Category Archives: Chinese Art

(Every Day is) Dog Day

Hound

Hound

Give your pup some love for National Dog Day! Small jade animals like this hound were enjoyed as handsome decorations by China’s elite. Due to jade’s cool surface, they were also used as objects to caress. Hounds are, in general, well regarded in China; one of the years of the zodiac is named after the dog. In fact, this jade object might have been presented to someone born in the year of the dog. The slender animal wears a collar with a bell, suggesting that it is a hunting dog.

Incense box with relief figure of lion

Incense box with relief figure of lion

The mythical lion dog, such as the one that decorates this incense box, symbolizes strength and protection, especially of children. The image of a lion dog frolicking among peonies is a favored combination in both Chinese and Japanese imagery.

Puppies in the Snow

Puppies in the Snow

Japanese artist Isoda Koryusai (1735–1790) produced some 150 designs of flowers, birds, and animals. In one of his most charming works, seven puppies huddle together under a shelter that protects a blossoming narcissus from the snow. The print incorporates references to 1778, the year of the dog and when it was published. Calendar prints like this example were distributed as gifts at the beginning of the New Year; on the lunar calendar, this fell in mid- to late February, when narcissus began to bloom but snow might still fall.

Word Play

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon by Xu Bing

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon by Xu Bing

Twenty-one monkeys greet visitors to the Freer|Sackler. They hang in the stairwell, dangling from the Sackler’s glass atrium all the way to a small reflecting pool three levels down. Monkeys Grasp for the Moon, a suspended sculpture by Xu Bing (born 1955), is a chain made up of twenty-one large, black, lacquered wood pieces. Created specifically for the space as part of a 2001 exhibition of the artist’s work, it tucks nicely into the existing architecture. It is the only piece from the exhibition that was permanently installed in the museum.

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon is based on the Chinese fable of the same name. The story goes that a group of monkeys catch sight of the moon and attempt to capture it. Working together, they link arms and tails to form a chain reaching from their tree branch to the moon. Just as they’re about to grab it, the monkeys realize that they had merely seen the shimmering reflection of the moon on the surface of a pool. The dual lesson is that working together lets us achieve our dreams, but also that our dreams may be naught but illusion.

Xu Bing brought this lesson into the twenty-first century with his sculpture. Rather than creating actual monkey forms, he designed pieces shaped like the word “monkey” in a dozen languages, with each word forming a link on the chain. In this way, Xu communicates the importance of working together in an age and world as interconnected as ours. The languages—representing various countries, cultures, religions, and ethnicities—must come together to achieve greater goals.

Certainly, Monkeys Grasp for the Moon is a work that could be, should be, and is admired for its aesthetic qualities, innovation, and narrative. But on top of this, the work deserves to be recognized as expressly demonstrative of the oeuvre of a very important artist. Xu Bing stands among the most celebrated contemporary Chinese artists; he is already studied in art history classes at many universities. Monkeys is very much in conversation with some of his other best-known works and considers many of the same ideas. In fact, another of Xu’s famous pieces, The Living Word, was also part of his 2001 exhibition at the Freer|Sackler.

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon and The Living Word, like Xu’s other works, are inspired by the relationship between meaning and words. The result is a body of work in which the artist considers worldly issues and culture and manipulates language to subvert meaning, to turn expectations on their head, and to change human perception. In Monkeys, his use of words as sculptural forms challenges the viewer to delve deeper for meaning, to analyze, to not accept the fable at face value. When this happens, each “monkey” becomes a microcosm of a culture, and the chain becomes symbolic of an ideal world. This comes full circle to feed back into the lesson of the illusionistic and fleeting nature of dreams.

