Vajrayana Buddhism Association

The Path
By Tam Shek-Wing
(The original Chinese text is to be published as the preface in The Art of Tam Shek-Wing, a collection of Tam’s painting curated by Ma Peng.)

My time in the arts began with a goat-hair brush.

Following old traditions, the hundredth day after birth is called baizui (百晬). Zui means an age or a cycle and has been the wording since before the Qin dynasty (221 – 206 BC). On the day of baizui, all kinds of objects are piled up in a giant ring. Among these objects are the four jewels in the study (brush, ink, paper and ink stone), rouge and face powder, an abacus and accounting books, embroidery and clothing, and then there is food, shoe polish, and so on and so on. The baby is placed in the centre of the ring. Adults gather around to see what the child would grab, and they are not to provide encouragements. What the baby ends up grabbing is seen as an omen, a sign of the baby’s temperament and his tendency in the future.

Such traditions were kept alive in my home city of Guangzhou in the 1930s. On the day of my baizui, the first thing that I grabbed was a goat-hair brush. My father was very happy. He saw this as a sign that this child would inherit Tams’ grand cultural tradition. My great grandfather, Tam Guang-Naam, was famous for his brush paintings of peonies. He was the first president of Tongwen Guan, a school for foreign languages in Guangzhou. As a result, his paintings were shown abroad. My great grand-uncle, Tam Guang-hing, was known for his calligraphy. He was an official of Ganzhou. His political record and his calligraphy were equally respected during his times. My father was famous for his cursive and semi-cursive calligraphy. For the big families in Guangzhou, owning his calligraphy was considered an honour. My uncle, Tam Siu-Fu, was famous for his seal carving and guqin playing (seven-string Chinese instrument). Because the family had produced three generations of literati, the Tams saw this as an important tradition. Among the cousins of my generation, none had yet to show talent in any way literati. So when my father saw me grabbing a brush, he was very happy. Right away he reached out to uncle Siu-Fu, trying to figure how to best nurture this child.

So. This goat-hair brush determined my interest for a lifetime.

Before I turned three, my father and my uncle began teaching me how to handle a brush as well as ink grinding. I was then left to scribble and play on my own. It was such a happy feeling that I felt at the time. This feeling is still fresh in my mind as if it was yesterday. When I was five I began imitating calligraphy from old masters. Mr. Tong Siu-But was hired to teach me poetry and calligraphy. Mr. Tong was a famous poet and one of the “Group of Latter Five” (“Five Latter Poets of Southern Garden”). There was a very famous poet of this group, Mr. Liu Yazi (1887–1958).1 Therefore, it is easy to imagine Mr. Tong’s status in the literary world.

In the same year, Mr. Zhang Chunchu, a famous painter of the Geshan painting tradition, became a regular houseguest at the Tam’s residence. During his visits, I was often seen in the midst of doodling. He thought that this toddler held a brush properly and had a natural rhythm. Mr. Zhang wanted to then become my teacher. At the time, he was highly regarded in the Cantonese art scene, and among the famous Geshan painters, he was the elder painter under Mr. Gao Jianfu. Of course my father promptly agreed and told me to follow him. This marked my beginning as an apprentice painter. If it were not for that brush that I grabbed on the day of my baizui, I would not have apprenticed with Master Chunchu, because my father would not have encouraged me to play with brushes and ink in the first place.

The Geshan tradition began with the Ju brothers, Ju Chao (1811–1865) and Ju Lian (1828–1904). Because they came from the town of Geshan in Guangzhou, their tradition was named accordingly. Geshan made a huge impact to the overall Lingnan tradition of painting. Many renowned artists arose out of this tradition. There were no painters that were not influenced by it. The specialty is zhuang fen (撞粉) and zhuang shui (撞水). Take zhuang fen. When drawing a flower, one begins by drawing the petals in colour. After the colour dries slightly you dip the brush with some white. From the tip of the petal you brush in the opposite direction. This collision of white against colour blend together to form a flower that is not only lush but also vivid. At the same time one can see the brush stroke. This method is called bangong banxie (半工半寫), or half-crafting-half-freehand. Zhuang shui, on the other hand is better suited for leaves and stems. One also begins with ink and colour. After drying slightly one dips the brush in water, and then with a counter-stroke the water clashes with the colour creating a textured finish, which also impacts on how light is reflected on the leaf.

