King Rat Loves You

You see all kinds of artwork on trucks, but you seldom see Rattus Rampant displaying a message for St. Valentine’s Day, clutching the escutcheon blazoned sable, bend sinister sanguine rose argent. This is a special from the highways of Meghalaya.

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While I was sleeping

“What did you do while I slept?” I asked The Family when I finally gave up trying to sleep through my flu. “This and that. I went shopping and I took lots of photos,” she said. We went out together in the late afternoon, walking again through the Liwan district.

She showed me the photos when we sat down. She’d taken the trouble to stop in front of each of the bronze statues that the city has installed on Shangxiajiu pedestrian street and photographed it. We’d both admired these pieces of public art which celebrate the heydays of Guangzhou, the 1920s and 30s.These bronzes are evidence of China’s renewed fascination with the life of those times. I had very few photos of them, and, in fact, The Family had discovered ones that I’d not even seen. The plaques below the pedestals did not give us any information on the dates of installation or the names of artists, but, of course, we do not read Chinese. Later we searched on the web but couldn’t find any information either.

Museum of calligraphy

When I spotted a tiny Museum of Calligraphy near the Bund in Shanghai, I wasn’t sure what it would turn out to be. Our flight had been delayed, and by the time we checked into our hotel most things were closing. This was only a couple of blocks from our hotel, and in a street full of book stores and art equipment. There would be other interesting things to look at if this was no good, I thought. The Family had also grown very interested in calligraphy ever since our encounters with painters in Guangzhou. So we walked down to the self-styled museum. It was a room above a tiny shop of calligraphy brushes and inkstones, small but interestingly put together (see the featured photo).

First things first: what are brushes made of? We couldn’t read the Chinese explanations, but the pictorial guide was helpful. When I was young I’d used delicate squirrel hair brushes for fine details, and stiff hog’s hair brushes for larger areas. Mink, vegetable fiber, human hair, bear fur seemed very exotic to me. I looked at the picture of a goat illustrating the parts which yielded fiber for brushes, and wondered about the special characteristics of the brushes.

A large number of displays on the walls answered these questions. They showed the kind of work that each type of brush is used for. We walked around looking at the panels: again quite simple to follow, even though we didn’t read any Chinese. This was the part of the museum that I really enjoyed. They threw light on an aspect of calligraphy which I’d not paid attention to. The next time I go through a museum looking at the collection of painting and calligraphy, I’ll be more alert to the changes of brushes in the painting.

The part of the display which I did not understand at all was the one about ink sticks and ink stones. I understand that you put a little water in an ink stone, and grind the ink stick into it. How does the kind of ink stone you use affect your technique? This was probably the place where knowledge of Chinese would have helped me to understand the display. In any case, of the four treasures (paper, brush, ink stone and ink stick) I now understood more about one. A successful half an hour, I thought.

Suit of Jade

The short-lived Qin empire, the first empire of China, fell by 206 BCE. Much was happening in India at the time: the Maurya empire was at its peak, the Gandhara kingdoms were rising in modern day Afghanistan, the first kingdoms of South India were being established. The Nanyue kingdom was one of the successor states of Qin, covering what is today Northern Vietnam, and the Chinese provinces of Guangxi, Guangdong, and Yunnan. Han, another of the successors of Qin, was in conflict with Nanyue and occassionally dominant. I found this background when I visited the massive museum built over the mausoleum of the Nanyue king Zhao Mo, discovered in 1983 CE in the Yuexiu district of Guangzhou.

The museum is very close to the Yuexiu Park metro station. We arrived an hour short of closing, enough time for the museum, as it turned out. The mausoleum is the usual mound over small burial chambers. We climbed down, and walked through these low stone-lined chambers. Zhao Mo died in 122 BCE. Since the first emperor’s tomb has never been excavated, this is possibly the oldest tomb of a Chinese king which has been examined properly in modern times. All the artifacts found here are in the museum above the digs.

