earl lu @ 80: beyond the golden mean

by Michelle Chin

How to Live Life to the Fullest

Earl Lu believes that in order to live life to the fullest, one needs to balance the intellect, senses and emotions.

Science and philosophy are Earl Lu's prime examples of exercising the intellect. He had a long career as a medical surgeon, and was also external examiner for anatomy and physiology in Singapore. His favourite philosophers are Plato, Bertrand Russell, Soren Kierkegaard and Martin Buber. His favourite poets are Rabindranath Tagore, T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas. He has always been an avid reader though he stresses that it is not enough to simply read a lot. Knowledge should be linked: in his words, "It is no good to become a waste paper basket." His theory of linked knowledge is as follows:

"When I was young my mother said I was stupid. She wasn't wrong. If I can't integrate my knowledge I can't remember it. She would ask me what had I eaten for breakfast and I didn't have a clue. I find no pattern in the breakfast with the rest of my life. Similarly I had great difficulty learning Chinese because they didn't know how to teach. They didn't say, 'This radical means it's all vegetable, this radical means it's all metal' - that's all you have to tell the child. In due course, when I taught anatomy, I realised why I had had so much difficulty because I had been learning part by part like poetry - that's the wrong way. What we should be learning is the relationship of everything. If I study the bone, I have to study muscle, arteries, veins, nerves, the lymphatics, the tendons. And if I study the muscle, I have to study the bone and the arteries, veins, nerves, the lymphatics, the tendons. So the answer is simple - you read the whole book, you don't learn a part. By the time you have finished the whole book, suddenly you understand because you have repeated everything ten times, in different ways, from a different perspective."

His studies of philosophy and medicine have enabled him to explain the big questions of life:

"I'm very aware of the evolutionary development of human beings. What is the purpose of life? There is no purpose of life. The first time I looked down a microscope, in one drop of water there is a fierce battle going on, micro-organisms are eating each other, the stronger eat the weaker. We are no different. In nature, what is happening? You can calculate the population of lions and tigers by the population of buffaloes - a certain number of buffaloes will feed so many lions and tigers. If the number of buffaloes goes down, lions and tigers will die out in proportion. We are at the top of the food chain at the moment, but if we go into the wild, the lion might be at the top, or some germ or some worm which will eat you up alive. We think we're individuals but we're actually ecological systems. Why is it that we kill people if we operate on them without washing or wearing gloves? Because we contain in ourselves all kinds of organisms that are dangerous once the skin is opened.

I don't think there is a purpose in life but you must find your purpose, make a purpose.

When I read the Bhagavad Gita, I was impressed by what Krishna said to Arjuna on the battlefield. Arjuna said, 'These people opposing me are people I once loved and admired. What shall I do?' And Krishna answered, 'You must fight the best fight you can. Victory and defeat are not important.'

I think that is the wisest advice I know about life. You do the best that you can, and leave the rest to fate."

His understanding of anatomy carries through to his paintings of women:

"A woman's shape is basically different from a man's because of her function of having to perform childbirth so the pelvis is wider, the breast is for feeding the infant. There is more fat in reserve because when she is pregnant she has to feed an infant as well right through pregnancy. Whereas a man is basically a hunter. In evolution, if he can’t hunt the family will starve, unless he becomes a farmer. He is a hunter and provider and fighter.

I admire that aspect of womanhood, that she bears children and feeds the child. I think we all inherited that particular admiration as a matter of evolutionary necessity. In a world where different animals compete in survival, that is an important aspect for winning. The man is the hunter, fighter, provider and the woman produces warriors for the clan."

The senses allow us to enjoy all of the beautiful things in life such as food and drink (through the sense of taste), flowers (sight), perfume (smell), music (hearing), love (touch).

A heightened sense of aesthetics is important for the full enjoyment of life. After visiting India many times, Earl Lu realised that, "There is a completeness of Indian culture and tradition - they are artistic without needing to look outside for their inspiration, because they have their landscape, the people, the tradition, history, myths and legends."

Sensual enjoyment combined with intellectual understanding produces greater appreciation of the finer things in life. A recent example from a Singapore news article makes this point quite clearly. "The International Wine and Food Society of Singapore bills itself as the oldest gastronomic society in the world. The local chapter's website quotes the society's founder as saying that the objective of the society is to 'bring together and serve all who believe that a right understanding of good food and wine is an essential part of personal contentment and health, and that an intelligent approach to the pleasures and problems of the table offers far greater rewards than the mere satisfaction of appetite.'" (Business Times, Singapore, 23 July 2005)

One should not pursue sensual pleasures for their sake alone, nor do they have any "value" if one does not have an understanding of aesthetics and refined taste. Confucius said: "There is no one who does not eat or drink, but there are few who really have taste."

