Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Nymph of the Luo River

Gu Kaizhi, The Nymph of the Luo River, Song Dynasty copy of a 4th century original (detail)

I love the magical green landscape into which the nymph is disappearing in this painting.  How closely this scroll resembles the original by Gu Kaizhi is difficult to say, although there are two other Song Dynasty copies showing similar figures, trees and mountains.  In Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting, Wu Hong suggests that the version below may be closer to the original, since it shows a less sophisticated approach to landscape.  Gu Kaizhi (c. 344–406) is 'synonymous with the origin of Chinese scroll painting' and was, among other things, the author of an essay on landscape art, Painting Yuntai Mountain.  In this he describes one of his own works, which showed a Daoist priest and two disciples, positioned between two cliffs with the empty space surrounding them designed to suggest a place inhabited by gods.  The Nymph of Luo River is an illustration of a fu poem by Cao Zhi (192-232), the son of Cao Cao (whose writings I featured here last year.) 

Gu Kaizhi, The Nymph of the Luo River, Song Dynasty copy of a 4th century original

'The Nymph of the Luo River' (223) is a beautiful poem in Burton Watson's translation (see Chinese Rhyme-Prose, recently republished by Calligrams).  Since my theme here is landscape, I will quote a few lines describing the setting of Cao's encounter with the river goddess.  Cao is journeying back from the newly rebuilt and restored capital, Luoyang.
The sun had already dipped in the west,
The carriage unsteady, the horses fatigued,
And so I halted my rig in the spikenard marshes,
Grazed my team of four at Lichen Fields,
Idling a while at Willow Wood,
Letting my eyes wander over the Luo.
It is then that he sees the beautiful woman, but she is invisible to his coachman, and so he describes her to him.  This description, drawing on nature imagery, is rather like the song of Polyphemus in praise of Galatea, in Ovid's Metamorphoses, that I mentioned in an earlier post here.   As Wu Hong points out in his description of Gu Kaizhi's scroll, 'the verbal metaphors - geese, dragons, chrysanthemums, pines, clouds, winds, sun, and lotus - are translated into pictures and woven into the landscape.'  Thus the landscape itself in this painting is a kind of description of the nymph's body.

Although Cao Zhi was not a wilderness poet, his work is full of images drawn from the natural world.  His narrators make journeys, real and imaginary, and occasionally they look out over the world and describe what they see, as in 'Seeing off the Yings' (211), where Cao climbs a hill and observes the ruined buildings of Luoyang, the capital that had been burned down in 190.  There is a lovely description of Cao Zhi's poetry in George W. Kent short book of translations, Worlds of Dust and Jade (1969, no longer in print).  I'll end here by quoting it in full (Ts'ao Chih is the Wade-Giles version of the poet's name):
Ts'ao Chih's is a poetry of the wild and vast forces of nature, of long distances and great heights. It has grand sweep. One of its worlds is that of sadly soughing wind in trees and tower tops, of startling whirlwinds, of remote and silent stars, of the westward hastening dust-darkened sun, of vanishing morning dew, and of passing lonely tufts of cloud. Great sound and motion predominated over colour and texture. It is often a furious world, all of nature restlessly and pitilessly changing as man, also changing, looks forlornly on. But, too, there is the uncanny beauty of the glistening pomegranate tree, the majestic silvery disc of the moon moving in cold serenity, the tranquil bluegreen water of the courtyard pool, and through the night's stillness, the sound of the lone flute. Ts'ao Chih seems at times to glory in this world of change, fury, and beauty, and we are never sure that he wants any other. Children play in the ruins of Loyang; there is splendour and hope in this world.

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