“Xu Bing: The Living Word” at the Morgan Library and Museum, 2011

In The Living Word, pictured above in its 2011 installation at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City, Xu also created a piece that considers the relationship between the written word and its physical meaning. He wrote the definition of the word niao (“bird” in Chinese) on the floor. Gradually, the niao characters morph between types of Chinese text—from Mao’s simplified text to standard Chinese and then to the ancient Chinese pictograph that means “bird.” Simultaneously, the characters move forward and lift off the floor and up to the sky. They look like birds in flight. They are literally breaking free of the literal definition of the word as they move backward on the timeline of language. Xu said that the words are “escaping the confines of human written definition . . . the birds soar, careless of the words with which humans seek to define them.”

When considered against Xu’s overall body of works, Monkeys Grasp for the Moon takes on another dimension. Its meaning becomes even more dynamic and layered. The Freer|Sackler is lucky to have such a work among its collection, and even more so, to have it permanently installed where visitors encounter it every day. And visitors are lucky to have such a work, by such a famous artist, to admire up close as they move throughout the museum.

 

International Tiger Day

Tiger with cubs and magpies; China, possibly Zhejiang province, Ming dynasty, 15th century; ink and color on silk; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1911.252

Tiger with cubs and magpies; China, possibly Zhejiang province, Ming dynasty, 15th century; ink and color on silk; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1911.252

A tiger standing protectively over her cubs seems to ignore two magpies scolding from the branches of a pine tree. When combined as the subject of paintings, tigers are messengers of the mountain spirit and magpies are envoys of the shrine deities that protect household and community. Paintings with this motif were displayed in doorways of Korean homes at the New Year to ward off evil. Court artists painted the theme on silk, as in this example, while painters serving village households used mulberry paper.

The Man behind the “Mania”

A Theory of Everything: Dark Stupa; Walter McConnell (b. 1956) 2014 and 2004–16; cast porcelain from salvaged hobby industrial molds, zinc crystalline glaze, sand, and plywood shelving; courtesy the artist and Cross MacKenzie Gallery, Washington, DC

Detail, A Theory of Everything: Dark Stupa; Walter McConnell (b. 1956); 2014; cast porcelain from salvaged hobby industrial molds, zinc crystalline glaze, sand, and plywood shelving; courtesy the artist and Cross MacKenzie Gallery, Washington, DC

Owls, skulls, demure shepherdesses and bucking broncos: all of these figures and dozens more coexist in Walter McConnell’s monumental porcelain sculptures. These “stupas,” as he describes them, are part of Chinamania, an installation named for the craze for Chinese blue-and-white porcelain that swept London in the 1870s and still exists in the West. Coated in glistening crystalline glazes, the stupas are juxtaposed with Kangxi period (1662–1722) ceramics from our collection—as well as a piece made up of 3D-printed replicas of these historical objects. While installing the exhibition, which opens July 9, McConnell sat down with Bento to talk about his work.

Bento: Tell me about your travels to China. Why did you go?

Walter McConnell: As a ceramic artist, I was really interested in experiencing ceramic production in China. In the States, I had been working with this collection of recycled hobby industry molds, weird figurines, kitsch ceramic bric-a-brac, and the like. I had an invitation to participate in an international workshop held in a figurine manufactory in China, so I was curious to see what confluences there might be in terms of outputs from these different cultural milieus. Though the manufactory I worked in was mostly producing high-end items, they were also very good at producing kitsch novelties, like statuettes of Bruce Lee in various karate poses.

On that same trip, I had the opportunity to visit Jingdezhen, the source of the blue-and-white porcelains I rearranged for the Chinamania show. . . . I remember being enamored with the dizzying array of ceramic products on display in Jingdezhen market stalls, one after the other after the other—literally stacks of pots, enormous porcelain vessels, and figurines. So in China, I constructed an early version of my “stupa” sculptures by shopping the markets of Jingdezhen for seconds and castoff pieces. I built a piece called Pagoda—a tall, cylindrical stack of market ceramics, figurines, teapots, roof tile, etc. . . . with a waxed paper parasol on top, a motif often represented on the finial of architectural stupas as well.

Bento: Why do you refer to your works as stupas?

