Welcome! It seemed fitting after so many of you enjoyed scrolling through my photos, that I begin with this topic! I enjoy "reading" a painting as much as I do capturing a moment with my camera. I like reading literature, history and critique as much as I do writing short stories. A scroll tells a sweeping narrative and each scroll is sealed with a marked name. As you know, Chinese Calligraphy is both painting and writing. A person's name is a visual symbol. With that in mind: Hello, my name is Deirdre or (Mandarin) 迪尔德丽 ! I'm a 7th-12th grade teacher at an all boys Catholic School. In the classroom I try to strike the right balance between teaching a topic using images, vignettes, music, film and, whenever possible, humor! My goal is to create an access point or portal for connecting with a subject. This portion of my website intends to share what we discuss, create, contemplate and ponder in the classroom. If you have recommendations, suggestions, or comments, by all means share them! Welcome! 歡迎 Huānyíng!
Every Scroll tells a Story! : My students often feel like looking at Chinese paintings becomes boring and redundant. They think that many of the paintings look the same. What you discover by looking closer is that every scroll tells a unique and distinctive story, you just need to understand how to “read” the painting. (And I don’t meaning learning Mandarin!) China comprises some of the most vastly inspirational topography captured over the world’s longest unbroken cultural history. We all know China is gigantic. Massive is an understatement in describing every aspect of China. The facts are staggering: oldest country, innumerable historic firsts, 1.3 billion people population, a prosperous economic boom and interestingly enough all of this without a change in the time zone! In so many ways, the story of China can be read through the paintings which have survived. Rather than simply capture the visual description of place, Chinese landscape artists sought to convey the complexity of the space. Whether underscoring political ideology, meditative philosophy or social heritage, the Chinese have always contemplated the relationship between man and nature. The format of the hand scroll guides a viewer to move with a continuous eye enjoying the narrative over a period of time. Chinese scrolls command an intimate journey with an overarching narrative of beginning, middle and end. Handscrolls of paper or silk were often wrapped up, stored and shared during ceremonies. In some cases artists created hanging scrolls which they would mount vertically to display on walls. Today, the scrolls we view in museums are unwrapped on display, but imagine the anticipation and revelation of seeing a scroll as it was unfurled!? Thanks to this Youtube video we can enjoy panning through the 11.91 meter/ 39' "Thousand Li Rivers and Mountains" by Wang Ximeng!
Each individual hand scroll contains not only a pictorial representation but also the markings of history. Many scrolls possess numerous seals or added inscriptions from over centuries of owners. Artists and owners alike were concerned with forgery and copywriting just as we are today! Like an ancient graffiti tag, a seal was stamped with their unique signature, as if to mark I was here. For over 2,500 years, seals have served as symbols or engraved emblems of identity in China. These signatures are found over countless scrolls, marking the passing and sharing of these visual stories over centuries. Seals were typically made by carving into jade stone and printing with either red ink or cinnabar paste. The relationship between painting and text is something we explore in my Studio Art classes. The story an ancient scroll tells is through the vocabulary of line, texture and the organization of the composition. What makes a Chinese painting so distinctive and breathtaking is the graceful mastery of the brush. In my studio class, students become familiar with the brush. I also ask students create a seal design of their name or a word of special meaning to them. (You can scroll through some of their seals below!)
In 2012, I was fortunate to travel to China as part of a summer sabbatical program funded by the school I teach at. Narrowly missing the devastating floods in Beijing, I arrived in mid July for a 12 day journey spanning somewhere between 2,600-3,000 miles. China proved to be a bombardment of thought provoking contradictions and a massive amount of overwhelming history. My college classmate turned travel companion, Sabine and I were greeted by enthusiastic Chinese to help us on our journey. (We were very pleased with our individual tour experience using China Connections Tour!)
