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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.
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.
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.
Yesterday’s post concerned smallpox, one of the most dreadful scourges to ever afflict humankind. I shied away from writing about the physiological aspects of the disease–which is caused by two viruses, Variola major and Variola minor–because the symptoms are absolutely horrible (as I can fervently attest after some internet research involving photographs which were apparently taken in the cruelest depths of hell). Smallpox was badly named. It should have been called “deathrash” or “bloodskin” or “face-melt-fever”, but apparently Roman stoicism came to the fore and the Latin name merely means “spotted” or “pimple.” Not only did smallpox effectively kill off the native population of the new world (and later of Australia, which experienced a similar plague), but for thousands of years it regularly culled a sizable hunk of humanity from Africa, Asia, and Europe. Like influenza, the smallpox co-evolved in response to our immune reactions to it, so, even in parts of the world where people had inherited some resistance, the pestilence sometimes flared into a full scale pandemic.
But smallpox is gone (almost)! Humankind joined together and beat one of the most horrible things we have ever faced. Today the last remaining live smallpox viruses are imprisoned in laboratories in Atlanta and Koltsovo, Novosibirsk Oblast.
In grade school, we were taught that this stunning victory came about when an English physician named Edward Jenner realized that milkmaids who contracted a mild rash called cowpox became immune to smallpox. By deliberately giving people cowpox, Jenner found a way of protecting them from the fatal smallpox. Jenner thus invented immunology, one of the most useful and inexpensive forms of medicine. His great work was taken up by subsequent generations of immunologists and physicians in allied fields who improved upon his findings. Together they used national and international resources to immunize the world. Smallpox was officially proclaimed to be eradicated in 1979.
Yet Jenner had antecedents who were not well appreciated because of the preconceptions and prejudices of the day, (also, by necessity, he worked with human subjects whose bravery went unheralded). Jenner’s greatness is not diminished by looking back at the others who were involved in an epic struggle against history’s greatest killer. There are descriptions of smallpox avoidance techniques in ancient Sanskrit texts from India dating back to 1000 BC, however scholars do not agree on whether these texts describe inoculation or not. What is certain is that a medical text from Ming dynasty China does indeed describe an effective inoculation process. The Douzhen xinfa published in 1549 was written by Wan Quan, a pediatrician who believed that sunlight and fresh air were good for children (and that overfeeding and overmedicating were bad). Wan Quan described a method of variolation—by which means a healthy person was purposely infected with Variola minor, the less dangerous o the two forms o smallpox. By the time of the Lonquing Emperor who reigned from 1567–1572 (and was the son of the addled Jiajing emperor) variolation was widespread–powdered smallpox scabs were blown up the noses of healthy children so that they would contract Variola minor. This was effective in preventing smallpox, but it had a fatality rate of .05% to 2%–a dreadful margin (though nothing like the 30%+ mortality rate of smallpox pandemic).
Variolation gradually spread through the Chinese empire and through the Turkish and Islamic world, but it did not reach the attention of western medicine until the early 18th century. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was the wife of the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1716 to 1717 (as well as a sort of feminist pioneer, poet, and adventurer). After losing a brother to smallpox (and being disfigured by the disease) Lady Mary was eager for a means to protect her children from the scourge. In 1718, the embassy surgeon inoculated her son and, based on the success of this procedure, she arranged for her daughter to be inoculated in 1721 (when the family was back in England). The procedure attracted the attention of the medical establishment and the royal family. Although many doctors were aghast at an “Oriental” procedure (which was being popularized by a woman, no less) the royal family intervened directly in the controversy when a smallpox epidemic swept England in the 1720s. In order to fully test the safety of the inoculation, the King offered a full pardon to six (or seven?) condemned prisoners in exchange for undergoing variolation. Not surprisingly the condemned prisoners chose an unknown medical procedure instead of the hangman’s rope, and when they survived they were duly freed. Variolation was also tested on six orphan children–who also survived. After these human tests, the royal children were inoculated against smallpox.
Inoculation spread quickly among the rich and powerful of Europe, but it was staunchly opposed by reactionaries and by churchmen (who believed it was contrary to God’s will). Against such a background, came Jenner’s discovery of a cowpox based vaccine which was vastly safer than using live smallpox. But even with the much safer vaccine, it was a long time before the immunologists started to win over many ignorant and superstitious people to the life-saving virtues of the vaccine (and nearly two hundred more years before they stomped out the loathsome blight of smallpox).
