Tang Nannan's Art
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乘气云,骑日月,而游乎四海之外


Cast the waves for the mountain foolishness

Nannan Tang has lived in Shapowei, which is surrounded by high mountains and ocean in the south of Amoy. When reading beside the window, Tang imagined Kinmen as his penholder and Penghu as his ink slab. As darkness fell, he chanted and sighed, staring at sea tides. Apprehending Prajna in the back streets, he was aware of the impurity of mother tongue. Reading the ways of the world on the shore, he realized heaven and earth are not benevolent. The roots of banyan, the boons of dogs and the foam of the waves nourish the abstraction style of Henry Moore. After weathered by winds and waves, the wrecked postwar forts become the fertile soil of moss and conches.

In his old photographs, people are absent-minded in the avenues and alleys; the noise of traffic floats away; the sadness is faint and long. I always think the red brick and the cement block will be smoothed into pebbles by ebbs and flows within days. What kind of deadwood is it, which cannot drift on the sea? How intense is the sorrow, crammed into the heart, which cannot be dissolved?

Nannan Tang is from Amoy abounded with oil pine trees. From the southeast blow the wind. The boats could sail into the sea for years without damage. The coast in our country stretches eighteen thousand miles. However Matsu, goddess of the sea, only lives in Amoy. With Matsu bless, fishery was flourishing there; ethnic groups sailed abroad and settled down. Amoy is the hometown of overseas Chinese from ancient times. Nannan Tang is also the descendant of the original Chinese and settlers in South Sea. Overseas Chinese were faced with the dilemma of whether to isolate themselves from alien culture, whether to maintain the belief and the memory of ethnic groups. They were missing their hometown profoundly on the drift and bore the conflicts between national and foreign cultures earliest. If you search key words about overseas Chinese online, you will get a lot about “discrimination”, “struggle” and “homesick”. Nannan was brought up in Overseas Chinese farm of a mountain. So whether do his ancestors regard South Sea as their home or other places? Whether does Tang regard the farm land as his hometown or just an alien land? Whether does Tang regard Hokkien as his mother tongue or a foreign language?

One juvenile with a strange and anile face always appears in Tang’s former paintings drawn in Amoy. The boy is womanish, weird and characterized with a horn on his head. The horn is actually the left top of a silk stocking over his head. The character that places a stocking over his head is a metaphor of escaping from the society. This boy always shows up rolling his body in a corner, deep in thought with a cigarette or peeping and smiling strangely, which is somewhat intangible and indescribable. Melancholy like pervasive smog lingers around him and no one can tell what the exact reason is.

So Tang came to the West Lake and learned from me. At the beginning, we discussed his subject informally. He said, what always haunted in his mind was the eighth vegetable market in Amoy, for there were fishy smells from butchering fish and muttony odour from eviscerating meat, as well as the mud left on the root and the bugs in the core of the fruit. I clapped: “This is the nostalgia.” The clean vegetables in the modern supermarkets are grown in greenhouses. The meat is fed in the intensive livestock farms. Almost all of them are processed in pipeline, divided by machine and vacuum packed. The smell, the mud and the bugs won’t bother us. Down-to-earth root is vanishing as well. So the missing of the eighth market is nostalgia rather than a quirk.

Hence, Tang studies nostalgia as his subject. Nostalgia has been an old topic: heartbroken when hearing the tinkle of bells; journeying alone at the edge of the world; overlooking a flock of wild geese flying away; or drinking a cup of turbid wine to swallow one’s sorrow. This kind of nostalgia has already hardened into fixed symbols long time ago. It’s a well, it’s a moon, it’s a tombstone, and it is the locust tree standing by the village gate. A group of German doctors in 19th century racked their brains to find a prescription to heal nostalgia, but failed. Today in the sight of agritainment and old-town tours, wells and trees descend to scenic spots; the Tomb-Sweeping Day and the Mid-Autumn Festival are nothing but business opportunities where the feeling of nostalgia can be bought. Since it seems that they can buy access to symbols that will make them feel nostalgic again. At this era, it’s easy to return home within one day and chat face to face online from afar by jet, high-speed rail and We-chat. So where is the nostalgia? My hometown has been a development zone; I become a stranger when back. So who could the nostalgia be sent to? Anything can be consumed when symbolized. Consumers replace the essence by minor matters; they care about the surface and ignore the spirit; they occupy the name and control the ideas. The eternal nostalgia has nowhere to go today. So it has to be shaped with no name or no face and enslaved to no place, no time, no person or no object. 

