lí xínɡ dé sì 离形得似
Transcend the Outer Form to Capture the Essence
When describing something, literary writing should be able to go beyond external appearance to capture the essence so as to reflect a high degree of reality. Zhuangzi (369?-286BC) considered that the essence of life lies in the inner spirit rather than the physical form. One should forget one’s physical existence and give full free rein to the spirit. The late Tang poet Sikong Tu (837-908) adopted this view and believed that poetic description should likewise focus on essence rather than form. This concept of poetic creation and critique was later applied in calligraphy and painting as well.
Life exists in a physical body. However, there are people who are dead due to lack of spirit although they are alive physically. (Zhuangzi)
He who can transcend the outer form aside and capture the essence is truly a great poet. (Sikong Tu: Twenty-four Styles of Poetry)
The work that transcends the outer form and captures the essence is a masterpiece. However, the theory underpinning this ability is very subtle and is not to be understood mechanically. (Yao Mengchao: Personal Reflections on the Art of Calligraphy)