I haven’t reviewed anything from the excellent Peirene Press for some time and when Sea of Ink arrived through the post I was pleased to find another beautifully produced novella, this time about the life of Bada Shanren, the leading exponent of what we now call “Chinese brush painting”, from the Ming Dynasty.
Bada Shanren was born into the Chinese royal family just as the old Ming Dynasty was crumbling. Forced into exile to escape the new Qing Dynasty Bada Shanren devotes himself to a form of painting which tries to capture the essence of an object with single brush-strokes.
He covered the small piece of paper he had laid out with a few rapidly executed vertical and horizontal strokes. In the right half of the picture he interrupted a downwards sweep by lifting the brush and, from the centre of the paper, painted a broad line which he guided along a gentle incline to the right-hand edge of the paper . . . now he could see two stones on coarse grass, nestling up to a larger boulder. In their shelter grew a modest mountain flower with many leaves watched over the the rough-edged rock. He recognised himself not in the boulder but in the tiny plant. The fortune to be oneself was sufficient for the plant to sit at the centre of the world.
I know a little about Chinese brush painting but through reading this book I now realise the depth of ascetic and spiritual training which the great masters of the art submitted themselves to. Bada Shanren went through years of discipline in the monasteries of northern China, becoming a master of the Tao. For many months he just drew circles with his brush and then took six years out from his painting to go to rebuild a derelict monastery, high in the Fengxin mountains.
After many months of hard work on the reconstruction, Bada Shanren “woke and mixed up some ink and picked up one of his finer brushes and painted a lotus flower growing out of a swamp, its beauty being unfurled in the clear, sharp outlines”. He took the painting to his Master who told him that while he had captured the “floweriness of the flower and the wateriness of the water” that there are still lessons to learn. When Bada Shanren says, “Which ones?”, the Master tells him that it is not for him to say what the lessons are – “you must happen upon it for yourself”.
The whole approach to Chinese painting is very different to the artistic world of today with his countless courses and DVDs offering advice on how to paint a tree or a portrait. My local community centre runs a Chinese brush painting class but having read this book I can’t see how contemporary Western artists can get anywhere near the essence of the art – all they can do is copy the outward appearance. Whether the results are distinguishable from the real thing is an open question, because the simple forms of the art are actually quite simple to reproduce.
I suppose people who convert to Buddhism have the same problem – you will always be a “western person who studies Buddhism” unless you immerse yourself in the rigorous training which natural-born Buddhists undergo. However much Buddhist language a Westerner uses their experience must always be essentially different to the experience of a native Buddhist (I of course greatly respect those who do go through the immersion required).
The book consists of 50 very short chapters and reproduces about ten paintings by Bada Shenren. Although it is a short book, there is something about it which made me linger over each chapter, pausing to follow the strokes of Bada Shanren’s pen as his techniques are described. While the book is fiction, it is obvious that the author has spent a great deal of time recreating the life of Bada Shanren and trying to get into his thought processes.
Richard Weihe specialises in biographies of influential artists and Sea of Ink won the Prix des Audituers de la Radio Suisse Romande. The translator, Jamie Bulloch, is building a very good reputation as is shown by his page on the Goethe Institute website which says that “his self-effacing approach to the original text will undoubtedly allow the rhythm of the sentence to come through in English”. That is certainly the case here.
There is a wonderful gallery of Bada Shanren’s paintings on the Chinese Online Museum. The illustration above comes from Wikipedia in order to avoid copyright issues.