February 21 1982: Drawing the Poetic Scenes of Dong Po

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Huang Yao had a weekly column called Moyuan Suibi in the Nanyang Siang Pao, a newspaper in Malaysia.

 

畫東坡詩境

 

This story happened about two years ago. One day, a stranger came to Art House Gallery and bought a painting which was inspired by Dong Po’s poem: “Might as well be drunk for the path is hard to walk / Might as well be sleeping for there are words that are hard to speak / The gentleman lies sleeping among these rocks / For eternity no one understands his purpose.” I portrayed Dong Po as sleeping in his bare feet on a bamboo couch, with rocks as the background and banana leaves as his canopy. Atop the rock in the foreground, I drew a stove warming some wine. On the stove is a pot, and beside the stove is a fan. There are some pieces of beachwormwood beside the rock, and under the beachwormwood is charcoal. The fire is fanned by the natural flow of air in the garden, keeping the wine warm. There is an incense burner on another rock, with the incense smoke floating upwards. There is furthermore a vase of flowers. The fragrance of the flowers and the burning incense intertwine with the breath of the man on the couch. It is a comfortable scene, but only the man would know how deep his sleep is. I believe the collector of this painting must be Mr Su Dong Po’s admirer. Hanging this painting next to his book shelf will allow him to look at the painting whenever he is tired of reading. I am sure it will refresh him, like washing his face with cool water. I believe that looking at paintings is to refresh one's mind and spirit, which is why I do not like to paint powerful things like tigers or eagles.

Although Dong Po had garnered huge achievements in the literary scene, he did not have an easy life, because he was too righteous and direct. He was not good at socializing with people. He was obviously a political rival of Wang An Shi, and yet they were also good friends. This is quite unlike people these days, who become enemies at the slightest disagreement. He was in the same political party as Si Ma Guang, and yet he did not blindly praise or defend him. This is why he was criticized as a “misfit”, and to be blunt, this is equivalent to calling him a “fool”. However, this is what makes Dong Po so lovable and respected by generation after generation.

The world lacks people like this, who are “people-loving” and foolish enough to be “hardworking”. Just take a look at Dong Po’s life. He was exiled to govern Huang Zhou, Hang Zhou, Hui Zhou, Dan Zhou… Everywhere he went he helped to develop water distribution channels for the common people and shared their joys and sorrows. Till today, there is a “Su Causeway” in Hang Zhou, and the tourism industry is still enjoying the fruits of his goodness. Chinese people are famous for opening restaurants. “Dong Po Meat” became famous because he used to enjoy eating big pieces of meat with everyone after a day of hard work. Many restaurants are still earning big bucks from his “invention”. Isn’t it brilliant?

This year, rén xū year, give us a chance to commemorate him. His famous “Poem of the Red Cliff” was written on a rén xū year. I do not know how many Jia Zi years have passed, but we remember him on a rén xū year because in the first line of “Poem of Red Cliff” is, “In the autumn of rén xū year”.

I still remember that he had served as the Minister of Defence (September 1092) and Minister of Rites (November 1092). Shangshu is considered a ministerial position in today’s context. We have seen even Madman Mi in his official robe in several paintings, but we have never seen Dong Po in his official robe. Dong Po was always seen in his “Dong Po hat”, a big robe, a bamboo stick, with a pair of snow clogs on his feet, reflecting his extraordinary unworldliness.

As for his written works, many say that one needs to sing “The Great River flows to the East” and accompany it with “grand musical instruments”. He had some unusual utterances such as, “It’s easy to be poor / it’s difficult to be rich / it’s easy to be hard working / it’s difficult to be lazy and free / it’s easy to tolerate pain / it’s hard to tolerate itch / If one can be comfortable in laziness, tolerate wealth and itchiness, then he must be a person who had attain 'dao'. The part about “tolerating itchiness” is so humorous. It’s evident that his life was full of experiences, but they did not transform him into a “scheming old man”. This is why his character and his literary achievements are so loved. 

He had a special quality, which was that other than writing poetry, he was also talented in calligraphy and painting. He was famous for his “ink bamboo”, which was later established as an “intellectual style of painting”. His paintings of bamboos had their roots in his study of philosophy and literature. He, along with Li Long Yan, Mi Yuan Zhang and Huang Ting Jian… they were a group of good friends who were masters in their own right. “There are no weeds around Ling Zhi”, and that is why every  stroke is well done. The thing about Chinese paintings is that each stroke must lie within the rules of calligraphy in order to be considered a premium work of art. This is something that the great artists of the West will never be able to understand. Even Picasso, who tried to use ink painting methods to paint a bull, admitted that he was not good at Chinese calligraphy. Joan Miró, who has been painting abstract works, wishes to emulate the style of Chinese art, but has so far failed to understand its mystery. In the meantime, we Chinese are unwilling to practise calligraphy hard enough. I wonder what is going to happen to our future?

Dong Po wrote the poem in this painting because “the paths are hard to travel on” and “the words are hard to speak”. He preferred to be “drunk” or “asleep”. There must be a lot of people in the world who feel the same way as Dong Po, who would rather be drunk or asleep. From here we can see that Dong Po has many kindred spirits. This proves that the painter and the collector of a painting are always connected in spirit. I wonder what the art collector stranger thinks of this?

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