The Scholar’s Stone: Miniature Worlds

 

scholars rock from met collection

山形靈璧石  (Rock in the Form of a Fantastic Mountain) Qing dynasty (1644–1911)

We saw “Museum of Stones” at NY’s Noguchi Museum, a vast survey of elements, mass, earth, flights of cosmic abstraction — weirdly, since solid rock seems at odds with airy thinking. Not so. Not to Noguchi, seminal modernist sculptor, not for the collectors of scholar’s stones, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum. Where “rock and water rub up against each other, in a river gorge, along a coast…Rock is the sculptor and water is the material. Expand the timeline a bit, however, and the relationship reverses; water becomes the sculptor and rock the material” (said the exhibition catalog).

The traditional Chinese veneration of these pocked rocks always mystified me, at temples, palaces, gardens (below, Shanghai’s famed classical Yu Garden, Yuyuan). Hollowed-out, craggy — unlike Kyoto’s smooth rock and sand gardens, these stones are furrowed, wrinkled, honeycombed, twisting. What I found ugly is exactly why they’re valuable. Only now do I understand why.

China’s literati collected Scholars’ Stones, gongshi (gong=spirit; shi=rock) for thousands of years. First in gardens; then Taoist monks wanted them inside for meditation and inspiration, small enough to put in their studies. They loved those that resembled mythical creatures, actual beings, or “the magical peaks and subterranean paradises (grotto-heavens) believed to be inhabited by the immortals,” the Met explains. The immortals — the many gods of the Taoist pantheon — live in the holes. Stones may also resemble earthly islands, caves, mountain landscapes. They appear in so many classical paintings, and millennia ago, in Tang dynasty (618-907) poems.

 

I should add that some got drilled, improved a bit, to evoke more. They’re “Rorschach blots in three dimensions,” a Times critic wrote. “In the blink of an eye they move from abstract to representational, conjuring a great deal of Western sculpture as they go…. One thinks of Rodin, Giacometti, Henry Moore, Dubuffet, de Kooning … Michaelangelo.”

The best are perforated, full of emptiness, “worlds within worlds” (as the Asia Society titled a past scholar’s stone exhibition). In them you find creation, time, nature’s forces. The underlying concept emerges from Taoism. Pu — ‘the uncarved block,’ i.e. the power of the thing in its simple, natural state. These are thing and metaphor at once. As Artist John Mendelsohn wrote about scholar’s stones, “Nature made art in its own image, an eccentrically evocative fractal of itself… for tabletop contemplation of the universe.”

 

 

 

scholars stone noguchi museum.jpg

Now I get it. Stones. Battle (David and Goliath). Danger (Scylla and Charybdis). The grab at eternity — how our tomb stones and memorials, as the catalog says, “try to deny the insignificance of a biological lifespan on a geologic timescale.”

scholars stone reclining figure

 

The End of China’s One-Child Policy

fanshisan1Since China announced the end of its one-child policy last week (replaced by two), I’ve been thinking about Fan Shisan’s 2 of Us exhibit we saw at Ai Wei Wei’s Beijing studio, Three Shadows. (Ai is known as an opponent of the one-child policy, though not as closely identified with it as dissident Chen Guangcheng. The blind lawyer suffered beatings, as did his wife, for defending women involuntarily sterilized; his dramatic nighttime escape from house arrest – to shelter with the U.S. government  – was an international incident, with then-Secretary Hillary Clinton getting Chen out.)

fanshisan3Photographer Fan Shisan’s double exposures highlight the kids’ aloneness, pairing them with themselves. Fan calls China’s 100 million only-children “the loneliest generation in history…Besides the Rusticated Youth and the Cultural Revolutionaries, they are the most turbulent generation in post-Mao China though the turmoil is more personal and internal.” My students often considered first cousins to be siblings because they were so close; likewise, the feelings were intense for school and college dorm roommates.

paint men onechild-policy your responsibility(This billboard, in a village in Hebei, tells men that having only one child is their responsibility.)