Mr. Chunchu first taught me the shuang gou (雙鈎) sketching technique. I still remember his first lesson. The object was the narcissus flower. Mr. Chunchu taught which brush stroke was good for the blossom and which stroke was good for the leaves. He approached the painting with calligraphy strokes. For example, there are three kinds of calligraphy, zhuan (篆書), li (隷書), and the cursives (行草), that are suited for the narcissus leaves. After a year, I had only attempted narcissus, chrysanthemum and orchid—three types of flowers. If I did not follow his instructions with the right strokes, Mr. Chunchu would show his displeasure.

At the same time, my father taught me to appreciate old stone etchings of calligraphy by past masters. Li Beihai tended to over-stroke. In other words, at the end of a stroke his brush tip always turned around and upwards before proceeding to the next stroke. On the other hand, Zhao Mengfu never over-stroked. His brush tip tended to be vertically downward. As a result, his knife stroke never actually shapes like a knife. A downward brush tip cannot form a knife-shaped stroke. An appreciation of the positioning and the denseness (or sparseness) of the strokes are important in the overall structure and shape of characters. Zhuan, li, cursive, and semi-cursive form different structures. My father also taught me to observe the whitespace. This is what masters in the past called jibai danghei (計白當黑). A schematic for the white is a schematic for the black. When Mr. Tong Siu-But taught me cursive calligraphy, he first taught me a “limerick” on the secret of cursives and then to learn from the cursive calligraphy of previous masters. This happened to correspond to the teachings of Mr. Zhang. When sketching branches and leaves, I figured out how to accomplish their placement. Without pretense, the density or the scarcity was natural and just right.

When I was nine, Mr. Zhang passed away. By then I had learnt mogu (outline-less) flowers, birds and insects. Uncle Siu-Fu then began introducing me to some elder painters. These painters were all of traditional schools. They did not like Geshan and Lingnan styles. Mr. Zhang Xiangning told me to study Jieziyuan (芥子園), a Chinese painting manual compiled in the early Qing dynasty (1644–1912). This was when I began learning the traditions of Liejing (獵京派) and Hai (海派), but I did not get very far. This style of painting is a collection of strokes totally devoid of feelings. It was only when I used li strokes for vines that it felt right.

And then, passing the time muddle-headed, I turned sixteen. I felt that I did not live up to my father’s effort. Then, I got to know the second-generation Lingnan painter, Mr. Zhao Chongzheng (1910–1968). Wu Xihua and I became his students around the same time. Mr. Zhao wanted me to start from scratch with drawing; he introduced Mr. Lin Rongjun as my teacher. For the two years that I was learning to draw, I was to learn sketching at the same time. Only then was Mr. Zhao willing to teach me Chinese painting. Mr. Zhao also introduced me to some elder masters. He said, “You do not have to learn their way, but you must be acquainted with their methods.” Thus, I became familiar with the Song Royal Court style, lush landscapes, Southern style landscapes, and mogu floral techniques. Among all of these styles, I best liked wenren (文人) or literati paintings. Only in wenren paintings can one enter into what Shi Tao said about “one stroke.” By “one stroke,” it is about drawing the mental realm that arises in the painter’s mind. With that frame of mind, the stroke flows out the brush, spontaneously expressing this realm. Because the realm takes the lead, no matter how many physical strokes that follow there is still only one stroke. Although the brush strokes are spontaneous freehand strokes (because one has become so used to traditional calligraphy and painting techniques) then, with ink and brushes as tools, the painting can present a state of mind that is unique and expressive. Old masters spoke of “poems in paintings” to mean that a painting can be poetic. In this manner, ink and brushes not only lead to shapes, but also to a poetic realm.

This is why I enjoy wenren painting very much. Shen Zhou’s (1427–1509) landscapes are wenren paintings; Tang Bohu’s (1470–1523) landscapes are not as good. Let me put it this way. Tang only doodled about, while Shen truly poured in his artistic intent. Among the painters during Ming dynasty (1368–1644), the one with the most vivid style is Xu Qingteng (1521–1593). He lived a very difficult life. And yet, this became his artistic realm. Looking at his paintings is like listening to the song, Erquan Yingyue (二泉映月), Reflection of the Moon on Erquan Spring. When I listen to Erquan Yingyue, the so-called “Erquan Spring” is like the mind’s eye of the blind musician, Ah Bing (1893–1950), looking at Xu’s paintings. In Xu’s paintings, from his ink strokes one can see a prisoner breaking free; this prisoner has a self-esteem that is boundless. In his eyes, an ordinary man who draws within the line, this line becomes his prison.