The star of the show is undoubtedly the full-body jade suit in the featured photo. The Chinese belief that jade preserves the body is likely to be the reason it enclosed the king’s body inside his wooden coffin. The rest of the things (and people) in the mausoleum were meant to serve him in afterlife. There was a lot of jade in evidence (the bowl and the belt buckle in the photos caught my eye). Gold and silver were present, but in smaller quantities. The museum of full of beautiful items, but there is little explanation. That’s part of the reason why an hour here was more than enough.

Ivory work of Guangdong

Four years ago I read news about the Chinese government destroying large amounts of smuggled ivory in an effort to curtail the illegal trade. Ivory trading is now banned in China, but most of the remaining trickle of illegal trade now passes through Guangdong. There is a reason for this. Ivory carving is an old traditional craft in Guangdong province. I had not connected these pieces of information until I saw the small exhibition of ivory carving in the Chen Clan Academy in Guangzhou. The 19th century oil painting of a mandarin on a sheet of ivory (featured photo) is not something that needs to be repeated today, since a work like this could well be executed on some other surface. It is an interesting style though; the treatment seems completely western.

The most stunning piece was one called “March into the Great Southeast”. This was carved by Guo Kang in 1958. The incredible piece (a detail from which you can see in the photo above) is carved from a single tusk. The rendering of the scenery and of an army toiling through it are stunning. This is, of course, a piece of propaganda in the style of Socialist Realism, but that does not subtract from its value as art. It translates the subjects of classical Chinese paintings quite accurately into this other medium.

The ivory carving of an 11 layer boat was made in 1990 by Pan Chuju. The details are stunning. Just that chain near the bottom edge of the photo, carved out of a single piece of ivory, would be a major technical job. The cantilevered bell, the decorative elephant heads, and all the little details are stunning. While I could appreciate the technical mastery involved, the piece somehow left me a little cold.

There were many smaller pieces. This small 19th century brush washer was typical of the exhibits. The artful asymmetry and visual balance places it quite definitely in the Chinese aesthetic tradition. The Family and I stood in front of this piece. As I thought about the kind of wealth and leisure that this piece implies, The Family said “Let’s go and see the paintings.”

Ceramic socialist realism

During one dinner in China, after much alcohol had been downed with toasts, conversation turned to calligraphy. I was surprised to hear the general opinion that Mao Zedong was considered to have produced very good calligraphy in the classical style. Recently, seeing that the brochure of the Tate gallery’s exhibition of Social Realist art from China quoted Mao extensively, I realized that he was quite strongly aware of the potential of art to subvert or accelerate social change. As early as in the Yan’an conference of 1942, Mao made statements that prefigured the philosophical basis of what came to be called the cultural revolution. This is an example: “The life of the people is always a mine of the raw materials for literature and art, materials in their natural form, materials that are crude, but most vital, rich and fundamental; they make all literature and art seem pallid by comparison; they provide literature and art with an inexhaustible source, their only source.”

A part of the permanent exhibition in the Chen Clan Academy of Guangzhou is a roomful of small glazed ceramic pieces which are clearly made in the Social Realistic style. The pre-communist nationalist movement created a ferment in the art world, with many artists experimenting with western styles. This was carried to an extreme in Social Realism, as you can see in the examples here (notice the fedora carried by the man who takes the bull by the horn). Looking closely at these pieces, I realized that there is an individuality to each. Within the constraints of the system, they are still expressive of the artist’s vision. What else does one ask from an artist but technical mastery and individual vision?

The heritage of pottery

According to Wikipedia, the Chen Clan Academy was saved from destruction during the Cultural Revolution by local officials who converted it into a printing press for publication of the works of Mao Zedong. Today, it is saved from obscurity by making it into a museum of folk crafts. The first thing we noticed is pottery. Glazed pottery is, of course, one of the ancient Chinese arts, so we were very happy to find several cabinets full of wonderful pieces here.

The gold-painted glazes called Kwon-glazed pottery are perhaps what an untutored eye like mine recognizes most swiftly as Chinese pottery. Private collections all over India and Europe are full of these. Interestingly, these were only produced for export during the last years of imperial China, during the Qing dynasty, in Guangzhou. Plain pottery was sourced from Jingde town, and coloured and glazed to order. The Chinese government in 2008 recognized it as an intangible cultural heritage, like the other three styles that we saw here.

