prospect | Kano Sansetsu’s screen at Harvard illustrates the legendary story of Chinese calligrapher Wang Ziyou


When Wang Ziyou woke up in the middle of the night, a moon was peeking through the mist. Wang poured himself a glass of wine, remembered a poem he knew, then decided, on a whim, to visit his friend Dai Andao.

What happened next is perhaps my favorite story of all time. Or at least this week.

He is depicted in a huge 12-panel folding screen by the Japanese artist Kano Sansetsu (1589-1651) at the Harvard Art Museums. The four panels on the left are devoted to Wang’s nocturnal journey. The four central panels are almost entirely empty. The panels on the right show a monk, Li Ning, who has come to a gate. He looks ready to knock, but instead turns his back on the threshold and smiles.

Li’s story is enigmatic. But it is Wang’s story that holds a special place in my heart. In fact, I’m thinking of starting a club in tribute to Wang Ziyou: I’ll invite all my favorite people, and we’ll never get together.

Wang (321-379) was a Chinese calligrapher and poet. His Midnight Journey has been a mainstay of Chinese and Japanese art, and you can see versions of the subject by artists from both cultures in many museums.

Kano Sansetsu was a contemporary of Kano Tan’yu, considered the greatest of the secular lineage of the Japanese canonical school of Kano. Sansetsu was an important and versatile performer in his own right. Notice the trees here collapsing under the heavy snow; steep, crystalline rocks; the slippery and blurry perspective.

How did Wang’s journey end? What makes this story so great?

Wang huddled in a boat as his attendant paddled through the cold night until they reached Dai Andao’s house. But now, Wang’s initial urge had abandoned him. So just as spontaneously, he decided to go home.

How wonderful is that?

The poem Wang recalled with his wine, known as “Summons to a Retired Gentleman” (or sometimes “Beckoning the Recluse”), has a history of shifting connotations in Chinese culture. These need not hold us back – except insofar as Wang’s decision to turn back may have signaled respect for his friend’s seclusion.

Personally, I prefer Wang’s more irrational explanation, which the American sinologist Richard Mather translates as follows: “Initially, I left on the strength of an impulse, and when the impulse do a half turn.”

We always set goals for ourselves and are seduced by the need to organize our experience around those goals. What if we change our minds? What if the momentum falters? Should we go all the way, like bad actors, by making our roles grotesque?

Actually no. And that’s why I worship Wang Ziyou. For me, his decision expresses unlimited freedom, even in a difficult situation of winter austerity.

His eccentric explanation – “the impulse was spent” or, indeed, “I changed my mind” – may seem capricious. But it is a spiritual antidote to the founding nightmare of modernity, described by Franz Kafka in “The Trial”. In Kafka’s parable, a man seeking “to enter the law” waits “for days and years” at a gate where a guard refuses him entry. The man tries everything he can, but to no avail. He is getting old, weak, deaf and blind. Dying, he asks the guardian one last question:

“Everyone strives to follow the law, so how come for these many years no one but me has asked for entry?” The doorman must shout to be heard: “No one else can enter here, since this entrance has been assigned only to you. I will now close it.

The parable, like the story of Wang Ziyou, has many possible meanings. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it when I saw the panel to the right of Sansetsu’s work—the one showing Li Ning arriving at a door. Instead of knocking, he turns around and smiles.

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