Describing the self without words.
Publisher: Peirene Press
First Published: 2003
Date Reviewed: 1st October 2012
Bada Shanren was born in luxury but chose to abandon said luxury for the robes of a monk. Inspired by his father and taught by the abbot he begins to paint, learning about himself and the world in a unique way as he does so.
A mixture of fact and fiction, Weihe’s chaptered novella spans almost an entire life in a very short time. Whilst the background is given to the reader as a non-fiction account, and non-fiction it is – the story of the Manchu conquest of China – the rest is a mostly imaginary tale of Shanren’s life. For what Weihe includes in his narrative is the sort of content you do not find in biographies: detailed thoughts and a tale that is as artistic in its written style as it is in its subject.
And there is a large amount of detail in this book; indeed just like art, it is varied, some details existing as part of the narrative, others being more about structure of subtext. A great deal consists of a subtle philosophy – sentences, ideas – often not discussed and simply just put out there, so to speak. And on the other hand there is, for example, a difference in the written style of the military non-fictional section compared to the fiction – the non-fiction reading rather like a set of bullet points without the bullet points themselves, and the fiction flowing more like the water that plays such a big part in Shanren’s life. If the non-fiction feels stilted, the fiction is liquid prose and beautiful.
The philosophy concerns art, first and foremost, but is inevitably linked to life in general. Often poetic, it draws from a pool that seems a blend of regular worldly philosophy and classical Chinese sayings, the result being highly interesting.
For me as a painter the value of the mountain is not in its size, but in the possibility of mastering it with the paintbrush. When you look at a mountain you are seeing a piece of nature. But when you paint a mountain it becomes a mountain. You do not paint its size, you imply it.
What is particularly intriguing about Shanren, at least in the way Weihe presents him, is the link between the self and the way the painter continually changes his name. Weihe himself, in the afterword, speaks of the artwork being a representation of the painter. Whilst it may not always be the case, there often seems a match of one style or atmosphere to the paintings and the name Shanren goes by at the time. He changes his name to suit the place he is at in his journey to master technique, his art, and the answers to his abbot’s questions.
As an additional point the reader may find the parallel between Shanren’s life and the life of Siddhartha Gautama, The Buddha, rather poignant. Like The Buddha, Shanren has an epiphany of sorts and decides to leave his wife and son in order to live simply with a spiritual aim. And like The Buddha – although Shanren does in fact seek a new wife after he realises his diversion from the path set by his ancestors – he comes to a spiritual awakening. The two figures shared a basic understanding of the world through Shanren’s following of the way of life created by The Buddha.
To read Sea Of Ink is to have a history lesson, art lesson, and language lesson at once. Jamie Bulloch’s translation seems at one with the original text, a good substitute where the original cannot be read. Weihe has included a lot of information and yet when reading it does not feel at all so. And the additions of the paintings themselves is a boon that allows Weihe to describe the method of painting in a way that means the reader can literally follow the brush. This written technique may at times feel overused, but it is an intriguing concept nonetheless.
If you are guided by human feelings you will easily lose your way, a wise saying went, but if you are guided by nature you will rarely go wrong.
Sea Of Ink, about art in its many forms, transcends the usual notions of appeal; it is far from restricted to those who have an interest in its most obvious aspects.
Sea Of Ink was originally written in Swiss German, and was translated into English by Jamie Bulloch.
I received this book for review from Peirene Press.
October 8, 2012, 11:13 am
I always appreciate having background notes in historical fiction when it’s a subject w/which I’m not familiar, always helps me get so much more out of it.The story itself sounds lovely!
October 8, 2012, 9:08 pm
Jennifer: Yes, it’s really well done, everything you needed to know in order to understand it. I suppose it helps that it’s a short book but still, so much context is there.