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Du Fu’s life does not sound like the model of happy success, but history judged him very differently. Although his work was initially dismissed and garnered little attention even in the era immediately after his death, in remained in circulation and then suddenly began to grow in popularity. Each generation regarded it more highly than the previous and it became worked into the aesthetic and philosophical framework of Chinese society. Today Du Fu’s works of poetry (from across all classical Chinese genres) are among the most famous works of Chinese literature. His poetry has had a unique seminal influence on almost all subsequent poetry and he has been canonized as one of the greatest Chinese writers.
In late sun, the river and hills are beautiful,
The spring breeze bears the fragrance of flowers and grass.
The mud has thawed, and swallows fly around,
On the warm sand, mandarin ducks are sleeping.
(translated by Mark Alexander)
The plum blossom is a favorite motif in Chinese painting. Since the tree blooms at the end of winter it has long been a symbol of winter and the endurance of life. Similarly, because ancient gnarled plum trees could bear elegant new blossoms, the plum evoked thoughts of long life. Plums were also indirectly connected to Lao Tzu who was allegedly born under a plum tree. For more than 3000 years plums have been a favorite food in China and a favorite food for thought for Chinese artists and poets.
These paintings are all paintings of plum blossoms by Ming dynasty master Chen Lu. He was born in the early Ming dynasty in Huiji (which is today Shaoxing in Zhejiang province) and was one of the all-time greatest painters of bamboo, pine, orchids, and especially plum blossoms, but no one knows the exact dates of his birth and death. The spare calligraphic lines of these monumental scrolls are interspersed with sections of wild chaos and with internal empty spaces. The effect is not dissimilar from abstract expressionism—the plum boughs become an abstract internal voyage which the viewer embarks on through form & lack of form; from darkness to light and back. This internal voyage element of his work was highlighted by the fact that the long horizontal work is a handscroll—the viewer is meant to spool through it and thus appreciate the modality of discovery and change (if you click on the horizontal scroll at the top of this post you will get some of this effect, although the image is smaller than one might hope). Additionally plum blossoms opened in winter and so they are frequently interspersed with white snow and ice—an even more trenchant juxtaposition of life and non-life.
The first animal to be domesticated was the wolf (modern humans call domesticated wolves “dogs”). This happened thousands (or tens of thousands) of years before any other plants or animals were domesticated. In fact some social scientists have speculated that the dogs actually domesticated humans. Whatever the case, our dual partnership changed both species immensely. It was the first and most important of many changes which swept humanity away from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and into the agricultural world.
Today’s post isn’t really about the actual prehistory behind the agricultural revolution though. Instead we are looking at an ancient Chinese myth about how humans changed from hunters into farmers. Appropriately, even in the myth it was dogs who brought about the change. There are two versions of the story. In the version told by the Miao people of southern China, the dog once had nine tails. Seeing the famine which regularly afflicted people (because of seasonal hunting fluctuations) a loyal dog ran into heaven to solve the problem. The celestial guardians shot off eight of the dog’s tails, but the brave mutt managed to roll in the granaries of heaven and return with precious rice and wheat seeds caught in his fur. Ever since, in memory of their heroism, dogs have one bushy tail (like a ripe head of wheat) and they are fed first when people are done eating.
A second version of the tale is less heroic, but also revolves around actual canine behavior. In the golden age, after Nüwa created humans, grain was so plentiful that people wasted it shamefully and squandered the bounty of the Earth. In anger, the Jade Emperor came down to Earth to repossess all grains and crops. After the chief heavenly god had gathered all of the world’s cereals, the dog ran up to him and clung piteously to his leg whining and begging. The creature’s crying moved the god to leave a few grains of each plant stuck to the animal’s fur. These grains became the basis of all subsequent agriculture.
Even in folklore, we owe our agrarian civilization to the dogs, our first and best friends.
