White Horse and Painted Pipe
Tradition is a bit like eating a chicken wing: not much meat on it, but such a waste to throw it away. So you keep it. You keep it for a long time. In my growing-up years, the Chinese tradition was that my education was in my mother’s hands. I was the third-born child, and by then my mother was very confident and even innovative about educating me. My mother herself had very little formal education, primarily educated by tutors and by reading a lot herself. She had some very firm ideas, such as formal education—going to school, for instance—was not adequate to equip a child to go forth into the world. Some supplemental effort should be added.
One of her favourite efforts was whenever she heard, through her network, of some classes held outside the schoolroom, in the evening or on the weekend, she would enrol me. At the age of 7 I found myself attending a class on Chinese classical flower painting, with some eight or ten young housewives in their 20s. They were very big and old, from my point of view. The classical flower painting approach was first to use a fine brush to outline leaves and flower petals, then use a different brush to fill in the colour. Then a third brush with dry ink rendered the branches. What I remember best was the tutor, an old man, who smelled terrible: tobacco and rancid pork fat. The ladies, on the other hand, smelled wonderful. They were all doused with imported cologne.
The second enrichment my mother latched on to was what she called “Zuo tan”—sit and talk. I would sit and someone would talk. Afterward, I would have to give my mother a summary of what I learned from the speaker. One such talk was from an elderly English missionary, Miss Farnsworth, who had been in China for more than 40 years. She spoke fluent Chinese—with a very strong Shandong accent. She had served in that province when a child. After that zuo tan I reported to my mother that “one must have faith.” This was very important. When you have faith, you will believe all the things you were told. After the faith, was the Trinity. Then there was Good News and bad news: we all have Original Sin. But, the good news was Redemption. My mother thought I actually had learned something, and maybe I should have another view on these lines.
So she arranged a zuo tan with Father Matteo Brunello. Again, afterward I reported to my mother that Fr. Matteo was very big on Heaven and Hell, which was a familiar concept since it was often taught by Buddhists. But there was one other interesting concept I could inform her about. Before going to heaven or hell, it was necessary for one to spend some time in what I conceived as a seedy hotel: Purgatory. She thought it was some kind of bureaucratic promotional procedure. Years later, I found out this concept made quite a pile of money for the Church.
The final zuo tan mother arranged was just before we left Wuhan as refugees. I was 16. The speaker was Professor Chen, a friend from a family that had had five generations of friendship with ours. That family was renown for producing scholars. He himself was a well-known historian. The talk was a summary of the “hundred schools of thought” developed in the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods. I had some vague knowledge of the major schools, such as the Yue by Congzi and Mongzi and the Dao school by Laozi and Zhongzi, and the legalist school founded by Mezi along with the stragegist school founded by Sunzi. Professor Chen’s talk was precise and to the point, which enhanced my understanding of these main schools. What most captured my interest was the minor schools, especially the one identified by one single sentence: “White horse is not a horse”.
Without thinking, I asked, “Why?”
Professor Chen looked incredulously at me. “Because it’s a white horse. Think hard about it.”
In the ensuing years, I never thought about it. I was busy getting myself educated and trying to survive. Forty-six years later, my wife Linda and I were living in Pasadena, CA. We frequently went to visit LACMA to see the permanent and changing exhibitions. In one from the museum’s own collection was a painting by the Belgian painter Rene Magritte, a painter whom the art historians and critics find very difficult to classify. Sometimes he is referred to as a Surrealist; other times he is Dadaist; at times he is a Superrealist. The painting’s title is The Treachery of Images, painted in 1928-9. It’s not very big, approximately 60cm x 80cm. The subject is a tobacco pipe suspended against a tan background. It was painted in a realist manner. The pipe itself is a full-bent style, with a bowl and shank of wood. You can see the grain of the wood. The stem is black, ebony I assume. The stem and shank are joined by a ferrule. It is an authentic representation of a pipe. But, at the bottom of the painting, Magritte wrote “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” This is not a pipe. A thought unexpectedly flashed into my mind when I saw this painting: a horse is not a white horse. Of course this is not a pipe; it’s a painting of a pipe.
Years later, after we had settled in Auckland and lived in a small townhouse with a small balcony, where I could look at a tall Norfolk pine and our often-flowering magnolia tree, I realised I finally have achieved the ultimate luxury. I can think of anything without constraint. I can also write stories and use the opportunity to link ideas.
I thought again about the white horse. The minute it is identified as “white” it distances itself from “horse”. The word “white” qualifies and specifies and separates it from the abstract term “horse.” Similarly with the pipe.
To tell a story is to qualify and specify an event, the character, the background and the foreground. The story is all about the white horse and the painted pipe, not about horses and pipes in general. The effect of qualifying and specifying is to generate a vivid image of the story, so the reader can easily latch on to the story. A whole series of images, qualified and specified, enables the reader to experience the story. For example, the narrator could say, “A dog came into the room,” but it isn’t as interesting as saying, “A black dog came into the room”, or even better “A black Labrador came into the room,” or better still, “A Labrador, his black coat shining, came into the room.” Similarly, “came” could be qualified and specified by a different verb: “skittered into the room”, “bounded into the room”, “slunk,” “ambled” and so forth. The final result of qualification and specification is a more vivid image with denser and more complete information.
The storyteller has to balance the level of focus depending on what the story is. In the dog examples, the attention to the bounding Labrador with his shining black coat would suggest this dog is a protagonist or at least a key player in the story. If in fact the black dog is part of the background, too much qualification, too-specific words, overwhelm the main narrative.
Vladmir Nabokov once wrote that bacon was cowardly, shrinking at the first fire. It’s a good example of qualification and specification producing a memorable image. All story telling has some degree of it.