Each city brought a new local guide arranged by our travel agency and each time we were greeted by an adopted Western name. “My name is Yú, but you can call me Linda. Easier for you.” Shadow, Amanda, Linda, Tracy, Nancy, Susan, Sunny and Lydia were the names of our guides. None of them asked us for our alternatives for Sabine or my almost daily butchered Deirdre (pronounced Dear-dra in case you were wondering!) When you pause to consider the importance of giving and receiving a name; it is how you identify yourself! Beautifully historic Chinese names represent so much individual meaning. There are reportedly about 45,000 Chinese characters and some 600 dialects divided into eight major language groups today in China. The Chinese clearly feel that they need to adopt and use English names because we English-speakers butcher their pronunciation. Sabine is also a teacher and works in Chinatown in New York City. She reported it is quite common for Chinese today to adopt “Western names.” Because she is an excellent teacher, Sabine encourages her students to use their real birth names, but they believe school is time for American names. To them, she said, “it’s sadly the way they see it.” We agreed to make it a point to ask each guide for their Chinese name.
Linda told us her name, Yú, means “fish” and that she was often referred to as an “extra fish” because she was an unplanned in her family. I later discovered Yúshēng (余升) translates as increased abundance as well as the name of a popular fish dish that grew popular in 1960s China and is closely associated during the New Year festivities to celebrate prosperous abundance. There is a popular phrase, 年年有余“Nian Nian You Yu” translated as “Abundance through the year.” Yú/Linda was funny, intelligent and full of spunk, but she did not present herself as being viewed as a prosperous surprise by her family in large part because she is a girl. She was the most memorable guide and was the only guide we met who had traveled outside of her region in China. (None of our guides have ever left China.) She explained that even as an accomplished English-Speaking guide that she was not valued because she remains unmarried. This proud energetic woman described herself jokingly as “extra fish” but also shared that she is seen (as she put it) a “leftover woman.” It has been also been reported that educated unmarried women are termed 单身贵族“dānshēn guìzú” meaning “single noble or lord.” Needless to say, in China this is considered far from noble, rather very abnormal and scornful. Although China values education and measures of professional advancement , professional and educated unmarried women remain identified as unsuccessful. As an unmarried educated working woman myself, I recognize this attitude is prevalent elsewhere. However, in China, a country with the Goliath of all histories, steeped over centuries in the Confucian tradition of naming and classifying, this designation has a much deeper sting. For all of her bubbly confidence proudly blazing her tour badge and understanding our fast paced English, on some level, our new friend Yú/Linda didn't see herself as a catch, rather a castaway.
We asked Yú/Linda for her email. She said it was another reason for changing her name, “Easier to type,” she said and admittedly she "very much likes strong sound" of Linda. Efficiency in communication is of primary importance. Chinese names, we learned, are also being changed by the Chinese government to a more common name in order to keep up with record keeping. With a booming population the Chinese are evidently seeking to modernize their database and issue individual computer microchip cards to its’ citizens in an ultimate example of communist control. We saw this in action when we entered in and out of customs and immigration. Distinctively Chinese mandated procedures outside of the norm included taking a photograph of us on the spot as they a scanned our passports. It was the ultimate experience of “big brother is watching!” Mandarin and Cantonese was printed in stocky block computer print. In an increasingly globalized world penmanship and writing script is fading but with it so too is the art of Chinese calligraphy! The majority of our time in China we were isolated with these guides and they became our eyes into life in China today. Our guides were tremendously kind and enthusiastic. Proud of their respective cities, we learned a lot about each city. As we learned in somewhat scripted deliveries about Chinese history, achievements, and points of interest, moving quickly across vast landscapes I was overwhelmed by the contradictions and ironies that abounded. Though the Confucian tradition placed on naming and classifying remains, the Communism of the Cultural Revolution has tragically done its’ job stripping away the individual’s desire to have identity and so willing depart with something that should hold so much meaning.
As you would imagine, increasingly accomplished painters were often talented calligraphers as well. Experimental and unrestrained splash-like approaches like that of Xu Wei proved to be revolutionary. “Yellow Armor” by Xu Wei, may at first appear like a lovely and simple handscroll by an accomplished painter.
The calligraphy translates as:“The village rice has ripened, the crabs are in season; With their pincers like halberds, they swagger in the mud.If you turn one over on a piece of paper,you will see before you Dong Zhuo’s navel.”
So who is Dong Zhuo? A sinister minister during the Eastern Han who had a belly so big that it was rumored after he died that people lit lamps from the pool of fat caught in his navel. Xu is boldly confronting the unjust treatment of the common people at the hands of the vicious “crab” officials.
