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.

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