Monday, August 18, 2008

A Rich Collection of Chinese Art and Literature

China: 3,000 Years of Art and Literature
Edited by Jason Steuber
Welcome Books, 240 pp., $60.00

A book review by Xujun Eberlein

At the opening of this 10.5" x 14" classy book, fully spread imperial sails shoot across swirling waves on two facing pages. Seeing this famous 17th century painting so closely for the first time, its inconceivable combination of magnificent scale and meticulous detail fascinated me. Having just watched the impressive boat formation made up of thousands of sailors during the Beijing Olympics' opening ceremony, I wondered whether Zhang Yimou had copied this painting.

This detail, from the collection of The Palace Museum, is part of the 12 hand-scrolls titled "Emperor Kangxi's Southern Inspection Tour" - 康熙南巡. Led by the Qing Dynasty artist Wang Hui, the entire set took several top artists three years to finish. According to the Chinese Masterpiece Appreciation Dictionary, five of the 12 scrolls are in Beijing's Palace Museum, one in New York's Metropolitan Museum, one in the hand of a Danish collector, with the fate of the remaining five unknown.

These two pages alone make this book worth it. Because I don't have the rights to reprint the particular detail here, I found several other details on-line from the same work, and one of these is shown below to give you a hint:

(You can also go here to see a few more details of "Emperor Kangxi's Southern Inspection Tour" that are not included in the book.)

As I turned the pages, I was (pleasantly) surprised to find the Song Dynasty poet Su Dongpo's popular mocking lines, known to the Chinese as the "Poem of Bathing Son":

Families, when a child is born
Want it to be intelligent.
I, through intelligence,
Having wrecked my whole life,
Only hope the baby will prove
Ignorant and stupid.
Then he will crown a tranquil life
By becoming a Cabinet Minister

– from 170 Chinese poems, translated by Arthur Waley

Or in Chinese:

洗儿 ·苏东坡


Su Dongpo's derision of ignorant and stupid court officials, as well as the cynical lamenting of his unfulfilled ambition, appears vividly in the words. This poem reminds me another line of his: “Life’s misery begins with literacy.” This truism, while well drawn from Su Dongpo’s own bumpy life of trepidation, has since become a tag line for many Chinese intellectuals.

Accompanying Su Dongpo's playful "poem," on the opposite page, is a beautiful ink and color painting, a Song Dynasty hanging scroll titled "Children at Play in a Garden" by anonymous, from the art collection of Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri.

Apparently, in Southern Song Dynasty, playing children was a popular subject in paintings. I don't have the rights to reproduce the above work here, but it can certainly compare with a work of the same period's representative artist Su Hanchen (1094 ~ 1172):

Because Su Hanchen did not leave signature on many of his paintings, I dare to say it is possible that "Children at Play in a Garden" is his given the similarity in style.

The juxtaposition of artistic and literary works in this book presents a rare beauty. Not only is each piece of literary work accompanied by a piece of artwork from the same or nearby period, every now and then you will run into a pleasant surprise from a folded inset of exquisite painting opening to several pages.

I have a fair sized collection of English translations of ancient Chinese poetry and prose, but none is like China: 3,000 Years of Art and Literature. "This volume incorporates scholarly translations that have appeared over several centuries," editor Jason Steuber points out. The variation in translation styles is a great joy for a reader like me. I only wish the book had included the Chinese originals to compare with.

Though it contains a large body of ancient writings as early as Shijing (ca. 11th century – 221 BCE), the book also includes excerpts from contemporary writers such as Ba Jin, Mo Yan, Amy Tan, and Gao Xingjian, and the contemporary artworks that go with them are a delightful addition to their exquisite ancient counterparts.

As a further value, the works of art elegantly reproduced in this book come out of museum collections from around the world. Chances are you haven't seen many of them even if you are a frequent museum-goer. For anyone who is interested in Chinese art and literature, this book is a definite collectible.


bien said...

Thanks for the recommendation.

wuming said...

There is a special exhibition of paintings by Wang Hui (王翚) at Metropolitan Museum until January. And here is a review in New York Times

Xujun Eberlein said...

Thanks for the info, Wuming. If I visit NYC in the near future, I'll definitely go see the exhibition!

Xujun Eberlein said...

Correct link to the NYT review: Master of Many Styles