Xu Wei’s own biography reads like a tragic 14th century soap opera. Incredibly accomplished in literature, drama and calligraphy, he earned the title of scholar but nonetheless failed all of his exams. Fatherless, he was raised by his stepmother and brother and worked earning meager pay as a viceroy, a position which exposed him military secrets. The strain and stress of what he saw, ultimately triggered paranoia and violence. Suffering from schizophrenia, Xu reportedly killed his second wife and was sent to prison. He later died after several attempts of suicide. Wu's paintings and poetry proved revolutionary, most notably in “Ink Flowers” inscribed with these words:
In my performance the ink is dripping wet,
The flowers and grasses are confused about the season
Do not complain that this painting lacks several strokes,
For recently the Way of Heaven is full of misdeeds.
Yang Xin argues that the “Way of Heaven is not a reference to nature’s changing season’s” but instead a subversive reaction to “the entire feudal regime.” Wu is quoted as saying, “Do not take painting too lightly, There is judgment of history written in the silent poems.”
In order to better understand Chinese handscrolls, my students familiarize themselves with the process of creating a Chinese inspired composition. We devote time looking at famed paintings from Ancient China. When I'm working with students we think about Xie He's Six Canons:
1.) Engender a sense of movement through spirit consonance.
2.) Use the brush with the bone method.
3.) Responding to things, depict their forms.
4.) According to kind, describe appearances (with color)
5.) Dividing and planning, positioning and arranging.
6.) Transmitting and conveying earlier models through copying and transcribing.
*As translated by James Cahill "The Six Laws and How to Read Them," Ars Orientalis 4, (1961), 372-381
Students choose an famous painting and copy it, a popular practice throughout the history of Art! We devote some time to discussion on considering the impulse in Ancient China for creating Art.
Proud Teacher: One of the greatest spontaneous moments we had in China was stumbling upon an Artist Mr. Luo in the Old City in Chongqing. It was a welcomed pleasure to meet this charming local artist contently and proudly painting in a small shop off the beaten path. I asked our guide, Sunny to tell him I was an Art teacher and that I admired his good work. (Scroll through to enjoy some highlights from our visit!) I could not have anticipated the enthusiasm and energy, which unfolded. He showed Sabine and I nearly every painting he had in his small studio asking me to take pictures, but burst with pride showing his student's work. I could understand this well. My greatest achievements have always been in helping others reach their potential. He insisted on giving me this framed drawings he finished with Chinese characters that means "love." I couldn’t understand a word he said but the expression and body language spoke volumes. He proudly showed me a picture taken of him painting in front of a photo of Chairman Mao and it struck me with the meditative and traditionally inspired hanging scrolls that he might have struggled with the destruction of so much history. Nonetheless, he encouraged me to take a photo of his photo. I wished I could understand him as he spoke, no doubt, about change and his artwork. The highlight was his proud expression showing us paintings by his students, a clear source of tremendous pride, which I could well understand. He did not want our money, he was happy for our respect and interest in his work. Looking at the range of his work, he clearly enjoys the process of Art. I keep his framed painting in my classroom.
Confucianism to Communism: Artists like Mr. Luo are painting in a tradition that spanned centuries before the Cultural Revolution destroyed those traditions. Mr. Luo told us (via Sunny’s translation) that the Chinese today aren’t interested in his traditional paintings and that only Americans are. He seemed to appreciate that I had interest beyond the average tourist who might view his works with a nostalgia for the past. The Chinese believed that a good painting, was a painting that achieved unity or a harmonic balance between capturing both the reality of the image and how that images exists in the artist's mind. The Ancient Chinese respected imaginative representation as a portal into thought. When viewing Chinese paintings it is important to consider the three philosophies of Ancient China: Confucianism, Daoism & Buddhism. Confucianism is widely described as an ethical practice of thought focusing on humanism. During the Tang Dynasty, many artists attempted to bring Confucian ideology into their paintings. In practice, Confucianism cultivates virtues such as altruism, pursuit of justice and an adherence and respect for traditional culture. Confucius intended for his teachings to be accessible to society and focused on the family to unite people into an orderly society. The “Rectification of Names,” a doctrine in Confucian thought, teaches that social disorder is the result of a failure to call things by their proper names. In this doctrine of naming there is a classification often implying individual responsibility or rank. Social stratified doctrines categorizing people by shi (gentry scholars), nong (peasant farmers, gong (artisans and craftsmen) and shang (merchants and traders). Surnames were reserved for royal families or the elite prior to the Warring States period (5th Century BCE) Chinese painters also categorized their paintings into a Confucian value system of their time: religious themes, figures, palace buildings, foreign people, dragons and fish, landscapes, animals, birds and flowers, bamboo and vegetables and fruit.
