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

 

Teacher, Friend, Son of Artists

Xiao Xiao's mother's art

Xiao Xiao’s mother’s art

Kenny art vincents mother2art vincents motherhad a wonderful “tutor” in Qingdao who took care of him while I was teaching, a part of the university compensation (which was also room & board and a lot of lovely perks like trips, and kindnesses like dinners); you could say it that way. Or it was a part of Chinese hospitality. Or it was part of an authoritarian system we saw in Beijing, where students are ‘volunteered’ time-consuming institutional duties that are anything but voluntary.

Upshot, this magnificent young man, a grad student (they say “post-graduate”) in translation specializing in the petroleum industries, and his fiancee, same field, were our companions and especially, Xiao Xiao and Kenny were often together. He kicked Kenny’s ass in badmitton, and recruited guys to play basketball at all hours of the day and night. They ate in Sichuan, Dongbei, and local restaurants around campus. They made silly movies using an iPad app.

And we learned Xiao Xiao’s parents are both noted artists: his father has a studio at Beijing’s 798 and runs an art complex there. His mother’s work (above) is traditional style, and she’s a calligrapher.

And his father’s work is below. His grandmother in Fujian was a village teacher. His grandfather hid the village’s “cultural relics”–treasures from the temple — during the Cultural Revolution, and suffered terribly as a result. Now the relics are in temples and museums.

art vincent's father

One of Earth’s Holiest Spots

Why do we go out questing for certain hard-to-reach places? And when it seems worth it afterwards, as this time did, even then it’s hard to say why we did it.  Maybe the power came because we were close to leaving China. Maybe the spirituality was infectious knowing this is to be a more-than-usually religious year for us, ahead of Kenny’s bar mitzvah. Maybe it was just the density of chanting we came upon, unexpectedly, in this magical place.


It was unforgettable witnessing thousands of Mongolian, Chinese, and Tibetans monk and nuns chanting outdoors at one of the main temples of Wutaishan, the Buddhist holy mountain in north-central China (English: Mount Wutai). In China, where so few monasteries seem to be active, where holy mountains are thronged by tourists not pilgrims, this was a moving exception. The spirituality was contagious.

The architecture spans the centuries. The wild, empty heights are inspiring. We even said a few (Hebrew) prayers ourselves. It was unlike anything we saw in China.

At its heart is the valley made by 5 (wu) mountains. Scattered around are 100+ Tibetan Buddhist temples, built by China’s rulers over centuries–Mongolian (Yuan), Han (Ming), Manchurian (Qing), each of which which served, in its opulence, for each dynasty, to legitimize their rule. And to knit the disparate, diverse, tension-riddled, far-flung empire made of so many different groups, all together by the magnetic pull of the bodhisattva who once lived here.

For nearly a millennium, the powerful staked their claim, got a foothold in paradise, sought virtue and enlightenment, and made alliances with enemies, by building exquisite temples, pagodas and stupas here.

Why here? Because here once lived a real, historic bodhisattva, ‘wisdom being,’ an enlightened one who compassionately doesn’t enter nirvana, to save others. His name was Manjusri. In China, they call him Wenshu.

This sacred place, for Zen, for Chinese, for Lamaist Buddhists, kind of in the middle of nowhere, highest peaks reaching 9,000′, the  was once off limits to all but the emperor. Now Wutaishan, Manjusri’s earthly abode, is a powerful, inspiring, uncrowded place of Buddhist pilgrimage, its monasteries home to perhaps thousands of monks and nuns.

You’ll see, in towering Manjusri statues, he rides a lion or tiger–symbolizing the taming of the ferocious mind. He also holds a sword, to cuts through ignorance and illusion. Manjusri is the deity of wisdom, worshipped from Indonesia to Nepal to Japan. He is featured in many sutras (scripture) and is one of the oldest, most important deities. He’s especially important to the Gelug Tibetan line (the Dalai Lama’s school), who descend from his teachings.

The presence of so much Tibetan Buddhism here made us feel like somehow Tibet had broken off and landed in north-central China, in Shanxi province, one of the poorer areas (coal, over-farmed steep terraces) where 30,000 people still live in caves.

There were almost no tourists in these small alleys and steep stairways, just one bus of Chinese during our late-June stay (I’ve read it does fill up, but we didn’t see that). Decent tourism facilities are almost zero (people sleep in the temples), train and bus connections are terrible, and high altitude makes the roads impassable in winter; they call it “the roof of north China.” I totally didn’t want to go. But Kenny insisted it was the most important place, moreso than Wu Dang Shan (the Taoist holy mountain where Jackie Chan takes Jaden Smith in the “Karate Kid” remake).

Visiting looked unlikely when I discovered the train into the nearest town an hour away (Shahe) arrived at 2 am and there were no hotels there.* But when I discovered the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art in NY had held an exhibition on Wutaishan, devoted a conference to it, and published a book, which we read aloud together, I decided (once again) he was right.

