blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Chinese balm

The news of Brexit and the latest bomb attacks in the Middle East, plus the awfulness of American electioneering, and people's comments on Facebook, vindictive, snide or sadly analytical, have left many of us in a depressed state, this summer. Everyone needs a soothing antidote, and what I have discovered is that studying Chinese and Chinese culture gives me exactly that. It goes a long way to restoring my serenity. (For that matter, so does swimming and being out of doors.)

My little Chinese conversation group, presently consisting of Nancy (her Chinese name Jingnan Xue -- our young teacher), Erika, me, Lee and Victor, met at Lee's house yesterday evening to learn how to talk about our favourite pastimes in Chinese. Afterwards, we took a look at Lee's exotic plants in his garden, the beauty of which also helped to put the world in perspective. Gardening is yuan yi in Chinese (i.e. garden art). We learned that the Chinese / Japanese art we call bonsai is actually pénzai in Mandarin (simply, pot plant) and that they also have the word pénjing (pot landscape). Huapen is a flower pot. If you want to say, "I like growing vegetables in pots, too!" you'd say, wo ye xihuan zai hua pen li zhong cai. I also like in flower pot inside grow vegetable. Xihuan (their word for the verb to like) literally signifies happy pleasure.

I have just re-read Mark Frutkin's poetic novel A Message For The Emperor –– which has a similarly soothing effect on me. Mark lives in Ottawa, but has surely visited Hangzhou (as we did in 2011) in order to write this book so evocatively. Most of his research, though, must have consisted in a personal and thorough immersion in Buddhism, because his writing seems so true to the spirit of his subject. He describes the journey of a fictional landscape artist with a contemplative soul, whose destiny is to become a Buddhist monk (that is what I read into the conclusion of the book) and it seems to me that, as the narrator, he thinks monk-like thoughts himself. The story is set in Song Dynasty (12th century) southern China; it describes scenery that is of course still there, if not quite so remote and untouched, these days. It's a Rahmenerzählung, as the Germans would call it, constructed within the framework of an art museum's curator studying ancient Chinese scroll paintings by the artist, Li Wen, and imagining what inspired them. Wen is the hero of the novel. He is ordered to undertake a year's journey on foot to the Emperor's court at Lin'an (nowadays Hangzhou) to deliver a message and to present four landscapes that he has painted himself, in ink, depicting the four seasons. Here is the passage that describes how he starts to work on his Autumn scene:
    As he prepared [to paint], he heard birds calling in the distance, and noticed the patterns of their cries. He felt a gentle movement of the breeze pass through the spruce forest, curl around a stone promontory and drift lazily past him. He smelled the evergreen resin that perfumed the air. Rolling out the blank paper sheet, he placed eight small stones to hold it down.
    As Wen reached out for the brush of silk strands, everything around him slowed further. The silences between bird cries grew vast, the breeze seemed to hold for a moment, the world spacious and still. Light and shadow spattered the trunks of the oaks and maples, drifting along the boles with each subtle murmur of breeze. [...]
    Picking up the brush -- its weight almost imperceptible -- he raised it to the heavens, horizontal above his gaze. He then bowed to the heavens as well as the blank page as he held the brush over it. He paused, drinking in the radiance and freshness of the blank sheet. It would never be so perfect again. It saddened him that he felt this need to sully its purity.
    He paused, the brush hovering over the page. He waited until the empty space within him gave birth to mountains. 
It's good to have access to such beneficial things as this book.

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