Today Ferrebeekeeper travels far back in time across the long shadowy ages to the Western Zhou dynasty to feature this goose-shaped bronze zun (a ceremonial wine vessel). The Western Zhou dynasty lasted from 1046–771 BCE and was marked by the widespread use of iron tools and the evolution of Chinese script from its archaic to its modern form. Excavated in Lingyuan, Liaoning Province in 1955 this goose vessel is now held at the National Museum of China. I like the goose’s neutral expression and serrated bill!
I’m extremely excited that Chinese New Year is here at last! A dozen times I have started to blog about Chinese snake paintings and stopped because I was waiting for the year of the snake—but that finally arrives on Sunday. To celebrate the advent of year 4710—the year of the water snake–next week is devoted to snakes and serpents of all kind (a longstanding favorite topic here at Ferrebeekeeper). Because they are one of the twelve zodiac animals, snakes have long been celebrated in Chinese art. Additionally their sinuous form adapts beautifully to Chinese-style brush and calligraphy work (as is evident in the art works below).
People born in snake years are said to be graceful and reserved. Although they are successful at romance and have an innate intelligence they are also reputed to be materialists with a dark mysterious side. The snake does not suffer the same stigma in China as in the West and the benevolent creator goddess Nuwa was a serpent goddess. Hopefully the year of the water snake will bring you every sort of happiness and success. Tune in next week as we break in the new year with a variety or remarkable snakes and snake-related topics!
Here are three Chinese paintings of mallard ducks from 3 different eras. Coincidentally, the mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) is one of the quintessential success stories of animals alive today. It lives throughout Asia, Europe, North America, and North Africa (in addition to places where it has been introduced) and it was the ancestor to most domestic ducks. However we will leave an in-depth wild duck essay for later this year (seriously, they really are magnificent & fascinating animals) in order to appreciate these three watercolor on silk paintings.
The first (and greatest) comes from the Song dynasty which ruled China from 960 AD to 1279 AD. As mentioned earlier, the Song is regarded as a glorious apogee of Chinese art and poetry and the simple court painting of a duckling makes the reasons self-evident. The animal is foreshortened and painted with effortless naturalism.
The Second painting comes from the Yuan dynasty—the era of Mongol occupation. Although the duck is presented from the side as though diagramed, it still has a charming naturalism. Additionally the bird has an amusingly insouciant look. His magnificently rendered plumage and feet also serve to give him character while the autumn vines in the background further serve to give the painting piquancy.
Finally we have a lovingly rendered contemporary painting. Even though it is separated from the others by nearly a millennium, the brushwork is similar. The feathers have been painted with swift sure strokes. The background though vibrantly colored has been sketched in to suggest a landscape (rather then rendered in detail. Although and there is a touch more photorealism in the duck’s plumage there is also a touch less charisma and personality in the ducks’ faces.
In recent years, bioethicists and neurological surgeons have been troubled by accounts of a controversial surgery being widely performed in China. The procedure in question consists of surgically destroying the pleasure center of the brain in order to prevent opium addicts and alcoholics from relapsing into their addictions. As you might imagine, destroying the physiological structure responsible for one of the most fundamental human motivations does frequently solve addiction problems. Unfortunately, the surgery also tends to do away with longing, joy, and basic motivation to do anything. The Chinese authors of the papers put a more positive spin on these results and described the post-operative subjects as “mildness oriented” (i.e. compliant).
This surgical procedure is technically known as “ablation of the nucleus accumbens” and involves cutting open a subject’s skull and using heat to destroy small portions of the brain (which are recursively located in both hemispheres of the brain). Time Magazine (in this useful article) describes the two nucleus accumbens as regions of the brain “saturated with neurons containing dopamine and endogenous opioids, which are involved in pleasure and desire related both to drugs and to ordinary experiences like eating, love and sex.” This procedure is performed while subjects (one shies away from saying “patients”) are awake and conscious in order to minimize damage to other regions of the brain responsible for speech, memory, and movement.
