Literature

This photo taken on 20 March 2021 shows people viewing cherry blossoms in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, China. (STR/AFP)

Taiwanese art historian: Why we no longer find beauty in contemporary art

Art colleges today may be missing the point by teaching students various forms of aesthetics without offering a true path to beauty. An affinity for beauty — to see, appreciate, and ultimately to create it — is best honed keeping close to nature, says art historian Chiang Hsun. Qing dynasty calligrapher and painter Zheng Banqiao would have approved. After all, didn't he ask, “If people really love birds, why not plant more trees?”
The current issue regarding the learning of English in mainland China is not whether to remove English as a core subject. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

How to solve the Chinese headache of learning English

Wu Guo asserts that the current piecemeal way of learning English, focusing on exam questions and answers, will not help the Chinese get very far in mastering the English language. Will they be willing to take the longer but likely more rewarding path of appreciating the language in its entirety?
An aerial shot of people walking through the Zhuyuwan Scenic Area and admiring the blooming flowers in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province, China, 21 February 2021. (Xinhua)

Qing dynasty ‘eccentric’ painter Zheng Banqiao: Art is commodity and beauty is physical

From a laser-etched calligraphy in a restaurant, art historian Chiang Hsun delves into the writings of Qing dynasty painter and calligrapher Zheng Xie, better known as Zheng Banqiao. Zheng was part of the “Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou” group of painters who had wealthy businessmen patrons and developed an aesthetic grounded in the material and secular. Bright and colourful scenes of mirth were common — unlike the Song and Yuan dynasty literati before them who indulged in melancholic musings above worldly concerns. Contemporary ink artists may want to get some inspiration from Zheng's works, and boldly declare the feelings and observations of the times.
What image does a balcony conjure up in the minds of ancient Chinese literati? (iStock)

The balcony: A metaphor for eroticism in Chinese literature

A balcony can simply be a perch from which to admire the sea, or for Shakespeare fans, it is associated with a key scene from Romeo and Juliet. For ancient Chinese literati however, it conjures up scenes of forbidden trysts and has been woven into poems by illustrious poets, from Song Yu to Li Bai and many others.
A cluster of white azaleas. (Facebook/蔣勳)

Taiwanese art historian: The colour white in Chinese aesthetics and in life

If white could be a state of being, it would be yourself, says Chiang Hsun. Under light and shadow, its true shade sometimes becomes blurry, but it never loses its essence. With that confidence, white in art or in life also means negative space — the void that is at ease when it is not filled, the voice that gives itself the freedom to just be.
A woman takes a photo of a plum tree in Fuzhou, Fujian province, China, 18 January 2021. (CNS)

Taiwanese art historian: A plum blossom and a Yuan dynasty painter’s fateful encounter

Chiang Hsun takes in a plum blossom’s sweet perfume, getting lost in reverie as he pictures Yuan dynasty painter Wang Mian in the lonely mountains seven hundred years ago, painting the masterpiece Plum Blossoms in Early Spring (《南枝春早》) under the tree in full bloom.
Staff of the Shanghai Book Company at an exhibition in 1965, Singapore. (Photo provided by Zhang Langhui)

How the Shanghai Book Company enlivened Singapore's cultural scene

In December 2020, family and friends of Shanghai Book Co Ltd produced a commemorative book of the now-defunct bookstore. Founded in 1925, Shanghai Book Co Ltd played a pivotal role in shaping the consciousness of Chinese-speaking Singaporeans in the 1950s. It was a meeting point of ideas and voices, not only from greater China, but within Southeast Asia. In fact, it had helped to nurture the budding interest of Chinese-speaking young students in Malay language and culture. Teo Han Wue recounts how this bookshop in North Bridge Road, easily stereotyped as Chinese-centric, became instead an emblem of openness and cultural diversity.
A wheat field in Chishang Township, Taitung County. (Facebook/蔣勳)

Taiwanese art historian: My mother waited for her soldier husband to return from war, just like Wang Baochuan

In today’s era, we get instant gratification through a swipe of the phone or a flick of the switch. Could we have done what Tang dynasty wife Wang Baochuan did and waited 18 long years — without phone, wifi or video apps — for her husband Xue Pinggui to return home? Taiwanese art historian Chiang Hsun knows his army wife mother could. It was she who taught him about “Baochuan vegetables”: the stubborn weed of Taiwanese purslane that won’t be stamped out; the pure love that asks for neither company nor reward.
A vendor arranges books at her stall at the Panjiayuan antique market in Beijing, China, on 19 November 2020. (Noel Celis/AFP)

Are the Chinese truly collecting art?

With China’s increasing affluence, the nouveau riche are investing in art and cultural artefacts. Wu Zetian’s pleated skirt, exquisite paper from the Southern Tang dynasty, a painting by early 20th century painter Qi Baishi — authentic or not, all are fair game and acquired at the best price. What a shame, says cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai. If only the collector’s hand is not sullied by such commerce.