I had one memorable student with four siblings, whose parents paid heavy fines. She wrote an essay about sister love, using e.e. cummings’ poem to convey her feelings. She gave the poem to her sister and brother-in-law for a wedding gift:

“I carry your heart with me (I carry it in my heart)
I am never without it
(anywhere I go you go, my dear;
and whatever is done by only me is your doing, my darling)
I fear no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet)
I want no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you”

Lijun ends her essay: “I hope the man I barely know and never see will carry her heart just as well.”

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Chinese Police in the American Mosaic

Young Officer Wenjian Liu’s tragic murder in Brooklyn at age 32 gives us a chance to pause & marvel, at least, at how he was part of the dynamic, salutary building of America’s classic ‘mosaic’… new arrivals making NYC their home. My friend David Chen, fantastic NY Times investigative reporter, penned this front-page story today on the rather dramatic surge in Chinese- (& other Asian-) Americans in the ranks of the NYPD. Read it to find out why…

(Yahoo carrying images by Carlo Allegri of dignitaries & weeping cops, gathered by the thousands at the funeral, which included Buddhist monks, and citizens holding “We [heart] NYPD” placards in freezing rain.)

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Ferguson, NYPD, and Chinese Exclusion

Black Lives Matter march, Union Sq., NYC Dec. 2015 (photo by Jill)

OCA in Black Lives Matter solidarity march, Union Sq., NYC, Dec. 2015 (photo by Jill)

A new Civil Rights movement has begun. Since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and a Staten Island grand jury’s failure to indict the police officer whose choke hold killed Eric Garner, protests have gone on with hardly pause, in NY and nextdoor to our town, in Newark. Police killing these — and many other — unarmed black men, and the increasing use on US city streets of military equipment, and undue and unjustified force, against people (mostly men) of color sparked the movement. But demonstrators at Black Lives Matter marches (including us Coplans) are out there for other things, too. Fairness. Recognition of anti-black racism and deep systemic discrimination. Equal rights. America’s fundamental, unfulfilled promise.

Yesterday, the latest chapter: thousands of NYPD officers turned their back on Mayor Bill DeBlasio, as he spoke at the funeral of an officer tragically murdered by a deranged killer, claiming he was avenging Garner’s and Brown’s deaths.

Marching in New York a few weeks back, I noticed a large contingent from Organization of Chinese Americans (above). Forty years old, DC-based, OCA “consistently affirms the human rights and dignity of all Asian Pacific Americans as contributors, citizens, and defenders of democracy.”

Seeing them brought to mind Chinese Americans’ struggle for rights — powerfully illustrated in the New York Historical Society’s “Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion” (open through April). The notorious Exclusion Act of 1882, a quota system limiting Chinese immigration, marked the first time a group was barred. The Exclusion Act officially deemed Chinese people aliens, not to be trusted, spurring copy-cat local and state ordinances and laws designed to exclude and harass. Often these led to state-sanctioned violence.

Emotional, physical, economic consequences resulted, for a century. The Act made exceptions for students, merchants, teachers & diplomats. But laborers were feared. From Popular Science Monthly, 1876: “These hardy Mongolians with their peculiar civilization …have begun the contest for ascendancy.” Chinese workers were barred from industry, called ‘unfair competition” (helping lead to the rise of the hand-wash service).

It also tore families apart. One year (1902) 20,000 Chinese Americans, US citizens, were stranded outside the US, separated from family.

Meanwhile, discriminatory laws that “rigidly prohibited” Chinese immigrants from most neighborhoods. That, and racial violence, led to the rise of Chinatowns. Though in New York City, 75% of Chinese Americans did not live in Chinatown.

Anti-Chinese poster

Anti-Chinese poster

Until recently, there had been no official apology for the Exclusion Act, a violation of fundamental civil rights. (See the 1882 Project for more information.) The Senate passed S. Res. 201 on October 6, 2011, and the House passed H. Res. 683 on June 18, 2012 “expressing regret for the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Laws… recogniz[ing] the harm done to the civil rights of individuals, families, and communities.”

The banner we saw in NYC was a reminder of that history, and how for all Americans, protection of fundamental civil rights is essential to life in America.

