brushes, electric blankets and China’s Mona Lisa

I love Chinese paint brushes. Each one is handmade and a work of art. I have just soaked these brand new goats’ hair brushes my husband brought back from Beijing, in readiness for a Chinese painting workshop which I will be conducting in a school very soon.

When you buy Chinese brushes, the hairs are protected by glue, so before you begin painting it is essential to give them a good soaking overnight.

In the 1980’s, I left Taiwan, where I had been studying Chinese language and painting for five years, to further my studies in China. I spent one year in Nanjing and the following year at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Art in Hangzhou.

China was very different back then with none of the modern conveniences you find today. Art materials were scarce and we even had to make our own sketch books, cutting and sewing the pages together. There was very little you could buy except the essentials needed for basic living.

One day, a man riding a bicycle cart, came into the school grounds. I was surprised because he was selling, of all things, electric blankets. This was a real luxury, as in winter, even though it was snowing outside, there was no heating in the rooms and hot water was rationed each day. In the classrooms, the windows were left wide open. And because the floors and walls were made of concrete, it was colder inside than out. I have never felt that cold before. We had to paint in our thick padded coats, padded cloth desert boots and fingerless gloves. But at least I had my electric blanket now and I could look forward to returning to my room and snuggling up in bed with my book and a mug of Long Jing green tea.

And yet, even though the conditions were harsh, especially for a pampered Australian like me, these were some of the happiest times I have spent. I loved studying with the local students and the simplicity of life. I also loved the beautiful honesty of the people and feel truly grateful to have had the opportunity to live in China during that part of its long history.

I started off learning gongbi (fine brush technique), painting birds and flowers. Then went on to da shan shui (landscape painting with big brush technique), and shu fa (calligraphy), which is considered the highest form of art in China.

It was a very exciting time for me taking classes with the local students who were the cream of the crop, as the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Art is considered the best place in China to study traditional Chinese painting.

The traditional way of learning Chinese painting is to copy the masters and so, during my year in Nanjing I copied a famous scroll, Qing Ming Shang Her Tu (Along the River During Qingming Festival). For 4 months I worked from extremely poor 1930’s reproductions, first tracing, then transferring the images onto painting paper using a tiny sable hair brush. It was a painstaking process and as my brushwork improved I had to begin all over many times. But each day I looked forward to entering the world of tenth century China with its hustle and bustle of fortune tellers, restaurant goers, storytellers, archery shops and much much more. It was truly fascinating.

The original hand scroll, Ching Ming Shang Her Tu is housed in the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City in Beijing and was painted by Zhang Zeduan. The painting is so highly regarded by the Chinese people it is referred to as the Mona Lisa of China. Not only is it a wonderful painting, but it is also an incredible historical record of what life was like in the then capital, today’s Kaifeng, during the Song dynasty (969 – 1279).

The special thing about a hand scroll is that you unroll it in sections starting from the right so that while the first part is rolled up the next part is revealed. It is like watching a movie with calm scenes and exciting scenes such as the climactic incident at the bridge which you will see later.

In traditional Chinese painting there is the absence of linear perspective. The way I describe this kind of perspective is like being in a helicopter that is rising very slowly and the artist is drawing what s/he sees at each stage, then puts these together to form one painting. So not only can you see the tree in the foreground but also the temple on the other side of the tall mountains. Of course this is just a crude way of putting it. I haven’t included the artist’s talent in composition and capturing the spirit of what s/he is painting

Qingming Shang He Tu is rarely exhibited, only once in every few years, so I feel privileged to have my own copy, even if it is my own poor handiwork. The original is monochrome on silk and in the 5.28-meter long picture, there are 814 humans, 28 boats, 60 animals, 30 buildings, 20 vehicles, nine sedan chairs, and 170 trees drawn.

When I was painting the figures, I discovered something rather odd. All the figures were male. I only found two women pictured and they are at the very end of the scroll.

Here are some sections of my own painted copy.

The scroll begins in the quiet of the countryside but if you look carefully, you can see a thief running away –

And then the river begins with boats and shops and more people –

And then there is the climax of the whole scroll. A boat is going to crash into the bridge!

(This wooden bridge was rebuilt by a team of engineers and documented by a PBS television show in the Secrets of Lost Empires series.)

And then we travel a bit further –

Until we come to a city gate –

And lastly, before the scroll ends there is the glimpse of the only two women I could find  –

10 thoughts on “brushes, electric blankets and China’s Mona Lisa

  1. Isn’t that interesting? I wonder if the all-male thing was deliberate or not? and if so, I wonder why?
    I am reminded of Gaye Chapman’s picture book Little Blue which is such a lovely story built around a little lost girl and a china plate.
    Very beautiful artwork Gabrielle, whether copied or not and I would dearly love to see the original.

    1. I have so many scrolls painted by me and by some of my teachers but my walls are either not high enough or long enough. It’s a shame that I can’t display my teachers’ work. Instead they are rolled up at the back of my cupboard.

  2. Exquisite, Gabi. Such a shame that some of our most precious treasures are packed away for lack of space, or safe keeping. (Well – that’s my case, anyway.)

  3. I would gain a lot of satisfaction in knowing how to understand and breakdown the story in a scroll. I love story telling in all its forms.

  4. Thank you, Gabrielle. In 2008 I bought a set of Chinese brushes in Xian and found I had to soak them for a very long time. Now I know why!
    What a wonderful experience it was for you, living and studying in China. Your work is superb. Rotating what is framed and on display on your walls might be a good idea. Thank you very much for sharing this special time and your painting with us.

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