Carol Yinghua Lu | Mandala Drawing Lesson Notes

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By Carol Yinghua Lu

I chose to realise the planning of this particular exhibition through learning to draw mandalas. This is an attempt to enter the consciousness of the artist and to get to know the artist’s works through his perspective and account. The core of the works of the artist Yu Bogong is also the curricular of my course in mandala drawings.

Since 2006, his works have always revolved around the schema of the mandala and the order and the principles of the Five Elements. Using these as the foundation, he develops a series of observations and thoughts to depict reality, humanity and the world – expressed through new schemas and order.

During four one-hour lessons, Yu Bogong instructed me on the subject of drawing mandalas. In the first three lessons, he led me through the creation of three mandalas that he designed; in the fourth lesson, I designed my own based on the principles imparted to me in the first three sessions.

Throughout this process, Yu Bogong and I discussed not just techniques and drawing instructions – more importantly, this interaction with the artist allowed me to partake intimately in his knowledge of the Mandala and the Five Elements, and how these two sets of value systems influence his perspective of the world. Many of Yu Bogong’s recent works are based on this experience and understanding.


Lesson 1: “Association and Return”

This is a beginner’s class, where I learnt the basics of the Mandala and the Five Elements. The Five Elements is an ancient Chinese theorem on matter – used mostly in philosophy, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and divination. According to its principles, all of the Universe is made up of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water in various phases and configurations. It emphasises a holistic view, and depicts the structural relationship and functional forms of matter. The study of the Five Elements provides a means of organisation and conceptualisation of the world. Similarly, the Mandala is “a circular, all-encompassing systemic layout used by different religions to illustrate their model for the cosmos or to depict the universal truth; it expresses the inclusiveness and interconnected relationships between all matter in the Universe.” Mandala is a Sanskrit word that means “circle”, implying essence and possession or containment; signifying ‘limit’ and ‘completion’.

After gaining some basic knowledge about these theorems, Yu Bogong led me step by step through his method for drawing a mandala. The mandala we created is a diagram combining both the Five Elements and the Mandala schema, exploring the association between the two. For this diagram, first we determined a centre which we set as the origin and around which we drew a circle. In a mandala, the circle represents the sky. In accordance to the principles of the Five Elements, we assigned the coordinates for north, south, east and west and then – in their rightful relative positions – installed the five elements, the four seasons, colours, sounds, bodily organs and other items within the circle. At each directional coordinate, we added a palace-like form, signifying how ancient emperors used this natural order to organise their work and life – which was in turn held as an example for the whole country to emulate. With the foundation lesson, we established a basic means, which we will then apply to the analysis and understanding of the Universe and life.

Lesson 2: “Balance and Control”

The mandala we created in the second lesson is a representation of Yu Bogong’s analysis on the challenges to the completeness of the circle of life, as well as the solution he proffers. He is of the opinion that the boom in consumerism is damaging eco-systems, threatening the completion of the circle of life and upsetting balance in the natural environment. At the same time, it is also triggering political and power struggles between regions and inside of systems, creating a host of problems for society. The solution that Yu Bogong proposes includes: cultural criticism and self-reflection; sustainability and improved allocation of resources; re-calibrating values and lifestyles.

In the mandala design Yu Bogong created, the outer circle represents outer space, while the one in the centre represents humankind and its activities. This is surrounded by four circles that represent water, rock, living matter, and the atmosphere respectively. After all these circles have been established, Yu Bogong added other signs to the picture – these represent broad areas such as: “local conflicts”, “air pollution”, “human development”, “the movement of international capital”, and “politics”. The positions of these signs are set by Yu Bogong, according to his understanding and interpretation of the subject matter.

In my view, the Mandala and the Five Elements are both worthy theorems with explicit rules, but in the resulting mandala rendered, the real meaning lies in Yu Bogong’s volition. In other words, the drawing combines the two theorems with the artist’s ideas – and of these three components, it is Yu Bogong’s ideas that are completely subjective, which belong to his personal experience and judgement. We could say that the Mandala and the Five Elements can be replicated; they can be grasped to varying degrees through study and practice – but Yu Bogong’s volition and experience are unique to him, and unfathomable to me.

Lesson 3: “Nature and Action”

The mandala in the third lesson has to do with self-knowledge: understanding the make-up of people from the spiritual level – including the ‘three souls and seven spirits’. The drawing consists of three circles, enclosing seven square forms with shafts radiating outwards. They represent the soul and spirit that govern thoughts, wisdom, body, and action. Signs representing the subconscious and the conscious are scattered through the soul and spirit – woven together, affecting and shaping our behaviour and action.

This drawing also serves as a tool for psychoanalysis. The sketch deconstructs self-knowledge and provides an overview of the internal factors that shape a person, expressing a desire to understand the unique development and formation of character in individuals. This also makes the drawing instructional both as a definition of human behaviour and a mode of understanding the behaviour of others.

Lesson 4: Self-Practice

In the first three lessons Yu Bogong led me, step by step, through the rendering of mandalas which featured topics of his choice. The origin, radius, the number of circles, the distance between them, the content within them, the signs and layout, amongst other things, were all created according to the topic and set-up laid out by Yu Bogong. In the learning process I was, in reality, executing his orders like a machine. But for the fourth lesson, Yu Bogong wanted me to create a mandala that featured a topic of my choice, as well as a representative set of signs according to my own design – based on what I have learnt in the first three lessons. Yu Bogong would also create a drawing along with me. In the first three lessons, we worked together on the same drawing according to his ideas. At the end of the fourth lesson, there should be two mandalas– Yu Bogong’s and mine.

For the final lesson, we worked separately. Yu Bogong worked on a drawing depicting the elimination of the isolation of the material self, and the melding of human and heaven. I did as I learnt in the first three lessons, determining a point of origin on a piece of A3 size paper and drawing a circle with a 110mm radius. But after this step, I was stumped. I start to realise gradually that the order and structure of Yu Bogong’s mandalas are, to some degree, a camouflage. From the surface, they appear to depict the relationships between various items through a set of signs placed within a boundary formed from circles, horizontal and vertical lines. But this association and positioning are built on Yu Bogong’s experience and knowledge – they are subjective and arbitrary.

This individual experience and knowledge remain in a fragmented stage and has yet to be formed into a theorem, which would enable it to become a mode of understanding the world. In other words, Yu Bogong is actually expressing his thoughts and feelings through a structured diagram, and this so-called knowledge has no basis for certainty or generalisation because, in a sense, it cannot be ordered and then replicated and reproduced.

Yu Bogong may have passed on to me the tools for rendering a mandala, such as the straight ruler, the triangle ruler, the compass, the pencil, and others; and taught me how to use them. But he did not instruct me on the inherent relevance of these tools or some common rules that can be applied across different situations. This has also been what I anticipated and imagined about the lessons: if Yu Bogong can establish some order for interaction and cross references based on the expression of his knowledge and perception of the world through the theorems of the Mandala and the Five Elements, it could in fact become a philosophy.


Contemporary Art & Investment Magazine, Issue 50 / 2011