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A page from “Winter Landscapes and Flowers” (album ca. 1770, Qian Weicheng) ink on silk

Here is a lovely little winter landscape from Qing Dynasty master landscape painter Qian Weicheng (錢維城). Qian was a proponent of the orthodox painting style, and, indeed, we can see that his simple, elegant calligraphic lines emulate the techniques of the Song and Ming artists who preceded him. Although he was perhaps not a master of bravura ink-wash realism to the unearthly degree of Fan Kuan or Guo Xi, Qian brings his own 18th century virtues to the art, and there is a delightful & unaffected simplicity to his work which captures the austere beauty of winter’s bare rocks, leafless trees, and frozen mud. In this little painting, flocks of geese glide through the overcast sky above a branching river which is swollen with melt water. The simplicity of the countryside must have been a dramatic contrast with the opulent splendor of court life in 1774 when this image was dated and inscribed. Of course Qian himself died in 1772, so the inscription and the date were added posthumously by Qian’s greatest fan, the Qianlong Emperor himself!

Qian Weicheng painted over 275 paintings during his time at court and he rose up through the imperial bureaucratic ranks to the exalted position of second-in-command of the Imperial Board of Works. Perhaps you are wondering how it is that Qian came to the capital from his native Jiansu to begin with. Any discussion of dynastic China includes mention of the famous, formidable imperial civil service exams, the great standardized test which was at the center of imperial China’s administrative system. In 1745, Qian came in first place on the exam, an academic feat which brought him to imperial attention and guaranteed his success as a mandarin and as a painter. This path to artistic greatness (acing a standardized test about Confucian principles!) brings up a variety of questions about meritocracy, politics, and aesthetics which we are still wrestling with!

There is one last daunting task for this miserable year. For Ferrebeekeeper’s annual 2021 obituaries, I promised to write an obituary for my grandfather, Robert Clarence Pierson Jr., who died on October 23rd, 2021…and the task has proved to be entirely daunting! When I was a child, Grandpa was my hero, since his far-flung James-Bond-style life seemed to so thoroughly epic and exotic–and characteristic of the triumphs and excesses of the 20th century. But now, in the squalor and waste of 2021, it seems equally impossible to write about him…for some of the same reasons. It is like writing about the career of some ancient Roman tribune or Chinese sage who accidentally crashed through into this debased era of social media and Kardassians and national disintegration…

Robert Clarence Pierson Jr. was born in 1924, at Blue Knob, a hamlet (if even that) in Clay County West Virginia. He was extremely premature, and his surprise arrival so discomfited all parties that the house ended up burning down! Great Grandma Virgie put the tiny baby in a drawer and he was almost stepped on by an anxious horse!

Thereafter Grandpa attended the one room school at Blue Knob and then the High School at Clay where he graduated as valedictorian in 1941. Since he grew up adjacent to West Virginia’s hunting, mining, drilling, and lumbering trades (with their sundry dangerous tools) his childhood adventures had an exciting frontier quality to them. Frankly, they sounded like a Fleischer cartoon (wherein a rocket powered sledge, cask of black powder, or steamer trunk filled with horseshoes is always on hand at exactly the right moment). Perhaps some of this was also thanks to Great Grandpa Clarence’s indulgence (Great Grandpa ran the local lumber mill and was becoming adept at the Democratic party politics) and also to Great Grandma, who was always willing to drop everything and bake a chocolate pie for him.

Grandpa attended West Virginia University until the war called to him. He began his army career as a paratrooper but, thanks to his foreign language and memorization skills, he quickly moved to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency. In the European theater of World War II, Grandpa served in the peninsular campaign in Italy. Because of his facility with languages, communications, and codework, Grandpa flew behind enemy lines and he was in Rome when Rome was liberated by the allies (I asked him about the granular details of this operation and he said his outfit painted their airplane to look like a German airplane and then just landed at the airport…and all of the relevant Italians winked at them and looked the other way). After liberating Rome, Grandpa headed into the Balkans to help the Serbs with their anti-German activities. Then, once victory was achieved in Europe, he switched theaters and went to Burma, where he was impressed by the um, fervor of the Kachin resistance fighters.

After World War II, Grandpa married his university sweetheart, Constance Faye Wellen (better known as Grandma Connie). The OSS was disbanded a month after the war was over, but Grandpa took up a foreign career with its successor agency. He also brushed up on language and social sciences at the University of Chicago and Stanford, before heading abroad again. Language was grandpa’s greatest gift, and, as far as I could tell, he knew English, Latin, French, Javanese, Dutch, Vietnamese, Arabic, and maybe a bit of German.

