Chinese movement / by David Hu

Some say successful designers are like good storytellers; their success often stemming from personal stories of inspirations and motivations. In more ways than one, the story of a designer's life is the foundation of his livelihood, and the themes upon which these stories are built make them particularly convincing. One of the many themes that designers endlessly explore is movement. Automotive designers sculpt sheet metal in ways that mimic the body lines of felines or horses, thus instilling a sense of movement that is both logical and natural for an object in motion. Likewise, furniture designers often use sweeping lines to evoke waves and wind found in the fantasy environments in which we could imagine enjoying ourselves.

Movement is an especially interesting topic for designers, but what does it mean on a more primitive level? What is the essence of a moving animal from which car designers draw inspiration? We cannot always be certain that one designer's perspective is the same as that of another, so couldn't these perspectives be also subject to one's cultural influences? For the purpose of our particular studies, do the Chinese observe movement from a perspective that is unique to its culture?

dong, meaning move or movement

dong, meaning move or movement

dong, formed by zhong and li

dong, formed by zhong and li

The word for movement, or move, in Chinese is 動. The character is actually comprised of two other characters, which sit side by side. The character on the left is 重 (zhong), meaning weightiness, and the other is 力 (li), meaning force. This force, by definition, requires a body subject to its influence. Therefore, from the character structure we can see that movement is actually a movement of a body; and, at the very least, a direct reflection of what is visually observed in nature. This may seem insignificant, but it is in fact different in connotation to the West's. While Chinese movement focuses on the presence of a force and a recipient, the West's definition of movement reflects a change in location and thus can be independent of any physical form.

If we want to fully understand movement and its significance as a part of the Chinese language, it is not sufficient to simply analyze 動 alone. For more clues, we can take a look at a few words and phrases that use this character and their meanings both figuratively and literally:

1. 動作 (dong zuo): "movement performed" — action

2. 活動 (huo dong): "movement that is alive" — activity or event

3. 動物 (dong wu): "moving creature" — animal

4. 運動 (yun dong): "movement that is carried/transferred" — exercise, sports

5. 互動 (hu dong): "movement that goes between" — interaction

6. 動靜 (dong jing): "movement and stillness" — very slight movement or an object's state of movement

7. 動如脫兔 (dong ru tuo tu): descriptive idiom, "to move like a freed rabbit" — describes something that moves quickly as if running away

8. 動靜有常 (dong jing you chang): stative idiom, "all movement and stillness have their own naturalness" — describes a then-commonly accepted fact of life that all things in the world follow their own natural ways

As evidenced by just a few select examples, movement is not just action but is also a literary and defining part of many common concepts in Chinese, even if movement is not visual. In other words, the Chinese place significant importance on two things: an object's capacity to move and the manner in which it moves. Although "interaction" requires no physical movement, there is a sense that something is passed from one person to the other, whether it is in the form of words or emotions.

What is the "capacity to move"? The word 動靜 (dong jing) gives us some clues and appears in two examples above. The two characters separately mean "movement" and "stillness", but they combine to form a very uniquely Chinese concept: extremely slight movement. But 動靜 is not quite as simple as that, either. This is a movement that is so slight that it lies just beyond stillness, can easily return to rest, and is almost always unpredictable. It is also proportional to the size of the body. When the 動靜 of an enemy army is observed, then it is any movement beyond the ordinary, daily activities within the encampment. However, for a person or animal, 動靜 can be as slight as the rhythmic motions of taking breaths. 動靜 describes more than a state of movement; it is also a sign of life to which the observer must be highly attuned in order to detect. That is, only the presence of LIFE allows for the existence of 動靜.

If movement indicates the presence of life, then it takes on a meaning different from how it is typically defined. That is, Chinese movement is no longer a mimicry of what is observed in nature. Indeed, when we study the language of the Chinese, we can begin to understand how movement could not be—nor is it meant to be—dictated by a designer at his whim. Even a seemingly ordinary concept of movement is, at its heart, evidence of life and of an invisible force. Contrary to what many designers may strive to do, trying to capture Chinese movement by the use of static lines is meaningless; it would be better to allow movement to reveal itself only where necessary and when it would be purposeful.