WM: The stepped pyramid architecture allowed for an arrangement of ceramic objects that is presentational: you can see them all at once as you circulate around the work. And then, of course, the structure bore a strong resemblance to the stupa and other Asian temple architecture. Furthering the analogy, they’re also, in a sense, reliquaries, housing cultural remains of North American popular ceramics.

An example of a stupa from our collections. This cloisonne stupa was made during the reign of China's Qianlong emperor (r. 1735–96).

An example of a stupa from our collections. This cloisonne stupa was made during the reign of China’s Qianlong emperor (r. 1735–96).

My interest really is in the way that these objects are evidence of a kind of collective consciousness, an encyclopedic display of a slice of popular culture at a particular moment in time. These things don’t have an explicit function; they’re objects of a momentary caprice, perhaps, a particular passion—[someone deciding] “I need this thing” to fit my home décor, my curio cabinet. So you find things in the mix that are readily familiar or completely arcane, objects that have gone in and out of fashion.

Take an inventory: There are vessels of all kinds, beer steins, adorable animals, neoclassical motifs, collectables, commemoratives, Americana, all markers of cultural heritage and class structure. There’s the pastoral, the shepherdess, garden ornaments, antiquities . . . All facsimiles, of course—relatively cheap, slip cast replicas. Ceramic has always been a medium for translating the aristocratic into the democratic, accessible, cheap, ubiquitous.

Bento: Do you collect anything?

WM: I don’t, at least nothing obsessive that we live with. Perhaps, intermittently, Fiestaware and pottery—but generally I’ve saved the compulsion for my artwork. The obsessive/maniacal part of this is in the accumulation, surely, but also in the arrangement. I think I’m a little obsessive compulsive about how these things get placed and displayed. But that’s what’s required, right? The meticulous arrangement really compels the audience to sit up and take notice. Otherwise, the objects are simply dismissible novelties. Coat them with a fabulously flamboyant glaze with blooms of crystalline zinc and accretions of sand and you get this sense of geologic strata, which allows the stupa and its collected relics to feel connected to nature in some way.

Detail, A Theory of Everything: White Stupa; Walter McConnell (b. 1956); 2014 and 2004–16; cast porcelain from salvaged hobby industrial molds, zinc crystalline glaze, sand, and plywood shelving; courtesy the artist and Cross MacKenzie Gallery, Washington, DC

Detail, A Theory of Everything: White Stupa; Walter McConnell (b. 1956); 2014 and 2004–16; cast porcelain from salvaged hobby industrial molds, zinc crystalline glaze, sand, and plywood shelving; courtesy the artist and Cross MacKenzie Gallery, Washington, DC

BentoChinamania complements Peacock Room REMIX, a contemporary take on Whistler’s masterpiece. How does your work relate to the Peacock Room?

WM: In one sense, they both say something about the psychology of the collector and collections, the need for systems and order. I’ve always been enamored with the aesthetic of abundance and ostentatious display in porcelain rooms that predate the Peacock Room. I’ve researched the history of porcelain manufacture and its migration and reinvention in the West—the aristocratic nature of the medium, the maniacal passion for collecting. In the eighteenth century, Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony, imprisoned Johann Friedrich Böttger to make lead into gold, and instead reinvented porcelain in the West. Augustus famously traded a regiment of soldiers for a collection of porcelain vases, a well-known early narrative of a kind of Chinamania.

Bento: How do your 3D printouts play into the installation?

WM: The connection between the stupas, the Kangxi porcelains, and the 3D prototypes is an interesting one. I was entertaining a number of things that I could do with your collection, yet I was somewhat stymied by prohibitions on actually handling the originals. I’d been doing some scanning and prototyping in another body of work, so I proposed to scan and prototype the blue-and-white collection. Now I can touch them; I can possess a complete set of these extraordinarily detailed facsimiles (but of course, not the originals). The digital clones are democratic, more accessible. That was the motivation, to bring about a question of how objects circulate like this in culture high and low.

