Post-reform physiques, hao duo tian, affairs of the heart, May Day sales, kaishu calligraphy, auspicious numbers, tea & the Tang Dynasty.
In a small studio surrounded by brushes and inks, paintings and books, a man is bent over a large red sheet of paper, absorbed in the progress of the long-handled brush he guides across the surface, writing with precise strokes from top to bottom, right to left. Take the local ferry ride that squeezes itself between two border crossings and, at the right time of year, you could find yourself among his more famous brethren, the greats of Chinese ink that travel the world from museum to gallery to art fair accumulating value and wealth with each furlong in the great rounds of art collection. Back across the water a more humble, but nonetheless worthy, affair of the heart is taking place in the tiny studio of Chen Tian, a working Chinese ink painter.
Traditional Chinese art brings to mind the sweeping landscapes of the Song Dynasty or the solitary bamboo stands of the Tang—all pieces of the complex yet familiar jigsaw of Chinese culture, with its lengthy inked scrolls of calligraphy penned by long-ago literati, its ancient emperor’s army with bronze carved weapons in fists of clay, its temple-laced mountainsides with giant rounded pots of incense smoke swirling toward upturned eaves.
But a working ink painter is the everyday face of Chinese art—the one you turn to when you want your business to succeed, when you want to advertise a sale, when you want to entice the luck of the New Year through your door, when you want to bring good fortune to your home. Chen is your go-to man. It’s the year of the horse, and you need eight horses in their black and grey tones, galloping free, going nowhere in particular, coming from nowhere in particular, just there, wild and free, legs strained in full gallop, manes flaming, tails flashing, nostrils flared, eyes on fire. Chen knows every curve, every line, every meaning. Framed on your office wall, the auspicious number eight welcomes success.
The gnarly plum branches belying the life force of their vibrant winter blossoms reach out toward large pink peonies exploding across the paper like a behemoth China exploding across the world.
May Day approaches, the post-revolution Chinese labour-day holiday when crowds of workers, relieved briefly of extended shifts, flock to malls and electronics marts to take advantage of price cuts on phones and laptops. Skilled in calligraphy, Chen is painting the sales sign, in Kaishu script. Everyday calligraphy favoured for business. Every day since the Tang Dynasty. A trailing stroke, a pecking dot, a bone stroke that looks just like…a bone. Black on red. Each product with its own discount. The trader watches him closely. Reads out each offer. He reads out the wrong price; Chen starts again. A new piece of glossy red paper. Red for luck.
Chen suffers the injuries of the working artist: lower-back pain and strained neck muscles from the customary standing position. Standing bent over the fragile paper lain flat on the paint-splashed felt cover of the large table. Occupational health and safety involves nothing more than a retreat to the impressive wooden lounge with its intricate carvings of Qing dragons and phoenixes in their frozen dance across marble and wood. The grandiose furniture comes with prosperity and status, the fanfare of the successful businessman. Time is taken for tea. And tea takes its time. Tea taken in the traditional fashion. For Chen, tradition means the ancient art of gongfu, or skilful tea-making, that he has brought with him from his hometown, a day’s train ride away. Drinking tea with friends, neighbours and any passersby who care to drop in. All are welcome. The kettle boils on its own stand on the little table just to the side. Two-sip pinming teacups are set up in rows on the shallow wooden tea tray designed to set off the beauty of the tea set, but not this one, with its jumble of orphans rescued from cracked porcelain homes. With one swift stroke of the hand, the kettle sweeps across the cups, rinsing and cleansing them with the boiling water. A second stroke soaks the leaves once to remove the bitterness. A third stroke delivers the brew into the small tea pitcher, where the flavours and strengths mix before the amber fluid pours into your tiny teacup. “Man, man yidian!” Slow, slow a little. Take your time. Today an old artist friend, face lined with an unspoken history, joins him with his own artwork to share; tomorrow a dynamic business contact with a proposal to discuss; yesterday his brother-in-law of the portly post-reform physique returning excited from the auto show, driving up in a formidable black SUV. The chat livens up as the back takes its rest. Time is taken to consider the most recent artistic effort, pinned to a giant felt-covered whiteboard that takes up most of the wall directly opposite you. Everyone comments, complimentary or constructive, never critical.
For consideration today is a painting all too familiar to anyone who has been in a Chinese conference room. Young bamboo springing from rocks pushes up through branches of plum blossom. The gnarly plum branches belying the life force of their vibrant winter blossoms reach out toward large pink peonies exploding across the paper like a behemoth China exploding across the world. Beneath it all, delicate wild orchids skim smooth pebbles and shelter small chicks pecking at dots of grain, unaware of their appraising audience. To the foreign observer, it is a strange mix of jumbled images. A bit overdone, perhaps. To the Chinese eye, like the wild horses, the painting brings a message encoded in its images.
Southern-small and lithe, sporting the regulation jet-black hair of gentlemen in their middle years, Chen springs up from his resting place.
Chen is there most days, morning and afternoon. He closed his stationery shop when the rent got too high in the upwardly mobile inner-city suburb. Courtesy of a friend, he retired to a row of shops in a hotel, a stand-alone place hugged on three sides by the greenery of the hillside, its facade overlooking the sea. Passing trade is limited to hotel guests. Everything is up to connections built up over years of business and personal relationships—the Chinese guangxi. As an artist, he continues on. His wife accompanies him most days: cleaning up, selling art materials from the room next to the studio, fixing tea for the constant stream of visitors, checking the stock market on the internet, watching Chinese soaps on her phone.
Southern-small and lithe, sporting the regulation jet-black hair of gentlemen in their middle years, Chen springs up from his resting place. He pulls a folded paper from a large, clear ziplock bag under the painting table. The improbable storage belies the size of the work that unfolds and is pinned to the tea-side gallery: mountainside flowers inspired by a scene on the nearby cliff that drops from the road to the sea. A Chen original. Something outside the traditional themes. It has taken “hao duo tian,” a good many days, to paint, and he is still working on it. He puts it to one side when new business arrives. A friend comes to discuss his new brochure with a range of works to promote his art.
It’s the year of the horse, and you need eight horses in their black and grey tones, galloping free, going nowhere in particular, coming from nowhere in particular, just there, wild and free, legs strained in full gallop, manes flaming, tails flashing, nostrils flared, eyes on fire.
Somewhere across the sea, somewhere on the rounds of art collection, tiny Confucian scholars cross tranquil waters on rickety bridges, and Buddhist monks traverse temple-bound paths dwarfed by sheer mountain faces.
In the same moment, the working artists of China are bringing someone’s home luck and good fortune, someone’s business discounts and good sales figures. Their brushes skim masterfully across rice paper, each stroke learnt through decades of repetitious toil executed with loving devotion. They are the face of tradition in today’s China, devoid of dynasties, still reeling from cultural annihilation, lost between the future and the past. They are steadfast and certain of every precious stroke.
Nicola Miller is a freelance writer who has lived in Britain and Australia and travelled extensively throughout Europe, Thailand and China, where she studied the wondrous art of Chinese ink painting with a master teacher. All names in this piece have been changed.
Lead image: Anders Nord