Xing - Chance Encounter
In early September 1996, I accompanied my wife to an international conference for which she had been asked to present a paper and join a panel discussion. The conference was held in Shanghai. In those days, the Chinese educational authorities and institutions were very eager to host international conferences. After the conference, a professor of Wanhua University arranged a meeting with some academics from abroad and professors from Wanhua, and indicated the meeting also included some party operatives. This kind of meeting, which the Chinese call zuo tan—in English “sit down and talk”—was to be attended by 15 to 20 people. Since we were in Shanghai and pretty well under their aegis, my wife couldn’t very well refuse to attend. I might wiggle out of it.
On the appointed day at 8:30 in the morning, we were driven to the campus. There were six of us in the van.First, we were assembled for a visit to the original Wanhua college building, which had been built in 1905. A presentation of a brief history of the university followed. Then we were taken by van to Humanity Hall for the zuo tan.
I had managed to obtain a Wanhua university campus map, and had studied it carefully with a mind to finding a good excuse to avoid the meeting. The map showed Humanity Hall was located near the Arts and Design department and the Wanhua University museum. I had a conversation with one of the organizers of the conference in which I explained I wished to see the museum and find if perhaps the archives had some record of my father’s teaching at Wanhua in the 1930s. The organizer accepted my wish as demonstrating appropriate respect for my father.
Early September was not a great time in Shanghai; the sky was grey, although the temperature was warm and being outdoors was pleasant. Going along the walkway with my map of the campus, I had no difficulty locating the museum.It was a non-descript building without much architectural merit. The building was a two-story structure, probably constructed in the 1960s before the Cultural Revolution. The most interesting part was the front entrance.It consisted of a structure added on in later days, and looked as if a Chinese garden pavilion had been cut in the middle and half had been glued onto the front to form the entrance. Two red columns stood in front with steps in between. The two red columns also supported a heavy red-tiled roof that sloped from the front wall of the building on three sides. The junction of two sloped roofs formed an upward-curved flying eave, a typical vintage Chinese roof arrangement, so that the plain building wore a Chinese face.
In front of the building was a paved area and some attempt at landscape with a few trees the Chinese call Parasol trees, leftovers from the days when foreign countries held Concessions in Shanghai. I knew the meeting would last for some time, so I decided to linger outside the building for a while. The paved area hosted several tables and stools.The tables were made of concrete and the stools were made of ceramic, in the shape of drums. They were typically accompanied by a green ceramic waste container in the shape of a frog.
In a nearby table sat a man next to three empty stools. I thought it would be rude to walk away to sit on a distant stool and did not detect any objection on his part to my sitting in one of the empty stools at his table. Since I had time on my hands, I began discreetly to examine the gentleman sitting there. The man did not stir. He must have been in his late 60s, thin, in a faded blue jacket that hung loosely on his shoulders. His facial features were thin and long, with deep-set eyes. Most interesting were his hands with long fingers folded together and resting on the table. They reminded me of a drawing I knew; years ago I had an LP recording of Satie’s music played by the Italian pianist Aldo Ciccolini, and the cover had an exquisite pen drawing of Erik Satie’s long fingers. Immediately in my mind I heard strains of the Trois Gymnopedies, with long intervals of silence between notes. The situation compelled me to remain silent.
The man reminded me of someone from my childhood. Right after the end of the war with Japan, my family settled in Wuhan, on the Yangzi River, in central China. I was in my early teens. Those were wonderful years for me, between the end of that war and the beginning of another war. As I was musing about my childhood memories, after a while, I heard a sigh.
Then: “Spring flowers and autumn moon: When will it all end?” It was a line of poetry by Li Yu, a great poet but a tragic king of the 10th century. I know the poem by heart, and spontaneously blurted out the second line: “How many past events can be recalled?”
He was silent. After a while, he asked, “What is your name?” I gave him my name and for some reason, perhaps that old manners never die, I added my ancestral home town. He replied, “My name is Li and I am from Haiyan.”
In the early 20th century, decades before Liberation, a very well-known family of scholars came from Haiyan; their name was Li. I did a quick calculation in my head and decided he must be of my father’s generation. I stood up and bowed deeply, another old habit, and I presented my name card. He took my card and remarked, “You live in California.” He added, “We are shi jiao,” meaning our families had known each other for several generations. In earlier times, the networks of connections so established would have been nurtured and maintained, but the chaotic social history of China in the 20th century had destroyed the webs in which people had conducted their lives, and the linkages were gone now, which made this a rare kind of encounter.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“I came here to accompany my wife who is attending a conference,” I replied. Then I found myself adding, “Actually, I’m doing some study of Chinese gardens and hope to visit Suzhou.”