I imagined the original Chinese porcelains displayed in a glowing case inset in a dark wall, floating as if an apparition, less tangible than their miniature clones. Those are now in the room at 40 percent of the original size, set in their souvenir boxed set, replicating with some precision the objects at a distance on the wall. So now the boxed set almost seems more accessible than the things that are illuminated in the case. You have more access to it. I was hoping to affect an oscillation between those states.

Chinese porcelains from our collection, produced in the Jingdezhen region of China during the Kangxi reign (1662–1722)

Chinese porcelains from our collection, produced in the Jingdezhen region of China during the Kangxi reign (1662–1722), and their miniature, 3D-printed counterparts.

Bento: What do you hope visitors take away from your installation?

WM: I think the “Stupas” have a lot of different entry points. You walk around them, you find something that catches your eye, evokes a memory, creates an entertaining, improbable narrative, provoking your delight or disdain. They do seem to compel circumambulation by the audience—again, an analogy to the Buddhist model. That kind of active engagement with memory, I suppose, becomes part of what they are.

I think you have to be astonished by their scale, the sheen, the meticulous stacking and improbable structure. Otherwise, they don’t work. The objects are perhaps overly familiar; you can find these things anywhere, an apartment window, your neighbor’s lawn. It’s aesthetic astonishment with the cumulative effect that rouses empathy for the collective consciousness on display here. I hope the work is capable of that.

No Hungry Generations Tread Thee Down

Playing the Chinese qin. Photo courtesy of Bell Yung.

Playing the Chinese qin. Photo courtesy of Bell Yung.

Standing in front of the qin in the Freer|Sackler’s exhibition Painting with Words, I remembered the first time I saw one in my teacher’s house. I cannot recall the name of it, but the slim contour of its body stands vividly in my memory. Under the dim light in the living room, the metal markers shone in the most modest way. Seven strings emanated from the gum, then steadfastly went up along the surface, tied in seven delicate knots on the Mount Yue. My teacher played me “Flowing Water,” a song attributed to the ancient qin master Boya that is featured in the Painting with Words galleries. I remember he said, “It’s always the best piece to lure someone into the world of qin.”

Structure of the qin. Image courtesy of Beijing Musical Instrument Society.

Structure of the qin. Image courtesy of Beijing Musical Instrument Society.

Back then, I was thirteen. To the thirteen-year-old me, the qin was the bridge to the wonderland of ancient Chinese culture. The qin was essential to Chinese artists throughout history. Its significance during the Ming dynasty is clear in Painting with Words—several poets refer to the qin in their lines. Painters also often depicted men either playing or carrying the instrument.

As I started learning to play, I was deeply influenced by the cultural history the qin carries. There have been various schools of qin throughout history. The one I belong to is nowadays called Fanchuan 泛川, founded by Zhang Kongshan 張孔山 and fostered by Gu Meigeng 顧梅羹 in northeast China. My teacher liked to tell me the “inside stories” of the Fanchuan school as well as the history of each piece during our classes. Much of the background information on qin pieces is recorded in Qinxue beiyao 琴學備要, a collection of important qin music. Gu Meigeng hand wrote each character in Qinxue. Every time I open the book and read through the words, I am deeply moved by the master’s great dedication to the study of this enchanting musical instrument.

The book records many wonderful pieces that are representative of the Fanchuan school, including “Oulu wangji” 鷗鷺忘機 (Seabirds and No Ulterior Motives), “Pingsha luoyan” 平沙落雁 (Wild Geese on the Sandbank), “Yigure” 憶故人 (Thinking of An Old Friend), and “Zuiyu changwan” 醉漁唱晚 (Drunk Fisherman Singing at Dusk). Among them, “Flowing Water” 流水is the most essential. Fanchuan’s version of “Flowing Water” adds “seventy-two Gunfu 七十二滾拂” to the sixth section of the music. This change adds a sense of turbulence to the song, as if the flowing water has suddenly come to a dangerous valley and started to dance with its destiny. The contrast between this passion in the middle and the tranquility in the end is thus stronger, creating a more interesting narrative for the piece.