You can feel the history, the cultural richness, the power of devotion here.

The Rubin exhibition (now online) features a 6-foot wide “map” of the site, a fanciful, amazing painting done by a Mongolian monk. His vision doesn’t look anything like Wutaishan really looks, but those kind of hard- to-find places that mysteriously ignite the imagination–they rarely do.

NOTE ONLY FOR TRAVELERS TO WUTAISHAN:

*There’s no good Wutaishan travel info online in English. I really hope this blog helps. I reluctantly recommend what we did: book a Chinese tour–ours was 1- or 2-star, terrible food & lodging, disorganized, they even left us behind once at an outlying monastery (someone did come back for us after an hour, during which time I cried). To be fair, we were warned it wouldn’t be international standards. In fact it was below bad youth hostel. But so what. We got there. My student helped us book, through an agency in Chaoyang. It was hard locating the tour representative at the crowded Beijing West train station, but when seats were sold out, they managed to get tickets. They’d put us on the slow Beijing-Taiyuan train (a good thing: being slow, it arrived in the normal morning, not 2 am, so you could sleep). We didn’t find the Wutaishan tour we’d paid for waiting to meet us..a long dull story. Suffice to say, we caught a different tour bus ride to Wutaishan, 4ish hours, for no additional money, and once we were there, we were there! We figured it out on our own, with the Rubin catalog, and an excellent UNESCO guide online. Actually that link is Wikitravel, quite useful, but here is the even-more-useful UNESCO World Heritage Site guide. UNESCO wisely included it in 2009. We also got the stupid, disorganized, obnoxious, confusing bus back to Taiyuan on the third day.

The other option would be a private car/driver, out of Taiyuan (wrap it in with a trip to Pingyao and/or Datong, which is amazing) — but that was beyond our budget.

Lower E. Side Jewish/Chinese


My Jewish ancestors started in America on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Now it’s Chinese.

Kenny heard no Mandarin on the street during our day there, but “heavy Southern accents”–Fujianese, as NYC is home to many from Fujian province, down the coast by Taiwan. Yet we saw two Lanzhou beef noodle places, a dish from China’s west (yet loved everywhere) — flavored with 20 spices, including cinnamon.

My great-grandpa had a candy pushcart here (my father’s side were in nearby Williamsburg). We easily found 5 old schuls. Glorious highlight: the Eldridge Street Synagogue, 1852, an exquisitely restored gem, reopened 2007.

Outside the synagogue, it’s reasonably priced Chinese food, Buddhist temples, and grocers selling 2-foot long beans, plus rambutans and lychees. For the half century the Eldgridge synagogue was locked and disintegrating, nothing was stolen, the docent said. Good relations. Next year we want to come for “Egg Creams & Egg Rolls,” a street fair celebrating Jewish-Chinese community friendship.

It’s also very Puerto Rican, Hispanic, on the LES, and (this being NYC) other ethnicities, too.

Hipsters among them. (I guess I’m guilty of being a predecessor; like many 20somethings, I hung out at Max Fish on Ludlow St. in the early-’90s. And I lived briefly on a heroin-infested Suffolk St. midway thru Brown.)

Around 1973, mom took me here for great prices on blouses, suits & sweaters (she also shopped for upholstery, drapes), from the last Orchard Street garmentos. We got my brother’s tallis here. Now dumpling makers (pork & leek) sell to students from Dr. Sun Yat Sen Middle School, while an African American monk lights incense at the Buddhist Association, an active temple.

Eldridge has a proper museum on the ground floor, with these old neighborhood signs.

We also found these synagogues:
[1] the old Norfolk St. Synagogue/Ansche Chesed, 1849, now Angel Orensanz Cultural Foundation, a performance space thanks to a wowwing Spanish sculptor;

[2] Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, sad-looking all boarded up and overgrown with weeds, though preservationists are trying to raise funds;

[3] on Broome St., Kehilat Kadosha Janina, the only Greek (Romaniote) schul in the Western hemisphere, open sometimes;

[4] one we weren’t even looking for, Chasam Sofer, the longest continuously operating synagogue, built by Polish Jews in the 1940s.

In China, we often lamented the loss of culture to modernization, the Cultural Revolution. Our own material heritage is disappearing, here. You can see Streit’s Matzoh, but go quickly. Schapiro’s Wine closed only a few years ago.

And this isn’t on the preservationists’ list, just background. Soon it will be gone.

Doorway diagonally across from Streit’s Matzoh.

Seeing Like Painter Wu Guangzhong

Wu Gorge by Wu Guanzhong

“Revolutionary Ink: The Paintings of Wu Guangzhong” (1970s through early 2000s) is in its last week-end at the Asia Society in NY. We got to see the artist’s landscapes, combining tradition, as he uses old-time ink and rice paper, with abstract contemporary aesthetics, moreso in his later works – huge bold black strokes and colorful confetti points that recall Jackson Pollock. (Wu died at 90 in 2010.)

