Tag Archives: Calligraphy

Qianlong in Changzhou

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Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong (1711 to 1799) has many distinctions in Chinese history. He sat on the throne for sixty or so years, and he had one of the longest reigns. Instead of dying while in power, he gave up the throne out of respect to his grandfather, Kangxi. As a result, Kangxi’s time as Chinese Emperor is longer, but only by one year. Qianlong patronized the arts heavily, and he himself composed a lot of poetry. In world culture, he may actually be the most prolific writer of all time.

Also like his grandfather, Qianlong liked to travel and actually inspect his kingdom first hand. As a result, you end up seeing public references to him all over the Jiangnan region. Changzhou is no different. There are stone markers related to him in Dongpo Park in Tianning. This is basically down the street from Hongmei while on Yanling Road.

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During one visit to the city, Emperor Qianlong actually wrote a few poems mentioning Changzhou. The Emperor greatly admired Su Dongpo as a poet, and Dongpo Park is where the great writer and artist landed after traveling down the Grand Canal. A few hundred years ago, Qianlong actually wanted to visit that very same spot. These verses were carved onto steles — giant stone slabs engraved with calligraphy. That’s where one issue pops up. Chinese calligraphy, even when it’s black ink on white paper, can be hard to read. I showed a couple of pictures to some Chinese friends.

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They had a hard time making out anything. I have tried to see if I could locate these poems online, and I even used Chinese search terms like 乾龙常州市诗, and I still couldn’t locate the poems.Then, I realized my search terms had a Chinese typo. I think “Qianlong” in characters is 乾隆 not 乾龙. I think I might have located them, but it’s going to take a while to see if I can get these poems correctly translated somewhere done the line.

In the meantime, these stele carvings are an interesting little corner in one of Changzhou’s more charming little parks.

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The Art of Chinese Seals

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Red stamps by Jiang Xuelian 将雪莲 on display at the Changzhou Museum.

Some foreigners have at one point in their life said a variation of the following: “China would cease to function without red stamps.” That would be a reference to the red circle and star you would see on any official document, contract, or even bank paperwork and receipts. Here is an example a little close to home for me. Lets say you take a job teaching at a Chinese college.  You sign your new contract, but the contract is not actually valid until it gets a red stamp from an very important person — usually a vice president or another type of administrator.

Whether the joke is actually funny or true or not is best left for another time. There is a broader issue to consider. Red stamps on official documents are not entirely a new thing in China. Actually, it is a very old part of the culture dating back thousands of years. Imperial officers used them all the time, and they usually stamped in red ink. The first Qin emperor — the guy buried with the Terracotta Warriors — had one created that became an heirloom passed down through generations.

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Jiang Xuelian 将雪莲
The craft of carving and creating these stamps is an art often closely related to calligraphy. It survives in Chinese culture to this day. However, seal cutting is much harder than calligraphy. A Chinese friend once told me that “all cutters are good calligraphers, but being a good calligrapher doesn’t guarantee the skills needed for carving.”  Engraving the characters requires a strong but delicate hand. Also, all the Chinese characters must be cut in reverse. This is to ensure the character looks right once ink is applied and the stamp is put to paper. This requires the artist to practically know how to write mirror, backward images of hundreds of Chinese characters.

Seal carving extends beyond just making square or rectangular red stamps. Some of it functions a little closer to calligraphy by stringing characters together into a sentence or a proverb. As a rule, red is always used for official business. Stamps in black ink and other colors are for personal use. Examples of this can be seen in the Changzhou Museum in Xinbei. This month, an exhibit opened showcasing the work of Jiang Xuelian 将雪莲. But the stone seals and the red and black stamps themselves are on display in glass cases. Some of Jiang’s regular calligraphy is also being exhibited.

Something else should be noted. Calligraphy is an art that some foreigners may have a hard time appreciating. There really is no cultural equivalent in the West. Seal cutting, on the other hand, might be easier for westerner to comprehend. Printmaking — whether by using woodblocks, zinc plates, or linoleum sheets — does have a long artistic heritage in the west. And seal cutting is a Chinese form of printmaking.

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Display cases on the third floor.

The Inaccessible Yun Nantian

yunnantianIt’s a sad irony. Yun Nantian – a late Ming and early Qing Dynasty painter also internationally known as Yun Shouping – painted nature. He liked to focus on a single plant in isolation, which was usually a flower. This may sound like simple subject matter; however, he chose to render each petal, each leaf in precise detail. His work is also filled with smooth gradients of color. Think of it this way: he could paint reddest part of a flower and then effortlessly transition into a softer shade of pink. His gracefulness with a brush can also been seen with his calligraphy.  Vertical lines of poetry accompany most of his work. Even there, his Chinese characters flow with lines and curves that look absolutely effortless. His attention to craft went on to influence many others, leading to a style sometimes referred to as the “Changzhou School of Painting,” So, Yun Nantian painted lovely pictures and wrote lines of memorable poetry. How is any of that sad or ironic?

yunshoupingIt’s not the work that’s depressing; it more part of his legacy generations later. In 1633, Yun Nantian was born in what eventually became the current Wujin district of Changzhou. One might think such an influential artist would be celebrated as a hometown hero, right? Not exactly. Changzhou has had history of producing intellectuals that goes back thousands of years. Somehow, Yun Nantian’s legacy seems to have been glossed over.