So Tang sprinkles the ink into ocean, casts the waves into mountains. So he flicks the sand and picks the gold. He elaborates the stories of drifters along the tidal flats. Separate individual like a falling leaf returns to the tangled roots of the history. He breaks out of the name and the face of the wandering melancholy, and then stands to sense and reason. When suddenly seeing the law of the universe, he no longer feels sorrow for himself. As a result, he abandons the oppression and solitude of the imp in the corner and creates vast and boundless visions, mournful but not distressing.

Some people say that archaic creatures have evolved from sea to land. Hence sea is the hometown of all the sentient beings. It may be said that Tang’s melancholy is the nostalgia of ocean deep in the unconscious gene. Hokkiens writing waves beside the sea is just like Mongolians are good at drawing horses naturally. But I don’t believe so. The obsession of the cape is nothing more than literary youth's romance. Has Odyssey’s soul ever rested after he was buried into the sea? Can’t Jingwei, a bird who tried to fill the sea, have any regrets? Ocean is just a word. Only the person who can let go of appearances and words can sublimate depression into vitality and get out of melancholy into great heaviness. Interestingly, Matsu's original name is Mo (Mo means quietness and silence). My nostalgia is supposed to be rooted in the whole world.

Nevertheless, he casts the waves into mountains. It is also ridiculous, isn’t? Zhisoa (literally” the old sage”) deems it foolish to move away the mountain. Since it is possible to move away the mountain with persistence, the man who wants to cast the waves into mountains is even more foolish than Yu Gong (the foolish old man). However, building a mountain means gathering ocean currents and floating reflections into an immortal hill. It desires to stop the time and freeze the waterfall into strings. But it’s to no avail. It's a trick of high-speed photography. Wouldn’t it be hopelessly foolish? 

I don’t think so. The wisdom of Yu Gong would free himself from his ego and convert the fertility of carrying on his family into the willpower of moving mountains. Heaven was greatly moved by Yu Gong’s sincerity. If one can be selfless, he will get rid of his lowliness and God will help him. The eternal Taihang Mountain makes way for Yu Gong’s family due to their perseverance. Those who strive ceaselessly won’t ascertain success or failure by one man; instead they look out for all the scenery and measure everything. Do what they can and get eternal relief. So we can’t say the wit of casting waves into mountains is different from the wisdom of Yu Gong.

So is there any other way to cast waves into mountains apart from mindfulness? We should reinvent our naked eyes. If we regard one instant as a thousand years, is the bump of a wave really different from the rise of the Himalayan? If we regard a thousand years as one instant, not only can we see tens of thousands of tempestuous waves falling and rising in the boundless sea, but also ephemeral life, born to die and born after death. Both replay over and over again in the same form and same state. Therefore the alternation of human affairs is just like waves in a coming tide. Though the body dies, the spirit will be revitalized. Though life is transient, the law will be immortal. One’s aspiration will never calm down like the rising tide, when he thinks of worlds of the trichiliocosm. Even the toughest stone can be ground into powder. In the eternal return, successors will come in time. Why must it be brought to fruition by me? Hence, casting waves into mountains can’t be unconstrained by fleeting time. It is to explore the phenomena and acquire the nature of things, to be absorbed in the oblivious-of-me moment and to enter into the carefree realm. So broad-minded he is, he may be said to see the law.

Virtually, Tang is my junior fellow apprentice instead of my apprentice. I once said:”There is no teacher or student, but fellow students that learn the truth later or earlier. ” All the apprentices learn from the nature, the tradition or the possibility. However, I’m not inclined to choose “possibility”, one borrowed word. I’d rather call my teacher as the unification of principle and expedient in Confucianism, as Yi-principle and as inherent laws of things. When able to learn beyond the platitudes and act up to the laws, he can see the true appearance of my teacher. It is Tang that makes it and turns out to be my junior fellow apprentice. Tang is devoted to practice for the past decade, plain and silent, and eventually makes a great achievement. It is enough to show that I am not cheated by the tradition and not isolated on the way. Besides, refined men are still alive, and then our hometown is not far any more.

Zhijie Qiu

Drafted in the car from Rotterdam to Paris, completed at Dubai Airport

March 5th, 2016