He was brave. He’d studied in Paris for 3 years and it was potentially fatal during the Cultrual Revolution that he was both Western-influenced and departed from the Socialist Realism demanded of art by that era’s fanaticism. According to the Times review of a few weeks ago, he destroyed a decade’s worth of work before the Red Guards could get to them. Still he went to a labor camp for a few years. Later, he was embraced and flourished at home.

After visiting Chongqing, built now of skyscrapers — so big a city it has the status of a province – but it’s still steeply perched on mountainsides leading down to the Yangtze River, with some old neighborhoods (small) preserved, we really enjoyed Wu’s vision of Old Chongqing:

This is our vision of Ciqikou (磁器口 or Chongqing Ancient Town), not even a recreation but actually real.

Wu also painted Zhouzhuang, a very popular 900-year old village this time in the East, an hour from Shanghai in the river delta, with 14 stone bridges. Sometimes it’s called the “Venice of China.” Here:
We saw it this way (it’s film – shot w/ some weird, probably expired old disposable):

Yesterday I got an email from a former student from the massive southern city of Guangzhou. I mentioned enjoying the hummingbirds & bunnies in my garden in the US. He said he’d seen those — once. So thru Wu’s ink paintings, once again we’re gravitating with a heavy heart to the old, straining to know what has disappeared, and yet feel joy and wonder at how Wu’s vision is at once postmodern and ancient – as China is, all the time.

PS We’re back in the US, but will keep blogging, there’s plenty to write, plus lots from travel in Shanxi and the Mongolias (Inner, Outer) that never went up. If you want an email notice, click “sign me up” on the right. Thank you so much, our 800 or so subscribers, we never expected that. Wish I could serve you all cold sesame noodles.

Fun With Art

The kids like roaming around Beijing’s modern art scene. The Ai Wei Wei post was somber. This is the lighter side: going crazy at the art playground known as 798, on old factory train tracks, locomotive engines, working steam pipes, ramps, pieces you can climb.

798 is an amalgam… of commerce based on the creative industries, a symbol of China’s political opening, a showcase for individual creativity.

(798 is a set of 1950s, East  German-built Bauhaus radio tube factories now full of restaurants & radical-slogan-t-shirt shops as well as galleries and museums, anchored by the Ullens Contemporary Art Center. The factories peaked in the 1970s and failed in the ’90s, right at political opening. A sculptor of big outdoor pieces (Chen) and his artist wife (Wang) then set up a workshop in a furnace, & gradually added studios, offices, heat, publishing houses, exhibition space. By 2004, it got a ‘Protect Heritage’ law.

Last time here, spotted huge John & Yoko mural. This time, an old poster of Israeli Amos Gitai.

Cartoonist/caricaturist/children’s illustrator Zhang Guangyu, the pop hero whose name no one knew, was subject of a warehouse-size, first-ever show we loved. He drew China’s incredibly well-known “Monkey King” (folkloric) tv show, unbeknownst to most people.

(“Monkey King” cells now for sale, $10.) Earlier in life, Zhang was a revolutionary artist, “a culture laborer” as he said, making posters and murals for factories, printing newspapers & leaflets, and drawing a million political cartoons. A Peter Max/Lichtenstein/Shel Silverstein/Disney animator/Dr. Seuss/Gary Trudeau/etc rolled into one. Now at 798, his pop art is being recognized for the a influential, pioneering work it is.

Lambie Goes to Shanghai

Lambie (Ethan’s favorite puppet, formely Kenny’s favorite puppet but we won’t discuss that) has been enjoying China. During this national holiday week commemorating the founding of the Republic, she took the bullet train to Shanghai. It went pretty fast, about 200 m.p.h. We’re pretty sure it used maglev (magnetic levitation–almost no-friction, using less energy, which Ethan studied for a Bradford Science Fair project) but Lambie has some questions as to whether every bullet is maglev, or whether it’s using maglev all the time. Lambie is looking into it.
Lambie enjoyed two of China’s most famous gardens, built by Ming dynasty officials who retired to Shanghai and Suzhou, another city an hour away: the Yuyuan in old Shanghai, and the Lingering Garden in Suzhou. They were similar, full of mazes made of rock. Lambie climbed around and noted the balance of four elements: rocks, plants, buildings and water.

Later Ethan and Kenny and I will write more about Shanghai. (Some French Concession architecture was sort of Parisian and the new skyscrapers in Pudong have fanciful Jetson’s flourishes. Nearby water towns, like Venice, had so much commerce, as canals ferried wealth to the emperor, they were richer. To commemorate riches, the boys bought silk pajamas.)
Finally Lambie enjoyed hearing people sing national songs, in casual groups in Fuxing Park to celebrate the holiday.

She can’t sing, but she joined the little children doing arts and crafts.