Culture

Barringtonia racemosa flowers. (Facebook/蔣勳)

What I Ching and the mangrove tree flowers tell us about life

Chiang Hsun contemplates the transience of life as he observes the fleeting lifespan of mangrove tree flowers found along the riverbanks of Southeast Asia, southern China and elsewhere. Every flower has its own place and purpose, but like life, its brilliance is extinguished all too fast. How can one discern the meaning of life then? Perhaps the three-thousand-year-old book of I Ching offers us some clues.
Television series The Empress of China starring Fan Bingbing as Wu Zetian. (Internet)

Tang dynasty's Wu Zetian: Was she a wise emperor or did she ruin the country?

A television series about Wu Zetian, the only female emperor in Chinese history, has Cheng Pei-kai reflecting about the semantics (read: politics) involved in the title bestowed on this charismatic figure. Did she live up to her many labels, or even more powerfully yet, was she really a character that defied any labels? History refuses to make a definite call.
Taiwan's carabet cuisine represents Taiwan's nostalgic flavours and can be regarded as an intangible cultural heritage. (iStock)

Taiwan’s nostalgic flavours, the glitterati and the kamikaze

As a child, Cheng Pei-kai believed that cabaret cuisine was forbidden food, due to the unsavoury reputations of the cabarets and clubs that served it. In the present, tasting the last vestiges of cabaret cuisine in Taiwan only reminds him to treasure them as part of an intangible cultural heritage. In a time long past, high society and average Joes alike partied with abandon and in some cases, had their last hurrah.
Chiang's potted gloxinia is in full bloom. (蔣勳/Facebook)

A return to the physical body and the exuberance of the Tang dynasty

Empress Wu Zetian of the Tang Dynasty presented her personal piece of clothing to Buddha as an offering. Taiwan art historian Chiang Hsun says this is a sign of that era's exuberance and confidence. Immersed in reverie, he admires his pot of gloxinias, which are as vibrant as the Empress's fiery red skirt.​
Emperor Qianlong writing (《乾隆帝写字像》), The Palace Museum. (Internet)

Chiang Hsun: How great a mark of rebellion it is to hold an ink brush

Empress Wu Zetian (624-705 CE, China's only female emperor who ruled during the Tang dynasty) used 1000 copies of the Diamond Sutra and 1000 copies of the Lotus Sutra to pray for her mother when the latter passed away. In part four of his series of articles on calligraphy, Taiwanese art historian Chiang Hsun looks back at history and is grateful for the tool he has in hand to deliberate, act and to act deliberately. But what is it about holding an ink brush that makes it a rebellious act?
An elderly woman wearing a face mask practises water calligraphy on a pavement in Beijing on 27 April 2020. (Wang Zhao/AFP)

Chiang Hsun: The freed poet in rainy spring, by the Yangtze

Chiang Hsun writes about the third-best semi-cursive script by Song dynasty poet Su Shi in this third part of his series of articles on Chinese calligraphy. He reconstructs the circumstances of the calligrapher, who had just been released from prison and was sent to Huangzhou along the Yangtze river in a rainy spring. He muses that calligraphy is as truthful an artform as it gets. Its aesthetic qualities dictate that outpouring of emotions are captured in every brushstroke; the artist’s state of mind and the milieu of the times he depicts are laid bare for all to see.
Imperial painter, Emperor Kangxi in his casual outfit at his writing desk (《康熙帝便装写字像》), partial, The Palace Museum. (Internet)

Beautiful or outdated? The journey of Chinese characters through the ages

Cheng Pei-kai reflects on what a blessing it is that Chinese characters have evolved yet stayed intact through the years and writers can still use them to create works of literature that stir the heart, mind and soul. The fact that Chinese characters work auditory and visual muscles all at once have more than a little to do with it.
Yan Zhenqing, Ji Zhi Wen Gao (《祭侄文稿》, Eulogy for a Nephew), National Palace Museum. (Internet)

A eulogy, intimate memories and a flawed piece of calligraphy

Father-son relationships in traditional Chinese culture tend to be distant. Perhaps that is why Chiang Hsun remembers calligraphy lessons with his father as one of the most intimate moments they have shared. He goes on to study revered calligraphic works which are part of Chinese history, and finds in them precious moments of humanity expressed through the ink brush.
Chiang Hsun practising calligraphy. (Facebook/蔣勳)

Picking up an ink brush amid the pandemic, what do I write?

Chiang Hsun shares his memories learning calligraphy from his father, and muses that brush strokes on a page are more than beautiful reproductions of text — it is a living art form that, like a play or a film, has the power to move and even heal an audience.