The way the Cold War ended seems inevitable to us now, however in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, this was anything but true, and those decades were characterized by worldwide proxy conflicts between the United States and the Soviet Union which took place everywhere but burned brightest in portions of the world recovering from 19th and early 20th century European colonization.

Thus, while everyone else came back from the war to bobbysoxers, beach boys, and suburban ranches, Grandpa was first in India, and then in Egypt, Somalia (which he doubted could ever be welded together effectively), and Kenya. He was in the Belgian Congo during the independence crisis when it violently transformed into Zaire. Grandpa was a master of the cocktail niceties of the 60s and he told me that he would mix drinks for Patrice Lumumba and Lumumba’s cronies. In his cups, Lumumba would enthuse about glorious plans of pan-African unity and talk about how the movement would kill all Europeans, “but not you, Bob, since you make the drinks!” Grandpa would laugh, but, in reality, his closest Congolese friends were among the Baluba (a rival Congolese ethnicity which Lumumba had antagonized with violent crackdowns and pogroms). Later when the Congo blew apart in full-blown crisis, my grandmother, mother, and uncle all fled as refugees, but Grandpa stayed in the nation to ensure that it did not become a client state of the Soviet Union no matter what the cost.

From the Congo, Grandpa moved on to Indonesia which was also vacillating between the great cold war powers. One of my favorite stories involves how the United States built an elaborate new Washington embassy for the Indonesians which was filled with listening devices. As the only team man who could speak Javan fluently, Grandpa got to translate, but all they learned was Sukarno’s enthusiasm for the distaff charms of American actresses…particularly how much the Indonesian strongman wanted to sleep with Zsa Zsa Gabor. Sigh…

Grandpa left the foreign service for a time to work on local projects back in West Virginia, but he returned to the field to work in Vietnam during the sixties and seventies. Some of my favorite tales from Grandpa involve his stories of drinking out of great earthenware vessels with bronze straws and plotting with Hmong warlords (he was enormously impressed by the Hmong, and the North Vietnamese, but had some reservations about the South Vietnamese leadership)Although he tried as hard as he could to solve everyone’s problems in Vietnam I believe his proudest contribution was as a gardener. He said that in Saigon he was astonished by the markets filled with fruits and vegetables which he didn’t recognize, but that there were also things which were missing, so he took the State Department’s credit card and ordered a giant box of seeds. Thereafter he was always peddling squashes, pumpkins, gourds, maize, melons, and suchlike North American seeds to add to Vietnamese agriculture (and indeed they are now part of the culture and cuisine).

Speaking of culture, one of Grandpa’s early mentors, Arturo, was an intelligence officer in Southeast Asia who lived a flamboyant expat lifestyle and suggested to Grandpa that shrewd intelligence personnel in the foreign service should collect art. Not only did this pursuit require one to learn the culture, language, and perspective of new nations, but it also provided an automatic reason for being overseas, and a pretext for traveling to all sorts of strange locations to meet peculiar characters. Plus, as a sort of bonus, one would wind up with a collection of beautiful and interesting artworks. Grandpa collected Congolese and Indonesian oil paintings and, particularly, Chinese porcelain (so, if you have ever wandered why I am always trying to understand the glorious arts of China in this blog, I guess it is a cultural legacy from Arturo, some 1950s spy whom I never met).

I wanted to properly write about Grandpa’s foreign service career which was extensive and illustrious, but all of this makes him sound like some dark puppetmaster (his Indonesian sobriquet was “Wayang” since he had the same handsome sharp features as the Indonesian version of the hero Arjuna). However Grandpa retired from statecraft and the affairs of nations in 1974, the same year I was born.

He and grandma lived in suburban Maryland by the Chesapeake Bay and their cat Pharaoh (AKA Faro), a magnificent predator of the Chesapeake Bay swamp (who was, hilariously as white as an arctic fox). Grandpa was always trying to feed or heal various strays and mongrels and plant his own paradisiacal garden to rival the beauties of South East Asia (although hurricanes of ever growing frequency would always blow down his beautiful trees). Some of my happiest memories of childhood involve exploring the Bay with Grandpa in his rowboat and catching blue crabs, or having plum battles with the tiny Italian prune plums from his little orchard.

It was fun to look at his art collection (and his collection of exotic weaponry from Africa and Asia) but it was even more fun to spend summer vacation puttering around the Chesapeake or driving around Washington and Baltimore in his preposterous vehicle, an enormous Chevrolet Impala station wagon of the late seventies which was about 45 feet long and which looked like a hearse the color of a raincloud. Sadly, in that era, GM lavished minimal attention on frivolous details like engines, and so his new car’s motor exploded not long after purchase. Undeterred, Grandpa took the hulk over to a chopshop in Glen Burnie and told them to put “something powerful” in it, which is how he had a powder blue bulldozer in the unlikely form of a station wagon.

