Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Traditional Chinese Ink Painting: Plum Blossom

"Cold Mountain's full of strange sights.
Men who go there end by being scared.
Water glints and gleams in the moon,
Grasses sigh and sing in the wind.
The bare plum blooms again with snow,
Naked branches have clouds for leaves.
When it rains, the mountain shines -
In bad weather you'll not make this climb." - Zen Hermit Hanshan (9th Century AD), The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain (by Red Pine, 2000), p6.

" late Master might inadvertently begin to recite a melodious poem about plum blossoms, such as the following:
When Gautama lost his worldly eyes,
Only a single branch of plum blossoms appeared amidst the snow.
Now everywhere new branches have sprung up
And, laughing, I delight in the spring wind’s scattering petals in wild disarray." 
- Japanese 'Soto Zen' Founder Master Eihei Dogen,  Shobogenzo (Translated by Hubert Nearman, 2007), p763.

"One of my favorite lines in the Shoyo Roku says, “On the withered tree, a flower blooms.” When all human grasping and human need are ended, there is wisdom and compassion. This is the state of a Buddha." - American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, Everyday Zen (1997), p35.

A traditional Chinese blossom and bamboo painting by the author's painting teacher Jasmine Zhang, Beijing.
The symbolic role of natural scenery in ancient Chinese culture was often very different from that in the West. In England, the wilderness tends to be considered as a harsh, unforgiving and boring place if one remains there alone for longer than a day or two. In ancient China, however, the wilderness was often considered a paradise of sorts - loaded with 'True Nature' just waiting to be contemplated and used to amplify one's wholesome endeavours. Plum blossom trees were considered a key symbolic feature of such landcapes, as the author of Beyond Representation: Chinese Painting and Calligraphy 8th-14th Century (1992) states, p71:
"From very early times the Chinese, unlike Western Europeans, who considered untamed nature inimical to human society, imagined the mountains an earthly paradise, the abode of the immortals. Thus did the early fifth-century poet T’ao Ch’ien envision, in his famous fable of the Peach Blossom Spring, the blossom-covered mountain valley as an ancient utopia, free of warfare and social turmoil. After the breakup of the Han Empire, during the fourth and fifth centuries, the influence of Taoism and Buddhism led artists to turn to nature in their desire to express themselves in a spiritual domain."
The Buddhist symbolic use of plum blossom in the Far East is also referred to by a translator, Hubert Nearman, of Japanese Soto Zen Founder Master Eihei Dogen's book, Shobogenzo (2007), p57:
"The plum tree holds a particular place in Chinese culture, one that was transplanted into the culture of Japan. As the earliest blooming of all trees, it comes into flower in the latter part of winter and is therefore considered a harbinger of spring. In Buddhist contexts, it is used as a metaphor for Shakyamuni Buddha, who was considered the first to bring forth the blossoming of the Dharma, and whose blossoming has inspired others to seek and find the Way. [...] Further, the plum blossom is used as a metaphor for the udumbara flower which Shakyamuni held aloft, His eyes atwinkle. Upon seeing this, His disciple Makakashō broke out into a smile in response to his spiritual recognition of True Nature."

The natural beauty of the light coloured plum blossom contrasted against the dark, twisted and gnarled form of the tree branch has also been taught within Zen to represent the possibility for something positive to emerge out of something negative - like a spot of yang emerging from the extremes of yin. American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck writes of this symbolism in her book Everyday Zen (1997), p147:
"We like to think of ourselves as kind people. But often we’re not. When we experience ourselves as we are, then out of that death of the ego, out of that withering, the flower blooms. On a withered tree, the flower blooms — a wonderful line from Shoyo Roku. A flower blooms, not on a decorated tree, but on a withered tree."
This is also reflected in the Shobogenzo, p752:
"Abbot Busshō Hōtai of Mount Daii in Tanchou Province was a Dharma heir of Engo. He once said in verse:
For my sake as a monk, you, Tōzan, showed me the place beyond cold and hot,
And once again a dead tree brought forth a blossom."

