Friday, November 11, 2011

Song of the South

Here are a few scenes in one of the most famous paintings in Chinese history.  Less than ten inches tall and seventeen feet long, in it, Zhang Zeduan sets out in magnificent and humane detail the "life in the city" of Kaifeng on the Qingming Festival: restaurants, people bartering, supping, working, here a boat leaving its moarings while all the city is occupied with its own concerns -- this is just a tiny part of the painting. 

This was the capital of China during the period known as the Northern Song. The Song was one of the greatest dynasties in Chinese history, not because it conquered vast swaths of territory, but for its art and poetry. Indeed, while no one doubts his talent in painting birds, or his artistic choices on which he lavished state funds, the famous Hui Zong emperor is sometimes blamed for not spending enough money on defending China from the Mongol tribes to the north. 

Mountain Path in Spring, by Ma Yuan, also called "One
Corner Ma" for his suggestive use of blank spaces.  Ma was
born near Hangzhou.

That's why the Northern Song was followed by the Southern Song, as the remnants of the ruling class (protected by the heroic general, Yue Fei) escaped to the southern city of Hangzhou, where the dynasty survived, and often thrived, another 152 years.  This was an inventive, cultured, and prosperous period in Chinese history, despite the sword (ultimately wielded by Ghenghis, then Kublai Khan) hanging over its neck.  The population boomed, art flourished, food production soared with new technologies, printing was popularized, and gunpowder was put to use against the Mongols. 

I stopped in Kaifeng, thinking to spend the night.  It was sad, though, to see what the city had come to. Compared to its Yellow River neighbors, Zhengzhou and Luoyang, it seemed a dismal, run-down place.  No cheery hotels were to be found, and really nothing of beauty: forlorn and crude restaurants, dismal three story buildings, back alleys with a lot of older people who look at you as if to say, "What is a foreigner doing on this God-forsaken lane?" 

In any case, it was clear this would not be a good place to conduct my survey, which is focused on China's intellectuals. 

So I caught a night train south to a probable city -- Hangzhou.  Geographically, this was a move from the drier northern valley of the Yellow River, to a lusher city further south, and near the coast.

For the only time on my trip, I shared a train with other westerners.  Two women and one man, all about 60, from Italy and France, were in the next alcove of bunks.  I used up much of my French trying to communicate with them, and they, their English, apparently.  How they communicated with the Chinese, I have no idea.  They shared their cheese and crackers with me -- an unexpected meal, but then traveling in China is always full of suprises.  There was also a young woman at the other end of the car, whom I took to be Russian, though I didn't hear her speak, and who could have been one of the Bond girls, by her looks.  I did talk with a Chinese graduate student from Kaifeng, who lamented how her home town had come down in the world, in its rivalry with Zhengzhou, a town which, she assured me, her fellow residents of Kaifeng despise.

One could see right away why the Song moved.  Hangzhou is everything Kaifeng is not: prosperous, mellow, modern but also preserving and remembering the old, thriving, full of sights that are worth seeing, places to walk, practice qigong, or contemplate. 

The haze which had remained over northern China for some days also reminded me that what often appears to make Chinese painting unique, often reflects genuine local conditions.  (Another such case is the shape of mountains in some paintings, which seem improbable to outsiders, but reflect the actual eccentricity of many Chinese peaks.)  Compare the sky in this photo over West Lake, for instance, to that in the painting by "One Corner Ma" above. 

One of my own favorite Chinese paintings is of a mother gibbon and baby in a tree, apparently near Hangzhou, also in this style, making suggestive use of fog and emptiness, with Zen intimations. 

There is a lot of city to my back here, by the way.  The walk along West Lake is really beautiful, full of tea houses, bamboo groves, and people exercising to someone's lead, strollers, night lights, and boats for charter to take you to an island, temples rising over the mist that surrounds the lake.  They've done a splendid, tasteful job of beginnning to restore this part of the city's glory.  The district is full of up-scale shops, boutiques, and expensive restaurants.  $20 for Teppanyaki, anyone?  Apparently that works for a lot of people, here, and by some, is more the lower end of the scale.  But the lake itself is, at the same time, a huge modern Chinese metropolis.  I went and got some noodles.

The old Song capital is to the left, and out of town: my leg was already hurting, and I didn't make it quite that far.

All this prosperity and softness does not seem to have made Hangzhou natives particularly mellow to one another, though.  I saw three public arguments break out in the day I spent in Hangzhou.  One involved some older, and obviously uneducated, women who were telling people as they walked along West Lake "Jesus Loves you," with a tape recording from the Book of Genesis playing in the background.  More sophisticated Chinese seemed to question, not their beliefs, but the propriety of ambushing people strolling in the park with this propaganda.  "But you play your music!"  It did not, indeed, seem an effective strategy in this city.

Nor did the city prove as useful for my research purposes as I had hoped.  So I did not stay long. 

Even the pollution in Hangzhou can be trendy.  Here's a Starbucks cup, floating on the West Lake.

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