 

PS: Cool factoid from the exhibition:

Hu Shih 胡适  philosopher, essayist, diplomat, key figure in Chinese liberalism (an intellectual leader of the May Fourth anti-colonial/nationalist movement) and language reform, was mentored by John Dewey at Columbia, and when he returned, was influential in the movement for Mandarin language reform and using written vernacular Chinese (Wikipedia)

 

 

 

 

Praise for a Five-Child Policy

A former student in Beijing has four siblings — a rarity for ’80s kids in China. Below is a bit out of an essay, a love paean to her older sister on the occasion of her sister’s wedding. I love my siblings and watching my two kids grow up together. I was moved a few years ago by this exhibition of photographs at Three Shadows, commenting on the One Child Policy — bleached, hyper real double-exposures pairing only children with themselves.

1 child policy exhibit

Loneliness is the message of Fan Shisan’s “2 of Us,” a take on China’s 30-year-old One Child policy. The generation of 100 million only-children is “tragic,” Fan writes in exhibition notes. “The loneliest generation in history. Besides the Rusticated Youth and the Cultural Revolutionaries, the most turbulent generation in post-Mao China – though the turmoil is more personal and internal.” Only children “won’t know what they’ve lost.”

My writer, Lijun (Julia) reached out to me for a grad school rec this month. So she and her writing on her siblings, a topic she returned to in several assignments, are on my mind.

“I gave my brother-in-law a big smile and thanked him for the willingness to shelter my boring leftover sister.

What will I bring to my sister’s wedding, what can I say? I think I will bring nothing but one of my favourite poems, if she will forgive me for not bringing any gift.

I Carry Your Heart With Me  by E. E. Cummings
I carry your heart with me (I carry it in my heart) I am never without it
(anywhere I go you go, my dear; and whatever is done by only me is your doing, my darling)
I fear
no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet)
I want no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide) “
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
I carry your heart (I carry it in my heart)

And I hope from that wedding day, the man I barely know and never see will carry her heart just as well.”

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US-China Cooperation: Restoring Qianlong’s Secret Garden

Thirty women, China’s best embroiderers, in Nanjing, worked for one year to embroider the richly brocaded upholstery. Papermakers, working with a traditional and especially tough pulp from the mulberry tree, recreated the paper strong enough to support the Italian trompe l’oeil ceiling painting, from their papermaking studio in rural Anhui. Bamboo craft masters, recruited after a national search, prepared inner skin bamboo carving and bamboo thread marquetry with their grandparents’ tools. During the Cultural Revolution, many of these craftsmen’s parents, or grandparents, had their tools smashed. Some buried them and they survived. Many tools had been handed down for generations.

They chosen to were repair the emperor’s secret garden, Juanqinzhai. (The book🙂

juanqinzhai book

I learned about the project from a lovely documentary, The Emperor’s Secret Garden (by Mandy Chang and Zhou Bing, 2010, BSkyB Masterpiece productions). The Qianlong Emperor, who ruled around the American Revolution, was the richest and most powerful man on earth. As a highly cultured man, Qianlong wrote calligraphy, and we actually saw his handiwork on auction in NY a few months ago:

At Sotheby's Chinese calligraphy auction, NYC, Spring 2014

My son and I pretending we could afford Sotheby’s Chinese calligraphy on auction, NYC, Spring 2014. A few of Qianlong’s panels were set to fetch half a million dollars.

Qianlong, already living in earth’s largest palace, having sucked (as emperors do) the continent’s wealth, commissioned a secret garden where he envisioned retreating for a fashionable, scholar-monk-style retirement: 27 buildings, grottos and rockeries, a garden, and interiors of textile, friezes and woodwork, silk brocade so delicate it’s transparent, woven on looms 2 storeys high; a level of craftsmanship that blows the mind. Somehow, the retreat was locked up, and discovered dusty and crumbling in the early 2000s. It had been undisturbed since the 1700s. As WMF explains, it sparked one of the most awe-inspiring international  restoration projects ever.

From the World Monuments Fund slideshow on the project: A painting of the garden complex itself, and of one mural, of the royal family:

the emperors garden painting

wood panel showing royal family

The work was part of Forbidden City’s first international collaboration — and China’s first large-scale interior conservation project. The effort became a lab, and a classroom for training a young generation of Chinese conservators. But first, restoring the emperor’s secret garden required searching for what had  nearly disappeared: highly skilled traditional craftsmen and women.

