And on the other hand...

Click here for The Yin Side where the other half of me holds forth!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Japanese Garden

Please enjoy these images from the Portland Japanese Garden.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Rainy Day Lessons

After enduring the physical indignities of an overnight economy flight from HNL to PDX (which wasn't that economical, and far less entertaining and comfortable than any Chinese train) we arrived in Portland (Oregon) for an exercise in filial piety for a weekend, in this case, the elders traveling to visit the younger generation. The night flight was annoying because they kept the big TV screen on the entire flight, flickering and flashing at 3 a.m. (And I couldn't find my eyeshade.) Do people need this CONSTANT "entertainment"?  Everyone who wasn't asleep was trying to be.  I declined the stupid movie in favor of my iPOD (shuffling Bob Dylan for hours) but at one point woke up to a frantic video about traveling in China.  Still listening to Bob, and pretty certain I wasn't dreaming, I narrated the travelogue to myself.  The sights I hadn't seen, I am familiar enough with to know about them. I drifted back to sleep only to wake an hour later to see an American Idol sort of competition about dog grooming. This time I wish I had been dreaming.

Portland is cold, wet, and misty in contrast to the hot, wet and misty we left in Honolulu.  The long weekend begins with proof that weather reporting is not always inaccurate.  As predicted, it is 44 degrees F, with light rain, and nippy (not a term I am accustomed to seeing in weather reports). It is not comforting to know that this is the extended forecast.

To fortify ourselves against the weather, after changing from light Aloha wear to jeans and fleece jackets and socks, looking quite local in a Northwest sort of way, we have a cozy pub lunch with some fine microbrewed beer, then drive downtown to wander about.

We try the mass transit:  within a certain "Fareless" zone, it is free.

Why Can't Honolulu Do This?
The weather conditions, which were frightening when landing at the airport, with a ceiling of about 100 feet, make it impossible to tell what time it is all day.

Always Time for Lights On
Still the walkabout is beautiful, a yin contrast to the sunny yang of Hawaii, and offers views of what my Chinese painting  teacher described as ku shu, that is, dying trees.

Shedding Leaves

Shedded Leaves
They will inspire me to paint when I get home.

Our main downtown destination was Powell's, the city's famed used/new bookstore that occupies four floors of an entire city block.  It is like a vast library where you can buy the books.

I found several old texts on Chinese painting to supplement Lao Shi's lessons, which are great and generous, but sometimes difficult because of the non-linear teaching style with slightly tortured English expression, not at all unlike the lessons I enjoyed on the Tao in Wudang.

Painting Jing/Ching
These texts--with classic references going back to the 17th century, not Walter Foster guides-- support the teachings, rooted in the Tao, in this case, the way of painting.  They discuss painting not in Western terms of critical interpretation, but its place in the whole culture, and the ideals and standards of the traditional techniques.  The skills are not easily acquired, and come no more naturally to the Chinese --or at least Chinese not raised in a traditional culture-- than Mandarin or Cantonese comes naturally to a second or third generation Chinese person raised in the West.  So while you can't learn the painting (or language or qigong or Chinese philosophy) just by reading the books -- you truly need a culturally connected sifu, a lao shi-- the books do reinforce the lessons, just as Taoist scriptures like the Tao Te Ching reinforce internal cultivation of the spirit.

At Powell's, once I exhausted the Chinese painting section, I moved on to Asian philosophy where, to complement Thomas Cleary's version,  I found a copy of Richard Wilhelm's translation of The Secret of the Golden Flower, (which was part of what we were learning in Wudang) and a miniature of Stephen Mitchell's Tao Te Ching translation. I enjoy his reading of the TTC on a CD I have, but I will like to have the written version as well (not really being one to "listen to a book" like my friend who wants me to do Chinese painting with a pen pad).  The Stephen Mitchell versions include no commentaries to speak of, but his voice and elegant translations stand quite nicely on their own.  I much prefer these to the latter-day self-help styled versions, like Dr. Wayne Dyer's "Do the Tao" set. I recently have been reading Arthur Waley, The Way and Its Power, which has a lot of good historical information.  And John Blofeld, who joins a group of immortals including those other China Hands like Graham Peck and David Kidd. They have great connections with the past to enhance our understanding of the present.