Also native to China, Daoism/Taoism emphasizes balance with nature and emerged out of the metaphysical teachings attributed to Laozi. The very term translates as “way” or “path” and Daoist are nurtured to follow a universal path. Often described to be like water, “always yielding but eventually wearing away the hard stone that does not yield,” Daoist thought encourages an enriched relationship with nature. Buddhism first arrived in China in the 6th century and teachings still remain in China. Chan Buddhism emphasizes a quest for personal enlightenment through meditation and gained importance during the Song Period. The word chan is a Sanskrit word meaning “meditation.” Centering on the cultivation of the mind through meditation, Chan Buddhists sought to break through the illusions of ordinary reality. During the Song Period there was a divide in two schools of thought, evident in influencing the aesthetic of paintings from that period. The Northern school believed that enlightenment was achieved after long periods of meditation while the Southern school held that an individual could achieve enlightenment in spontaneous and sudden. Considered the last of the patriarchs of Chan Buddhism, Huineng is quoted as achieving enlightenment in a “chan moment” when he heard the sound of a bamboo stick being cut. There are centuries of paintings which encompass these three philosophies. Here are some of my picks for highlights.
Auspicious NINE: I fought the Western urge to organize a top ten and opted instead to practice the Chinese tradition of auspicious numbers. Nine is often closely associated with emperors and as so many of these compositions are closely tied into imperial China, I decided to include nine highlights. The homophone for nine is "long lasting" and given the length of this entry, it seemed appropriate.
- Gu Kaizhi’s “Lady Feng & the Bear” from the “Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies” is a distinction in this category as it was intended to be a visual resource for women on how to behave. Though Lady Feng is courageously stepping in front of a bear that is charging for her husband, the Han emperor, women were expected under Confucian philosophy to be meek and submissive. In later portions of the scroll, men come to her aid.
- Yan Liben’s “Emperor Xuan and Attendants from the Thirteen Emperors” handscroll is a lengthy handscroll located down the street from me at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. At the time Yan was commissioned to complete this painting, it had was not considered as reputable to be a court painter. This architect turned painter, favored painting and captured a portraits of a generation.
- Myths surrounding horses have captivated Chinese artists for centuries. Known for his horse paintings, Han Gan captures the fiery-temper of this “celestial steed” in “Night-Shining White,” a painting you’ll notice which is covered in seals and inscriptions, no doubt at the hands of overzealous collectors. The larger seals are a testimony to the character of the scrolls handlers; their own emblazoned name was more important than preserving the work. The title refers to baihua, a term used to describe a type of monochromatic painting. Horses, it was believed, were really dragons in disguise and Han captures this spirit by portraying the horse with flared nostrils and in stride with large burning eyes.
- Gu Hongzhong’s “Night Revels of Han Xizai” is divided into five different sections intended to serve as an insight into the emperor’s private life. The composition is a narrative detailing the personal life and entertaining. A pharmacist turned painter, Xu Daoning sold paintings while also selling medical prescriptions during the Northern Song Period. His most famous painting “Fishermen’s Evening Song” painted in 1049 captures a roaming and detailed landscape which was favored by the Lietrati.
- Emperor Huizong took credit for the handscroll “Auspicious Cranes” another Northern Song paintings in the an excellent example of Chinese propaganda. The white bird cranes have long been believed to serve as a good omen. They fly over the Forbidden City as a testament to prosperity during Emperor Huizong’s reign.
- Considered his most famous painting, Gong Kai’s “Emaciated Horse” is reputed to be inspired by Han Gan’s earlier “Night-Shining White.” Painters like Gong studied their predecessors and if this theory is true than the lively horse represented earlier could have become ravished and skeletal during the Song Dynasty. This poem is associated with the painting: “Ever since the clouds and mist fell upon the Heavenly Pass, Empty have been the twelve imperial stables of the former dynasty. Today who will have pity for the shrunken form of his splendid body? In the light of the setting sun, on the sandy bank, he casts his towering shadow- like a mountain.”