Grandpa loved religion and was drawn to it, and when I was growing up, he would beguile me by telling me the stories of what was happening in the paintings on his wall–epic tales from the Mahabharata or from ancient China. Yet it was clear he could see through the dogmatic aspects of faith and was most attracted to spirituality as a furtherance of human concerns through sophisticated allegorical confabulation. To be more plain, I think he was astonished that while nation-states were always desperately struggling to coerce people to do things, holy men could come along with a beautiful story which would cause people to eagerly participate in ridiculous ventures which ran contrary to their own self-interest. I would like to write about how he understood animals and people and was always surprising the Amish by speaking to them in their own tongue (it is basically a weird German, he confided), or befriending salty myna birds or rescuing addled baby animals or what-have-you, but I will instead end with his bees. Although he liked honey, it was obvious that he kept bees because they combined all of his true interests–communication, nation-building, animals, farming, warfare, family, and making things. All of this came in a little white box which he said was like having your own miniature city-state of 50,000 flying Spartans in yellow and black striped tunics. Of course sometimes West Virginia bears would come out of the forest and eat your civilization, or varroa mites would cause everyone to sicken and die, or the young queen would murder the old one (or vice versa) but it was all part of an even larger picture and just meant you had to rebuild better.

Now that Grandpa is dead, the world which he and his contemporaries made is swiftly coming apart. Beekeeping, arm-twisting, and politics have never much interested me, but if we want any honey (or simply not to be a sad addled province in Putin’s new Russia or a client state to Xi’s imperial China), perhaps we need to think about some of the lessons of his life of service to the Republic.

Gonggong and its moon Xiangliu (red circle) seen by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2010

While idly scanning trans-Neptunian objects & suchlike miscellaneous dwarf planets of the outer solar system, Ferrebeekeeper was stunned to see a familiar name–GongGong, the dark water dragon who messed up Chinese cosmology and nearly destroyed the world. In Chinese mythology, GongGong’s reign of chaos was stopped by the gentle creator goddess Nuwa. However, in order to repair the damage wrought by the naughty dragon, Nuwa was forced to jerryrig creation back together with turtle legs and river rocks (and the end result is decidedly more rickety than the original).

The dwarf world Gonggong was discovered by astronomers waaaaaaay back in 2007. Although it is not the most famous dwarf planet in the solar system, it is not inconsequential in size and has a diameter of 1,230 km (760 mi). Gonggong’s eccentric ecliptic orbit takes 550 Earth years and the planetoid rotates very slowly as well. At its perehelion (when it is closest to the sun) it is 55 AUs from Earth, however at its apehelion it is 101.2 AUs (1.514×1010 km) away from the gentle sun. Brrrr! Gonggong was last at perehelion fairly recently, in 1857, and now it is moving farther and farther away–so if you left your wallet there in 1857, you may just want to get a new one. The orbital diagram below shows the orbit of Gonggong (in yellow) contrasted with that of Eris.

Like the lozenge-world Haumea, Gonggong is a strange reddish pink color because of organic compounds known as tholins which cover its ancient ice. In some stories, the evil water dragon Gonggong had a copper head, so maybe the name suits it. Oh, also, in Chinese mythology GongGong has a sidekick, a wicked nine-headed demon named Xiangliu. Gonggong the planetoid has a tiny moon which bears this name. Finally, Chinese mythology is weirdly ambiguous about whether Nuwa and Zhu Rong finished off GongGong or whether he escaped to cause trouble another day. If I were hiding out from a bunch of quasi omnipotent Earth deities for thousands of years, I know where I would go!

Remember back at the height of the pandemic, when the Chinese Yutu-2 rover discovered green blobs on the dark side of the moon? Well, if you somehow don’t remember that, here is my blog post from last year (spoiler, the blobs were lunar rocks). I mention this because the Yutu-2 lunar rover (which I am going to start fully translating as “Jade Rabbit 2” so it sounds less like a ballet dress) is now making international waves with a new discovery–a strange gray cube evocatively designated as 神秘小屋 “magic secret little hut.”

Courtesy of the Chinese space agency, here is a picture of this mysterious lunar object.

Wow! It, um, does look comparatively more like a magic secret little hut (or any sort of outbuilding, really) than the rest of the lunar regolith. As I write this, Jade Rabbit 2 is heading towards the mystery feature, so we should have a better answer about the lunar cube shortly. Based past Jade Rabbit discoveries, I am going to go on record and opine that this is a rock.