We are modern people, but to fully understand traditions, I believe we need to explore the sources as close to the beginning as possible and honor the scholarship that has already been done, before proclaiming we understand any of these ancient techniques.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Digital Qi?

A few days ago a coworker was extolling the virtues of the new mini-Wacom pen pad, about the size of a trade paperback, that he just got for his MacBook Pro.  "You should use this for your Chinese painting," he said.  Untraditionally, I have occasionally made little doodle-sketches on my white board in the Chinese style while trying to think of a solution to some problem (only to eventually erase them the way Tibetan monks destroy their sand mandalas, to show their impermanence, or in my case, express an occasional fit of office pique.  Although the digital camera does give them a sort of immortality, seen here on the right.)

But the pen pad?  "Well, it's really all about the brush, the ink, the paper and the qi, " I explained.

"But you can express the qi with the pressure of the pen,"  he went on.  Still it just doesn't seem...traditional.

When contemplating one of the paintings I did last week at the Cultural Plaza, the Wizard said, "But why are those birds there?  They look out of place."  (They are the swashy things in the space to the left of the tree trunk. Big birds.)

They weren't mine, but were added by another of the painters at the demonstration, one of the reasons my teacher didn't want to participate. While she generally corrects our classwork by adding or enhancing some feature or stroke for teaching purposes, it did seem just a little bit rude to do it in public. And she too felt the birds were not only out of place, but out of proportion to the rest of the design.

So I enlisted my own pen pad, a much larger Wacom model, and did a little digital kung fu on the painting. Since they weren't  MY birds, I could vanish them .

Makes a difference, don't you think?  Unfortunately,  the original work features the unerasable birds.  You can't use white-out on a Chinese painting.

Today I did another piece, all by myself.  I will take the homework to class, and Lao Shi may correct it.  At least I know for certain she won't add gigantic birds.

(There is no particular reason the paintings are of different color values.  Birds-no-birds was scanned; the mountain hut scene is a photo.  And the white board images are photos of your basic EXPO dry erase markers on a white board and live on only as digital images.)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Real Xiong San Di

Much as I like the Three Deep Bears concept, it doesn't work as a pinyin-ization of my name.  Here's what it's supposed to look like (from a T-shirt, jersey not being necessarily the best material for fine calligraphy.)

The Wizard had these characters carved into a chop (seal) for me many years ago.  You must admit it's pretty sexy. (The seal print reads right to left.)

Here's the bottom, carved side up resting in its silk Chinese box.  Unfortunately in this picture, it looks kind of like an elaborately presented piece of meat.  A chop chop.

If you don't know exactly how this works, you press the chop into a tin of specially prepared inky red goo, like a stamp pad, and carefully imprint the paper.  My chop has a particularly nice feel in the hand. I have begun using it on some of my paintings. 

Since my seal is so unique, it could pretty much be my legal signature as long as I keep it locked up!  "But the will was changed!  It has her seal on it." And thus begins a wu xia fantasy extravaganza...starring Vincent Zhao...and me!  But wait...that woman...she stole my chop!!! Identity theft!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Lost in Translation

Got the error in translation in my name calligraphy corrected tonight by my painting teacher.  The third character in question is not "di" (earth or ground) for which I had asked the calligrapher, but is the character "shen," which means deep.  He must have thought I said deep, assuming I wouldn't ask for the Chinese word.   So rather than xiong san di (which I like to interpret as something like third earth bear and which I have correctly on a T-shirt and a chop), I got xiong san shen, which could mean bears three deep?  Up to my ears in bears?  Lions and tigers and bears, oh my.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Once Upon a Time In Chinatown

After reading from 365 Tao, my morning habit, and then rereading Carl Jung's Foreword and Richard Wilhelm's Introduction to the I Ching, the classic yellow cloth-bound volume I have consulted from time to time since 1967, (don't we all have one of those?--actually I have two, one defiled with notes and dates, and another, quite pristine) I made my way, somewhat philosophically set,  to Chinatown for an event suggested by my Chinese painting teacher.

