--from the peony archives
A friend and I were talking about the way certain places can leave a deep and indeliable impression on a person.
He said, It's always cities that draw me.
Really? I replied, For me, it is almost always landscapes. But like with people, it's not that every place will have the power to move me, but rather that I long for certain landscapes like I long for certain people.
And, I cannot remember if I said this aloud or just thought it, but so tied is this feeling of being moved to the workings of my inner world (that place where my heart beats) that some of these landscapes I have never even actually traveled to; they are, nonetheless, no less significant to me
By this time-- and some of you may even know this much about me-- I was already on my tiny boat, drifting very slowly downstream as each of the legendary Eight Views passed in front of my eyes. Bathed in mist, the pale landscapes seemed to be themselves drifting hazily in and out of focus-- drawing me in through their ambiguity. This ambiguity being characteristic, of course, of all the finest Southern Song landscapes, where the imagination of the viewer and the emotion of the landscape merge.
The painting is a Song dynasty masterpiece, and now a National Treasure of Japan. Without a doubt, it is within this landscape that I travel more than anywhere. Maybe many of you will feel the same when I say that very rarely do I meet a person who is so agreeable; who engages me so fully on the level of the heart that I am quite certain that a lifetime with that person would never be enough. That is also how I feel about this painting. And, for 10 years it has been my computer desktop wallpaper. Some of you will, I suppose, be thinking: Wow, 10 years-- that's a long time to look at the same painting. Believe it or not, though, I never grow tired of gazing at it; as it continues to fascinate and draw me in.
So there I am alone on a boat just ahead of my lover, who is drunk and trying to paint peonies in the boat just behind mine. Sometimes it starts to rain-- ruining the painting-- and therefore ruining my always precarious mood.
Can you see us? Slowly, slowly floating downstream as the landscapes unfold-- one after the other-- in front of our eyes (here I present them in the traditional Japanese order):
Autumn Geese Descending on a Sandbar 平沙落雁
Returning Sails off Distant Shores 遠浦帰帆
Mountain Market in Clearing Mist 山市晴嵐
River and Sky in Evening Snow 江天暮雪
Autumn Moon Over Lake Dongting 洞庭秋月
Night Rain on Xiao Xiang 瀟湘夜雨
Evening Bell from Mist Shrouded Temple 烟寺晩鐘
As I wrote elsewhere about the painting, Song landscapes are not only viewed but are paintings that one can "walk around in." This is the Dream Journey implied by the painting's title. It is the potentially rich empty space in the painting-- the hallmark of Southern Song landscapes-- that in effect carries the viewer far beyond the painted images into a pure and natural realm beyond the "dust of the everyday world.
Obviously, it isn't easy to brush off the dust when one is living down on the flatlands-- where the air is foul and stifling-- so one needs props. "Gayu" is the Japanese pronunciation of the characters 臥遊 "dream journey." Like the ability to imagine mountains even when you are down on the plaines, for a literati scholar it was paramount to always be able to access this world of cultivated mind and spirit-- even from within the dusty and oftentimes unbearable confines of ordinary life in the city.
My beloved was very fond of using this theme at his academy. However, while He seemed to appreciate both the landscape and the idea of Xiao Xiang, He never actually painted in that style Himself. Always preferring to paint colorful birds and peonies. (I hope no one will hear this as a complaint for I have nothing but good to say of my man of Kaifeng).
And, where are these landscapes located, you are wondering? Well, the celebrated Eight Views of Xiao Xiang 瀟湘八景 are to be found-- in the parlance of the ancients-- in the southern part of the Kingdom of Chu. Yet another Chinese "watery world of lakes and marshes," the northern part of the region in particular is known for the beauty of the great river (where it flows east of the Three Gorges). One of the Yangzi's major tributories, the River Xiang also flows east ending its own long journey pouring into Lake Dongting, after being augmented along the way by dozens of smaller rivers and streams-- one of which is thought to be the River Xiao.
The theme of the "Eight Views of Xiao Xiang" were, in fact, already old by my Lover's time, having been celebrated hundreds of years earlier in Tang dynasty verse. It is thought that it was an official working in the Tang Ministry of Transport and Administration in Changsha who painted the very first series of "Eight Scenes." The paintings unfortunately no longer exist, but some suggest that they were painted on the walls of a terrace that stood overlooking the Xiang River in Changsha. Whatever their appearance, they must have been stunning, as before long they had created such a stir which continued all the way down to the late Song court.
Not only did my lover and I talk of Xiao-Xiang unendingly, but so too did our pet peeve Su Shih (Okay, I admit, Su Shih was mainly my pet peeve, and I took every chance I could, too, to blacken his name at court-- really, how could I resist?) In any event, before I could stop him and his endless grumbling, he had composed a set of poems which became so famous, that the Eight Views of Xiao Xiang became the stuff of legend.
A legend that would travel to my new home of Japan where it become celebrated in true 文人 style.
As much as Su Shih annoyed me (and indeed, I must admit to you Dear Readers that I often fantasized about putting him down a well); in fact he did say something rather wonderful about how, while even a child could produce a work of realistic likeness, that only a true scholar and a gentleman was able to create art of moral value; so that-- again-- even from within the confines of the city (or God Forbid, from within the walls of a gulag), that the viewer could be utterly transported. Su Shih praised this kind of art that could induce a state which could put the viewer in touch with the simplicity of nature-- or in his words: with the dao.
To be continued...
Recommended reading: Dreaming the Southern Song Landscape/Van Gulik's Chinese Pictorial Art by the Connoisseur/ Barthes, A Lover's Discourse (adorable! as fascination)
Finally: These images. MW: the large title calligraphy "Dreams of Mists and Clouds" (氣吞雲夢) was written by Qianlong. I wrote about my favorite calligraphy by Dong Qichang in that comment (do you remember where I wrote that? I can't find it)
Listening to the night rain on Xiao Xiang (瀟湘夜雨 )-- it is a thousand years of tears (and it's as close as I could get to the Eight Views):