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14. A Traditional Ode November 26, 2007

Posted by kentneo in Art.

“Bai Miao” is the plain line style of Chinese drawing. It may also be a name of one of the Miao tribes in southern China near Yunan. “Ming Yao” are traditional folk songs.


A lot of artists use “Li Sao” (The Lament, by Qu Yun from the 3rd century BCE) as the title of their abstract works, though the prose is abstract there are some actual facts as well, which makes the piece of work quite wonderful. At first I thought of using “Se Jing” (The Book of Songs) for inspiration for my [Bai Miao] paintings but then felt maybe, as a background, is too ancient.


On occasion, friends would send me a magazine called “Ke Shu” [About Ke Jia or Hakka], when I flip through this magazine there are quite a number of “Ke Jia Folk Songs”, after reciting a few, I find them quite catchy and very amusing and suddenly I was inspired and also reminded of a journey I took in the 1930s.


I was in Hong Kong and received a letter from my family, telling me about my great-great grand uncle (5 generations before me), Huang Antao had served as a government official (Tai Song) in Chao Zhou and I thought maybe I would find long lost relatives there? I was once in Shan Tou and took the railroad from Shan Tou to Chao An but could not find any of my great-great grand uncle’s descendants. So we took the main road and passed through Jia Yang, Tang Keng, Xing Ning, into the Hakka people area of Mei Xian [Mei County], still passing through Nan Kou, Ban Men, Bing Chun, Yue Lai She, Bai Du then we had to use river transport and crossed over to Liu Huang Ba, into Xiang Zi Chiao and stayed overnight in Chao An.


I got to see a bit of Chao An’s older style architecture and listen to pure Chao Zhou music, in those days [with lack of information and transportation], the Chao Zhou women had on very old fashion make up, not yet polluted with the modern styles I was used to, what a wonderful treat of customs not yet touched by modernity. I bought some Chao An sour and salted vegetables and then headed back to Hong Kong.


Mei Xian [Mei County] is the central hub for Jia Ying Zhou, they have very high cultural standards and I was able to observe the Hakka people’s true lifestyle, especially the women who were known to be hard working and frugal. In the morning, they would bring their baskets, balanced across a pole, one basket will contain their child and the other will contain tea, meal and some farm produce, while minding their child they looked for above-ground coal, which are later made into “coal balls” and they are rather self sufficient. The excess coal that they manage to sell is used to supplement the household budget. These Hakka women really resemble Dufu’s (poet, 712 – 770) poem, “Jian Fu” [Healthy Women].


So my image of painting a Hakka folk song would be to use a girl/woman as the central figure, I did want to update the style a bit, my draft paintings were not that great. In the end, I decided to have her wear the more traditional folk type clothing and used the “Bai Miao” style to do the painting. It is in black and white and it looks rather plain without color, but it doesn’t lose the folk song’s elegant appeal. I did a few paintings in this style and somehow they got mixed into my very colorful “Folk Art Exhibition”, but these few paintings did find quite a few admirers. Among them, several whom I know, Mr. Zhu Zichun and Mr. Lian Qichuin. Mr. Zhu is the editor of the Nanyang Shanghai Post and Mr. Lian is a descendant of Lian Qichao (1873 – 1929 a famous scholar of the Qing dynasty), both of them have a very sharp eye and deep appreciation of Chinese culture.


I only managed to find a draft of my painting [for this article], it is of a girl near the woods and she is picking fruit and also to meet her lover. The song goes like this, “The winds blow the bamboo leaves in all directions, we can see the leaves at the tips of the bamboo step a-twirling, she has asked to meet him for 30 days from the beginning of the month till the end of the month!” We can see in the painting that the girl’s expression is rather anxious in anticipation, I wonder whether it was Mr. Zhu or Mr. Lian that now have this painting in their collection, if they read this article, I hope they will go and check and mail me a photo of themselves with the painting.


These type of plain and natural folk songs are the treasures for “ming jian wenshue” (anthropologists?). In terms of recent sayings, these folk songs have inspired Huang Gongdu to write plain language proses (bai hua se), “my hand writes [what comes from] my mouth”, as a new generation of prose, like the rays of sunlight in the early morning.


In terms of old sayings, Bai Juyi’s (poet, 772 – 846) poems are rich in this style of sentence structure, as before the existence of “Shi Jing” (The Book of Songs), there were these folk songs of natural sounds from the “breath of common people”. So if you take the “Ya” (Odes of the Kingdom) and “Song” (Odes of the Temple and Alters) type of folk songs originating from different tribes from the “Shi Jing” to compare at one go, you can get the “yuin wei” [style, drift, rhythm, essence] of their songs.


After my exhibition on my way home, Mr. Zhu gave me a lift, he said to me, “you should start painting other folk songs from other places, not just from the Hakka people.” I thought this was a good suggestion, I will try and collect other types of folk songs and as long as the folk songs are beautiful and can be translated to a painting that conveys some meaning and emotion, I can take my time and enjoy the inspiration process. I wonder if I will be able to use the Malay poems, “pantun” and other Nanyang folk songs, what a rich resource base for me, for that I thank Mr. Zhu.


