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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 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.
Ferrebeekeeper has looked at true space pioneers such as Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the father of theoretical astronautics, and Yuri Gagarin, the first person to actually visit space. However there are apocryphal tales concerning earlier space-explorers and aerospace pioneers. One of the shortest and silliest legends concerns Wan Hu, a (most-likely-fictional) petty government official in Medieval China who was reputedly the first astronaut. Wan Hu’s problematic story is set in 15th century China during the 19th year of the reign of the Chenghua Emperor (the 8th emperor of the Ming Dynasty who ruled from 1464 to 1487).
Wan Hu was obsessed with the heavens and he decided to travel to outer space by means of Ming dynasty technology (or possibly he was trying to catch a cartoon roadrunner). He assembled a “spacecraft/flying machine” from 47 powerful fireworks rockets, two large kites, and an armchair. The rockets were tiered into two stages to give the chair an added burst of power. When he gave the word, numerous attendants darted forward with torches and simultaneously lit the fireworks. Wan’s chair leapt into the sky and then exploded in a giant ball of flame. When the smoke cleared Wan and his flying machine were entirely gone. Even if he did not make it to space, he certainly succeeded in exiting this mortal plane!
Not only does the story contain implausible elements (!) but the first known version of Wan Hu’s heroic but doomed flight comes from an issue of Scientific American published in the October 2nd, 1909 issue of Scientific American (although the hero of that story was named “Wang Tu”). Subsequent retellings of the story (first in English and then in Chinese) changed the name to Wan Hoo and then finally to Wan Hu. Despite Wan’s nonexistent nature, the Soviets named a lunar crater after him in 1966. In 1970 the International Astronomical Union accepted the name—so an ancient crater which measures 5km deep and 52km wide on the dark side of the moon permanently bears the name of the imaginary adventurer. Surprisingly the Chinese have embraced Wan (choosing hopefully to admire his courage and foresight rather than his safety protocols) and there is a statue of him at Xichang Satellite Launch Centre.
In this part of the world, most of the truly spectacular flowering trees bloom in spring. The redbuds, magnolias, cherry trees, and the empress trees all burst into blossom months ago. Do any trees flower in the very heart of summer? Well, actually all sorts of trees flower now, but many of them have tiny blossoms or green flowers which are not easily seen. The pagoda tree however (Styphnolobium japonicum) is not so modest: during the end of July and the beginning of August the trees can be found covered with bursting clusters of off-white flowers.
Pagoda trees obtained their English name because they were planted around Buddhist temples throughout East Asia. The species name “japonicum” is a complete misnomer—the trees actually originate in China and were imported to Japan (where they first came to the attention of botanists). In English the trees are also known as scholar trees or “Sophoras.”
Pagoda trees grow slowly but they can eventually become large growing up to 10-20 m tall (30-60 ft) with the same breadth. They are members of the sweetpea family, which becomes evident in autumn when the trees are festooned with strange long seedpods which resemble huge yellow snow peas. Like other popular ornamental city trees, the pagoda tree can tolerate high pollution and poor soil quality.
In China, the pagoda tree is esteemed for its beauty but it has a more sinister reputation than it does here. In 1644, a peasant army was storming the Forbidden City after conquering all Imperial resistance. The Chongzhen Emperor, the last Ming Emperor, ordered a lavish banquet for all of the women of his family. When the meal was finished he killed his wives, concubines, and daughters with a sword and then went outside and hanged himself on a pagoda tree. The actual tree lived a long prosperous life but was uprooted and killed. Even the Chinese name 槐 is somewhat sinister, combining the characters for wood and demon. This is partially because the pagoda tree does not suffer other trees to live near it in its native forests and partly because of harrowing old Chinese myths about families that died when living in houses made of pagoda tree wood.
In Dynastic China the most important ceremonial objects around which the Emperor’s power was focused was not a crown but rather the imperial seals. However that does not mean that ornate jeweled crowns were not a part of court life. Phoenix crowns were worn by the empress and other exalted noblewomen on ceremonial occasions. These headdresses were adorned with intricate sculptures of dragons, phoenixes, and pheasants made from precious materials. The crowns were highly ornamental and were literally encrusted with gold, turquoise, kingfisher feathers, pearls, and gemstones.
First crafted in the Tang Dynasty, phoenix crowns changed many times in accordance with Chinese fashion but they found their greatest era of popularity in the Ming dynasty when the wearer’s status was indicated by the number of dragons, phoenixes and pheasants on her crown. The empress was allowed to wear a crown with 12 dragons and 9 phoenixes, but a less-favored concubine or minor princess might be forced to endure a mere 7 pheasants.
Phoenix crowns—or similarly elaborate jeweled crowns are also associated with weddings and the juxtaposition of the bride’s red robes (red is the super magic happy lucky color of China) against the bright blue of the turquoise and kingfisher feathers makes for a bold visual presentation.
Winter always leaves everyone a bit down–especially considering that it has hardly begun and we have already been shellacked by numerous terrible snow storms. To raise everyone’s spirits, here is the photo of a lovely late Ming double gourd vase. For some reason the top of the vase features wallowing water buffalos, but there on the bottom globe of this tiny 16th century porcelain masterpiece is a leaping quilin—the legendary beast of heaven whose appearance presages good fortune. He is disporting himself among Chinese white pines and fire scrolls.
I’m sorry I don’t have a better picture. The English merchants who were selling this piece didn’t quite photograph the Quilin in focus. However even in this blurry form, the graceful lines of the magic animal are evident and the artistry of the unknown creator is very apparent. Perhaps it was made on a bleak winter day half a millenium ago by some Jingdezhen potter who was dreaming of good fortune and summer in the mountains.
The eleventh Emperor of the Ming dynasty, the Jiajing emperor, who (mis)ruled China from 1521 to 1567, was a tremendously devout taoist. During the Jiajing reign, Taoist symbolism became omnipresent in art and culture–especially near the end of the emperor’s reign when his fanatical search for immortality began to bring ruin to China. Jiajing porcelain is distinct in that the robust naturalism of earlier Ming blue and white ware is replaced by increasingly fanciful imagery. Cranes, dragons, phoenixes, immortals, and flaming pearls all float through a dreamlike magical world. Sorcerers and magicians frolic happily through scerene forests filled with deer, pine, fungi, and bamboo (all of which are symbols of immortality or longevity). Frilly clouds complete the picture of whimsical abandon. Even the shape of porcelain became more fanciful: to quote the website Eloge de l’Art par Alain Truong, (which contains many fine photographs of Jiajing porcelain, several of which are used here), “The double-gourd is a popular symbol of longevity and is associated with the Daoist Immortal Li Tiegui, who is depicted holding a double gourd containing the elixir of immortality.” The vase at the top of the article, which shows a lighthearted scene of people playing in a garden is double gourd shaped. Here are some additional examples of Jiajing porcelain:
Another lovely blue and white double gourd vase also reflects the Jiajing zeitgeist. On this vase, an auspicious crane flies throught the clouds above a powerful dragon.
This small jar portrays the four Daoist Immortals Li Tieguai, Liu Hai, Hanshan and Shide dancing in a pine forest beneath swirling clouds.
‘Shou’ is the symbol for longevity. This double vase presents numerous shou medallions of various sizes embedded in a matrix of clouds and flames.