It is possible that Kwon-glazing was trying to rip-off the 1200 years old tradition of Fengxi porcelain. Pieces from this town in Guangdong province have bright colours on a high-gloss white background. The decorative pieces we saw here were well chosen examples of the traditional figures, largely drawn from opera and historical stories. I loved the dramatic poses, and wished again that I’d got to see the opera. This kind of pottery is also very visible in private collections in India and Europe.

The more earthy Shiwan pottery is actually my favourite. I like the thick and dark, but glossy, finish of these figures. The Family had collected a few small pieces during her student days, and my mother admired them hugely when she first saw them. The human figures are not elegantly operatic, but are in the style of peasants: sitting or working. I liked this pair of partridges clinging to a steep rock. This style comes from Foshan town in Guangdong province, and apparently developed during the Tang dynasty, perhaps 1400 years ago.

Nixing pottery from Qinzhou town in Guangxi province, near the Vietnam border, can be seen in every tea trader’s stall in China. These are the beautiful unglazed red earth teapots that I kept thinking I should buy. One of the cabinets here held several pieces which were not connected to tea. I learnt that over ten thousand people are involved in this craft today. The variation in colour comes not only from the clay but also by small variations in the temperature at which pieces are fired. The pieces are similar to others which are found across south Asia. My grandmother swore by the unique flavour imparted to food and water kept in unglazed fired-earth pottery, and I found that the Chinese also have variants of these feelings about the use of Nixing pottery.

The Chen Clan’s Place

I had a quick look at the history of the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall of Guangzhou before we left India. It came highly recommended, but I was faintly disappointed to see that it was built as recently as 1895 CE, and that too by two Chinese-Americans who returned to Guangzhou. The intention was to provide a training academy for the Imperial civil service examination to young men (I don’t think women took the exam then) from the 75 families of this clan. Within 15 years the exams were history, and the clan turned its holdings to other ends.

An exit from the Chen Clan Academy metro station deposits you right at the door of the complex. The free standing gate which we saw (photo above) is a staple of travel posters and coffee table books about Guangzhou. I’d seen this photo of the gate in a book in our hotel room, and had no idea where it was. I was surprised and happy that it was here.

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The decorations on the external walls are stunning: whether they are representations of birds (as in the featured photo) or googly-eyed lions, phoenixes goosing pigeons, scenes from Cantonese opera or the countryside (as in the slideshow above). The clay images overwhelm your eyes, and I found that I had to examine them one by one in order to make sense of them. Not being tuned to the asymmetry of the Chinese decorative style also presented a problem which I had to resolve by scanning these clay images very slowly. The result was that it took me a long time to just walk into the complex.

The entrance is past these grand doors with their painted dwarpalas (heng ha er jiang in Mandarin). I saw many of these fierce guards painted on doors in Guangzhou. I suppose that by the late 19th century CE every one wanted their doors to be guarded by such guardians. Space must have been too precious to install the statues that earlier would guard temple doors. So the paintings were a neat cultural evolution. I was so engrossed in looking at the arms and armour carried by the dwarpala that I nearly missed the lion-head knockers on the doors.

I guess I will write another post about what we saw inside. But one thing that I need to put into this post are the lovely doors we saw inside. They are a little battered today, but they are elegant in a very understated way. “Quite different from the rest of the decorations” The Family said when she saw them. I wondered how they escaped unscathed through the cultural revolution.

The six banyan trees

Our temple circuit of the Yuexiu district of Guangzhou had taken in Confucianism, Islam, Daoism, and was to end with the Buddhist Temple of Six Banyan Trees (Liurong Si). Unlike the other three, Buddhist temples in China are never oases of peace or calm. People come here to ask for their needs, and it seems that enough people feel that their prayers and answered to keep more coming. Crowds peak before the national university entrance exams (the gaokao), but this was off season.

On the day of the New Year’s Lantern Festival there are long queues here to light incense. As we entered, a monk seated at the door handed us some of the sticks to light. We looked admiringly at the obviously powerful Dwarpalas. One of them serenely played a lute while crushing evil-doers under his feet. Another kept a watchful eye on a pagoda, presumably this very one, while doing heavy crushing with feet. Being pretty non-evil, we passed unscathed to deposit lit incense sticks into the large pot in the middle of the courtyard kept for this purpose. We are not only non-evil, we are also polite guests.

