The Many Lives of a Handscroll: Inspired by Zhai Yongming’s ‘Ambling along the Fuchun Mountains with Huang Gongwang’

By | 1 February 2017

The Poet (1955–)

During the Q&A session after a Zhai Yongming reading, a critic claimed that except in the case of Anna Akhmatova, not many long poems have been written by women (thus the poet has done something remarkable). Surely that critic forgot about Shu Ting 舒婷, Tang Yaping 唐亞平, Yi Lei 伊蕾, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, H D, Anne Carson, Dorothy Hewett and Fay Zwicky, and the list goes on … . Later, the poet simply said she doesn’t care or argue with people anymore when they call her ‘a woman poet’.

I could be a country wife or a country girl. I could also be a swordswoman. I could be a herbalist, or a Daoist nun. I wander among waters and clouds in the image of a woman. With a woman’s montage, I track, pull and push. See with a woman’s eyes, I regard time closing in and out. (Section 21)

After you’ve listened to Zhai Yongming 翟永明 read a few excerpts from ‘Ambling along the Fuchun Mountains with Huang Gongwang’, and when you open the book, you feel as if you’ve put on the pair of headphones on an audio guide and walked into the exhibition hall.

The year was thirteen fifty, a handscroll is a film. You unwind it before me. The ink and the view slowly moving. The camera lens tracks, changes focus, under the thumb muscle and fingers. (Section 1)

I bring with me a stack of A4 papers and a blue ballpoint pen, break into the cold beauty of remaining mountains. Rustling leaves, shivering me. Remaining mountains soon will be old, so will I be. (Section 1)

Sometimes, the painter talks to you through her voice.

No, I’m not what you imagined. Not an old geezer, a dauber, a legendary tortoise. With a walking stick and my straw rain-cape, I walked the landscape. (Section 26)

Poets and painters camouflage in order to transplant an idea. They must become the background from which that certain idea emerges, surfaces, or pops up like a surprise. The poet is familiar with the painter’s many disguises.

I metamorphose into an oyster, like a nut in someone’s mouth, with thick shell, thin kernel, breathing is freedom, not a sound, not a word – a huge web scoops me up. I metamorphose into a river, thus filled up with clarity, wrapping up old clouds from the past life, thousands and thousands of ripples, rushing to climb all over my body – a stone hits me. I metamorphose into a thatched cottage, plain colour, empty, a hermit leans on his mat, tea becomes fragrant, tea becomes cold, I sit in my spot and watch the old pine gathering in coolness at dusk – a sudden gust of wind blows me away. I metamorphose into the moon, its cold glow nurtures a noble air, I shine through eternity, eternity shines on me, grabs me under its arm and prowls away – a dark cloud tears me apart … Camouflage lost to the theory of evolution, one thing conquers another, time conquers all. (Section 14)

She first encountered a good copy of Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains at a friend’s place. And they did – like those scholar-officials, emperors, warlords and antique dealers of times past – make tea, watch the landscape slowly unfolding in front of their eyes, and exchange views. In order to pursue a possible poem, she went on two excursions to the Fuyang district. There she found that despite the influence of urbanisation, the landscape still resembled the painter’s depiction. The rocks were as persistent, and the subtropical vegetation was as luscious.

Fifty or so kilometres from Fuyang to Tonglu, I drove, didn’t recognise those fresh willows on river banks. No rowdy cicadas or gibbons, I only saw newly built suburbs and modern villages. The mist and the breeze were both unclean, no colour shared by the sky and the mountain. Yet it still was the peach blossom spring, same happiness, same unknowingness. (Section 20)

When the painter began to work on the scroll at the age of seventy-nine, had he ever thought that it would be praised, burnt, copied and now adapted into a poem? One section after another, the poet applies techniques such as defamiliarisation, archaism, and collage to channel the past of the painting towards its present, to activate the landscape in the reader’s mind.

The Theatre Director (1986–)

Let’s consider the dimensions of a poem.

An empty space, two areas, four gauze drapes, and a screen, gradually spreading out distances towards the horizon, the sky, and beyond the river. There’s room for tossing around, moving around, getting together or splitting apart. What are the forms that haven’t been applied to multimedia theatre? (Section 27)

Chen Si’an 陳思安, the director of the play Ambling along the Fuchun Mountains with Huang Gongwang, combines physical theatre with installation art, visual projection, and experimental music to render the conceptualised space in Zhai Yongming’s poem. The dynamics between the past and the present in Zhai’s poem are replicated by the dynamics between the actors and their attitude towards poetry in Chen’s play.

None of them read poetry, the director said. None of them read poetry, but they drag one another into the poem, flying in the sky, diving down the earth, carelessly throwing out lines ready to take off. (Section 27)

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