Explaining Myself with Help from a Song Dynasty Cityscape

I think people misunderstood my last entry. Or maybe I led them to the wrong conclusions; I apologize for that. I am not a basket case, but writing is an exhale for me. It is a way to repel the forces at war inside myself, which sounds incredibly hackneyed and I almost winced when I wrote that because I am not a tortured artist by any stretch.

Forgive me, I can’t explain myself plainly at the best of times. I don’t carry conversations easily, you might find. As many words as I may spit into the air over my lifetime, all my better and more intimate thoughts make their first homes on paper.

But it seems my stupid scribblings fail to convey what I mean even now, so I’ll speak through the ancients. To paraphrase from Dream of Red Mansions: referencing an old thing, after all, is better than creating a new one.

And the best allusion, the best metaphor even, I have to explain my state of mind is this:

Along the River During the Qingming Festival. Or rather, just a snippet of an 18th century reproduction of the 12th century original which is 17 feet long. Click the image to view the entire original scroll.

This is a detailed view of a painting called Along the River During the Qingming Festival or Going Upriver on the Qingming Festival or whatever slightly inaccurate translation that you prefer to refer to it as. Painted by Song Dynasty artist Zhang Zeduan this panorama stretches over seventeen feet long. Seventeen feet.

The room I’m sitting in right now probably doesn’t even have that much square footage.

And it’s not an empty scroll of Zen landscapes (each with a wide textile border) instead it depicts the day of the Qingming Festival in the Song Dynasty capital. The temporal setting of this work, the Qingming festival, is sometimes translated as the Tomb Sweeping festival. It’s the day you go to clean up and honor the graves of your ancestors, which were usually out-of-the-way places. Chinese people didn’t believe in keeping their dead close. Better a tomb be kept where no road would ever be built over it.

Close-up detail of the Chinese cityscape hands...

Close-up detail of the Chinese cityscape handscroll Along the River During Qingming Festival, ink and colors on silk, 24.8 x 528.7 cm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But there’s a beautiful paradox here, because this painting isn’t about death at all: it’s about life, flowing into the capital like a river from the mountains. This scroll is bustling with people and activity, growing more populated as the landscape slowly changes from bucolic to urban. Its people are clothed richly and poorly. Stylized though they may have been, the painting is populated by recognizable characters: from peddlers and actors to even tax gatherers. It was a snapshot of a vibrant, living city on a day dedicated to remembering the dead.

And what I mean to say is that I’m living that duality right now. I grieve in bursts, but I don’t spend my time wallowing in a pit of tar-like sadness. In fact, at this precise moment, my major concern in life is that I can’t sleep because of words and also because of the late-running birthday party at the bar across the street. But at the same exact time, the greater context of my life contains death and I do spend days dedicated to remembering. But even on those days there is life. While I sometimes speak hopelessly, theose feelings are passing. Like ships on the Qingming, they must still leave the harbor despite the day. Because the painting, after all, is populated by the living, and they have their tasks.

Close-up detail of the Chinese cityscape hands...

Close-up detail of the Chinese cityscape handscroll Along the River During Qingming Festival, ink and colors on silk, 24.8 x 528.7 cm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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One thought on “Explaining Myself with Help from a Song Dynasty Cityscape

  1. Pingback: Chinese Festivals: Flames of National Pride | Globe Drifting

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