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.
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.
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.
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.