Today we return to China, the incandescent heart of global world trade. The Chinese economy has emerged from the mud, blood, & chaos of the 19th and 20th century to become a world-straddling giant. GDP has grown at rates of 5% to 10% (or more) per annum, year after year. Entire giant cities are springing up, seemingly overnight. Roads, airports, canals, and railroads are being rolled out like carpet. The Chinese are magnificent, invincible, beyond the ordinary constraints of destiny! Yet (as you might have noticed) outside of China, there is an international financial crisis going on. One wonders how the Chinese economy, which is still based around selling socks, buckets, and cheap plastic crap goods to everyone in Europe and the United States is coping with the huge declines in demand from those sectors.
But let’s put such a question aside for now. That was all back-up information to the real subject of today’s post: walnuts! Walnuts are edible seeds from trees of the genus Juglans (a word which means “acorn of Jove” to honor the virility and fecundity of the king of the Roman pantheon). Walnuts are interesting plants in all sorts of ways. Both the wood and nuts are commercially important. The trees conduct extensive chemical warfare against other plants. There are dark and captivating myths concerning walnuts in cultures from East Asia to the Mediterranean to North America. However, we will have to address the fascinating botanical aspects of walnut trees in a future post, because right now there are more immediate concerns: a speculative bubble for actual walnuts has formed in China and the nuts have become the focus of intense price inflation.
In China, walnuts have long been a popular plaything. Handling the seeds is thought to increase blood flow, and the wealthy have long regarded walnuts as a status symbol. An article from Reuters (which is apparently a real article rather than a satirical joke) underlines the Chinese affection for walnuts by interviewing an ardent collector and enthusiast:
The bigger, older and more symmetrical, the better, says collector Kou Baojun in Beijing, who owns over 30 pairs of walnuts, most of which are over a century old and have taken on a reddish shine from years of polishing in the palm. “Look how well these have aged. Playing with these kinds of walnuts isn’t for ordinary people,” Kou said.
Like tulips in 17th century Holland, Chinese walnuts (particularly ancient, symmetrical, or large specimens) are trapped in a speculative bubble. Chinese bankers, investors, and speculators have been pouring money into building up light industrial production capacity and driving exports to the rest of the world. As international trade withers, it is unclear how to reallocate all this money. Ordinary Chinese investors have been fleeing the Chinese stock market because of widespread economic uncertainty, flagging exports, and because all-too-familiar shenanigans have made it difficult to invest in equities without being fleeced. As this great river of capital backs up and flows elsewhere, strange markets are created, such as the thriving bubble market for dubious and or mercurial cultural objects like special gourds, esoteric teas, rare tropicl hardwoods, and, yes, walnuts. A pair of particularly fine antique walnuts was recently listed (on a walnut trading site) for a price equivalent to more than $30,000.00.
The Chinese central government is desperately trying to “cool” the economy, but, in the mean time, people see walnuts appreciating in value by 200% and they can not resist the lure of easy money (even if they are literally investing in common nuts which grow on trees). Cynical economists have speculated that the central government does not care about such frothy markets, since the craze for esoteric cultural items is at least not causing rampant inflation in food or energy prices, but those with a historical mindset have to wonder how this bubble is going to pop.
Chinese mythology features numerous animal-spirits with magical powers. One of the most bizarre is a shen—a giant clam/mollusk monster capable of creating illusory landscapes and cities. Classical Chinese texts use the word “shen” to describe large bivalve mollusks such as oysters, clams, or mussels; and, indeed, such shells seem to have had an (unknown) magical usage in funerals and sacrifices. Later texts emphasized the Shen as a mythical giant oyster/clam which was the source of huge magical pearls. By the middle ages the shen had evolved into its current manifestation—an immense clam-like spirit creature which could blow bubbles from its tubes which gave the illusion of towering cities and fantastical fairylands.
I wish I could write more about the shen—where it came from, what it wants, and so forth, but there isn’t much information on the beast. Some sources seem to suggest that it is affiliated with dragons (the protean universal mythological being of Chinese culture) or with nāgas—magical serpent people. When gifted with magical powers of illusion these beings are imagined to hide themselves as big green clams (from which base they weave fairy-like illusions for unknown purposes). Slightly more practical individuals have explained the illusory cities supposedly produced by the shen as the Fata Morgana, an optic illusion caused by thermal inversion which distorts ships, islands, and detritus at the edge of the offing into weird grotesque towers and blobs. If anybody knows anything else about the mysterious shen I would love to hear it!