Of the emotions, Earl Lu emphasises that the greatest of these are spirituality (or religion) and ethics. He says, "How we behave to fellow man is not dictated by law. The law talks about the minimum of acceptable behaviour, but ethics is far beyond that. Ethics and religion can be quite separate: the Hippocratic oath formerly taken by medical doctors to observe a code of professional behaviour was not associated with a particular religion."

Earl Lu spent part of the World War II years in India. He went to school in Simla from age 17, and he admits that he was spiritually influenced by India. He has great admiration for Hinduism, and he read the Bhagavad Gita, Hindu texts, biographies of Gandhi, Nehru. He describes his experience of India as follows:

"When I was a teenager I spent one year in India as a refugee from the war here. My mother, two sisters and I got away two weeks before Singapore fell, by boat. Since I was growing up at that time and was curious about everything, I think India was quite important for my development. It's a more spiritual country than any other I've been to.

One episode impressed me a lot when I was in India as a school boy doing my O-levels. I visited a friend's house and some fellow came and visited my friend when I was there. He was dressed in rags but in the style of a monk and this friend was very polite, making all the gestures of greeting, and he went into the house and brought out some food in a billy-can, so because they were so courteous to each other, I asked my friend, 'Is this a good friend of yours?', and he replied, 'No, he is a beggar, I just gave him some food.' That taught me an important lesson that just because someone is a beggar it does not mean we should be rude to him."

From this experience, Earl Lu decided that throughout his life he would treat everyone as fellow human beings. His practice of treating everyone as an equal reminds one of the points made in the Confucian text The Doctrine of the Mean, one of the Four Books, part of the Confucian canonical scriptures, said to be a composition by Confucius' grandson Kong Ji. Like the Great Learning, it is now part of the Records of Rites:

"Therefore the Superior Man treats people as human beings, and once they have corrected themselves, he lets them be. Being sincere and fair to all, though this is different from the Dao ("the Way"), it is not far from it. This means 'not doing to others what you don't want done to yourself.' There are four general ways that this can be characterized:

1/ Treating my father as I expect my son to treat me.
2/ Treating my ruler as I expect my ministers to treat me.
3/ Treating my older brothers as I expect my younger brothers to treat me.
4/ Treating my friends as I expect my friends to treat me."

Earl Lu also states that one learns spirituality in silence or retreat. In complete silence, pleasant scenery, not talking or thinking, forgetting about strife and effort one can eventually get rid of all the thoughts and then spirituality comes in.


Earl Lu comes from a family that loves art. His grandfather was an art collector and occasional painter, his father was a collector of Chinese paintings and ceramics. Apart from being an artist, Earl Lu has been a collector of Chinese paintings and Chinese and Southeast Asian ceramics. Most of his collection has now been donated to institutions in Singapore including Asian Civilisations Museum and National University of Singapore Museums. The Earl Lu Gallery at Lasalle-SIA College of the Arts was named after him precisely because he donated his collection of Southeast Asian paintings to the college.

When I asked Dr Lu how he started painting (and more on why later), he replied, "My life has been full of good fortune. Somehow the gods like me." Earl Lu's father had a good friend who was an artist, teacher and furniture maker. He recommended that Chinese-born Singaporean artist Chen Wen Hsi become Earl Lu's painting teacher. Earl Lu acknowledges that he learnt about the matching of colours from Chen Wen Hsi. Ink lines were applied first then filled with perfectly matched colours such as purple and yellow or blue and orange. One other important point that was emphasised during his studies of Chinese brush painting was that a painting needs to have the three great qualities of being heavy/big, immense and eccentric.

Earl Lu appreciated that Chen Wen Hsi painted fish from life. "He had pots of fish in his home, also lots of flowers, chickens and caged gibbons which he painted from life. I got the idea of painting from life from Chen Wen Hsi, and I learnt the way he held the brush at the very tip which gives a wide swing from finger to elbow to shoulder and down to the feet. I also learnt how to use different faces of the brush to touch the paper, twisting the brush and moving."

His style of painting requires that he paints on rice paper as he first applies the lines, then the background and colours, and then more lines. In his composition of paintings, Earl Lu thinks about the placing of objects and tries to avoid regularity. He is aware of the need for contrasting shapes and colours. The distribution of weights is important in composition: he thinks about where to place a heavy- or light-weighted object. Most of all he cares about movement and form. He is looking for the form or pattern that makes a beautiful painting. What pattern pleases the human eye the most?