I wasn't quite sure what was happening, except that it would involve painting demonstrations.  Having recently been to two other exhibitions bookending the moon festival and national day (both the PRC's, Oct. 1, and Taiwan's, Oct. 10), I was game for anything.  I arrived on time at the Cultural Plaza, not to be confused with the co-located Cultural Center, but no one was there except some people randomly setting up some tables, or possibly removing them.  I looked for Lao Shi, then ducked into my favorite video/bookstore, where I chatted with my new friend. "We haven't known each other so long, but we communicate well," she said, after we talked about obscure Hong Kong TV actors and the kinds of movies I like (and she likes to sell).

She thinks I should move away from the kung fu/wu xia I've been buying from her, and watch some conventional drama.   I told her I got into Chinese films a long time ago with early drama directors like Zhang Yimou, Wong Kar Wai and Chen Kaige.  I used to bring home pre-US-release VCDs from Hong Kong. The kung fu is a recent preoccupation set off when looking for a particular Chinese film, I was directed by the clerk at Blockbuster from "Foreign Films" to "Martial Arts."  A whole new world, so to speak,  opened up for me!

She sold me another Raymond Lam TVB set, the curiously named "Twin of Brothers" (42 45-minute episodes) and a contemporary Taiwanese drama on DVD that cleverly comes with two audio CDs of the soundtrack music as well.  What a great concept!

I returned to the Plaza, and Lao Shi found me.  She introduced me to some friends who explained that the event was a carnival (a hard word for Taiwanese to say) for the various Chinese schools in Honolulu, to encourage the young kids to learn traditional Chinese culture.  We had a nice chat about Chinese politics and the idea that the people of Taiwan (identified as "China's largest island" in a PRC-produced middle-school textbook I've been reading) would be happy to reunite...if they weren't FORCED to and could maintain democracy.  Uh huh. And I suppose the new entity could be called Greater Taiwan. (With perhaps a new national day, Oct. 5, a middle ground compromise?)  We agreed that time is all that is needed. With 5,000 years of dynastic drama, what's 50 or another 100?

Then Lao Shi, having connected with the group of painters who were doing demonstrations (although not choosing to do demos herself) said to me, "You want to [do] painting?"  (I'm not making fun here; her English is 10,000 times better than my Mandarin). Which led to ME demonstrating bamboo and simple landscapes to young Chinese.  "If I can do this, you can do this," I said to a puzzled young boy.  The fellow painters seemed to think my work was acceptable, and Lao Shi had been more than gracious in introducing me.  I suppose it was no more strange than a Norwegian teaching Cantonese in Hong Kong.

Then the older painter to my left, who seemed to like my landscape, and was surprised I'd only been studying since January, put my name on my painting in his beautiful calligraphy.

My Name (not really)

Lao Shi said I had courage to do this; I said I hoped I hadn't embarrassed her.  In all honesty, I felt my work that afternoon was not that good: the ink was too thin, the paper was poor quality, the day was too hot, I was using someone else's brush, under some pressure to perform.  Still...

Then we watched some young dancers and a nice little king fu demo by a young boy; the mirror opposite of the event two weeks ago featuring Mr. Iron Crotch.

The New Power Jet?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Soup du jour, hao chi!

As I have commented before, soup is an art. Today's soup was again constructed with the broth from a stripped huli huli chicken, heavily seasoned with ginger and garlic, a few days ago. Well, a week ago, really. I added a can of Swanson's chicken broth for volume, and then the Wizard said,"There's a container of frozen vegetable and pork broth in the freezer you can use."

Pork broth? Who makes pork broth? What is pork broth? I have never seen a recipe that calls for pork broth.

The Wizard frequently cooks vegetables -- strange combinations like cabbage and beets -- with a piece or two of sliced pork loin (cut for tonkatsu) laid on top, in a clever electric steamer that collects broth in the bottom. Hence, vegetable and pork broth.

I added the frozen block of broth, nicely tinted red from the beets, to the soup, with carrots, mushrooms, a can of cannellini beans and some macaroni, and a can of canned chicken, to complete a sort of Italian/Chinese concoction what with the ginger and a flourish of Italian seasoning, and it was delicious.