Following behind a robed gentleman, a serving boy carries a wrapped qin. "Walking by a Mountain Stream" is on view in "Painting with Words."

Following behind a robed gentleman, a serving boy carries a wrapped qin. “Walking by a Mountain Stream” is on view in “Painting with Words.”

Since NASA carried “Flowing Water” into space, I always like to imagine how an alien would encounter the song. I picture him walking along a riverbank, watching the beautiful sunset, wondering if there is another being who could enjoy this moment with him. Suddenly, among the thousand beats of water, he hears this music—just for one second, but it has indeed caught his attention. The music goes with the wave and becomes the wave. It achieves pure harmony.

Perhaps the alien in my imagination still does not have an affirmative answer to his question, but I do. Anyone who hears “Flowing Water” is not alone, because the piece transcends time and space. It is immortal, like the song of the nightingale in a poem by John Keats. The music you can hear in Painting with Words was heard “in ancient days by emperor and clown,” for “no hungry generations tread thee down.”

Wu School: Bamboo in Rain

Xiao-Xiang River after Rain; Xia Chang 夏㫤 (1388–1470); China, Ming dynasty, 1464; handscroll; ink on paper; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment; Freer Gallery of Art, F1952.27

Xiao-Xiang River after Rain; Xia Chang 夏㫤 (1388–1470); China, Ming dynasty, 1464; handscroll; ink on paper; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment; Freer Gallery of Art, F1952.27

It’s raining in DC (again). We must stay strong, much like this bamboo dipping into a river in Xiao-Xiang after a rainstorm, on view in Painting with Words. In Chinese tradition, the evergreen bamboo is honored for its strength, resilience, and ability to bend without breaking—qualities also associated with the ideal Confucian gentleman. Naturally straight and tall, bamboo mirrors the gentleman’s upright character. The hollow stems parallel his selfless humility, and their strong, solid joints represent his unbreakable integrity.

Xiao 瀟 and Xiang 湘 are the names of two rivers in Hunan province, central China, that have been famous since ancient times for their extensive groves of bamboo. Together, the names refer to an area known in antiquity as the kingdom of Chu 楚, which occupies a special place in Chinese literature and history.

Any reference to Xiao-Xiang immediately calls famous stories to mind. For example, according to early legend, a sage ruler named Shun 舜 (traditionally 2294–2184 BCE) died suddenly near the Xiang River. His two wives mourned on the water’s edge for days, their copious tears staining the nearby bamboo. Overcome with grief, they cast themselves into the Xiang and drowned, becoming goddesses of the river.

Word Nerd Wednesday: jinshi, juren, and jieyuan

Judging from the poems, these leaves were meant for a promising young man. He had passed the provincial juren exams with flying colors and was en route to the capital, presumably by boat, to take the national jinshi examinations to qualify for the imperial bureaucracy.

Judging from the poems, these leaves were meant for a promising young man. He had passed the provincial juren exams with flying colors and was en route to the capital, presumably by boat, to take the national jinshi examinations to qualify for the imperial bureaucracy.

Cramming desperately for finals week? Students past and present may find some solace in the fact that even China’s literary elite didn’t always ace their exams. As explored in the exhibition Painting with Words, centered on works by Wu School artists, several of these renowned painters, poets, and calligraphers didn’t excel at tests. During the Ming dynasty, the national jinshi (advanced scholar) examination, held every three years in the capital, qualified test takers for service in the imperial bureaucracy. Some artists, such as Xia Chang and Wu Kuan, distinguished themselves in the examinations and rose to high government offices.

Tang Yin (1470–1524) and Wen Zhengming (1470–1559) rank among the leading artists of the Ming dynasty, and they’re considered two of the Four Great Artists of the Ming Dynasty. Tang and Wen met as teenagers, and despite radical differences in character and temperament, they became close friends. In 1498, the eighteen-year-olds went off to Nanjing to sit for the provincial juren examinations. Tang was awarded first place (jieyuan); Wen Zhengming failed. Wen would never pass the jinshi examination, though he made multiple attempts. Regardless, he went on to become the unrivaled leader of the Wu School for much of its heyday during the first sixty years of the sixteenth century.