His former residence has been preserved, but it is closed to the public. The white exterior walls look dingy, and the parts of the roof look severely weathered. That’s the least of the problem, though. Yun Nantian’s home is located in one of the more destitute, remote neighborhoods of western Wujin. For a man that spent so much time and effort painting plants, the neighborhood around his home is devoid of any lush, beautiful natural scenes, and this is not the sort of place you “accidentally” find. You have to go looking for it. For me, that involved using Baidu maps on my phone. Getting there, I rode my eBike through an industrial shopping district. Think of a gigantic strip mall specializing in plywood, drywall, and concrete blocks. By gigantic, I mean it took up several city streets that run parallel to each other.

The former residence Yun Nantian (Yun Shouping) in a far flung corner of Wujin.
The former residence Yun Nantian (Yun Shouping) in a far flung corner of Wujin.

Even after that, I steered my bike onto a rough road of concrete slabs. After a turn and over a drab looking bridge, I found myself in the sort of colorless stone maze. As usual, my white face drew looks of from the locals. This is easily a place where westerners in Changzhou seldom, if ever, tread. There was brown “cultural” traffic sign in the direct vicinity pointing to Yun Nantian’s home. But that, like the residence itself, looked weathered and aged. Somebody had parallel parked a huge truck next to the front entrance. Yet, the most disturbing thing turned out to be a notice plastered to the door. Since my Chinese skills are not what I like them to be, I snapped a cell phone pic and sent them to my most trusted Chinese friends. Essentially, I asked what does this say?

Legal notice from the Changzhou municipal government on the door of Yun Nantian's Former home.
Legal notice from the Changzhou municipal government on the door of Yun Nantian’s Former home.

It was a legal notice from the Changzhou municipal government. A few individuals were mentioned, and shamed, by name. Judging by their family names, the alleged culprits had Yun Nantian as their ancestor. They had claimed the historical site as their inheritance – their birthright. Only, things don’t work that way in Mainland China. Even in age of economic liberalization and “Communism with Chinese Characteristics,” there is no such thing as the private ownership of land. The government owns everything and makes a killing by selling decades-long leases. When it comes to this ruthless aspect of Chinese real estate, Wade Shepard offers a more compelling, more in-depth explanation in his book Ghost Cities of China. As for Yun Nantian’s descendents, the promised retribution was clear. They had been accused of illegally occupying city property. They had apparently “damaged” the property. They were to pay a very hefty fine, and they were to turn over any profit they had made from using the premises. This was also just the opening salvo. They city government promised an even worse penalty if the alleged offenders did not comply. This notice was also written on January 23, 2015 – seven months before I went looking for any vestiges of Yun Nantian in Wujin.

The grave of Yun Shouping aka Yun Nantian in the middle of Wujin Farmland.
The grave of Yun Shouping aka Yun Nantian in the middle of Wujin Farmland.

There is another notable location to consider. The renowned painter’s grave is also located in Wujin. However, like his old home, it’s in an out of the way, nearly obscure place. Wujin is a huge district. The college town is the last major, built-up, urban area the further south you go. The Science and Education complex stands next door. However, if you go east by one more city map grid, you will end up in farmland. Yun Nantian’s grave is located there. Getting there requires first going to the middle section of Xiacheng Road – the area that has an intersection with Mingxin Road in the south and Gehu in the north. The road into the farming area starts wide at first, but that gives way to rough, crumbling concrete. This stone path forks, and once you veer north, the grave site is easy to spot. It’s a small walled-in compound.

Like his former residence, his resting place seems closed to the public. Each time I have visited, there big brown entrance doors were padlocked. If Google Translate can be trusted, the site had revamped and refurbished a couple of years ago. You can tell, too. The surrounding walls have a fresh, unweathered coat of white paint. While the doors were locked, I was able to peer through two glassless windows. I wasn’t able to see much, but I did see enough to know the place was being routinely cared for. The grass had been cut, and the plants were not overgrown into a jumbled thicket. Somebody had left a hose and bucket out. I tried sticking my arm through the window to take a couple of pictures, but I didn’t get much – the curved outline of a small gazebo. Reviewing my digital snapshots later, I did find one thing apropos to Yun Nantian’s spirit. When I stuck my arm and camera through the window, I ended up with some useless pics. One, however, depicted a few green leaves crisp against a blurred background.

Note: This has been crossposted from my personal blog, where it was originally published.