August 16th, 2009

Why Call This Site the Vine Maple Studio?

Long ago, before I struggled all the way out of my teens, Herrlee Creel, Edward Kracke and the other sinologists of Hyde Park on the south side of Chicago shanghaied me from a normal life into the cult of the traditional Chinese scholar, my neglected true calling. The scholar in my dream spends his life working for the the lao bai xing, the people of the land, as a virtuous imperial official, then retires; forced by his stubborn refusal to compromise his lofty Confucian ideals, he retreats to a rustic setting, to study and write disinterestedly on topics that strike his fancy. There are several Chinese phrases for the scholar’s writing room, but they are all conventionally translated “studio.” The old farmhouse that we inherited from my parents is my studio, and the vine maple groves are on every side.

The furnishing of a scholar’s studio evolved into an art form in China. Mundane objects, such as rat whisker pokers used to prod pet crickets to sing on command became elegant objects of art.Water containers, brush racks, and paper weights all became respected symbols of scholarly virtue. Scholars kept their pet crickets in gourds meticulously grown in molds to assure perfect lines and in the summer, they brought out intricately carved ivory open work cages. Scholars also liked rocks and by the T’ang dynasty (7th C.) precise technical terms had already appeared for describing the thinness, wrinkling, holes and other characteristics of the rocks piled on a scholar’s desk.

The “four treasures of the scholar’s studio”wenfang-si-bao (wenfang si bao), – writing brush, ink stick, ink stone, and paper – occupy the heart of the scholar’s studio. Chinese characters were written traditionally with brushes that resemble western artists paint brushes. Chinese ink sticks are pieces of hardened natural resin mixed with lamp black. Often, ink sticks are molded into artistic shapes with interesting inscriptions. The ink stick is ground on a fine abrasive ink stone with water to form ink. Most ink stones have a little well where the prepared ink accumulates. The more ink that is ground into the water, the darker the ink. Before a Chinese scholar writes, he must grind ink. The fourth treasure of the studio is paper. The Chinese invented paper and the traditional scholar had many varieties to choose from, but in a remote studio, he made do with what he could get, or even made his own.

The Vine Maple Studio is my scholar’s studio. I don’t keep crickets, but I have a few rocks on my desk, and I have a few Chinese writing brushes, an ink stone, and a stick of ink, but I have never practiced writing with a brush for more than a few minutes. I do occasionally write a few Chinese characters, but I use whatever I happen to have– pencil, ballpoint or fountain pen, or crayon, and I have a hard enough time starting writing without grinding ink. Still, I call it it my studio.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>