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This time of year, winter begins to drag on and I start to dream of the flower gardens of spring and summer.  Unfortunately, the garden is currently a lifeless grey ruin beneath a layer of frost (although I personally know there are some bulbs down there sleeping until April), so, in order to enjoy the beauty of flowers, we need some help from art…which is where anonymous master artisans of the Ching dynasty come in.  Above is an exceedingly fine famille rose tripod censer from the middle (?) of the Qianlong reign (the Qianlong emperor reigned longer than any sovereign in Chinese history from 1735 to 1796).  It features auspicious symbols like twinned fish and a lucky vase amidst an otherworldy garden of calligraphic vines and splendid pink and white florets…all against a backdrop of imperial yellow like some divine custard.  The censor’s amazing shape hearkens back to the ancient origins of Chinese ceremonial vessels and offers a glimpse of the shamanistic magics and animistic spirits (which are never far away from Chinese art), but its execution is pure 18th century ornate frivolity.  The fulsome garden and brilliant spring colors would not look out of place in a piece from the other side of the world from Rococo France, yet there is something more satisfying in the flourishes and rootlets and buds of this Chinese garden.  The brilliant colors will have to dispel the gray of winter and last until spring (but since they have been undiminished for more than 2 centuries, that should be no stretch.

Geese Descending on a Sandbank (Bian Shoumin, 1730, ink on scroll)

Geese Descending on a Sandbank (Bian Shoumin, 1730, ink on scroll)

Wild geese are an important symbolic motif in Chinese art and literature.  According to this weird old dictionary of symbols I am looking at, the wild goose was regarded as symbolic of “yang” virtues of “light and masculinity in nature” (whatever that means).  Wild geese were thought to mate for life and were thus regarded as emblematic of marital fidelity and bliss.  Alternately, lone geese were seen as a symbol of powerful longing—as between lovers separated by great distances (or, even more sadly, by death).  Additionally, the annual migrations of the wild geese were important markers of seasonal change (and thus became representative of the overall passage of time throughout life).

In the hands of a master, this was a heady mixture of themes, and so goose paintings often represent fundamental questions about one’s journey through life.  Here is a scroll painting from the Ching dynasty painter-poet, Bian Shoumin (1684–1752), who also went by the evocative and slightly dirty-sounding sobriquet “Old Man Among the Reeds.”  He was one of the renowned “Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou” and he was particularly famous for painting…geese (so maybe he was “among the reeds” simply because that is where he needed to hang out in order to best render his favored subjects).

Bian painted this painting in his mid-forties, and there is a middle-aged wistfulness and melancholy to it. The calligraphy poem at the top left reads as follows:

Just now wild geese came into the sky,

As I waved my brush before the master of the qin [zither];

Autumn sounds meld with autumn thoughts

As I stand beside I know not who.

Based on his poem, he sounds like a bit of a lonely goose himself.  The painting indeed shows a single goose staring off at the sky while a happy pair preen nearby.  It would be a sad subject, but, like an auspicious peach falling from heaven, a suitable companion goose making a beeline for the autumnal-hearted fowl beneath the poem.  Perhaps all is not lost, even for aging scholar-artists…

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