To use the “Bai Miao style” to draw folk song topics, we still use calligraphy as a foundation but once you put your brush to paper, don’t keep making corrections of your strokes nor things too much as you are painting, after all the natural process should produce an amusing painting or for those who already write calligraphy, this is another way to practice the same strokes but in painting form, why not give it a try?



 “Li Sao” (The Lament) is not only one of the most remarkable works of Qu Yun, it ranks as one of the greatest poems in Chinese or world poetry. It was probably written during the period when the poet had been exiled by his king, and was living south of the Yangtse River. This long lyrical poem describes the search and disillusionment of a soul in agony, riding on dragons and serpents from heaven to earth. By means of rich imagery and skilful similes, it expresses love of one’s country and the sadness of separation. It touches upon various historical themes intermingled with legends and myths, and depicts, directly or indirectly, the social conditions of that time and the complex destinies of the city states of ancient China. The conflict between the individual and the ruling group is repeatedly described, while at the same time the poet affirms his determination to fight for justice. This passionate desire to save his country, and this love for the people, account for the poem’s splendor and immortality. A prince am I of ancestry renowned, Illustrious name my royal sire hath found. When Sirius did in spring its light display, A child was born, and Tiger marked the day. When first upon my face my lord’s eye glanced, For me auspicious names he straight advanced,  Denoting that in me Heaven’s marks divine Should with the virtues of the earth combine. With lavished innate qualities indued, By art and skill my talents I renewed; Angelic herbs and sweet selineas too, And orchids late that by the water grew, I wove for ornament; till creeping time, Like water flowing, stole away my prime. Magnolias of the glade I plucked at dawn, At eve beside the stream took winter-thorn. Without delay the sun and moon sped fast, In swift succession spring and autumn passed; The fallen flowers lay scattered on the ground, The dusk might fall before my dream was found. Had I not loved my prime and spurned the vile, Why should I not have changed my former style? My chariot drawn by steeds of race divine I urged; to guide the king my sole design. Three ancient kings there were so pure and true That round them every fragrant flower grew; Cassia and pepper of the mountainside With melilotus white in clusters vied. Two monarchs then, who high renown received, Followed the kingly way, their goal achieved. Two princes proud by lust their reign abused, Sought easier path, and their own steps confused. The faction for illicit pleasure longed; Dreadful their way where hidden perils thronged. Danger against myself could not appeal, But feared I lest my sovereign’s scepter fall. Forward and back I hastened in my quest, Followed the former kings, and took no rest. The prince my true integrity defamed, Gave ear to slander, high his anger flamed; Integrity I knew could not avail, Yet still endured; my lord I would not fail. Celestial spheres my witness be on high, I strove but for His Sacred Majesty. ‘Twas first to me he gave his plighted word, But soon repenting other counsel heard. For me departure could arouse no pain; I grieved to see his royal purpose vain. Nine fields of orchids at one time I grew, For melilot a hundred acres too, And fifty acres for the azalea bright, The rumex fragrant and the lichen white. I longed to see them yielding blossoms rare, And thought in season due the spoil to share. I did not grieve to see them die away, But grieved because midst weeds they did decay. Insatiable in lust and greediness, The faction strove, and tired not of excess; Themselves condoning, others they’d decry, And steep their hearts in envious jealousy. Insatiably they seized what they desired, It was not that to which my heart aspired. As old age unrelenting hurried near, Lest my fair name should fail was all my fear. Dew from magnolia leaves I drank at dawn, At eve for food were aster petals borne; And loving thus the simple and the fair, How should I for my sallow features care? With gathered vines I strung valeria white, And mixed with blue wistaria petals bright, And melilotus matched with cassia sweet, With ivy green and tendrils long to meet. Life I adapted to the ancient way, Leaving the manners of the present day; Thus unconforming to the modern age, The path I followed of a bygone sage. Long did I sigh and wipe away my tears, To see my people bowed by grief and fears. Though I my gifts enhanced and curbed my pride, At morn they’d mock me, would at eve deride; First cursed that I angelica should wear, Then cursed me for my melilotus fair. But since my heart did love such purity, I’d not regret a thousand deaths to die. I marvel at the folly of the king, So heedless of his people’s suffering. They envied me my moth-like eyebrows fine, And so my name his damsels did malign. Truly to craft alone their praise they paid, The square in measuring they disobeyed; The use of common rules they held debased; With confidence their crooked lines they traced. In sadness plunged and sunk in deepest gloom, Alone I drove on to my dreary doom. In exile rather would I meet my end, Than to the baseness of their ways descend. Remote the eagle spurns the common range, Nor deigns since time began its way to change; A circle fits not with a square design; Their different ways could not be merged with mine. Yet still my heart I checked and curbed my pride, The blame endured and their reproach beside. To die for righteousness alone I sought,

 For this was what the ancient sages taught.



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