Sunday, July 23, 2023

Distant mountains and steep torrents

I have been reading Plum Shadows and Plank Bridge, a fascinating account of late Ming courtesan culture, translated and edited by Wai-yee Li. It mainly comprises two literati memoirs - Reminiscences of the Plum Shadows Convent by Mao Xiang (1611–93) and Miscellaneous Records of Plank Bridge by Yu Huai (1616–96) - which recall the pleasures of Nanjing before the dynasty's collapse into turmoil and war. This is how Columbia University Press summarise these texts:

'Mao Xiang chronicles his relationship with the courtesan Dong Bai, who became his concubine two years before the Ming dynasty fell. His mournful remembrance of their life together, written shortly after her early death, includes harrowing descriptions of their wartime sufferings as well as idyllic depictions of romantic bliss. Yu Huai offers a group portrait of Nanjing courtesans, mixing personal memories with reported anecdotes. Writing fifty years after the fall of the Ming, he expresses a deep nostalgia for courtesan culture that bears the toll of individual loss and national calamity. Together, they shed light on the sensibilities of late Ming intellectuals: their recollections of refined pleasures and ruminations on the vagaries of memory coexist with political engagement and a belief in bearing witness.'  

Dong Bai, also known as Dong Xiaowan (1624–1651), had many accomplishments. The titles of four successive sections of Plum Shadows convey her character and artistic pursuits: 'Record of her quiet intelligence'; 'Record of her respectful abstemiousness'; 'Record of her interest in poetry, history, calligraphy and painting'; 'Record of her interest in tea, incense, flowers and the moon.' Mao doesn't overpraise her talents - when it came to painting, she didn't achieve mastery but specialised in 'small clumps of bushes and wintry trees,' where 'her brushwork was graceful and appealing.' Nevertheless she clearly had a strong appreciation for gardens and landscape and lived for a time in Suzhou, which as I've mentioned here before, is famous for its gardens. Mao describes the pleasure they both took in Suzhou's Lovebirds Lake, flanked by sandbanks and temples with the Tower of Mist and Rain rising into the sky. 'She and I once roamed there for a whole day. We also reminisced together about the marvels of blue waves and dark green crags at Tongjun Mountain and the Yan Rock Rapids on the Qiantong River.' 

Some of the courtesans described by Yu Huai were renowned for their music, poetry and art. Gu Mei (1619-1664) for example, also known as Gu Hengbo 'excelled in painting orchids' and a couple of her works from the Smithsonian are reproduced in the book. Like Dong Bai, she was one of the Eight Beauties of Qinhuai (courtesans mainly lived on the South Bend of Nanjing's Qinhuai River), where she hosted a famous literary salon. 'Just as she fashions her eyebrows, she fashions orchids and calligraphy', wrote one contemporary poet. 'Surrounded by paintings, books and antique vessels, / it is hard to make room in the mind for romantic affairs.' 


Fan painting by Gu Hengbo in the Palace Museum, Beijing


Yu Huai mentions another courtesan in Plank Bridge who specialised in landscape painting, Fan Jue (also known as Fan Yun). 'She painted ancient trees with gnarled, uneven branches, distant mountains, and steep torrents.' According to him 'she was abstemious and quiet', although in an endnote Wai-yee Li observes that while he describes 'an austere artist, the poems addressed to Fan by her admirers are quite sensual.' Yu says that in art she took as her models Shi Zhong and Gu Yuan, 'she was a Fan Kuan among women.' I can't find any online images of her work, so here is a Shi Zhong landscape in the Met. Interestingly, both Shi Zhong and Gu Yuan were known for their eccentric, individual styles.

 Shi Zhong, Winter Landscape with Fishermen (detail), late 15th century or early 16th century