Traveling South; Tang Yin (1470–1524); China, Ming dynasty, 1505; handscroll; ink and color on paper; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment Freer Gallery of Art, F1953.78

Traveling South; Tang Yin (1470–1524); China, Ming dynasty, 1505; handscroll; ink and color on paper; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment
Freer Gallery of Art, F1953.78

While tests were no match for Tang’s brilliance, he had a wild side. He was given to self-indulgence (some would say decadence) and poor decision-making. While in the imperial capital in 1499 to take the national jinshi examinations, Tang behaved inappropriately—possibly involving drunken debauchery—and became embroiled in a trumped-up cheating scandal. Although he hadn’t actually done anything wrong, Tang was jailed, expelled from the exams, and sent home in disgrace, with the once-certain promise of a glorious official career now reduced to ashes.

Nevertheless, Tang’s status remained intact among the scholarly and wealthy elite of his native Suzhou. He lived and moved in the leading circles of local society, and, through their continuing patronage, he made a successful (if sometimes precarious) living through his writing and art for the next twenty-five years.

Remembering Suzhou

A scholar's studio in Suzhou. Photograph courtesy of the author.

A scholar’s studio in Suzhou. Photograph courtesy of the author.

In December 2014, while I was working on Painting with Words: Gentleman Artists of the Ming Dynasty, I visited China’s Suzhou Museum to see an exhibition on Tang Yin, one of the city’s most celebrated artists and a key member of the Ming dynasty’s Wu School. I spent the first day studying the remarkable assemblage of Tang’s painting and calligraphy, including several works I had long wanted to see. On the morning of the second day, Mr. Pan, a young museum curator, came by my hotel to take me to a famous local garden before we would return to the exhibition in the afternoon. In the spirit of the Three Perfections—painting, poetry, and calligraphy—in which Tang Yin and his fellow Wu School artists excelled, I’ve written the following recollection of that day. 

Curator Pan darts down a narrow side street flanked with whitewashed walls, chatting amiably as we stroll to one of Suzhou’s famous gardens. In the Old City, early morning rituals are in full swing. Under the weak winter sun, brightly colored quilts and bedding are hanging out to air. The wok woman on the corner fires up savory crepes for eager passersby; stacked baskets of gleaming dumplings steam in the stall next door. Up the block, around the public well, bare-armed men and women scrub their laundry in tubs and buckets, sharing gossip of absent neighbors and the rumors of the day.

At a blind corner by the canal, another man cutting crosswise suddenly collides with my companion, butting heads. But their startled curses and momentary consternation quickly turn to wincing laughs and smiles, as old friends clap each other on the shoulder and shake hands. In fact, he lives around the corner now, just down the lane, and we’re invited to drop by for tea on our way back.

Curator Pan loves classical poetry. As we wander the latticed halls and jumbled rockeries of the garden he quotes the early masters, then offers up a sample of his own. He savors every syllable and rhyme, chanting loudly with proud satisfaction: “A new view with every step, Suzhou gardens are the best.” A pavilion, a bridge, fragrant shrubs scattered and massed for every season; tall twisted rocks dredged from nearby lakes and erected on end; maples in full flush and clusters of nandina berries, flaming red: all are reflected clearly in still pools of water. All were put here long ago just to catch our eye as we turn the bend.

Curator Pan texts his friend. Photo courtesy of the author.

Curator Pan texts his friend. Photo courtesy of the author.

We’ve taken our time, and we text Master Liang, the old friend we had encountered, to let him know we’re running late. Out the front gate and back the way we came, we cross the canal and hurry down the street to the left. A long block later, we knock at a set of wooden doors that front the lane. A young girl opens them, and across the courtyard our smiling host beckons us into his studio where the kettle for tea is already boiling. Master Liang, it turns out, is a teacher of the qin—the seven-stringed zither played by almost every classical poet since the time of Confucius—and soon we’re perching comfortably on sturdy stools inside his high-ceilinged classroom. Sleek-bodied black lacquer zithers hang from rings along the wall; woven mats and low polished tables line the stone-tiled floor.

