Saturday, August 26, 2023

Ocean waves and mountain echoes


Kuncan, Origin of Immortals, 1661

I've been looking into the art of Kuncan (or Kun Can, 1623-73), a Buddhist monk who lived in and around Nanjing. In Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting, a book I've quoted from before, Nie Chongzheng highlights Kuncan's use of calligraphy and quotes lines he added to a 1661 landscape painting, Origin of Immortals. I'll reproduce these here as they are already quoted online in a Daily Art post about Kuncan.

I still find joy in this secluded life,

Treading on the path, I find beautiful scenes as I please,

I play my musical instrument as I walk along the river,

Until I enter a fascinating place through the clouds,

The water is deep, and the land is open and flat,

Mountains shine under the sunlight,

The deafening sound of spring covers other noises,

The flat rocks look so clean, as if they have been swept,

I feel so happy I forget my fatigue,

The stream winds all the way up to the high mountain,

When I look ahead, the mountains look as if they are cut,

And the irregular mountain caves are exquisite,

I feel as if I am high in the sky.

My steps feel so light as I walk in the pine woods,

Resting in the mountains, I forget about the material world.

The place is so quiet that even monks don’t come here,

I plan to live here for the rest of my life,

Until I die in the mountain.

These lines are lovely but not very memorable. The main reason I wanted to write this post was to include another Kuncan quote that I really like, this one taken from a 1670 landscape painting that was on loan to the Met.

Master Cheng Lian [a musician, 7th century B.C.] transformed people’s temperament with the sound of ocean waves. Zong Shaowen [the landscape artist Zong Bing, 375–443] did it with echoes in the mountains. Temperament can be transformed to transcend romantic and worldly attachments. Mr. Wang Dengxian [active mid-17th century] studies in the Gaozuo Monastery [in Nanjing], taking rainy woods as his ocean waves and mountain echoes. Every day he strolls in them, chanting his literary compositions and, when gay, singing out loud while tapping trees [to keep time]. He lives as he wishes. My senior Ji once said, “As emotions arise, wisdom is blocked. When thoughts shift, the body changes in accord.” How can anyone say there is no transformation-inducing cinnabar in this process? I painted this landscape to amuse myself. When Mr. Wang saw it, I gave it to him as a present.

Cheng Lian (Ch'eng-lien) was the qin player who taught Bo Ya (Po Ya), who I have referred to here previously. Zong Bing wrote the early aesthetic essay Huashanshuixu (“Preface on Landscape Painting"). Gaozuosi is in Rain Flower Terrace park in the south of Nanjing. It looks like there are still plenty of trees there in which one could walk and listen to the rain, but this landscape now has a dark place in history, with a monument commemorating the thousands of communists executed on the site by the Kuomintang.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Sunlit emptiness


West Lake, Hangzhou
Source: Wikimedia

I've just read Love & Time: The Poems of Ou-Yang Hsiu, a slim volume of J. P. Seaton translations published by the Copper Canyon Press in 1989. It includes Ou-Yang's series of ten poems entitled West Lake Is Good, which popularised the tz'u form (ci in pinyin) where verse is fitted into the form of a pre-existing song. His West Lake poems (the lake is in Hangzhou - see my earlier post on it) were written to the tune Picking Mulberries. I guess it would be like someone writing a set of poems about Windermere using the rhythms and rhyme scheme of 'Scarborough Fair'. Ouyang also wrote some beautiful landscape poems in the short shih (shi) style, like 'Drifting at I-Ch'uan' in which a stream grows in a gorge and rapids turn a tiny boat. 'Birds on the sand turn too: / away from me / and fly, to the grove's green tips.'  

Ouyang Xiu (1007-72 - I'm swapping now to pinyin spelling) had the Zuiweng Pavilion constructed at Langya Mountain near Chuzhou. It was built to his design by a Buddhist priest of the mountain, Zhi Xian, and you can now build one yourself – I see that a Lego set is available to buy! Ouyang called it The Pavilion of the Old Drunkard, but as Richard Strassberg writes in Inscribed Landscapes, what Ouyang ‘cares about is to be amid mountains and streams. The joy of the landscape has been captured in his heart, and wine drinking merely expresses this.’ Ouyang’s calligraphy was engraved at the pavilion in 1048 but because it was difficult to make rubbings, Su Shi (1037-1101) rewrote it in larger characters (rubbings of this still exist). Inscribed Landscapes includes a further text on another pavilion ordered near here by Ouyang Xiu: The Pavilion of Joyful Abundance, which is by a spring at the foot of Mount Abundance, Fengshan. 

In 1070 Ouyang wrote his ‘Account of the Pavilion on Mount Xian’ (1070), an early description of the ‘principle whereby a place becomes known through a particular person’, as Stephen Owen says in his Anthology of Chinese Literature. ‘Mount Xian looks down on the river Han', Ouyang wrote. 'when I gaze at it, I can barely make it out. It is surely the smallest of the major mountains, yet its name is particularly well known in Jingzhou. This is, of course, because it of the persons associated with it. And who are those persons? None other than Yang Hu and Du Yu.’ Yang Hu and Du Yu were governors during the Jin Dynasty and Mount Xian, near Xiangyang (formerly Xiangfan) had a ‘stele for shedding tears’ dedicated to Yang Hu.  

Of course Ouyang himself created sites of future literary pilgrimage - not just the pavilions near Chuzhou. Pingshan Hall was built in 1048 when he was prefecture chief of Yangzhou. Su Shi was again on hand to commemorate the older poet, writing a poem after Ouyang’s death on an occasion when he revisited the hall. It can still be visited today - it is in the western part of Daming Temple, on the middle peak of Shugang Mountain near Yangzhou - but it has been destroyed and re-built many times over the years. Stephen Owen’s anthology includes ‘An Account of the Reconstruction of Level Mountain Hall’ written in the seventeenth century by Wei Xi (1624-80). Pingshan means ‘Level Mountain’ and comes from the fact that the mountains from this viewpoint all appear at the same level. J. P. Seaton translated one of Ouyang's poems on this landscape. He looks out and leans into 'sunlit emptiness, / the mountain's colours in the mist / now there, now gone.'