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12. Banquet on a spring night November 26, 2007

Posted by kentneo in Art.

Chun Ye is a spring night, Yen is a banquet, Tao Li Yuen is a garden or orchard of peach and pears, Shi is and introduction. So the title is “An introduction to the banquet on a spring night at the peach and pear orchard”, it is also the title of one of Li Bai’s proses.


Last year, I was approached by a large advertising company who asked me to write a set of calligraphy of the auspicious words, “prosperity, fame, longevity, health and peace” and wanted me to include little children in the painting, this was for a soft drink company. The painting would be used all over Malaysia for Chinese and English newspapers, the reception to that advertisement was very good. The advertising company then wanted me to do another painting for their “alcohol” advertisement and wanted it with some cultural aspect, I thought painting something with (the poet) Li Bai’s (701-762 CE) works, since he so enjoyed wine so much, it seems appropriate. He did a prose that is over a thousand years old (and will be around for a long time more) called “An introduction to the banquet on a spring night at the peach and pear orchard”.


For a painting to be appropriate for a newspaper print, I thought a lot about the background of the painting, it could have been quite a dark painting as it was nighttime or it could be of a lot of flowers as they were blooming all around but both would not have come out well in print. So I decided to use “human figures” instead and not have a background of any sort.


I never thought that an executive from the advertising company would come and visit me at my home but later that year, one came and brought along the “five auspicious saying” pieces I painted, “prosperity, fame, longevity, health and peace” for me to sign. He told me that there was a big fire in his office building and because he loved these paintings so much he managed to grab them before running out, with his supervisors permission, these paintings were then given to him. He wanted me to individually sign my paintings and he would then take them to be reframed.


The other painting I did for the advertising company, “An introduction to the banquet on a spring night at the peach and pear orchard” was lost, likely in the fire. At that time, I still had a photograph of the piece and I kept thinking to know a painting is sometimes like knowing a person. A life is like a dream sometimes, there are lucky and unlucky moments, with that as the spark of inspiration I decided to write about that fated painting.


I really love and admire Li Bai’s talents, that had such breadth and depth, such as when he wrote about, “Huang he zi sui tian xia lai”, “see how the Yellow river’s waters move out of heaven” [for the Chinese, Huang He is like the mother river, the birth and origin of life, very much like the Nile is to the Egyptians. This line from one of his poems dates to a time when the origin of Huang He was unknown and mythical]. From this one line in the poem, no one has since been able in the last few thousand years been able to come up with a better line to encapsulate the same meaning and emotion.


Many examples of human characteristics can be found in the Tang dynasty, Minghuang Emperor’s period of the beautiful Yang Gueifei (618 – 906 CE), the slyness of Yang Guozhong [Prime Minister and relative of Gueifei], the evilness of the eunuch Gao Lishi [the beginning of the Monopolization of Power by Eunuchs] or the fierceness of An Lushan [a general of Turkic origin, cooperating with Yang Gueifei] all have only had their 15 minutes of fame, like the smoke that floats past ones eyes or like grass and woods that have now rotted away.


On the other hand, Li Bai’s wanderings throughout his life are eventually the longest lasting form of beauty presented in his poems and proses. These examples are all like mirrors, such as the Tang emperor, Taisong (ascession 626 CE) once said “To use others as a mirror representing the reflection of oneself is one of the most effective ways of finding deeper meaning to understand himself”. This is quite applicable to any individual, any race, any country should not take the importance of history lightly. Li Bai’s poems are often about clouds and (river) waves, ebbing up and down, sometimes volatile. Although he did not produce many proses, this piece, “An introduction to the banquet on a spring night in the peach and pear orchard” was selected to be in “Guwen Guanzhi” (Collected Ancient Prose, sometimes known as Outlook on Classical Chinese Composition), many schools also use this poem as part of the Chinese curriculum. Lets first review the poem:-

