The Ming Dynasty, was the ruling dynasty of China from 1368 to 1644 and rose from the collapse of the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty. The Empire of the Great Ming, reigned for 276 years and has been described as "one of the greatest eras of orderly government and social stability in human history", it was the last dynasty governed by the ethnic Han Chinese. The capital Beijing fell in 1644 to a rebellion led by Li Zicheng who established the Shun Dynasty, although this was short-lived as Li Zicheng failed to realise his ambitions and was defeated at the Battle of Shanhai Pass, by the joint forces of the Ming general Wu Sangui and Manchu prince Dorgon. After his defeat he fled back to Beijing and proclaimed himself Emperor of China, then left the capital rather rapidly, the Shun dynasty ended with his death in 1645. The Shun reign was superseded by the Manchu-led Qing Dynasty, although scattered remnants of Ming supporters held out, despite losing Beijing and the death of the emperor. Nanjing, Fujian, Guangdong, Shanxi, and Yunnan were all strongholds of Ming resistance. However, there were several pretenders for the Ming throne, creating a weak and divided force, until one by one each bastion of resistance was defeated by the Qing until 1662, when the last real hopes of a Ming revival died with the Yongli emperor, Zhu Youlang.
This is the background to Sea of Ink, the story of how Zhu Da, the prince of Yiyang, distant descendant of the Prince of Ning, the seventeenth son of the founder of the Ming dynasty, became Bada Shanren, widely regarded as the leading painter of the early Qing dynasty and a huge influence on Chinese painting from the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou (mid-Qing period), the Shanghai School in the late Qing, and even two hundred years after his death his work has influenced 20th century Chinese painting, including Wu Changsuo (1844-1927), Qi Baishi (1864-1957), and Zhang Daqian (1899-1983).
Born Zhu Da in 1626 into a family of scholars, poets and calligraphers, Zhu Da’s childhood was one of untroubled bliss, surrounded by the wealth and glamour of a prince and relative, although a distant one of the founder of the Ming dynasty. At the age of eight he had begun writing poetry, and was considered a child prodigy, as he had taken to painting from an early age, spoilt and admired life looked wonderful. All this would come crashing down when he was in his teens, as the Manchu’s gained control of the country, violently cutting down all that stood in their way. He was eighteen when they took Beijing and nineteen when their forces occupied Nanchang, the seat of power for his family.
At some point during this time frame Zhu Da, fled his home taking refuge in a Buddhist temple and changing his name to Chuanqi, here he would remain, burying himself in Buddhist teaching. In 1653 he was admitted to a small circle of pupils under the tutelage of the Abbot Hongmin, attaining his masters examination and now empowered to pass on tenets of Buddhist wisdom to younger scholars.
Life for Chuanqi, became one of contemplation, although sometimes curiosity got the better of him and he visited the local town, wandering the streets and gesticulating wildly and alternating between fits of laughter and tears, before falling down drunk and senseless in some tavern, giving the impression to all who saw him of some madman. It was 1658 before he took up the brush again and started studying painting.
In fifty one beautifully crafted chapters, this book manages to capture the life of not just one of China’s greatest exponents of the Shuimohua* style of painting, but a man who was an enigma, a spoilt and adored Prince to Buddhist abbot, madman to respected artist, poet and philosopher, all told with a use of language that has wonder - whether of life or of art, as vital an ingredient as the ink printed on the page.
“On one occasion his father made him step barefoot into a bowl of ink and then walk along the length of a roll of paper. To begin with, Zhu’s footprints were wet and black; with each step they became lighter until they were barely visible any more. Then he hopped from the paper back onto the wooden floor. His father took a brush and wrote at the top of the scroll: A small segment of the long path of my son Zhu Da. And further down: A path comes into existence by being walked on.”
There were times whilst I was reading this that reminded me of In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, not so much in the writing but more the aesthetic ideal (Iki*) behind it. This is partly down to the subject matter of art, particularly in the descriptions of the eleven pictures by Shanren featured in the book. But the main reason is that like the art itself, this book is composed of minimal brushstrokes that describes Bada Shanren’s journey with just enough light and shade to reveal the tale in all its depth, allowing the tale to almost tell itself, and again like the art work it does this with a wonderful degree of subtlety.
~ ~ ~
Richard Weihe studied drama and philosophy in Zurich and Oxford. His poetic biographies of influential artists have earned him a wide readership. Sea of Ink, published in Switzerland in 2005, won the Prix des Audituers de la Radio Suisse Romande. In 2010 he published Ocean of Milk based on the Indian-Hungarian painter Amrita Sher-Gil.
Jamie Bulloch has already translated Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by FC Delius (Peirene No 3) for Peirene. He has worked as a professional translator from German since 2001. He is also the author of A Short History of Tuscany and Karl Renner: Austria.
Jamie on translating Sea of Ink.
'The major challenge when translating this novel was to emulate the deceptive simplicity of Richard Weihe's prose style, which is not only perfectly suited to conveying the metaphysical discursions of the book, but also reflects the economy of Bada Shanren's beautiful linear paintings, ten of which are included here. Sea of Ink may be a very slim volume, but it packs a lot into its few pages, and the meditative character of the novel stays with the reader long after the final page has been turned. A thought-provoking and inspirational book.'
New Books In German (Peirene’s Meike)
Iki is an expression of simplicity, sophistication, spontaneity, and originality. It is ephemeral, romantic, straightforward, measured, audacious, smart, and unselfconscious. Although this concept is Japanese, like a lot of concepts there is a sharing and a similar heritage.