Together with architects, engineers, scientists, archaeologists and curators, conservators and conservation scientists, helped by the World Monuments Fund, the hideaway was restored. Cultural heritage was strengthened. Traditional craftspeople fired up their shops. And the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing created, through Jinqinzhai, China’s first degree program in interior conservation. Which means preservation according to international standards, can begin to take hold here.

 

To see, as we have, the scale of destruction (even to this day) of the treasures scattered across mainland China is to understand what a huge big deal it is. The project also forged new levels of cooperation and trust between U.S. and China preservationists, a positive part of this emerging, fraught relationship. I expect it won’t be the last: Large sections of the Forbidden City are still in disrepair.

Qianlong Emperor (reign 1735-1799)

Qianlong Emperor (reign 1735-1799)

If you’re in China, you can go and visit, though the rooms open only part of the time.

Tiny Travelogue, Israel-Palestine

Thank you, whoever you are, we are getting 50, 100 hits a day. Who are you all? Send us notes! Thanks so much for reading!!

I’ve run out of words during this latest Israel-Gaza war. I’ve said the same thing for 33 years. Here instead is a tiny visual travelogue, from Turkish sultans battling Crusaders in the Middle Ages to Brits carting off Egypt’s patrimony, to Palestinian painter. I don’t know if he’s Gazan but I first saw his work in a cultural center there.

The Belzoni head removal pretty much needs no commentary. For China heads, the incredibly cosmopolitan ‘Persian’ miniature painting (maybe not this one but many) visibly integrate Chinese elements, particularly in depictions of nature (swirling clouds, steep mountains, shapely trees).

Hunername Vol I. "Night attack of Sultan Bayezid I on the crusaders besieging the fortress of Nigbolu in 1396." (Topkapi Saray Museum library)

Hunername Vol I. “Night attack of Sultan Bayezid I on the crusaders besieging the fortress of Nigbolu in 1396.” (Topkapi Saray Museum library)

Giovanni Battista Belzoni (1778-1823) Head of a colossal Egyptian statue being removed for shipment to the British Museum. Hand colored lithograph 14" x 21". 1822. Oriental Division (c) the New York Public Library.

Giovanni Battista Belzoni (1778-1823) Head of a colossal Egyptian statue being removed for shipment to the British Museum. Hand colored lithograph 14″ x 21″. 1822. Oriental Division (c) the New York Public Library.

Sliman Mansour – the contemporary Palestinian artist of liberation – it’s worth inhabiting his eyes for a few moments.

Sliman Mansour: Palestinian Life and Culture

Sliman Mansour: Palestinian Life and Culture

To complete the tiny journey, Fink’s, which is no longer there on King George Avenue in Jerusalem (it closed in 2006: “This intimate, exclusive restaurant was one of the most prestigious dining addresses in Jerusalem.”) i lived nearby in ’92. “One of the best bars in the world. (Newsweek). Golda had a reserved seat. No more goulash in this wonderfully atmospheric, legendary, sexy European hideout.

Fink's Bar - Restaurant, King George Ave., Jerusalem Israel

Fink’s Bar – Restaurant, King George Ave., Jerusalem Israel

The wildly improbable, world changing creation of a state of Israel for we people of the Biblical land, nonetheless can’t be separated from the larger context of colonial conquest. Those hiding from missiles in a tunnel, that’s no matter to you now. So be safe in there. And for the innocents going through a slaughter we can hardly imagine, here’s all I’ve got. Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, recipient ot Charity Navigator’s highest 4-star rating, founded by a friend & run on a shoestring. PCRF organizes and runs hundreds of volunteer surgical missions from all over the world to Palestine and Lebanon’s camps, providing children with free care and local medical personnel with free training. It arranges medical care all over the world for sick and injured children from the ME who cannot be adequately treated in their homeland. Including trying to get out kids, against Egypt’s blockade, for care overseas who will die otherwise. We are giving and hope you might, too.