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Here is an exquisite painting by the Song dynasty master Ts’ui Po which shows two magpies haranguing a passing hare. It is strange to think that this delicate and refined work was painted 5 years before the battle of Hastings. The word for magpie is homonymous with the word for happiness—so two magpies represent double happiness–shuāngxǐ—which is one of the most universal Chinese concepts. Lucky shuāngxǐ symbols are plastered all over all sorts of Chinese establishments and goods (I put one at the bottom of this post and I’m sure you’ll recognize it). Ts’ui Po was famed for his ability to find the underlying rhythm in natural subjects and express it with simple fluid brushwork: the entire painting is structured as a gentle S-shaped curve, but within that compositional framework the hare and the magpies have their own calligraphic energy. Also note how wind is blowing back the branches, leaves, and weeds in the painting. Ts’ui Po captured the tao moving within a small ephemeral moment of natural beauty.
One of my favorite mawkish songs is “Cockles and Mussels.” Not only is it a stirring melodramatic ballad concerning the sad death of a young Irishwoman, it is probably the only known song to feature ghost mollusks! Let’s review the lyrics:
In Dublin’s fair city,
Where the girls are so pretty,
I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone,
As she wheeled her wheel-barrow,
Through streets broad and narrow,
Crying, “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!”
“Alive, alive, oh,
Alive, alive, oh”,
Crying “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh”.
She was a fishmonger,
But sure ’twas no wonder,
For so were her father and mother before,
And they each wheeled their barrow,
Through streets broad and narrow,
Crying, “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!”
She died of a fever,
And no one could save her,
And that was the end of sweet Molly Malone.
Now her ghost wheels her barrow,
Through streets broad and narrow,
Crying, “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!
That seems pretty clear—the cockles and mussels travel beyond the grave with Molly and her ghost is left trying to sell their spirits in the variously sized thoroughfares of Ireland’s capital (even to me, that sounds like a futile business plan—who is the projected customer base here?). The harrowing supernatural drama reminds me that I need to add posts about cockles (which are tiny edible saltwater clams found on sandy beaches worldwide) and mussels to Ferrebeekeeper’s mollusk category.
Beyond her working connection to the vast phylum of mollusks, her sweetness, and her death, little is known concerning Molly Malone. This is ironic since the longstanding international success of the song has made her an unofficial mascot of Dublin and a mainstay of tourism there. Various amateur historians have unsuccessfully tried to link the song with a historical personage to no avail. It seems the ditty was created from imagination by a Scottish balladeer late in the nineteenth century and it was first published in the 1880s in America!
However the paucity of information has not stopped artists from portraying Molly (as is evident from the pictures dotted through this post). Even if the song was an invention there is a real sense of futility, heartbreak and loss to it. And just think of the poor ghostly shellfish spending eternity being hawked in the in-between neverworld of Dublintown.
Here is one of my all time favorite paintings by the peerless hand of one of history’s greatest painters. Guo Xi was a Chinese literati painter from the Northern Song dynasty. He was born and lived in Henan from (approximately) 1020 AD – 1090 AD.
Not only was Guo Xi a matchless scroll painter, he was also a scholar, a writer, a gentleman, and a philosopher who thought deeply about the world he was painting. Guo Xi’s paintings look a little bit like all subsequent Chinese paintings because nearly every subsequent painter either copied him or (more flatteringly) deliberately set about attempting not to copy him. He has a position similar to Giotto in the west, and is famous for perfecting “floating perspective” and writing a treatise on how to paint landscapes.
The painting above, titled “Early Spring” is his magnum opus. Using successive layers of black ink wash Guo Xi has portrayed the wet forests of Henan in March or April, just before the trees and flowers burst into bloom. The billowing clouds are mixed up with floating gray boulders and mountains. The melt water and rain of late winter storms is cascading down the mountains in numerous rivulets and waterfalls–which empty out into mountain pools and lakes. Even though the trees and gorse are bare, there is an impalpable hint of spring in the painting. Though leafless, the vegetation seems anything but lifeless. The cold of winter has not passed but the first tiny hints of better weather seem to be on the way.
It is easy to miss the extensive human presence in this painting because the temples and pavilions of humankind are dwarfed by nature, but, as one zooms in (which you really should do by clicking on the image), one sees that people are indeed involved in the painting. On the right, fishermen ply their trade amidst the cold rising water while a second group of boatmen have landed on the left side and prepare to schlep their goods up the mountain to the sacred buildings in the center. Part way up the hill, a sage listens to a woman play the flute. The tiny people seem excited for spring to come. They look cold but happy as the elements and seasons swirl and change around them.
The heights of the mountain which blend into clouds are free of people. Covered in serene pines, they hint at an esoteric realm we can only aspire too. But even on the rarefied heights the relentless progression of seasons and the world is evident. The painting shows the of natural flux—of tao—and it suggests that for all of our hauteur, humankind is subject to nature and its relentless whirling change.
Built in the 11th century, the Liaodi pagoda in Dingzhou, Hebei is the tallest pagoda still remaining from China’s dynastic past (and the tallest building in China from before the twentieth century). The stone and brick Pagoda was completed in 1055 AD during the reign of Emperor Renzong of Song. Although the pagoda was ostensibly designed to store Buddhist religious texts for the (now-destroyed) Kaiyuan Monastery, the name Liaodi means “watching for the enemy” or “forseeing the Liao enemy’s intentions”. The tall structure was built in a strategic location and Song military commanders used it to keep an eye on enemy movements of the nearby Liao Dynasty (a northern empire of Mongolic Khitans).
