A Graceful Ming Paintbrush

THE Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) began in a great wave of popular enthusiasm, as this native house had succeeded in rescuing China from the Mongol yoke. These invaders, under the sway of Genghis Khan, had managed to occupy the country, and under his son, Kublai, and later heirs had caused the Chinese much misery and shame. Now, it was thought, everything would change, and the name ``Ming'' implies as much - it means ``bright.'' In the main the people were to be disappointed, the record of the dynasty has many dark passages. However, full of zeal, the government lavished attention on an attempt to recover China's ancient past, making encyclopedias and commentaries, dictionaries and histories, while trying to perpetuate the ideal standards of antiquity. This view prevailed in the academies of art. But art in China was too great to be daunted for long, and fine artists did appear, among them Tang Yin, though in his lifetime he never received the recognition he deserved.

A man of ``great talents and a free spirit like bursting flowers and flying clouds,'' Tang Yin was born in Suzhou in 1470. This charming town, south of Shanghai, built on canals, with lovely gardens, was famous for the beauty of its women. It was an art center. Tang Yin, brilliantly intellectual, was a painter, a calligrapher, and a poet, and possessed an engaging personality. He was expected to gain the highest honors in the land in the national examinations, and thus be able to join the civil service.

If a candidate could pass these extremely difficult examinations in Beijing he would be eligible to receive a post in the bureaucracy, a remarkable service through which China continued to function even when dynasties fell and the country was in confusion. A member of the service was automatically considered one of the gentry. Many of the aspirants, indeed most of them, came from the gentry. It was a measure of the country's democratic understanding that ensured that anyone could compete. Tang Yin's father was not of the gentry - he was a restaurateur - but, aware of his son's gifts he provided tutors and support.

In those days the Wen family were preeminent members of the Suzhou gentry. Many were artists and scholars. They took a fancy to Tang Yin, befriended him in every way, and expected him to join their ranks at least in position and talent, though not in means. The pay of the officials was meager, but their prestige immense, as the ruling elite, the literati, the magistrates.

This halcyon period was shattered for Tang Yin when, before he went up for his finals, his father, mother, wife, and sister died in rapid succession. He began to drink heavily; his friends came to his rescue and persuaded him to return to his books and then go up to Beijing. Apparently confident, he arrived in the capital only to be overtaken by another catastrophe.

Tang Yin was accused of cheating by the authorities, who claimed that he had seen the questions in advance. He always protested his innocence, and certainly, even apart from the moral issue, he had no need to resort to foul play, extraordinarily able as he was. He seems to have been framed like many others before and after him. The examiners were implacable, and he was ruined, denied any suitable employment for the rest of his life, and refused permission ever to try again. He went back to Suzhou in disgrace, where he found himself largely ostracized. His life became disorderly and disreputable.

One resource remained to Tang Yin - his brush. He devoted himself to painting and calligraphy, becoming a great artist: Today his scrolls are to be found in major museums and galleries the world over. Prolific and imaginative he painted landscapes and beautiful women, influenced by the great Sung and Yuan masters, adept in many styles, creating vast splendid compositions. The lucious tones of his black ink, the sensitivity of his brush - now delicate, now bold - were highly praised, but he suffered from some contempt because he was a professional, working for money. The snobbish among the scholars were ungenerous.

THIS little handscroll, ``Serving Tea'' (ink on paper), thus strikes a pitiful note, as it shows an episode in a scholar's life: The artist well understood what it implied, but was cut off from it. This is perhaps suggested by the heavy rocks and trees which isolate the protagonists from the dusty world. Within, a scholar waits at his desk while his servant prepares tea for a guest who approaches over a bridge. The visitor is attended by his servant who carries a covered lute; they are to enjoy music while sipping tea. On the right is a beautiful view of mountains and water, with a waterfall, and mist.

To the left of all this is a poem by the artist in his fine calligraphy, on the subject of passing long summer days. Its title is inscribed by Tang Yin's old friend Wen Zhengming (who had gone on to enjoy a splendid career). On the other side of the painting, later owners, including three emperors, have left their seals. The picture now belongs to the Palace Museum in Beijing.

Tang Yin here idealizes the charmed circle of that life of the scholar official which he had been so cruelly denied. Many of these men left abundant evidence of the shortcomings of their profession. In their letters, poems and essays they bewail the ``life-partings'' with their friends as they were moved from post to post, often far off to distant provinces, where they were bored and lonely. They had to endure many slights at court; they felt poor. Whether Tang Yin would have made a good official we shall never know, but we do know he was a magnificent painter - many would consider this the more rewarding calling, and it earned him immortal fame.

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