As a result of such associations, plum blossom, in addition to it's obvious universal aesthetic value, became a common representation in ancient traditional Chinese painting. The author of Beyond Representation (1992) says the following of this theme, p302:
"During the late Southern Sung, a decline in moral values gave rise to several popular themes in painting, one of which was the three friends of the wintry season: the early-blossoming plum, harbinger of spring; the bamboo, which bends but does not break; and the pine, green throughout the harsh winter — all symbolic of moral steadfastness and friendship in adversity."
Indeed, it seems many artists - especially Buddhist ones, would seek isolation in nature, and especially plum trees in the mountains for inspiration, as stated in the book Words and Images: Chinese Poetry, Calligraphy, and Painting (1991), p509-510:
"For the young monk-recluse Shih-t’ao, the years in Hsuan-ch’eng were a time of artistic and intellectual maturation. Accompanied by his old family retainer, Ho-t’ao, he “lived with only the lonely clouds” in an old temple at the foot of the Ching-t’ing Mountains. A passionate lover of flowers and an inveterate rambler, the artist would trek countless miles in the mountains on “ plum-blossom walks” to look for ideas for painting and poetry."
Such pursuit of plum blossoms resulted in some recluses actively cultivating the trees and creating a specific methodology for viewing and contemplating them, as explained in Beyond Representation (1992), p271:
"Lin-an, the home of the famous Plum Recluse Lin Pu (967-1028), a scholar who retired to grow plum trees and raise cranes on Mount Ku in West Lake, was the land of flowering plum during the Southern Sung. Here, the aesthetic of the plum blossom was avidly cultivated. The early thirteenth-century hedonist Chang Tzu, for example, planted a grove of three hundred flowering plum trees at his retreat in 1185 and catalogued methods for their care and contemplation. Viewing Plum Blossoms by Moonlight illustrates one of Chang Tzu’s “fitting moments” for viewing plum blossoms, focusing on a splendid single plum tree in moonlight, with angular branches that twist back upon themselves, rendered in a strong yet unaggressive round brushwork. The tree echoes the words of the late twelfth-century Southern Sung poet Yang Wan-li:
“The flowering plum in the grove is like the recluse, filled with the spirit of open space, free from the spirit of worldly dust.”"

Viewing Plum Blossoms by Moonlight by Ma Yuan (active ca. 1190-
The same book explains the origin of such paintings as the one above by relating how they were an attempt to create a visual poem - a visual representation of the artist's relatively abstract feeling - most often attempting to intuitively go beyond the everyday, and point at something deeper than what standard realism can convey, p58-60:
"The eighth-century scholar-artist Wang Wei (699?-761?), because he had “ [combined] poetry in painting and painting in poetry,” was, according to Su Shih, the ideal painter. The eleventh-century scholar Shen Kua praised Wang Wei for his marvelous use of invented imagery. “In painting flowers, [Wang Wei] mixed peach and apricot blossoms, hibiscus and lotus, and flowers [of different seasons] in the same scene. . . . When something came to mind, the hand responded intuitively; when ideas connected, painting instantly took shape.” To achieve full affective power, it was thought, a poet or painter should free himself from both subject and logic. Wang Wei even painted a snow scene with a banana tree in it, because the presence of that tree was true to what he was trying to say. The difference between amateur scholar-official painting and artisan, or professional, court painting is underscored by the attack waged by late Northern Sung scholar-critics on realism, a style commonly followed by artisan painters and looked down upon as something akin to Western kitsch or popular illustration. Su Shih, for instance, declared that “anyone who judges painting by form-likeness shows merely the insight of a child.” Scholar-official painting was thus infused with life not so much by the representation of reality as by evocation and reflection and the elicitation of associations that lie within the realm of feeling."
The author of Beyond Representation (1992) presents a wonderful example of traditional Chinese plum blossom painting, p393:
"Fragrant Snow at Broken Bridge, a small hanging scroll on silk by Wang Mien (1287-1359), exemplifies Yuan dynasty ink plum painting at its best. The composition, which follows a formula found in the fourteenth-century ink plum manual by Wu T ’ai-su (ca. 1351), shows a splendid old branch of plum laden with flowers pendant from the top of the scroll. The plum tree is rendered in different calligraphic brushstrokes: the snow-covered boughs in rough “flying white” strokes, with streaks of white showing through a split brush; the curving branches in sweeping saberlike strokes; and the delicate blossoms and scattering petals in sharp outline strokes. Wang Mien stains the silk surface with a light ink wash, so that the snowy branches and silken blossoms stand out dramatically as in a moonlit scene. In the upper left is a poem composed and inscribed by the artist:
A plum tree in winter, with branches of white jade,
Stirred by a warm breeze, its scattering petals flutter like snowflakes.
In his heart, the Recluse of the Lonely Hill [Lin Pu, 967-1028] remains true to himself,
But someone has just passed the Broken Bridge, carrying with him the song of reed pipes."

Fragrant Snow at Broken Bridge - a small hanging scroll on silk by Wang Mien (1287-1359)
As part of my traditional Chinese painting classes, I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to learn some of the ancient discipline of plum blossom painting through my teacher here in Beijing, Jasmine Zhang.

Painting the branches requires a variety of ink shades, textures, detail, and of course, natural 'feel' - communicating the dynamic inclinations and tendencies of the plant. As one begins to paint, starting from the base of the branch, painting the full thickness in one stroke like calligraphy, and finishing with the twigs, it seems as if one actively 'grows' the tree - as if the branch is emerging linearly directly from one's mind, finishing with the blossom and buds appearing as a natural expression of the branches and twigs. In this sense the process has a kind of experience about it of intimately cultivating a plant - a very personal contact and interaction with the tree, or the general spirit of the tree and it's flowers. Here is the result of my first practice, which I liked more than the second piece I painted as part of the class:

I look forward to painting more traditional Chinese plum blossoms; ever encouraged by the words of ancient Zen masters such as Japanese Soto Zen Founder Master Eihei Dogen, in Shobogenzo (2007), p688:
"What is seen at that very instant of enlightenment is simply a Plum Blossom branch. What is expressed at that very moment is simply ‘a Plum Blossom bough in the snow’."

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