I suppose I could get very Gourmet Magazine (except it's biting the dust) and create a recipe that calls for half a cup of pork broth. As for now, you can just enjoy my photo and figure it out yourself.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Kung Fu Kitties

It is said that taijichuan was created by Zhang San Feng after observing a crane and a snake fighting. But the natural world must be full of martial arts inspirations. Cats practice regularly: Mini Tiger Fist! (Do check out the comments in this link.) Although they are natural fighters, they hone their skills good naturedly with each other, just like human martial artists. (Please indulge here my ongoing attempt to make Vincent Zhao/Chiu Man Cheuk a popular household god.) My home has been a feline martial arts studio for years. The late Mao O'wau, (below) and Mao Xiao Xin, a huge silver tabby, both neutered males, sparred in a sunny corner of my study every morning. Although sometimes it sounded vicious, blood was never drawn, and afterward they sprawled out together to nap in the sun. Very often the smaller O'wau took down the larger (oddly named) Xiao Xin with his more agile footwork and stance, the way smaller sumo wrestlers can topple much larger guys.

Mao O'Wau Ready for Push Hands

My current domestic cats, Fifi the Demure, and Lao Hu, the Yellow Emperor, don't practice together. My impression is when the male and female fight, it is serious (although I think Fifi taunts Lao Hu). Generally when he approaches her to play, she lays back ears, growls and hisses until he slinks away, trying to lose as little face as possible. We sometimes can entice them to hunt cooperatively with the laser pointer; Fifi is a pouncer (good technique for mice and geckos), Lao Hu is a chaser (good for rabbits and antelope). They clearly hand off the appropriate attack method depending on the behavior of the pointer.

So Lao Hu tries to engage me; when he was younger and more aggressive, he would shred my calves; now he attempts a kind of kitty wing chun with weapons retracted. I think I have to get him a student, a new young male kitten (Er Xiao Xin) to train.

Fifi actually bit me last week. I was brushing her dense coarse coat with one of those flat wire brushes; she loves it and demands the attention, but females sometimes exhibit a kind of electric attack moment in the midst of what appears to be orgasmic pleasure. Usually a sweet and affectionate cat who greets us with her fat belly exposed and feet flopping in the air, she drove all four fangs deep into my forearm. It hurt like hell for a week, but no infection set in. I was thinking of Sigfried and Roy; she didn't mean it, but I wouldn't want her around if she weighed 500 pounds. Or even 25. Well, maybe, but she certainly wouldn't get the regular grooming!
Fifi, Maybe Not So Demure

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Morning, Moon, Mountains

Can you see the morning moon in this image, waning, but still dramatic? The fig leaves are kind of pointing to it. The black thing to the south-west in the sky is really a small spider weaving a web in that very same lanai fig tree.

The moon was quite nice last night as I drove home, top down, from the fifth of ten lessons in my current third session of Chinese painting classes that I started last January and continued through the summer. Coming up the freeway, the moon dogged me while I sniffed the damp earth exuding the delicious smell of the recently burned kiawe, the air a little like lapsang souchang tea. The weather has changed a bit, and I've been driving top down again lately, which I especially like to do at night.

I guess I sort of passed my mid-term in class; Lao Shi approved my little landscape and didn't want to change it; the rest of the class applauded.

My Little Landscape

This could have been because she and the class focus more on flower and bird painting, not shan shui/shui mo landscapes. Or maybe everyone was just being polite. But someone commented, "Wow, that's hard, did you copy it, or think of it yourself." I used the taught techniques, but the landscape did come out of my own mind, inspired partly by the views of the Waianae ridge (see below) on the way home in the evening, their jagged rift-volcanic summits demarcating the line between earth and heaven, Wudangshan memories, and images from the Red Cliff movies. What I find hard, or possibly less personally compelling, is the xie yi flower style. One young woman in the class brought her homework, gorgeous peonies, a copy of one of Lao Shi's demonstrations. "But I can't do that," I said. She told me she's been studying for five years and it was only after two that she started doing flowers. All Taoist cultivation (and this is indeed a cultivation exercise) takes time.
I will just keep on keepin' on my own path, like the little guy in the corner of my painting.

Walking My Path

Waianae Range from my lanai in the morning.
Just so there's no confusion, the image in my blog title above is NOT the Waianaes, it is Wudangshan, Hubei Province, in China.
And speaking of the moon, this just seems so wrong.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Blaming the Moon

I think John Blofeld (see previous post) would like that I started to read his next book, Old Pu's Travel Diary, on the eve of Zhongqiu Jie (Mid-Autumn Festival). It appears to be an expansion of City of Lingering Splendor, a bigger memoir and all the more poignant because he wrote it while he was dying, in Chinese, no less. I will think of him as I drink tonight while gazing at the moon from my lanai.