The western medical/scientific community is trying to figure out how to approach this procedure. General consensus seems to be that the procedure is “horribly misguided” (apparently a medical euphemism for “a crime against humanity”), however a number of American and European doctors recommend publishing the results of these experimental surgeries in order to further understanding of the human brain–while not actually recommending the procedure. While the surgery does result in a recovery-rate from addition a few percentage points higher than counseling or other non-surgical therapies, it also frequently results in loss of memory, radical personality change, and other emotional problems (not to mention occasional serious problems such as death or coma which are an inherent danger of brain surgery).
A while ago I read a science fiction novel set in the far future. People who were anxious or miserable could volunteer for Radical Anxiety Termination—a procedure which fully eliminated depression, fear, and suffering, albeit at the cost of all personal volition. The Radical Anxiety Termination participants immediately became slaves who were sold and traded for whatever uses their masters desired. The novel was predictably troubling. It does not seem like the Chinese medical establishment has yet perfected Radical Anxiety Termination but they are on the dark road to such an outcome and they need to leave that twisted path immediately. Just as lobotomies performed in Europe and the United States during the early 20th century proved to be a therapeutic dead end (and a terrible, terrible mistake) so too this surgery is a collective degradation to emotionally ill victims and a fundamental attack on human dignity.
Today, October 27th, 2012, the top news story here on the East Coast is the possible trajectory of Hurricane Sandy, a large tropical cyclone which is projected to make landfall somewhere between southern New Jersey and New England next week. However the storm itself is not the point of this post. Instead I am fascinated by the name “Sandy” because–thanks to a coincidence of timing and translation, that name has been much in front of me lately—but not as the name of a human female. Instead “Sandy” is the name an inhuman water monster from Chinese mythology. The monster is a horrifying cannibal, true, but also a strangely put-upon functionary, and then later a devout Buddhist. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me explain.
Sandy is one of the main characters of The Journey to the West, which is the most fantastical of China’s four great classical novels (four epic works of pre-modern fiction, which scholars regard as the most influential works of literature from that great and ancient nation). The Journey to the West tells the supernatural deeds of four pilgrims traveling from the court of Emperor Taizong in China to India in order to obtain the Lotus Sutra (actually there are five pilgrims, but one is a young dragon who has shapeshifted into a horse, and he seldom leaves horse-form). The main thrust of the story concerns Golden Cicada (a devout Buddhist priest) trying to control Monkey (a primeval trickster god) and Pig (a monstrous animal spirit whose appetite and bumbling antics provide comic relief). Monkey is nearly omnipotent and exceedingly clever. The fourth pilgrim, Sandy (or Shā Wùjìng) is a sort of river ogre who acts as the stolid straight man for the antics of monkey and pig.
Together these characters face a host of scheming antagonists while trying to work within the baffling framework of the sprawling bureaucracy of China’s pantheon (this list of the book’s characters will give you a sense of the scope of this plot). The party is aided by Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of compassion who swoops in to extricate them when they really screw up.
One of the first monsters the monk, the monkey, and the pig encounter is Shā Wùjìng, who has a backstory which illustrate the dangers of the celestial court. Shā Wùjìng was once a general in heaven, where his task was to occasionally lift a special curtain for the Jade Emperor (the ruler of heaven). Unfortunately, in a fit of clumsiness, the hapless general accidentally broke one of the Jade Emperor’s favorite vases and incurred divine disfavor. He was flogged with eight hundred lashes and his form was corrupted into that of a hideous monster with indigo skin, a blood red beard and razor teeth. Then he was exiled to the desert.
Understandably, Shā Wùjìng was upset at this fall from grace. He began to haunt the Kaidu River which flows through the arid wastes of Xinjiang. Every day the Jade Emperor would send seven flying swords to flay open the hapless monster’s chest (the chief god was apparently really fond of that broken vase). To avoid these swords Shā Wùjìng would hide in the sandy river bottom to the extent that he came to identify himself as “Sandy”. Because the desert was empty of resources, Sandy began to prey on the silk caravans heading west to Central Asia and India. In the medieval Chinese worldview, merchants are terrible people of no consequence so there were no repercussions for killing and eating them, but one day Shā Wùjìng unwisely ate a party of holy Buddhist monks who were going to India to visit the sacred lands of Shakyamuni. The skulls of the holy men float on the river, so Sandy fashions them into a necklace which, along with his monk’s spade (a combination of polearm /bludgeon) are his trademark items.