Earl Lu comments that it takes a long time for an artist to know what he wants to do. He says that one starts from "not resembling", then gets to the stage of "resembling" and the final stage will again be "not resembling". Earl Lu is now focussing on his search for childlike innocence, the way a child paints. He thinks that he is still at the middle stage of "resembling" as he claims that his roses are still consciously roses. "When I sketch my roses, I have now come to the stage where I am so familiar with it, I can just look at the rose and not look at my painting, and what comes out will look like a rose. I just put a few strokes to correct it when I actually look. That's what I'd like to do with a human being, whether it's a man or woman, to practise so hard and work so hard, that every sketch I make is accurate, not only anatomically accurate, but posturally accurate so that it won't fall over, it's nicely balanced."

His landscape paintings however, are landscapes in his mind. Most of his recent landscape paintings are inspired by his imagination, or reality as he sees it. Earl Lu comments, "Chinese brush painters are more interested in brush strokes than in reality. Reality is an excuse for the play of ink and brush strokes. As the 17th century Chinese artist Shi Dao once said, 'In the beginning is the brush stroke'. Not in the beginning, God created heaven and earth. In the end it is your vision of the world that is interesting to other people, because an accurate likeness is not really the point. What is important is your interpretation."

If some of his paintings appear to be "imperfect and clumsy" it is because he is now consciously and deliberately trying to move in that direction, rather than being "too tidy" and controlled. However, he acknowledges that while people like to see the artist's "accident of movement", in excess it can lead to chaos.

Earl Lu believes that passion and devotion are needed to make a good painting. Most importantly, the passion must be sincere. Once again we are reminded of a section of the Confucian text, The Doctrine of the Mean:

"Sincerity is the Way of Heaven. Making oneself sincere is the Way of Man. If you can be perfectly sincere without effort, without a mindfulness to its attainment, and walk embracing the Middle Way, you are a sage."


Earl Lu continues to exercise a universal approach to painting - he will paint anything, whether cats, rice fields, mountains, people, flowers or fruits depending on where he is at the time. On a field trip with artists to Yunnan in 1998, Earl Lu commented that:

"I'm not fussy about what I sketch. I sketch everything I see, whatever it is, the fields, the planters, the buffaloes, the dogs, the restaurants, even the bus itself. I had quite a number of quite lovely sketches of the children of Yunnan. I recall that there were women with whole baskets of peaches carried on their backs. In fact I made a sketch of a peach-seller."

However, Earl Lu also noted that "None of the sketches and drawings I made in Yunnan later developed into paintings as they were not emotionally moving enough" by which we can infer after learning of his three ways to live life to the fullest that they did not move him spiritually.

If, as Earl Lu states, the connection between the senses and the emotions produces art, then it is easy for us to understand why he found it so stimulating to paint in the field in India and Bali:

"Bali is so inspiring: such a beautiful country. Everything they build and make is beautiful. Here is a people for whom the physical and spiritual are not separated."

But, of all the countries he has visited, India provides Earl Lu with the ultimate combination of stimulating the senses:

"India is truly the sort of place wherever you look you see a painting. The reason is the colourful dresses of the women, the spot of red on the forehead, gold nose ring and colourful earrings as a contrast to the dark skin. When a group of labourers were walking across the fields, it was a marvellously beautiful sight. And they walk with grace, partly because they carry things on their heads, and if you move your head about the things will fall off, so they have to walk according to a straight centre of gravity, almost the way a model will walk. I've always found them exceptionally charming."

Perhaps we can now work out why it is that Earl Lu paints. As an artist, he is able to "live life to the fullest" through the single act of painting. Using his intellectual powers and the techniques of painting, he makes conscious decisions as to composition, colour combinations, movement and form. At the same time, his senses and the emotions of passion, devotion, sincerity are stimulated. Thus intellect, senses and emotions are all exercised in this one activity, allowing Earl Lu to live life to the fullest when he is engaged in the act of creating a painting. He says, "Painting is sheer pleasure."

Images above from left to right:
Kheng-Li Wee, Portrait of Earl Lu, 2005, digital print
Earl Lu, Bathers, 2003, ink and pigments on paper, 34 x 34 cm
Earl Lu, Ink Roses, 2004, ink and pigments on paper, 34 x 34 cm
Earl Lu, Still Life, 2002, ink and pigments on paper, 34 x 34 cm
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