THE plum blossoms are blooming in Peking. You can spy them behind an embassy wall or in a park corner. In the few blooms I recorded after a difficult winter, the crescendo of my sojourn strikes. I count the days till the end of classes, yet wonder if I might not remain a bit longer to continue painting and a general exploration. I have been gathering things together to put in the one-cubic-meter box the institute where I teach will send back to the United States for me. A couple of rugs, some porcelain, silk cloths I've had made, and now brushes and painting scrolls. I can't recall when I decided to give more meaning to these last months by painting. My knowledge of the Chinese language is limited and the visual arts seemed the most promising domain. The Chinese have a great tradition of painting, and I have painted sporadically though with ardor during the many years I have been interested, essentially, in Western art.
So I went down to the Peking Fine Arts Institute off Wanfujing in midtown Peking and arranged to attend a class. I was placed in a studio with a group of advanced Chinese landscape painters who were all happy to help me. One copied a classical painting for my elucidation and presented it to me. Another demonstrated a brush stroke by making a group of mountains of the sort seen around Guilin. It's hanging on my wall now.
Last week the student painters left the capital for a month to paint from nature, some in Sichuan Province, some elsewhere. Before their departure I paid half the agreed price for a painting the most helpful student, Gao Bin, will execute for me from nature. It occurred to me he could use the money during the outing. When he returns, I'll pay him the rest and mount the work on a scroll.
Dong Chun Qi began this week to give me painting lessons. To demonstrate, he executed a plum branch in bloom and placed in characters beside it a poem we wrote collaboratively, something to the effect that ``on the other side of the wall plum blossoms sway in the wind.'' Then I tried to paint a branch using his as a point of departure. It came out in a way I find endearing, perhaps due to its scant awkwardness. I wanted to write something to this effect beside the result: ``Poor blossoms, you've had a difficult beginning.'' By the time this was at all conveyed, it came out in four or five characters as ``Cold winter, few blossoms.''
I'll continue working each week with Dong Chun Qi, who earns his salary teaching Chinese to Japanese and Russians. And I'll also have a lesson this week at the Peking Fine Arts Institute with a painter of flowers and birds. When the advanced landscape Chinese student painters return from the four corners of China, from Sichuan and Xian, from Lushan and other less-well-known but possibly even more stunning areas, I'll return to that studio to continue landscape painting.
In the meantime I can speak about modern English and American literature better to my Chinese students, who have grown up on realism, by comparing it with their own traditional painting and poetry.