NOTE: Writer, curator, and professor Benjamin Franklin March Jr. (1899-1934) studied, lectured and wrote in the United States and in China. Through his works he became one of the foremost authorities on Chinese art during the 1920s and 1930s. In this essay he analyses the different functions of Western perspective (optical) and Chinese perspective (axonometric) and on what grounds they differ. It is one of the first attempts to understand Chinese pictoral space on a structural and a conceptual level and it became an important reference on Chinese space in Joseph Needham’s book Science and Civilisation in China Vol. 4 part 2 in 1965. This essay was first published in 1927 in The China Journal Vol. VII, No. 2, pp 69-72.
The most general criticism aimed at Chinese paintings by Westerners seems to be concerned with the representation of distance, and very often takes the form: Chinese paintings have no perspective. This is, of course, not only untrue, but it is not what the critic meant to say. Perspective, after all, is nothing but a convention for representing distance, and though the term is sometimes limited to mean the type of projection generally used in the West, it properly includes any and all devices for representing three dimensions in two, for symbolizing three-dimensional space on a plane. In painting, the third dimension is usually in recession from the painter, and the plane, either physically or so far as the image is concerned, is perpendicular to the direction of recession.
Obviously no perspective can be absolutely true, since two dimensions cannot be three, and the truth of the convention depends not so much upon science as upon custom. It is common, however, for foreigners to regard Western perspective as somehow truer than the Chinese perspective, and it may be worth while to examine the two from the standpoint of Western mathematics, to determine by Western standards whether or not the criticism is valid.
The problem of representing three dimensions is most acute in the painting of landscapes (山水) and the painting of figures (人物), the first two of the traditional four classes of Chinese paintings. Petrucci and others have discussed landscape perspective, and this is the least difficult for foreigners to grow accustomed to and enjoy. The convention of representing buildings and furniture, on the other hand, often seems primitive and inaccurate even to stout protagonists of Chinese landscapes; so we shall limit our discussion for the present to a comparison of Western and Chinese methods of representing three-dimensional solids such as buildings and furniture.