--By Chang Dai-Chien

My late friend Hsu Pei-hung had the fondest liking for my paintings. His enthusiasm sometimes prodded him to persuade others that I was the greatest Chinese painter of the last 500 years. Soon this embarrassing remark came through the grapevine, and I hastened to take exception with him.

"Ugh, what manner of talking is this?" I protested. "You know I have always looked up to my fellow artists for their individual accomplishments. To Wu Hu-fan, for instance, for the ascetic transcendence and otherworldliness of his landscapes, bamboos and rocks; to P'u Hsin-yu for his easy-going strength in revealing beauty; to Cheng Wu-Ch'ang for his radiant splendor and fluid exquisiteness; to Huang Chun-pi for the ethereal spirituality of his clouds and waterfalls; to Ch'en Ting-shan and Hsieh Yu-ts'en for the casual belletristic self-expression of their spontaneous sublimity; to Cheng Man-Ch'ing and Wang Ke-yi for their lotuses, orchids and plums; to Ch'ien Shou-t'ieh for the depth of his landscapes, unconfined by the world of vision; to Yu Fei-an and Hsieh Chih-liu for their flowers, birds, insects and fishes; to Hsu Yen-sun for his portraits and human figures; to Wang Meng-po and Wang Shen-sheng for the agility of movement in their delineation of chirping birds and leaping apes; and to you, my esteemed friend, and Chao Wang-un for your magnificent horses.

"As to Wang Ya-Ch'en, Wang Ch'i-yuan, Wu Tzu-shen, Ho T'ien-chien, P'an T'ien-shou and Sun Hsueh-ni, each of these gentlemen has a special field in which he excels. For the senior painters of the older generations I have only admiration and high esteem. It would 'be audacious of me to make any superfluous comments on their pre-eminent mastership. Now, I sincerely appreciate your favorable opinion of my works, but to say that I am the best in 500 years is certainly going too far. You know how hyperbole can easily turn into a joke."

"Well," Pei-hung rejoined with a laugh, "in front of people you could take the number two seat and spare yourself blushes, if that's the way to get along with the world. But what's the difference between the number two seat and your modesty, I wonder?"

Forty odd years have elapsed since that good-humored repartee. On looking back, how can I resist the temptation of a nostalgic sigh!

At a tender age I learned to draw under my mother's guidance. As I grew older, my late second elder brother Shan-tzu taught me the technique of rendering human figures and horses, and my late elder sister Ch'ung-chih that of still life, flowers and birds. At 17 I left my native province of Szechwan for Japan where I studied industrial dyeing and weaving in Kyoto. During those years my art training was temporarily interrupted.

      After my return to China at the age of 20, I made my home in Shanghai in order to study under two distinguished masters, Tseng Nung-jam and Li Mei-an. Among other things, they taught me various forms of ancient Chinese script, such as used for inscriptions on bronze vessels of the Shang and Chou and stone tablets of the Han, as well as the diverse styles of medieval script preserved in stone engravings of the Six Dynasties and T'ang. Apart- from calligraphy, I also had a passion for painting. Master Li, who admired the art of Chu Ta (also known as Pa-ta-shan-jen, 1625-ca.1705), was fond of painting flowers, bamboos, pines and rocks, and of employing the seal-script technique of calligraphy in making Buddhist figures. Master Tseng had a penchant for the work of Tao-chi (also called Shih-t'ao, 1641-ca. 1717). He did landscapes, pines and plums and often instructed his pupils to master the art of painting via that of calligraphy. That prompted me to paint lotuses in ink monochrome in the style of Chu Ta, and landscapes in the style of Tao-chi. Pampering me with a sigh of approbation. Masters Li and Tseng commented that my imitative exercise were almost indistinguishable from the authentic works of those two great masters.


Visits to Mount Huang

Tao-chi and Hung-jen were known to have made frequent visits over a period of several decades to Mount Huang in Anhwei province so that their landscapes were ingrained with the nature and feelings of that mountain. With that in view, my masters commanded me to follow in the footsteps of those eminent Buddhists. Accordingly, I journeyed to Mount Huang three times before I was able to capture with my ink and brush the intriguing quaintness of its pines and crags and the magic variations of its mist and clouds, and thereby earn the commendations of my tutors. 

to be continued

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