However a large square boulder is hardly a disappointment. There are no glaciers (currently) on the surface of the moon eroding erratics and carrying them around, so how did it form and get where it is? If, as seems likely, it was the result of a lunar impact event, then perhaps it can teach us something new about lunar basalt?

Finally, what can the Chinese teach us about drumming up space-exploration support with crazy names and press releases? Their square boulder has made international headlines (in an age of omicron and Olympics controversy!) just because it has a jazzy designation. Maybe we should start giving more space objects Chinese names (a development which is undoubtedly on its way, anyhow). We will keep our eyes on this lunar cube, in the off chance that little gray elves come out and try to sell strange lunar goods to Jade Rabbit. Off-world exploration doesn’t just teach us things: it is fun!

Shu Masks (ca. 1050 BC) gold mask in foreground, bronze head in back

Here is a 3000 year old gold mask discovered in the sacrificial pits of Sanxingdu (which are located in Sichuan (Szechuan)) in Southwest China. The mask was not made for humans but was meant to be worn by a bronze head which was also one of the numerous items deliberately interred in the pits by the Shu people back during the time of the Shang Dynasty. Although the Shang Dynasty is sometimes known as China’s first dynasty and is a time when the first definitive Chinese writings emerged (along with many of the typical hallmarks of Han civilization), the Shu kingdom was not part of the Shang civilization centered in Anyang (as explained by this nebulous yet informative map).

Uh, so who were the Shu people and why were they making these gorgeous stylized heads out of gold and bronze only to bury them among burnt offerings? Well that is a really good question which lacks a really good answer (although analogous instances of buried offerings and treasure in other cultures probably prove instructive). Ferrebeekeeper has blogged about the Shu society and artworks before, and this newly discovered gold mask does not add much to that previous account…except for beauty and wonder. Those will have to suffice until somebody digs up a more definitive answer!

Flemish Flatfish (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016) ink and watercolor on paper

Happy Solstice! I wanted to finish off the ocean theme and celebrate the longest day of the year by coloring one of my large flounder drawings (which I originally designed to be in a huge strange flatfish coloring book). Unfortunately, coloring the image took sooo long that the longest day of the year is now over! (and I am still not happy with the coloring–which turns out to be just as hard as I recall from childhood)

Anyway, here is a sky flounder with a Dutch still life on his/her body swimming over the flat sea by the low countries. Little Flemish details dot the composition (like the clay pipe at the bottom, the bagpiper by the beach, and Audrey Hepburn in a 17th century dress) however the endearing minutiae can not forever distract the viewer from larger themes of sacrifice and the ineluctable passage of time (both of which are fine ideas to contemplate on this druidic holiday).

As always, we will return to these ideas, but for now, happy summer!

Junk Flounder (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) Ink and watercolor on pape

Ferrebeekeeper’s two week long celebrations of the world oceans continues with…what else? a flounder-themed artwork! Unlike some artists, who plan everything out meticulously, I work from my subconscious–which results in the deepest and most heartfelt works, true, but sometimes also results in the most problematic works which never quite come together thematically. For example, take today’s picture of a grumpy flounder with a Chinese junk atop it. The grimacing sandy flounder reminded me of the water monster “Sandy” (沙悟淨) and also of the preposterous Chinese efforts to claim dominance of the South China Sea by building weird little sand islands everywhere. The junk speaks to the fact that China has always dominated the South China Sea. Additionally I am reading Jin Yong’s “Legend of the Condor Heroes” which has an extended episode of crazy boat antics as the characters leave Peach Blossom Island.

The small picture is filled with stuff–tuna and other fishermen’s fish, a compassionate sea goddess floating around on a pink coelenterate, a big golden clam and a vase from my ex-girlfriend. The little water imps remind me of kappas–aquatic imps infamous for grabbing and molesting swimmers. My favorite things are the ghostly shrimp, the tiny striped goby, the sycee, and the liquescent mountains on the horizon. Oh! Also there is a pony-like water monster from one of my grandfather’s Chinese paintings (Grandpa collected Chinese art)which brings back fond memories of childhood.

But what does this weird amalgamation of East Asian myth and aquatic creatures mean? Does the uncertain allegory about greed, restraint, and coastal power politics really grant me license for appropriating the visual language of Chinese folklore? Is this maybe an illustration for a children’s story which has not been told (which is how it feels to me)?