Of all the modern painters I most like Huang Binhong (1865–1955) and Pan Tianshou (1897–1971). Their paintings are sharply distinct from each other, yet they are both expressive wenren paintings. When Pan passed away, I edited a collection of his paintings published by Artist Publishing Company (藝術家). Sadly, it did not live up to Pan’s standard; the resulting book was printed badly, and there were many typographical errors. But it did express my filial respect to him and his works. Huang’s and Pan’s paintings affected me greatly, not so much in the appearance but much more in the core, in the spirit.

In New York, I got to see a book of Chen Baiyang’s (1483–1544) paintings of peonies. These were authentic paintings and I was so immersed in them. Chen’s paintings are more “gentlemanly” than Xu’s. This has something to do with the difference in experience. Their temperaments are different as well. But the expressed state of mind is the same. Chen’s subject is the peony, but it is evident that decadence and splendour are not what he was after. His peonies are well-tempered as a scholar. Being a commoner has one’s own self-respect. Extravagance is not necessary for self-sufficiency and dignity. Being at ease with oneself is wealth, which is the spirit of peony. Having perused the collection, my brush use has since changed. I can even paint landscapes with the same technique.

When I draw, it is for my own entertainment. I draw when the inspiration comes. Sometimes when I meditate, a picture arises in the mind. From there I proceed from the meditation to a play of brush and ink. As long as I can express how I feel it does not matter whether the picture is good or not. This cannot be said as zen. It is merely a reflection, when an ordinary person abides by a state of mind.

Someone once commented that my paintings often have different styles. This is not true. It is only that I often have different feelings. Shi Tao once wrote in his painting “frozen eyebrows, realization of Hīnayāna.” Shi Tao was a practitioner of Mahāyāna.2 Because he had a feeling of “frozen eyebrows”—a cessation of one’s consciousness, the mind perceives non-conceptually—he then referred to this as the meditative state of a Hīnayāna practitioner. In Shi Tao’s paintings, one can sense his different facets co-existing. This is the expression of the mind.

It has been seventy odd years since I first learnt how to paint. I do not think I have achieved anything with painting. I am also unmoved by the insanely high market prices. Painting is for the cultivation of the soul and I have gained much along the way. When I finish a painting, I post it on the wall and look at it. This way I feel that I am befriending masters of the past. Sometimes with Xu and Chen, sometimes with Huang and Pan, sipping my tea—this makes me very happy.

Thinking back to the day of my baizui, grabbing onto a goat-hair brush, my father thought that my future achievement would be in calligraphy and painting. This turns out not to be the case. My achievement is in Buddhism, my writing in Buddhism and my translation of Buddhist scriptures. Now that I have published close to seventy books, I am still at it. Perhaps it does count as a tiny little achievement. Perhaps it is not really an achievement, but rather a testament to what I have done, which is what that brush ought to symbolize. I rarely have my own solo exhibition. I have also not published my collection. Now that my paintings are collected in book form, I am afraid it is only a record. For a person who has practiced Buddhism for fifty years, and painted for seventy years, now these paintings are actually fit to be printed for others to see. This is a chronicle of my path.

Please give me comments and critique. I love a dialogue.

1 Translator note: Liu Yazi was a famous poet as well as a politician. He served as the chief secretary Sun Yat-Sen of Nationalist China in the early 20th century. He was also famous for having a poetry correspondence with Mao Zedong.

2 Translator note: Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna are two schools of Buddhism. Hinayana literally means “little vehicle” and Mahāyāna means “great vehicle.” Despite the apparent different “vehicles” of teaching, in the Lotus Sūtra (Chapter 2 on skillful means), it was said that
      ...all those Buddhas and Lords, Sariputra, have preached to beings
      by means of only one vehicle, the Buddha-vehicle, which finally
      leads to elightenment... It is but my skillfulness that prompts
      me to manifest three vehicles; for there is but one vehicle.

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