With a practiced flourish Master Liang discards the first pot of tea and adds new hot water to the leaves: “It’s the second steeping that is best, and the only one to serve an honored guest.” Waiting, we talk of his teacher and mine, of the training and traditions that led us each to where we are. Master Liang asks his friend about his newly opened exhibition on the art of Tang Yin (1470–1524), one of the city’s most beloved poets and painters, and the real reason I am here. The show is the talk of the town, featured in all the papers; we tell him that visitors are packed four and five deep in front of every picture and he should probably wait a couple of weeks to come.

By now the tea is ready, and Master Liang pours us each a shallow cup. Its warmth in our hands and the subtle scent and flavor imbue us with a sense of calm. I tell them of a favorite handscroll in the Freer|Sackler: a short landscape by Tang Yin called Traveling South, which he painted in 1505 for his good friend, a young qin player who was setting out from Suzhou to make his way in the world. Then as now, the road was part of life for professional musicians.

Detail, Traveling South; Tang Yin (1470–1524); China, Ming dynasty, 1505; handscroll; ink and color on paper; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, Freer Gallery of Art, F1953.78

Detail, Traveling South; Tang Yin (1470–1524); China, Ming dynasty, 1505; handscroll; ink and color on paper; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, Freer Gallery of Art, F1953.78

Done in marvelously varied brushwork and subtle graded tones of ink, the scroll is one of the artist’s early masterpieces. After the painting, Tang inscribed two short poems:

On the river, springtime breezes blow the tender elms
I clasp my zither and see you off trailing long robes
If someone you encounter should appreciate your music
Cut some reeds where you are and build yourself a hut

Xi Kang long ago performed the Melody of Guangling
Silent for a thousand years its tonalities are lost
Today I have traveled to this place to see you off
That we may look for its tablature in the handbook

Inspired by my description, Master Liang moves to a nearby table where his qin is tuned and waiting. Selecting a favorite melody, he dedicates it to our accidental meeting: “Reading the Book of Changes at a Window Filled with Pines.” By which, of course, he means that if one reads the universe rightly, our meeting was no accident at all. Each note trembles in the chilly air, then warms as the next one huddles in, piling solid and broken lines one atop the other and transporting us momentarily to another place and time: here and now, there and then, all the same.

Master Liang performs. Photo courtesy of the author.

Master Liang performs. Photo courtesy of the author.

The piece ends with a flurry of harmonics, and we finish our replenished cups of tea. His first students of the day will arrive in half an hour, and since we’re meeting a colleague from the museum for lunch, we take our leave. Polite farewells at the door and grateful promises to stay in touch, and as we step across the threshold, returning to the rough-and-tumble, I am struck again by how much Suzhou, for all its modern veneer, remains unwaveringly true to itself. Poetry and painting, zithers and tea, rocks and gardens, crepes and dumplings: the pulse of life for more than five hundred years. Whether 1514 or 2014, certain things abide.

Word of the Day: zhiyin

Seven-stringed zither (qin), named Spring Breeze Forged inscription of Wen Zhengming (1470–1559) China, Ming dynasty, 1369–1644 Lacquered wood, water buffalo horn, mother-of-pearl, and silk strings Gift of Dr. Shing Yiu Yip Freer Gallery of Art F1999.8

Seven-stringed zither (qin), named Spring Breeze; forged inscription of Wen Zhengming (1470–1559); China, Ming dynasty, 1369–1644; lacquered wood, water buffalo horn, mother-of-pearl, and silk strings; Gift of Dr. Shing Yiu Yip; Freer Gallery of Art, F1999.8

As you stroll through the works in Painting with Words, you’ll see—and hear—the Chinese qin, a musical instrument that was ubiquitous in the cultural life of Ming dynasty China. Paintings from the period often show a retired gentleman walking in the mountains or along a stream, followed by a young servant carrying the man’s qin (pronounced “chin”). Viewers would understand that the subject of the painting would stop to play his qin whenever he felt so inspired by the nature around him.

