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Recap: Pieces of China (S3, E7): Ben Wang on Qi Baishi’s Chicks, 3.25.21

Recap: Pieces of China (S3, E7): Ben Wang on Qi Baishi’s Chicks, 3.25.21

Pieces of China is an online series using objects to tell the story of China.

Season 3, Episode 7 explores one of the most revered masters of Chinese painting, Qi Baishi, who lived from 1864-1959. Ben Wang, China Institute’s beloved professor of Chinese culture, shares one of his favorite Qi Baishi works—two chicks tugging on a worm—and explains why the painter’s art still speaks to us today in this captivating episode.

Ben Wang (BW) is Senior Lecturer in Language and Humanities at China Institute, and Co-Chair of Renwen Society of China Institute since 1985. A published writer and award-winning translator (both from Chinese into English and vice versa) on classical Chinese poetry and other Chinese literary, artistic and dramatic genres, he taught Chinese and translation at Columbia University, New York University, Pace University and City University of New York between 1969 and 1991. Ben Wang taught Chinese at the United Nations Language Program from 1985 until 2018.

To learn more about Chinese poetry, Ben’s upcoming special online course, A Fresh Dawn with New Poetic Styles: From the 19 Old Poems to Tao Yuanming, starts on April 13.

Selected Quotes from Pieces of China, Season 3, Episode 7:

BW: For me, Qi Baishi doesn’t die. He is one of the great painters in the history of Chinese painting and Chinese culture and he is one of the greatest painters of the genre of literati painting, which is uniquely exclusive to the Chinese culture because it comprises poetry, calligraphy, and the painting itself in order of its importance.

When I look at his face, I see over 2,000 years of poetry, art and beauty. I see god in his face because he is a master of all three genres.

Qi Baishi was born in 1864 in a very rural province of Hunan where his family was dirt poor. Between 6-10, he was a cowboy, a shepherd of water buffaloes- a very gentle animal. So he would always play his flute riding on the back of the buffalo. While they grazed, he would pace along the stream; this kind of bucolic, pastoral life gave him the ability to observe all of the living things.

Talent and genius have no favorites- they don’t go the rich and famous. He was born with this inside of him, everything in the universe made him curious about life.

If he hadn’t written anything else, if he only composed this one piece, this would afford him a passport to immortality as an artist.

The character circular Yuan, that means you have savoir-faire, you know things and you are thoughtful. The general gestalt of the chicks, of the earthworm, and the poetic line, and the seal (which is square but inside a perfect circle)…the chicks are part of a circular line…for Chinese, it is only within a circle that you have a union between feminine and masculine forces.

The picture is perfect. He has left a lot of space. The two chicks with a brush and only ink, in a few strokes he shows the fluffy feathers of the coat. The artist walks a thin line between likeness and unlikeness. They are chicks but they don’t look like chicks in a photograph of chicks.

Tell us about the white space in the picture.

There is a term- liu bai 留白– liu means “save/keep/leave someone to do something” and bai means “white-space or empty space“. As a verb it can mean spoken word or speech. Superficially it means space for the viewer to come up with their own thoughts in their mind and hearts. More often than not, it means poems written by the poet tell you what the theme is for the painting.

Let’s take a look at the poetry and its translation

You can see the feathers on the chick on the left, is so angry that his feathers are standing up. But check out the eye on the chick on the right, it is [scary] with hatred. He is drawing a picture of frivolity, but he is remembering his youth. He painted this when he was 84 in 1948. In 1948, Chinese nationalists and Communists were engaged in a huge battle, but it broke his heart because the Chinese had just spent 8 years fighting an invading force.

So, this is to say that some other day you will grow up to be big roosters and you will call out to each other because we are all Chinese. Now you are young and fighting for power and riches and recognition and whatnot, but one day you will grow older and more mature and will still be brothers. In times of need you will still help one another.

The last character of the poem extends the stroke all the way to the left [which is unusual], which is to show the echo that when I crow you will come. So, we hope love will come into the land and into the heart of my people.

Full Video of Pieces of China with Ben Wang

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