He sighed, and said, “Yes. Suzhou gardens. Long ago I studied them. For a short time I lived in one of the gardens in Suzhou. It was sad and decayed. That was the beginning of my interest in the classical gardens of Suzhou, and some time later I was invited to lecture on that interest.”
I thought to myself, you do not often encounter someone who has lived in a Chinese classical garden! It seemed that talking with him further was an opportunity not to be missed. I began to tell him about the study I had made, and that I had found nine theorems or practices for design of a Chinese garden.
I mentioned these theorems, which I had concluded in my study: In and Out, Formality and Informality, Host and Guest, Mountain Beyond Mountain, Borrowed Scene, Symbol and Metaphor, Moving View and Static View, Expanding Space, and lastly, Yes, Yes, but No. Li nodded and looked a bit amused.
After what seemed like a long silence, he began to speak. It was a challenge to follow the elegance of his speech, which was somewhat in the manner of the Classical Chinese style. Now as I come to record it, I believe I have captured the essence of his discourse.
He said: The ancients divided knowledge into two parts, knowledge above intangible shape and knowledge below intangible shape. The ancients did not consider either superior to the other, but as complementary to each other. Each supports the other. The knowledge above intangible shape is to do with meaning and intent; the knowledge below intangible shape is to do with methodologies and tangible realization. The two are intertwined, and together constitute complete comprehension.
He said: The theorems are merely to codify the intent of the garden design. They are methodology, below the intangible shape. By focusing only on the code, you have missed the meaning.
If one wishes to cultivate an understanding of a work of art, such as the Chinese classical garden, one must carefully examine the intent of the artist. The meaning is in the intent, and the meaning and intent are above the intangible shape.
Li said: The tangible shape is form. The Chinese word is xing. In Chinese thinking, xing is between the intangible shape and the tangible. It is the outline of a form, but not formed. Something on its way to being a form is xin. This involves the concept of time, what is before, what is present, and what is after.
I will explain in other words what I have just said. Chinese talk about what is above xing and what is below xing. The above-xing is what gives meaning to form. What lies below-xing is the execution of form. Both are intermingled and they evolve together.
Painted map of the Master of the Nets Garden begun in 1140, renovated 1736–1796
He said: It becomes clear that intent belongs to the meaning “above” and the methodology belongs to the execution “below.” But this is not a hierarchy. We can just as well say one is in the northwest, one is in the southeast. It is merely a division. Neither is superior. Eventually the two dissolve into each other. The intent of a poet who has created a garden will be poetic. The Chinese gardens in Suzhou were created by poet/painters. Once the intent is known, the next thing to understand is the execution of expressing the intent. First one critiques how sound the intent is, then one turns one’s attention to the execution of this intent. Does the execution fully express the intent?
He said: The essential part of the understanding of the garden lies in the intent, not form. There are areas you can examine to understand the intent. The poet/painter’s emotional link to the garden is one area. Another area is the interaction between the poetic image and the actual garden. A third area is the methodology that generates the theorems, and a fourth area is the different types of expression, the tone, to be used in creating the garden.
He said: Lastly, the eternal concern in all those artefacts such as the gardens, and the producing of those artefacts, is in the perception of time.
I thought that this was the most mysterious part of his discourse.
He said: All forms of artistic expression, the poetic, visual and others, trace back to this central idea: the perception of time. Then he fell silent, lost in his own thoughts. Then he said, “I spent a lifetime trying to understand this.”
I was deeply struck by what he said about the perception of time. I was both ignorant of and confused by his words. While I was struggling with this, eager to learn more and trying to compose a coherent question to ask, I heard my name being called by a young man racing toward me. He arrived, and totally ignoring Mr. Li, he urged me to hurry and join a group photo. He literally rushed me to run toward the building. After a few steps, feeling it was terribly rude to leave Mr. Li so abruptly, I turned and bowed to him before carrying on in the dash to the assembled group. When I was standing at the extreme right corner of the third row in the photo the realization took hold of me that when I had turned and bowed to him, Mr. Li was not there.
Now, years later, his words still echo in my head, and I often have meditated on this encounter. I am still pondering his theory of time.
Yuyuan Gardens in Shanghai