Including the elaborate bronze and iron spire at its apex, the Liaodi Pagoda is 84m high (276 feet). It is a pavilion-style pagoda made up of thirteen octagonal tiers. Uniquely, one section of the pagoda’s thick walls is split open to reveal a large pillar in the shape of another pagoda. I wish I could tell you more about this bizarre pagoda within a pagoda–but internet sources are strangely blasé about the fact that one of the most important historical buildings in China has a section cut away like it was a pilfered cake from the office fridge. Inside the pagoda are numerous painted murals and carved calligraphic plaques crafted during the Song dynasty (arguably the artistic zenith of classical China).
It will probably not surprise you to know that much of the mythology of Finland and Lapland is concerned with impossible quests which ineluctably lead to destruction. Louhi was queen of the bleak realm of Pohjola as well as being a sorceress, a shapeshifter, and possibly a demigoddess. She possessed several daughters of ineffable loveliness. In order to win the hand of one of these beauties, a hero had to pass a test stipulated by Louhi. These tasks were always impossible or very nearly so. Additionally if a hero somehow seemed to be on the brink of accomplishing his quest, Louhi would use her sorcery to ensure that he failed.
My favorite of these myths concerns the hero Lemminkäinen, a warrior and shaman who fell in love with one of Louhi’s daughters. Louhi promised the maiden’s hand to Lemminkäinen only if the hero could bring back the lifeless body of the swan of Tuonela. Tuonela was the Finnish underworld, a magic haunted island ruled over by the dark god Tuoni. Getting there was no easy task and returning was much harder (several other stories about suitors seeking the daughters of Louhi involve Tuonela and its dreadful snares). The swan was a transcendent being which swam around the island of the dead singing.
After great travails Lemminkäinen made it to the underworld and he found the magic swan, but as he drew his arms to kill the bird, Louhi’s cruel guile became apparent. The swan began to sing a haunting song of divine beauty. The golden notes described life’s splendor and its heartache—the wordless music summarizing everything that people long for and care about in their journey from the cradle to the grave. The impossible sadness and magnificence of the song moved Lemminkäinen’s heart and he realized he could not kill the great bird. As Lemminkäinen faltered, he was spotted by the gods of the underworld. Infuriated that anyone should threaten the great swan, Tuoni’s blind son sent a poisonous watersnake to bite the suitor. Lemminkäinen tried to sing away the venom with a shaman spell but he knew no words of magic against watersnakes. The whirlpool of the river of death caught him and his body was ripped into pieces which sank among the underwater boulders.
Lemminkäinen did not return home and his aged mother began to worry about him. She went through the world seeking him in the dark forests of the south and in the lichen-shrouded wastes of the north. She spoke to bird and bear and deer and fish looking for her son. She questioned the yellow moon and the silver stars but they were indifferent. Finally she prostrated herself before the red sun as it set in the west and the sun god gave her the terrible answer that Lemminkäinen was lifeless, cut to bits in the black river of Tuonela. Broken with grief she went to the smith god Ilmarinen and begged him to make a huge dragging rake for her with a copper handle and steel tines. Then she went to the river and laboriously found the many waterlogged fragments of Lemminkäinen’s corpse. She pieced the shattered bones and torn sinews together and sang the most powerful songs of healing magic to reassemble the body, but still her son remained lifeless. All of her prayers and supplications and lamentations went unheeded by all gods and creatures save for one. A little bee landed in front of her and promised to help.
Furiously buzzing her wings, the tiny insect flew away up into the sky and then farther up to the vault of heaven. She crossed Orion’s shoulder and flew across the great bear’s tail. Finally she reached the heavenly abode of of Jumala, the Creator God, where he had crafted the universe. The bee flew through the immense palace until she found a golden vessel filled with healing honey. Then the little bee took a drop of the honey and flew down through the stars back to Lemminkäinen’s mother. Together they placed the honey on his tongue and color came back to his lifeless form. He struggled and shuddered and then gasped for air, waking from the world of death with its whirlpools and dark waters. But the swan’s haunting song was with him all of his days as was knowledge of what waits in the death’s dream isle at the end of the world.
And that’s how Lemminkäinen learned that Louhi’s daughter was an unsuitable bride.
Once again I am shamelessly trying to seize the attention of the internet’s kitty-loving throngs, this time via the unconventional path of Song dynasty artwork. The Song dynasty flowered between 960 AD and 1179AD. It was a great age for China and the great age for Chinese art. Traditional Chinese painting reached its zenith during this time: all subsequent Chinese painters have looked back to Song paintings either for inspiration or in rebellion.
Although Song artists found antecedents in the styles of Five Dynasties Period and the Tang dynasty, they vastly outdid their predecessors. Their age has become synonymous with exquisite deft naturalism. Here an unknown painter from the twelfth century has perfectly captured the likeness of a little tabby kitten. The painting accurately portrays the delicacy, naïve curiosity, and cuteness of a kitten–and yet there is also an ineffable hint of wildness in the animal’s mien which suggests what a fearsome predator a cat can actually be.