 All beings under the sky are but mere guests on earth,Time is but the guest of a hundred generations.Life is like a dream, how much joy do we get in a lifetime?People of the past, take candles to enjoy the dark night, indeed there is a reason.The warm spring night beckons me to the awe of nature and inspiration for my work.To meet friends in the fragrant plum and pear garden to chat about everything.All my friends are so talented, they are as good as Huilian, and I am no where as good.As we admire the beauty of our surroundings, the conversation winds down.Sitting amidst the flowers, surrounded by good food and continuous toasts, drinking under the moonlight, so what if one is drunk?Without outstanding work, how will others know you have talent?

If one can’t come up with a good poem, then the punishment is to drink 3 cups.


In “bai hua” (plain language), “In this world we are but like mere guests in a large hotel. In time, we are but hundreds of generations of guests. Every person’s life is but a flash, how much happiness can we get? We see in the olden days, people at night, light candles and use the moonlight for night parties, this is their logic. Furthermore, the perfect spring night although has given me a dark background to work with but the at the same time the heavens have bestowed me with such rich material to work with. Everyone will gather at the height of the peach and pear blooms in the orchard to chat together, this is a rare and happy occasion. A group of people, father and sons, similar to Xie Lingyun (385 – 422 CE, famous author, poet, governor, hermit) and his brother, Xia Huilian, all singing poems, though never as good as Xie Lingyun’s “Kang Le Hou” but good enough to be amused with lots of unrestrained laughter. After singing its back to chatting, everyone is in a good mood among the full blooms and then the food comes! Everyone toasts together to the bright moon. Then back to making poems, if one can’t come up with a good poem (for the surroundings are rich in inspiration), the penalty is to drink three more glasses of wine!”


See how carefree and informal the atmosphere is like. Of course to make it suitable for an advertising selling alcohol we have to make the characters look like they keep on drinking but yet not lose the construction of the painting. As art and commerce are often two opposing topics, I had to do a number of drafts of this painting. The characters could not be cold and stiff, so I put in older members, younger members and descendants together. Women too had to be in the painting, so I drew two, one holding a big brush (for swatting insects or more like feather duster??), the other with a vessel to serve wine. The two men on the side, one is playing the flute, the other has a wooden clacker. The person in the middle is clapping his hands. In front of them, there are two more men drinking together. Between them there is a bowl of wine, a plate of fish, a plate of vegetables, two plates of fruit. The fruit has to have contrasting colors, one plate has red and green and the other has an egg yolk color, representing the peach and the pears, thus fulfilling the peach and pear in the title.


Paintings that are common and plain do not need explanations. I am putting forth this prose from Li Bai and explaining it to try and say why those of us rich in emotions like to write about our emotions, then why not write a prose in plain language, if the words happen to rhyme, all the better, why not use Huang Gongdu’s “my hand writes what comes from my mouth”, as long as it is in plain language is fine, no need for the rigid poetic rules, why go into such detail (of poem styles?) like “fong yau” [wasp’s waist] or “he xi” [stork’s skinny legs]? It is like looking for more to do. Take the natural, easygoing path, with endless amusement, if you can think through your emotions and then express them in this form, it is quite close to enlightenment. This type of enjoyment is like the aroma from wine aged well.


In Chinese classics, there are a lot of good essays and proses, just like “An introduction to the banquet on a spring night at the peach and pear orchard”, that is why I like painting from using good classical poems or prose. Who said classics are “old”, the meanings in bedded in the classics are still relevant. There are a lot of new poems that are very good, but don’t have the mysteriousness of the classics. Try and find some old poems and at the same time revisit the classics, I bet you will find something new you had not thought was there before. Don’t think that “old” paintings are not “new”, the old paintings have “old” methods and stored within them are a lot of “new” unseen meanings. Even recently, in science, new metals are drawn from old mines. Especially in art, there isn’t a difference in old or new, east or west, it is all in the same family, why then do we go to war?



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