Between the Dwarpalas was an enormous laughing Buddha. It is so strange that a wandering monk who roamed another country, preaching the virtue of becoming nothing (nirvana), has become confused with jolly old Ho Tei, a monk from the 11th cetury CE. We went into the Daoxian Baodian (Great Buddha) hall to see the three brass statues that are supposed to have been made in the 17th century CE, during the time of the Kangxi emperor. These Qing dynasty statues (featured photo) represent Amitabha, Gautama, and the Apothecary (left to right). I liked the pink lotus flowers with hidden LEDs in the ceiling above them.

The statues of the Buddha in a niche outside the pagoda which you see in the photo here was decidedly different in style. The features are Indian, for one thing. The very ornate bronze piece below the pedestal could be from the Indonesia or Thailand, but the simple brass one could well be from India. There was no plaque here which I could translate. The other photo shows a martial figure. At first look I’d thought it could be the emperor Ashoka, but then found it could perhaps be Weituo, a general who had a hand in recovering the relics after they were stolen.

The Flower Pagoda (Hua Ta, above) is the center of the temple. It holds the ashes of a particularly saintly Cambodian monk, which the temple was constructed to hold. The pagoda would have been built in 537 CE, rebuilt after being destroyed in a fire in 1057 CE, survived the Mongol invasion, but had to be rebuilt after another fire in 1373 CE, and restored in 1900 CE, during the last decades of the empire. The name of the temple has an equally tortuous history. It was called the Baozhuangyan temple at the time of its founding, then became the Changzhou temple, and later the Jinghui temple, before a 10th century poet, Su Dongpo, named it after the six banyan trees he saw here. The banyans are long gone.

Guangdong Museum of Art

I was not perfectly well towards the end of our trip to Guangzhou. The Family was happy to prune the must-see list. We thought that the provincial art museum looked interesting, and was worth a visit. When we took an escalator up from the nearest Metro station, we didn’t realize that it was a long walk. Eventually, with a little help from friends, we reached a building which looked like a museum (see the featured photo) and had a large sign across the top in which I could make out the characters for art and museum.

The foyer was crowded. A special exhibit of paintings by members of the Cantonese diaspora in the US was being inaugurated. Since we could not understand the speeches, we went on to the galleries. The permanent collection included a very large number of paintings (and calligraphy, of course) from across the centuries. I’m not well versed in the history of Chinese art, and being ignorant of the writing, cannot use this as a guide. So I admired the paintings as objects in themselves. I like a certain kind of monumental painting that is natural in older scrolls; a huge vista is painted in quick strokes and broad washes. Then if you look closely, you see a few tiny human figures hard at the mundane work of their daily lives. These are hard to photographs, because of the difference in the scales of the two things you would like to capture. It is much easier to take photos of the other kind of thing I love about Chinese classical painting: close observation of nature. I liked this picture of a heron waiting above a waterfall for fish, and the horses. Chinese painters saw horses very differently from the west; their vision if of powerfully muscular animals. That is the emphasis you see in the photo above. Both photos were taken by The Family.

One discovery for us was of the near contemporary cartoonist called Liao Bingxiong. He was born in 1915 and died in 2006, his life straddling the part of the history of China which would both give him ample material for his art, and a hard life because of it. The exhibition on his work covered a whole floor. The name was new to me, and I found later that some assess him as the greatest cartoonist of modern China. He is certainly important enough that I found a course in the Humanities department of the University of Oslo on his work.

The extensive collection of his work was not hard to appreciate. He seems to have criticized the Kuomintang government in the 1930s, then the Japanese in the 1940s, and Mao Zedong afterwards. He was banned from publishing cartoons for a decade, and was reinstated only after Mao’s death. I took the photo you see above. Similar drawings appear a couple of times in other periods of his work. It seems that he relentlessly questioned privilege and took the side of the underdog throughout his life. The walk was tiring but we found a new major artist at the end of it. Not a bad day’s work.