Nature

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 Larung Gar, a community in Sertar County of the Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, in Sichuan, China.

The ‘other’ Shangri-La: A journey through western Sichuan

Shivaji Das, author of travelogue “The ‘Other’ Shangri-la: Journeys through the Sino-Tibetan Frontier in Sichuan”, captures vignettes of life in the picturesque mountains of the Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in western Sichuan. At the end of his journey, he asks: Would Shangri-La become indistinguishable from Disneyland? Would Han cultural hegemony obliterate every other peculiarity once a mesh of high-speed trains, all-weather roads, and Weibo accounts spread out in the region? Or would an environment of mutual trust, understanding, and accommodation be established? 
People walk in a public park under blue skies in Beijing on 16 March 2021. (Wang Zhao/AFP)

When even blue skies are political in China

Chinese academic Ma Liang says it may be more worth it for the Chinese government to focus on long-term improvement of China’s air quality, rather than spending money and effort on clearing its skies only when there are major events. The government seems to be hoisting in this rationale, judging by the naturally grey skies during the Two Sessions this year. Can blue skies every day be a reality for Beijing in the near future?
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.
The scenic Qixingtan Beach. (iStock)

Taiwanese art historian: Searching for peace and strength on the island of Taiwan

Playing in the screw pine (pandan) jungles of Taiwan was a childhood pastime for Chiang Hsun. But he had to be careful; screw pines were sharp and poky, and had a dark folklore dogging its back — the ghost of Sister Lintou clinging to all its swaying leaves. Will the skies clear one day, for the screw pine jungle and for this island too?
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.
A bald winter tree along the river. (Facebook/蔣勳)

Taiwanese art historian: How should I meet my mother in the afterlife — as a child, an adult or an old man?

Time passes but our memories stand still. If all we want in life is to be understood, how lucky we are if we have someone to see us through our many faces and phases. Even if we part, if we see with our hearts, muses Chiang Hsun, we’re sure to recognise each other when we meet again.
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 pu-erh cake and cups of pu-erh tea. (iStock)

Pu-erh: The raw, the ripe and the Qing dynasty 'tribute tea' from Yunnan

Cheng Pei-kai recalls the mellow, earthy appeal of aged pu-erh, where tea leaves are compressed into cakes and left to ferment for decades to develop a complex flavour. Recently, he also got the chance to taste a young pu-erh — made with tea leaves from a tree that Qing dynasty soldiers used to guard and which was sent to the emperor as “tribute tea”, no less.