Sunday, August 21, 2011

I've been in a kind of wordless state the past few days, an in-between feeling, looking back on a few months of activity, engrossed mostly in reading and videos and Chinese language study. I am a little anxious because I am starting a new Chinese painting class this week, with a new teacher, a Korean nun whose style seems to be very different from that of my teacher of the past two-and-a-half years, a traditional Chinese bird and flower painter. It looks like she may be retiring; fortunately I have access to a new venue. But whether it is tai chi or wu shu or painting, we get attached to our teachers, our shifus. Eventually one of us moves on. The student feels humbled.
So feeling a little like Xue Rengui greeting his shifu in The Legendary Warrior, my latest Chinese series, based on a historical figure, I gather my energy to move on.

I didn't feel like painting today. I have no picture in my mind, and besides I've been reading about painting too much to focus on a particular subject, and I really don't even feel like writing. So I picked up a brush to try something different. Building on a few rudimentary lessons from my former teacher, I consulted a couple of fine textbooks on calligraphy and decided to jump into it.

Learning calligraphy is painting with no subject (although that's a stupid thing to say, really, a Chinese character is a picture, though practicing strokes is like practicing scales), writing with no words...learning it is like learning to dance. I remember my teacher's advice, I follow the 1,2,3, turn, press, and lift instructions in the book, and splatter and dribble like an uncoordinated moron. Over and over and over. Until eventually, I feel the rhythm of the brush stroke. I become one with the brush, and occasionally execute a stroke that looks almost acceptable. Never mind that there are many strokes to master, and characters are built up from them like a ballet. And then characters with characters to make a phrase or a poem. I practice the basic bone stroke*, the component of the characters for one, two, and three, recalling the fluid grace of the swordsman in Hero; the old monk who paints sutras on a wooden deck with his cat's tail in Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring; Sammo Hung doing kung fu calligraphy in The Prodigal Son (go to 54:50 in the video), or the water painters on sidewalks I saw in Chinese parks:
Solo Running Script

Two-Handed Couplets
And I am still stuck on the simple bone stroke. "Practice, practice," my teacher says. "Slowly, slowly." For years and years.

*A quick search on this term yielded some hits I really wasn't looking for!!!

Monday, August 15, 2011

(This post was actually written a week ago--today is August 21. What is past? what is present?what is future?)
Since I spent some time in my office on Saturday putting last minute touches on a proposal due today, I took the opportunity to pretty much not do anything on Sunday. I passively time-traveled my way through Chinese history, finishing my current wuxia series and three movies that took me from Han China at the time of Cao Cao, to the birth of the Republican revolution in Hong Kong in 1906 to contemporary, post-modern Shanghai.

I'm not completely sure of the time frame of The Handsome Siblings, could be Song, could be Tang, but in the jianghu, the specific dynasty isn't important, it's just old and a little separate.
And irrelevant. In the middle of the last episode, I sent an email to my video vendor..."Do you have The Spirit of the Sword?" another series by the same author with Nicholas Tse. I have become accustomed to seeing him in films, but didn't know he did a lot of these longer TV series. Not unexpectedly, she did, and, "It's on sale!"

Donnie Yen didn't look bad (if a little short and pale) as Guan Yu, a classic general, bigger than life, from the Three Kingdoms Period in The Lost Bladesman. And he also played against his own standard in Beggars and Assassins, about a fictionalized (I think) attempt on the life of Sun Yat Sen in Hong Kong in 1906.

Alas, there was no swordplay or martial arts in Suzhou River--well, some beatings and a knifing--but what do you expect in contemporary Shanghai.

People sometimes comment about this passion/obsession of mine, the Chinese things. "You must have been Chinese in a past life," they say. But I think it may be the opposite. I'm studying to be Chinese in a future life. I wouldn't have fared well as a female in the Chinese past...none of the options are very appealing or a concubine, a bound-footed tai tai, a peasant, a servant.

The future for women in China looks better. (Assuming of course, I came back as a woman.) It is a truism that education is the key to improving women's status, giving them more options and control over their own social and economic lives. But some studies suggest it may be the one child policy that --despite its application in a society that favored boys--in the end is working to benefit girls (the ones who are born and kept anyway. I recently heard a depressing story about mothers in Pakistan, where policies against birth control keep a woman literally barefoot and pregnant against their will, in terrible poverty. And the face of African famine is usually overburdened women with several starving children. It's easy for us to say, why don't they stop having all these children, but cultural influences--religious values and patriarchy (patriarchal religious values)-- are working against them.

If there is time travel, or reincarnation, I hope I am prepared and aware. Perhaps I'll come back as my own granddaughter, (like Song Il-gook in Muhyul.)

