Spending the Summer in China

The canal-rich village of Ningbo, featured prominently in one of my books. It’s lovely.

I did not intend to spend the summer in China.  I’ve never actually been a fan of China, for reasons having to do with art, the Cultural Revolution, and my inability to master Chinese brush painting.   Several years ago, the Older Daughter took me to a walking lecture one of her professors conducted at the Freer and Sackler Galleries of the Smithsonian, and I nearly died of boredom.  Twice.  I’m pretty sure I disgraced my kid by doing Appalachian Tai Chi behind the lecturer’s back, but I had forewarned her.  I only came back to life in the National Gallery, because I am That Narrow.

This spring, though, the Younger Daughter introduced me to the BBC series Wild China while I was gimped up, pre-surgery, and post-surgery I have watched the whole series on Netflix.  To my own surprise, I got really interested in a subject that has never interested me.

In my massive ignorance, I thought of vast China as a loosely-connected slurry of grimy industrial towns and  concrete-driven architecture, all held together by a Communist Party with the charisma of a loaded gun.  To be sure, there is plenty of that; Wild China can’t even completely ignore the amazing amount of filth Chinese industry has dumped into its own rivers, soil, and humans.

But there’s a lot of other stuff, too:  Backwater villages where people were somehow missed by the Red Guards and allowed to keep living in their ancestral ways, mountains wearing Appalachian-esque forests, landscapes worn into human form by 5,000 years of continuous occupation by, yes, the same ethnic groups.

I had known for a long time that Chinese is the oldest continuous written language.  The ideograms of today are directly linked to the pictograms of the Sheng Dynasty, some of which are older than 2,000 BC.  Many Han Dynasty (roughly 300 BC to 300 AD) documents are readable to modern Chinese speakers because of this link.

What I didn’t know is that, thanks to paper (something that won’t even show up in the West for a thousand years), the Han were a writing bunch.  They wrote EVERYTHING.  In duplicate.  Calligraphy became an art form in its own right, and people learned it by copying manuscripts.  Modern historians know vast amounts of stuff about ancient China because of paper, ink, and junior calligraphers.

Even though the crane is a symbol of long life and good fortune, that didn’t stop people from allowing them to almost go extinct. Cranes are on the rebound in China, but only just, because they need wetlands, and people just can’t seem to help draining those. . .

Partly because of the pictographic nature of the written language and partly because of the ancient conventions of Chinese art, painting and calligraphy have always been intertwined.  Chinese inscriptions dating from 760 BC assert that a person’s character can be known from his brush-stroke.  (This has been echoed in modern times by Choggam Trungpa, who said “It is possible to make a brush stroke that expresses one’s whole life.”  I digress.)

Certain symbols – bamboo, plum blossoms, cranes – have persisted in Chinese calligraphy and paintings for thousands of years.  They became ritualized and stylized, so that Chinese art became less about individual style (a very Western notion of art, by the way) and more about the ability of the artist to perfect the ideal forms.  Pictograms, and the later abstractions they became, require precise execution.  The position of lines, their thicknesses, and their relative weights all have a bearing on their meaning.  Get a tiny stroke wrong, and you’re praising a nostril instead of recording the emperor’s tax laws.

Thus emerged the need for convention and regularity in forms, and this spread from calligraphy to painting because of the close connection, viz. above.  Therein lies the

A Ming Dynasty hand scroll, property of an emperor, dating from the 14th Century (Western style dates because I can’t figure out the Chinese years.)

thing about Chinese art that makes me (because of the whole Western background thing) nuts – it’s intentionally imitative.  Individual artists have styles, but they are measured against an ideal, rather than appreciated on their own merits.  (Also, the no-cast-shadows thing always makes me think that objects in ancient paintings are floating in midair.  Perhaps they were.)

When my ancestors were painting their faces blue and banging rocks together, the Chinese were making books, silks, and porcelains.  I suspect this fact alone means that I should shut up and keep learning.  I’m on my second book about China’s history (this one is on art), and the third one, on calligraphy, is waiting on my desk.  None of this has made me want to go to China, (mostly because my in-laws lost a total of 30 pounds while traveling there,) but it’s been a fantastic place to spend the summer, and I might possibly come out the other side more open-minded and knowing some stuff.

My mother-in-law brought me a set of brushes and an ink stone from China.  Now I’m motivated to take them out (again), dig out the rice paper (again) and see what happens.  If I create a brush-stroke that expresses my whole life, I’ll let you know.


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