In the center of this album leaf, titled "Walking by a Mountain Stream," a man is followed by a servant holding his qin, the quintessential musical instrument of the Chinese gentleman scholar.

In the center of this album leaf, titled “Walking by a Mountain Stream,” a man is followed by a servant holding his qin, the quintessential musical instrument of the Chinese gentleman scholar.

The qin music playing in the exhibition is a piece called “Flowing Water.” In 1977, when NASA sent Voyager I hurtling toward deep space, the satellite carried a sound disc with fifty pieces of music to represent earthly civilization. “Flowing Water” was the piece chosen to represent Chinese music.

The song is traditionally attributed to Boya, an ancient qin master. His friend Zhong Ziqi was deeply attuned to Boya’s music. When Zhong died, Boya destroyed his qin, declaring that he had no reason to keep playing now that no one understood him. Since then, the term zhiyin 知音, defined as someone who understands or appreciates one’s sound or music, has been used to refer to a dear friend.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, a poem on a handscroll titled Traveling South touches on Boya’s story:

On the river, springtime breezes blow the tender elms
I clasp my zither and see you off trailing long robes
If someone you encounter should appreciate your music
Cut some reeds where you are and build yourself a hut

We’re excited to welcome a present-day qin master to the museum this weekend. Bell Yung, emeritus professor of music at the University of Pittsburgh and one of the world’s leading authorities on the qin, will hold four free concerts from Friday through Sunday. He will play an instrument similar to the one on display in Painting with Words and will focus on pieces that evoke themes seen in the exhibition: plum blossoms, wild geese, river mists, and flowing waters.

A Daylily for Mom

杜菫 《美人獻壽圖》; Beautiful Woman Presenting Longevity; Du Jin (act. 1465–1509); China, Ming dynasty, early 16th century?; hanging scroll; ink and color on gold-flecked paper; Indianapolis Museum of Art; Purchased to complement the Mr. and Mrs. Eli Lilly Collection of Chinese art through the bequest of Mrs. Enid Goodrich and the support of Lilly Endowment Inc., 2004.2, imamuseum.org

杜菫 《美人獻壽圖》; Beautiful Woman Presenting Longevity; Du Jin (act. 1465–1509); China, Ming dynasty, early 16th century?; hanging scroll; ink and color on gold-flecked paper; Indianapolis Museum of Art; Purchased to complement the Mr. and Mrs. Eli Lilly Collection of Chinese art through the bequest of Mrs. Enid Goodrich and the support of Lilly Endowment Inc., 2004.2, imamuseum.org

Looking for a meaningful gift for Mom? Consider giving her a daylily—and a trip to the Freer|Sackler to see the flower in our Painting with Words exhibition, featuring works by China’s Wu School artists.

This Ming dynasty hanging scroll, on loan to us from the Indianapolis Museum of Art, depicts an elegant young woman wearing an elaborate headdress and gazing toward a full moon. In an inscription at the upper right, the artist, Du Jin (act. 1465–1509), identified her as Lady Wu, a deified constellation. A second inscription at the upper left notes that a young man in Beijing commissioned this painting and sent it to his mother as a birthday gift.

In her hands, Lady Wu holds a daylily. The flower symbolizes motherhood in Chinese tradition. In ancient times, women hoping to give birth to sons would wear daylilies on their robes. At the same time, the daylily is known as “the plant for forgetting worry.”

Given the flower’s dual meanings, we can guess that the son intended this painting to express two things to his mother: good wishes for a long and healthy life, and a reminder that she shouldn’t worry about him too much.

Painting with Words: Gentleman Artists of the Ming Dynasty is on view through July 24. (And Mother’s Day is this Sunday!)