Rumi's story of the Chinese and Greek artists has little to do with China or with Greece; instead, Rumi uses these characters in the story to create a kind of ideal opposition between material splendor (the gorgeous colors used by the Chinese painters) and spiritual reflection (the style of the Greek artists). The image of the mirror comes up again and again in Rumi's poetry. In another poem he says: "Between the mirror and the heart is this single difference: the heart conceals secrets, while the mirror does not" (The Divani Shamsi Tabriz, XIII)

The Chinese and the Greek Artists (trans. E.H. Whinfield)

The Chinese and the Greeks disputed before the Sultan which of them were the better painters; and, in order to settle the dispute, the Sultan allotted to each a house to be painted by them. The Chinese procured all kinds of paints, and coloured their house in the most elaborate way. The Greeks, on the other hand, used no colours at all, but contented themselves with cleansing the walls of their house from all filth, and burnishing them till they were as clear and bright as the heavens.

When the two houses were offered to the Sultan's inspection, that painted by the Chinese was much admired; but the Greek house carried off the palm, as all the colours of the other house were reflected on its walls with an endless variety of shades and hues.

[...] You, who seek no more of Him than to name His name:
What do His name and fame suggest? The idea of Him.
And the idea of Him guides you to union with Him.
Know you a guide without something to which it guides?
You name His name; so, seek the reality named by it!
Look for the moon in heaven, not in the water!
If you desire to rise above mere names and letters,
Make yourself free from self at one stroke!
Like a sword be without trace of soft iron;
Like a steel mirror, scour off all rust with contrition;
Make yourself pure from all attributes of self,
That you may see your own pure bright essence!

"Chinese Art and Greek Art" (trans. Coleman Barks)

The Prophet said, “There are some who see Me
by the same Light in which I am seeing them.
Our natures are ONE.
Without reference to any strands
of lineage, without reference to texts or traditions,
we drink the Life-Water together.”
Here's a story
about that hidden mystery:

The Chinese and the Greeks
were arguing as to who were the better artists.
The King said,
“We'll settle this matter with a debate.”
The Chinese began talking,
but the Greeks wouldn't say anything.
They left.
The Chinese suggested then
that they each be given a room to work on
with their artistry, two rooms facing each other
and divided by a curtain.
The Chinese asked the King
for a hundred colors, all the variations,
and each morning they came to where
the dyes were kept and took them all.
The Greeks took no colors.
“They're not part of our work,”
They went to their room
and began cleaning and polishing the walls. All day
every day they made those walls as pure and clear
as an open sky.
There is a way that leads from all-colors
to colorlessness. Know that the magnificent variety
of the clouds and the weather comes from
the total simplicity of the sun and the moon.
The Chinese finished, and they were so happy.
They beat the drums in the joy of completion.
The King entered their room,
astonished by the gorgeous color and detail.
The Greeks then pulled the curtain dividing the rooms.
The Chinese figures and images shimmeringly reflected
on the clear Greek walls. They lived there,
even more beautifully, and always
changing in the light.
The Greek art is the Sufi way.
They don't study books of philosophical thought.
They make their loving clearer and clearer.
No wantings, no anger. In that purity
they receive and reflect the images of every moment,
from here, from the stars, from the void.
They take them in
as though they were seeing
with the Lighted Clarity
that sees them.

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • what style of painting did the Chinese artists use?
  • what style of painting did the Greek artists?
  • why does Rumi consider the Greek style to be superior? what is the spiritual interpretation he provides of this style?

Source: E. H. Whinfield, The Masnavi (1898). Weblink.
Source: Coleman Barks, Delicious Laughter. Maypop Books, 1990. Weblink.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM