Several Anecdotes of My Fellow Qi Lan
Source: Author:Huang Jian Date: 2013-12-30 Size:
The fallow time of more than ten years would be enough for Qi Lan to figure out all the perplexities in life and art, as far as his intelligence is concerned...

Qi Lan's work

I.The Right to Not to Know

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once said that “Apart from the right to know, people should have the right not to know. The latter is of much more significance, which means a noble spirit would not be troubled by the nonsense and vain talks. Information overload is an unnecessary burden for a person living a full life.” Of all the people I know, Qi Lan has been the strongest supporter for “the right not to know”。 In my memory, we were still young about a dozen years ago when we had neither family to support nor any occupational titles and professional labels. We idled around and didn’t have any ambitions, wasting willfully our talents and inspirations. If someone called us “artists” or “critics” intentionally or unintentionally, we would answer back half-seriously, “Who are you cursing?” As my ingrained habits cannot be cast off easily, I often make contemptuous comments on the contemporary artists and events. As far as I can remember, once an old famous painter of Chinese traditional painting was holding a solo exhibition, and I commented that he drew sketches with Chinese brush in his young age, and then made his painting like pen drawings in his old age. When Qi Lan heard my words, he said seriously, “What does it have to do with you? His paintings are not mean to be shown to you.” In contrast to my fussy response, Qi Lan had much more composure. What does it have to do with you? If you are concerned with commenting the vulgar things, you have fallen into the category of the vulgar. “Not meant to be shown to you”——such remark showed his contempt as well as his transcendence, which was so meaningful that it lingered long in my mind.

However, it is not easy to shut one’s eyes and mind. Qi Lan copes with information overload by limiting his readings to the classic and traditional, and confining his hobbies to the unexpected and unpopular. He identifies his job with earning a living rather than making a fame, and regards art as self-entertainment rather than currying favors. As a result, he always keeps a detached and peaceful mind. In the eyes of the outsiders, he looks a little bit old-fashioned beyond his age, secret, and even artificial, whereas his old acquaintances know that it is a kind of nonconforming attitude, self-oldenizing and of course a discourse strategy.  

Qi Lan’s friends would think of the same word to describe him——smart. In a circle where people earn their living by intelligence, such comment shows that he is truly smart. In my understanding, his extraordinary retentive memory and his literary talent are only the surface. His intelligent advantage comes from his undoubtable knowledge source and unique self-justification. In other words, he is confident and overpowering because he has left out the “nonsense and vain talks” in sifting information and kept only the most interesting and useful part for his later study. Anyone who triggers off a topic that he is interested in has to listen to him with respectful attention. Even those people who have some thoughts of their own on the topic would be brought over by his “language violence”, admiring his eloquence and giving up in their heart.

In the time when the excessive amount of information has become a burden and reading has become fast food, the intellectuals and artists would inevitably have the desire to nag about their views. Everyone boasts that he dispels the post-modern “mist” and sees through the essence of the life and world, whether he is an unfriendly radical or a self-assured satirist citing the past and traditions to disparage the present. In fact, the partial truths they hold are what they pick up from others’ thoughts in the overload of garbage information, which are not different from the so-called “chicken soup” that they despise, as it smells of chicken but has no nutrition. The intellectuals make themselves fuzzy-headed by their vain words before they try to make their readers fuzzy-headed, and the artists make themselves giddy by their strange images before they try to make their audience giddy. In comparison with those well-informed people, Qi Lan is single-minded in his persistence in the right not to know. What‘s more, he shows great self-control in refraining from expressing himself in the hubbub although he is very good at painting and writing and he knows that cheap expressions can also bring back fame and benefits. Looking back from now, Qi Lan showed a certain foresight ten years ago. He may have stood out from his peers if he was not so stingy in the use of his language and painting talent, but what he may have lost would be ten years’ silent honing of his thoughts. A genius often comes in to being when he idles about. The more time he is suppressed in an idle state, the better ideas he will come up with. Of course there are times when Qi Lan cannot endure such suppression and he finds outlet in talking with his friends about his thoughts. Whenever Qi Lan is present, he can lead the conversation topics to where he is interested in and keep talking for long time. His friends are used to his having “the discourse power”, enjoying listening to his opinions and letting him vent out his suppression over a long time.

II. Another Globe

Milan Kundera wrote a joke in his novel The Unbearable Lightness in Life:Under the reign of the Soviet Union, a Czech went through a lot of difficulties before he was finally approved to immigrate to a foreign country. When the immigration officer asked him which country he would like to go, he turned the globe over and over and studied it carefully, and then he asked the officer, “Is there another globe?”

Qi Lan has told me this joke for many times, and every time he told it with relish. It is Qi Lan,who would repeat what interests him without feeling tired even though his listeners may have heard of it before. This joke is an irony for those people having blind pursuit or aspiration for life: when the pursuit itself is doubtful, there is nothing left for self-support. Our aspirational spirit may be ignorant, and our pursuit may be unwise, because nothing is meaningful when there is not another globe. As a smart person, Qi Lan must have such disillusionment. However, it is impossible for him to keep a tense relationship with the reality all the time, and to let his pen lie idle all the time with so many deep insights in his head, and his talent and temperament find expressions in the work he has to do. Over the course of 10-odd years, his articles and his paintings have earned him the fame of “critic” and “painter”。 I don’t think that is what he wants to do most, because his working conditions and process are not pure and pleasant enough for him. In comparison, he has invented more time on his “hobby” and gained more fun from it.

One of his long-lasting hobbies is collecting seal stones, which requires wide knowledge, aesthetic judgment, active hunting, crazy infatuation, meticulous care, bold choice, big expenditure, and an open mind for failure. This hobby can help killing time and satisfying the sense of vanity. I think the reason why Qi Lan is obsessed with the seal stones is not only the stones’ irresistible charm, but also an undisputable sense of authority he gains from his collection. As a precious and rare resource, most of the good seal stones are hoarded by rich but ignorant people, and the carving techniques are learned and mastered by the folk artists who have received little formal education. With his sharp judgment on the quality of the seal stones and his familiarity with its carving art, and with his increasingly fine collection, he has become an expert and authority in this not-so-big circle, leading the taste and trend. I don’t think he wastes his talent or demean himself on this hobby. Rather than seeking for the soul mates in the noisy art circle, it would be better to stroke those silent and graceful stones at home; rather than dealing with the so-called well-informed people, it would be better to teach and discuss art with those knowledge-hungry folk stone-carving artists. Enjoying an authoritative position like a “hierarch” in a certain field is a benign diversion for him. The criterion that I always use to judge if a person is interesting or not is to see whether he would do some “useless” things in his life, because an uninteresting person is destined to be devoid of the quality to make big achievements.    

For many years, reading taste has always been my standard to decide if a person is in my league or not, and a well-tested method is the reading of A Dream of Red Mansions. Although there are many passages in the Confucian classics which are worth reading over and over, A Dream of Red Mansions is the “popular classic book” written in the most penetrating words and with the truest feelings. It would be unimaginable to me if a Chinese “scholar” has no interest in this book, and I would doubt if there is a solid basis in his creation and qualities. I stubbornly apply this principle in judging everyone I know. To my great pleasure, Qi Lan and I have a lot in common in our understanding of A Dream of Red Mansions, including the beautiful expressions, the tragic fates of the characters, the author Cao Xueqing’s sympathetic worries, the poor follow-up part written by Gao E, and the judgment on the experts of different camps on this book.

Therefore, I can understand why Qi Lan stands ground so firmly. As a person’s temperament and talent may be worn out in the social life, the only way to prevent the fall into the maelstrom of Kitsch is to keep a clean and free mind. Milan Kundera said, “None of us is a superman, strong enough to escape the influence of Kirsch entirely. Kirsch is a part of human life, no matter how much we despise it.” Since an entire escape is impossible, what Qi Lan chooses as his soul companions are the pure-minded Lin Daiyu, the good-for-nothing Jia Baoyu, and the precious seal stones, disregarding all the accepted secular values. In his mind, “the virtualized life” is more important than the universal logic, and he would rather keep silent to you if you are not one of a few persons who share something in common with him. If you untimely talk about the secular matters and values in front of him, he would straightly ask you to “have a sit in another room”。

III. It Is the Time

As a Chinese saying goes, “At forty, one has no more doubts about the world.” It is the time to act.

Over the years, many friends have persuaded Qi Lan to show more of his paintings, but he is never in a hurry. Until the recent two or three years, he occasionally show one or two of his works to his friends, testing the response confidently. My impression is that his works are quite different from the ones I saw in the earlier years.

Qi Lan receives professional training in painting at the art institutions. What I have seen most about his works in the past years are the water and ink paintings, which emit the temperament of a genteel scholar, and are featured by the free brushstrokes without blind copy of the classical traditional paintings. It is obvious that Qi Lan has got out of the bewildering maze of the Chinese traditional painting, and has seen through the various traps in term of discourse and technique. As a result, he soberly picks out the painting language which suits his personality, without being blindly loyal to or confused about the tradition. I think he may have achieved a lot if he had continued in this way. Nevertheless, he didn’t continue like that.

The deeper is one’s understanding of a cultural tradition, the more pessimistic he would be about the possibility of its revival in the changed atmosphere of the present society. Moreover, the smarter a person is, the less interest he would have in “carrying on” a small part of the cultural tradition. Qi Lan is once very interested in Dong Qichang, but he knows very clearly that it is impossible to produce another person like Dong Qichang at present or in future. I figure that it is the reason why Qi Lan doesn’t intend to continue with painting water and ink works. At least, he doesn’t like the ill-timed label of “ an artist of Chinese traditional painting”。

Urged and pushed by his friends, these days Qi Lan has been working diligently and finally he has enough works for a solo exhibition, titled “Bye, Mr. Dong Qichang”。 As a matter of fact, for those who pick up what other people say, even if they don’t want to say goodbye to Dong Qichang, Dong Qichang would not bother to answer them. For those who take initiative to withdraw, such as Qi Lan, even when the distance is bigger and bigger, it is possible for them to meet Dong Qichang again at a certain corner, having a talk with him if in good mood, or just ignore him if in bad mood or in a hurry. Saying goodbye, you have left the marks of your true love; staying around, you just pose as a pretentious arty person. Rather than keeping an on-again and off-again clinging relationship, why not embracing a rebirth from the ashes of destruction?

When a man reaches the age of forty, he would have an increasingly stronger sense of waking up to his past folly after realizing what's right today, and he would more or less have a desire to “demonstrate his ideas in writing”。 The fallow time of more than ten years would be enough for Qi Lan to figure out all the perplexities in life and art, as far as his intelligence is concerned. He is so radical in that he now paints freely on the surface of his old paintings, and even tears his old paintings into pieces as the new material for his present paintings. It is his clear declaration——“I have good reason to play in whatever way I like. Just wait and see.”

As his old acquaintance, I would rather take this solo exhibition as a kind of communication between friends, because then we can rightly and confidently tell those people who cannot understand his paintings, “The paintings are not meant to be shown to you!” If I cannot understand his paintings to the full, I have to blame myself for being lazy in study and backward in thoughts. Anyway, although intuitively I feel his new paintings are good, I don’t dare to make any comment before he gives us an authoritative interpretation. What I can do now is to celebrate his exhibition with a poem: “Don't worry about the road ahead without a friend; a spray of red apricot blossom has already reached over the wall.”

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[Editor] 孙雯