In the same manner he ate the earlier party of pilgrims, Sandy attempted to eat Golden Cicada, however monkey and pig easily prevented him from doing so (pig even bestirring himself for an epic battle beneath the river). Thereafter Shā Wùjìng himself took up the burden of pilgrimage and he is one of the most loyal and dependable character in the book (although he is less strong than monkey and pig). Of the three monster spirits he is by far the most tractable.
The largest body of fresh water in China is Lake Poyang in Jianxi Province. The size of the lake fluctuates tremendously between the wet season when the lake’s surface area is 4400 square kilometers and the dry season when it shrinks down to 1000 square kilometers. So every year Lake Poyang shrinks from being the size of Utah’s Great Salk Lake into being the size of Lake Champlain. Lake Poyang is the southern wintering ground of a huge number of migratory birds. It is also the site of what was reputedly the world’s largest naval battle. The north side of the lake is treacherous to navigate and it is said that more than 100 ships have vanished there in the past hundred years. There is a temple on the northern shore of the lake named Laoye Miao (temple of the Old Fellow) and locals call the waters near the temple the “death area” and the “demon horns” because so many ships are lost in that area.
Lake Poyang did not always exist. In 400 AD it was an inhabited plain along the Gan River, however when the Yangtze River switched courses the entire plain flooded. Located halfway along the Yangtze, the lake has great strategic importance.
In the middle of the fourteenth century, the Yuan dynasty had lost control of China. Various groups of rebels fought each other to seize the throne of heaven. By summer of 1363 AD there were two main contenders for control of China, Zhu Yuanzhang, the charismatic but ugly leader of the red turbans, and Chen Youliang, the king of Duhan which controlled the most powerful fleet on the Yantze. The former had a smaller force of maneuverable ships while the latter had greater numbers of men (Chen’s navy was believed to have had more than 600,000 men) and a large number of huge tower boats—literal floating fortresses. The total number of combatants on the lake is reckoned to have numbered over 850,000 men.
Unfortunately for Chen Youliang, the battle started as the lake began to dry out. To prevent the dauntless troops of Zhu Yuanzhang from scaling the tower boats with hooks and ladders, Chen ordered his boats to hold close formation, but this turned out to be ruinous since Zhu launched fire boats into the consolidated line. Hundreds of thousands of sailors died in the horrible fiery battle, and Zhu Yuangzhang went on to found the Ming dynasty, one of China’s greatest dynasties.
Over the centuries, the lake itself kept claiming ships at an astonishing rate. Some of the stories are quite colorful. In 1945 a Japanese ship loaded with plundered treasure sank almost instantly, drowning all 200 sailors and a large treasure. A team of Japanese divers attempted to salvage the wreck but all the divers drowned except for the expedition leader who went permanently insane. After the war, several members of an American team also drowned. On just one day, August 3rd, 1985, thirteen ships foundered or sank.
Some people have tried to ascertain what makes the lake so treacherous. Some experts believe that a huge sunken sandbank tends to cause whirlpools and unexpected currents. Local legend is more inventive. According to myth, an immense capricious turtle lives beneath the lake. Although the turtle often sinks ships, he can also be benevolent. The story of how the Laoye Miao temple came to be built is that the turtle intervened in the great naval battle of 1368 by directly rescuing Zhu Yuangzhang. When Zhu took the title of Hongwu emperor he returned and built the temple to the ancient turtle.Although boats are still vanishing today, it is a less bigger problem than the vanishing of the lake itself. The migratory birds are relentlessly poached and the river fish are going extinct from overfishing and industrial waste. A more direct threat comes from the great three gorges dam upstream on the Yangtze. Because of the immense dam the lake appears to be drying out, and in January of 2012 it only had a surface area of 200 square kilometers. If the situation continues, the enigmatic and treacherous lake may go back to being a dry plain like it was in 400 AD.