It's always a little hard for me to decide what to read next; the options are infinite. Pawing through my over-abundant to-read pile, I considered Lamb by Christopher Moore; the latest Botswana book by Alexander McCall Smith; a couple of "serious" books considering whether Jesus went to India or Tibet during the missing years; and another China memoir, "Socialism is Great", by Lijia Zhang, a post-Cultural Revolution testimony and coming-of-age story.

I chose Blofeld. I blame it on the moon, which also happens to be the name of a terrific restaurant (named after a song) where I dined in Palm Springs just about exactly a year ago. I think there was a full moon then, too, though it might not have been Zhongqiu Jie.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Happy Birthday NEW China?

Appropriately, this morning on the 60th anniversary of the PRC, I finished reading John Blofeld's City of Lingering Spendour, A Frank Account of Old Peking's Exotic Pleasures written in 1961. It was the latest in a series of memoirs of old China that have occupied my attention over the past few months. Unlike Carpenter's 1920s travelogue and Graham Peck's books about the war years in Changsha, Chengdu and Kunming, this was was set in Peking, in the last years just before the Japanese occupation, and then for a brief time before the Communists took Peking. It recalls David Kidd's memoir of the same period which I read a few years ago. China was THE place to go for a young man of means in the 30s. In some ways, it still is.

All these books recall a romantic Middle Kingdom that any longer only exists in wuxia film, those stories about Han Chinese wanting to take back their country from whoever was occupying it--Tartars, the Japanese, the Manchurians, European concession holders, troublesome emperors, and so on. The history of China, really. (Vincent Zhao has said that "The Master of Tai Chi" was originally meant to be a contemporary story--about himself, perhaps--but that it was changed to 1930s China because it is "more popular.")

Maybe one way to come to grips with history is just to start over: hence the 60th anniversary of a 5,000-year-old culture. Still it's a little sad-- old China becomes frozen like Egypt, Greece, and Rome, while Beijing and Hong Kong and Shanghai become more and more like LA or Chicago.

Blofeld was a scholar of Eastern traditions -- Taoism and Buddhism -- and has written other books more specifically about his experiences with those topics. City of Lingering Spendour is his account of times spent with old time Taoist hermits, literati, students, and Buddhist monks visiting duck restaurants, flower-girl houses (more geisha-like than brothels), and parks and sacred mountains. His adventures weren't quite the same as Graham Peck's, but equally intriguing. Blofeld's comments about political situations are more incidental, things happening outside his own life. Peck was an artist and an OWI communications and information officer; Blofeld was a teacher and a mystic seeker. But they both were emotionally torn by leaving China on the eve of the People's Republic. Neither had any confidence in Chiang Kai-Shek, and fully expected (in the sense of hoping) the Communists to improve things, but neither cared to risk sticking around to find out.

At the end of CLS, Blofeld writes in a postscript called "Dawn?" about a visit 10 years after the Communists "entered the city in triumph" (but before the Cultural Revolution):

"From all I hear and read, I cannot doubt they have accomplished much that was desirable and even more that seemed desirable to them. ... The former inmates of flower-houses and brothels have been re-educated to serve society in less intimate ways. Even flies, they say, have been abolished.

"Massive concrete blocks of workers' flats and government offices soar above the low grey roofs of medieval dwellings--relics of a feudal past scheduled for gradual elimination. ... The ghosts of Confucius and Mencius have fled to escape chastisement by sages Marx and Mao.

"No one starves or freezes, which was, alas, not always so. ...

"In all seriousness, who can doubt that much of this is for the good? ... And yet?

"The world must be in some sort poorer for the loss of "Old" Peking ... a living flame from the ancient views of a civilization as unique as it was venerable."

I'm looking forward to starting another of his books, My Journey in Mystic China: Old Pu's Travel Diary, which was originally published in 1990 in Chinese. "Old Pu" was Blofeld's Chinese moniker; he even acquired Pu Tai Tai before he left Peking 60 years ago.