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

One of my reader-commenters has observed that "it's time for a new post" which makes me feel something I haven't ever felt while writing these blogs: the pressure to deliver. I'm a one-time newspaper journalist, and now I manage valuable time-sensitive proposals, so I know about deadlines and time crunches and how to budget my time to get those things done. But I never have had that sense with the TAO 61s...until just now.

I never imagined that my ramblings about Spam and White Rabbit candy and hot Chinese martial artists and Korean swordsmen would result in anyone waiting for a next installment. So where are my ideas, my inspirations now? All awash in current events and global disasters, the heat and humidity of August dog days; writing, painting, working, cooking, all subsumed in a desire to just meditate.

So where do I find a topic? While other people are quaking and furious over everything China does (like preparing to launch a refurbished 30-year-old Ukrainian aircraft carrier or downgrading our credit or wrecking a train or harassing bloggers and artists), I look to China to find a good laugh. Here's one:

Tu and Mao

Perusing a reference book called Things Chinese, in the section that includes discussion of the elegant arts of landscape painting and calligraphy, inside-painted snuff bottles and thangkas (maybe not really a Chinese thing), I find a description of something I thought was just weird when I saw them for sale in Hangzhou: pyrographic renderings of Thumper (for Year of Rabbit/Tu) and Mao and other classic Chinese images like tigers and flying goddesses. I thought they were tacky and they reminded me of my cousin's woodburning set, which I coveted when I was 10 but was not allowed to have because I might do something pyrographic to the house. (Though I did have a small electric stove with which I could actually scramble eggs and bake cakes and burn myself.) These scorched pictures are called "poker work" (huobihua), a technique that Things Chinese says dates to the 17th century. The Chinese invented woodburning sets!

If that isn't amusing enough, I've been watching a lot of old Chinese movies in between marathon sessions with a 30-hour-long series, The Handsome Siblings, typical wuxia with orphaned and estranged (and attractive) twins and their goofy sidekicks (who knew Mr. Evil, Elvis Tsui, could be so FUNNY). It features the ethereal Nicholas Tse and the plucky Dicky Cheung (of Monkey King fame) in a romp through the Song Dynasty which, inexplicably, occasionally includes musical interludes of breakdancing and rock riffs on a guitar. Tse is a character named Flawless Flower, as delicate as a 13-year-old girl (who has formidable martial arts skill), the not-identical twin of Cheung, Little Fish, who sports the most unusual hairdo I've ever seen. I don't know what kind of hair-gel they would have used in the Song to maintain his fishy forelock.

The Handsome Siblings (and some miscellaneous pretty girls)

No matter how zany these plots are, I always learn something useful: in this case, how to bring a truly dangerous power-seeking eunuch to his knees. (You never know.)

You kidnap his "thing"...that is, you truly get him by the balls and then some. For those not quite in the know, and for those who never saw The Last Emperor (where one learned that eunuchs get to take their long-detached private parts to their grave to be buried as whole men), I refer them to the Last Emperor's Last Eunuch's story.

Although the Last Emperor's Last Eunuch was not so lucky:

In one corner of the outer square of the palace, a granite block still marks the spot where some of Mr. Sun's fellow eunuchs were said to have lost their "three precious," as the organs were called in court parlance of the day. Traditionally, a eunuch preserved his genitals in a jar to insure that they would eventually be buried with him, in the belief that this would guarantee his reincarnation as a "full" man.

Yet Mr. Sun was not so fortunate. During the Cultural Revolution, a decade of intense political and social upheaval that began In 1966 - coincidentally the year that the former Emperor Pu Yi died - Mr. Sun's family destroyed his jar. They were afraid of being punished by marauding Red Guards if such a symbol of China's feudal past were discovered.

"He used to joke about it," said Mr. Jia, who recorded Mr. Sun's story in a book titled, "The Secrets of the Last Eunuch."

In a scene not quite what I would have expected for prime time TV, the clever Dicky Cheung threatens the evil Eunuch Liu with an unusual sort of blackmail. (Like the Red Guards.) If he doesn't cause trouble for him, Dicky (really) will return the precious parts to Eunuch Liu; this deal takes place in a lovely palace room which is decorated with dozens of sausage-shaped red silk bags hanging from the ceiling. One would think that after the initial procedure, it wouldn't much matter where the parts went...unless you are the sort who worries that some black magic practitioner will do something with your hair and nail clippings.

And I thought a blog post was pressure! Next topic...footbinding!

Speaking of feet, I realize that Nicholas Tse has the same ethereal charisma as a massage therapist I had in Beijing.

Nicholas Tse: Flawless Flower

A Feel for Feet

If you're ever tired and need a little attention, I highly recommend a Chinese foot massage by a nice looking, strong-handed guy...who probably isn't a eunuch. Although I can understand why the old emperor preferred the eunuchs to look after their concubines' bubbling well points.