- Married to Zhao Mengfu, Guan Daosheng’s Southern Song painting “Bamboo Groves in Mist and Rain” exemplify her ability as a bamboo landscape painter. In China there is a metaphor that bamboo is like a Chinese gentleman, it must bend but not break.
- One of the most colorful portraits in the hanging scrolls format is “Guan Yu Captures General Pang De.” Shang Xi, an official court painter, captures a popular folk story from the Period of Disunity of a hero depicted in “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.” Unyielding in his loyalty towards his emperor, Guan Yu is presented the capture of a dramatically pained General Pang De.
- Bada Shanren was respected as a child prodigy and leading master during his time. The handling of the brush and the subject of his enigmatic poetry are distinctive. Known by many names, his pseudonym is signed : 八大山人 which scholars believe closely resemble the characters for laugh (笑) and cry (哭), and could possibly serve as insight into his emotional instability as an individual who reportedly suffered from mental illness. There remains scholarly dispute on whether his “madness,” an urge we see in academia to understand the pathological states of mind in analysis of artwork.
When my students are creating their own individual Chinese inspired hanging scrolls, I asked them to try to make their work personal. I encourage them to write poetic words or proverbs that have special meaning to them and to capture a space or mediation important to them. When we look at the above mentioned work, we look for the narrative and the technique. They translate those concepts into their own work.
Then vs. Now: One of my personal favorite Chinese landscape paintings from "old school" China is the work of Shitao. (Though his work does not adhere to the handscroll or hanging scroll medium, you'll see the influence of the mediums on his work!) A Qing Dynasty artist, Shitao was an imperial descendant turned Chan Buddhist monk after the fall of the Ming Dynasty at the ands of the Manchurians. He took many names but, Shi Tao or Stone Wave - 石涛 is the one that stuck. I really like that his paintings look like stone waves too! A writer, he theorized that paintings should have a "single brushstroke" or "primordial line" and in doing so, forever changed painting in China. Instead of adhering to the age old practice of copying old masters, Shitao carefully studied his predecessors and is quoted as saying, "I create my own method!" I appreciate that though he was a monk and author of "Sayings on Paintings from Monk Bitter Ground" (one of his many chameleon names), that he ultimately was committed to the Buddhist meditation and "oneness" in painting. Shitao did not retreat into solitude, but was committed to the currents of the world in his travel.
One of the FABULOUS benefits of teaching is learning new things! I recently discovered the late, Wu Guanzhong and have been captivated by his work. Wu died in 2010 at the age of 90, respected in China as an "old master painter" who had endured the darkest of China's history in the 20th century. During the 1940s, he studied painting in Europe and made the fateful decision to return to China just as Mao Zedong proclaimed China the People's Republic of China. It has been reported that Wu destroyed many of his paintings as the Mao's Communist Red Army approached his home. As if that wasn't bad enough, he was forbidden to paint or write, forced into a labor camp, and to condemn his own work! Only decades working as a farm laborer, was Wu permitted to paint again. Though he was trained as a portrait painter studying in Paris, Wu ultimately painted landscapes. The fluidity of line is not all that dissimilar to Shitao's approach. Wu is quoted as saying, "The line that connects the painted image to the real thing can never be broken." Wu's resilience and fortitude as a painter, his harmonic compositional balance with nature and his mastery of line is what keeps me coming back again and again to his paintings.
RESOURCES: I hope that at the end of this epic entry that you found something helpful or interesting. I greatly value suggestions and recommendations. It helps my teaching! Do you have trouble remembering the Dynasties? ME TOO!!!!! Thanks to superhero teacher Ms. Amy Burvell, we can vogue our way towards remembering them!
Check out my colleague Allison Carroll Stansfield's photography, inspired by Chinese Landscape Painting http://allisonmcarroll.com/about/
I teach using Gardner's Art Through the Ages
Books also worth checking out:
Three thousand years of Chinese painting / Richard M. Barnhart ... et all. New Haven : Yale University Press ; Beijing : Foreign Languages Press, c1997.
Chinnery, John. Treasuries of China: The Glories of the Kingdom of the Dragon. Duncan Baird Publishers, London. 2008.
Steuber, Jason. China: 3,000 Years of Art & Literature. Welcome Books. New York. 2008.