I don’t know. Sometimes the artist gets lost along the way and can only hope to finish the work and move on. Yet I strongly feel that this painting involves a plea from the oceans (since all of my recent work is about the plight of the seas and the creatures therein in a world which becomes more absolutely human-dominated by the moment). There is also a sense that whatever petition the spirits and fish have made to the goddess, it is not working out to their favor. One of the classic tableaus of Chinese art/literature/everything is bringing a heartfelt petition to a powerful official only to have the all-important matter misconstrued and poorly adjudicated (I have explained that badly–but I think the idea comes across quite clearly in the Chinese weltanshaung). Perhaps the spirits and the sea creatures and the flounder are saying, “Please get this boat off of us!” and the goddess is saying “My hands are tied due to political concerns at a higher level”

Now there is a powerful lesson for the children…

Founder/Flounder Galley (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink and watercolor

Here is another image from my little moleskine sketchbook which I carry around. This past year I have been trying to become better at drawing an image with a nib and then coloring it with watercolors (the go-to methodology of illustrators who want beautiful diagrammatic details). I am getting better at this technique…but I am still not a master of photographing small artworks with a cellphone camera (the true signature medium of our age). Anyway, here are a bunch of hapless galley slaves rowing along in glum resignation as their captain and officers take the fragile wooden ship through a mermaid-haunted reef. Huge poisonous monsters and weird idols stand on the deck. Hungry seabirds and devilfish size up the sailors as a Chinese junk sails by out in the navigable strait and a German airship floats by like a leaf. I see no way that this small composition could represent our entire Rube Goldberg economic system of world trade. Also there is a flounder, floundering along the sand hunting for worms and copepods. Let’s hope that no larger fish or fisherman show up to hook or spear or dynamite the poor hungry fish!

Oops…better get back to rowing…

Congratulations to the People’s Republic of China for successfully landing its six wheeled rover “Zhurong” on Mars. Arguably China is now the second nation to land a functioning probe on the red planet (the Soviet Union landed a rover on Mars back in the 70s–but the craft quit broadcasting immediately after touchdown, providing no new information and a questionable asterisk in the hall of space records). You can read about the mission here at the AP, however I am writing this short blog post to note that, as of the time of writing this, there is no mention of this epic accomplishment on either the FOX news homepage (which announces that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the most partisan member of congress and is harassing her colleagues) nor on CNN (UPDATE: there is a small notice on CNN deep in the weeds).

Undoubtedly the moguls of both partisan sites know what their readers will click on, but I can’t help but wonder if American media consumers are becoming ever more separated from a larger grasp of human affairs as our nation is torn apart by the messy divorce of our political system from reality.

At its best, Chinese calligraphy is ineffably beautiful and seems to come from some transcendent celestial realm. Of course, in reality, such art doesn’t come from heaven at all. Instead it comes from distracted scholarly human beings carefully writing with bristle brushes sopping with India ink which, trust me, will not wash out of any textile. Indeed India ink stains most things other than the most impervious vitreous surfaces [sadly looks at black stipples, spots, and spatters on desk]. The Chinese attempted to coral this problem by manufacturing a class of small porcelain objects for the literati–exquisite brush rests! My favorite of these were made during the Ming Dynasty when handicraft cobalt glazed porcelain reached its aesthetic zenith.

Brush-rest with Arabic Script in Underglaze Blue, China-Ming Zhengde Period (1506–21)

Here is a little gallery of little Ming brush rests. I have great confidence in the authenticity of the first five of these rests which follow a familiar silk-road pattern (note the Persian and Arabic characters, which, I am told, say things like “brush stand” and “pen rest”). It is exciting to see how individual artisans take different directions with very similar designs and elements. Indeed, in the first two examples at the top, you can see how different glaze painters literally followed the same pattern (slavishly copying from a template was very common in the great Ming porcelain production centers–but the results strike our industrialized sensibilities as being quite markedly different).

The brush holders also exemplify how the glories of Ming ornamental design come from a mishmash of Chinese, Central Asian, and Middle Eastern sources. Even if the little stylized blue vines and flowers are clearly cobalt they still look realistic and seem as though they might wither if not watered or sprout additional buds.

1973.7-26.366 Blue-and-white brushrest OA

Although these last two brush rests are different than the rest, the one above is pretty obviously a real Ming piece. The brush holder which seems out of place (and is not in the collection of the Met or the British Museum or the Liang Yi Museum) is the final one. I am of two minds about it. Although the super glossy porcelain has the look of real dynastic porcelain (along with some of the little brown spots and flea bites which are invariably found in actual handmade goods from Medieval China), there is something fishy about those ribbon-y scholars. I love the overall shape though and the the expressiveness of those escarpment rocks on the first and fourth peaks. I guess you will have to be the judge about the last one on your own.

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