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Long XYZ Blog

Long XYZ Blog

XYZ has had a number of meanings. In my youth you could say quietly  to some male friend at a party “XYZ!” and it meant: Examine Your Zipper! That is, Your Fly is Open. Today’s long blog isn’t about that; it will be in three parts, under those three letters.

- The X is about pronouncing that letter when it occurs in Chinese names and words written in pinyin, the transcription system now used pretty much everywhere to write the sounds of Chinese words. I write this one as a service to my readers who are not Chinese readers, or readers of Chinese. We see a lot in the news lately about someone named Xi Jinping, who is expected to become China’s next leader, but who has been out of public sight for several weeks, except for a brief appearance. I don’t mean to offer an opinion on where he was, but only to call attention to the trouble that news-people on TV have with pronouncing his name--and the names of Bo Xilai, the deposed power in Zhongqing, and others. They have been properly taught and get those X’s almost right, but not quite. So let me outllne some background information about pronouncing pinyin, the transcription system used in today’s China, replacing the older Wade-Giles system that was in common use until around the late 1960s or so. I will use “py” and “WG” for these.

Xi in py (hsi in WG--hard to type on computers because the correction system assumes you mean his and changes it to that)--xi in pinyin is pronounced almost, but not exactly, like English “she.” How different? The initial consonant is more in the front of the mouth, the teeth and tongue, instead of the back of the mouth. When we say “she” and “show” we think the initial consonant is the same, but with most people they are slightly different--in “she” it’s more frontal, in “show” further back. Pinyin distinguishes the two slightly different sounds by spelling the frontal one with an x, as in xi and xu (WG hsi and hsü--that u or ü is pronounced like the French u) and the back one with sh, as in sha and shou (WG same). The Chinese linguists who devised pinyin distinguished, that is, two slightly different sounds that English doesn’t, since it uses the same initials for she and show.. That is, they reflected a phonetic difference that was not a phonemic difference--a difference in sound that doesn’t make a difference In meaning.  

How do I come to know about phonetics and phonemics? Because I took a course of that title given in the Oriental Languages Dept. at U. C. Berkeley back ca. 1949, given by a remarkable woman named Mary Haas. The chairman of the department, the great Peter Boodberg, had hired her as (he felt) a necessary addition to a department that was heavily philological--devoted, that is, to the reading of old texts. He told us the difference: “Linguists go out and capture an informant, philologists go out and capture a text.” Mary Haas, an energetic red-haired woman, specialized in Thai and in American Indian languages and dialects--she told us one Friday that she was going off for the weekend to talk with the only other living speaker of their common tongue. And she taught us about such matters as the joining of words and compound words--the difference between “weeknight” and “weak knight.” (I embarrassed her by suggesting another in a paper: “catch it” and “----“ (meaning cat shit--proper ladies were still embarrassed by such vulgarities in 1949.)

Boodberg also taught us about the origins and development of the Chinese writing system. It isn’t a “pictographic” system--the Chinese don’t (as Symbolist poets once imagined) write in pictures; nor is it, properly, an “ideographic” system--the characters don’t write ideas. They write words--so it’s properly to be called, as Boodberg taught us, a logographic system. Most graphs or “characters” consist of a semantic element, a “radical,” that indicates a general range of meaning (water, fire, person, tree, etc.) and a phonetic element that indicates how it is to be pronounced. Each graph stands for a monosyllabic word, which consists of a vowel or dipthong that can stand alone or be preceded or followed, or both, by a consonant--in standard or “Mandarin” Chinese the final consonant can only be n or ng; in Cantonese words can end in other consonants. Monosyllabic words are commonly combined into bi-syllabic, or even tri-syllabic, compound words. The Chinese do not have (as the Japanese and Koreans do) a properly phonetic script, so they have to use characters for their sounds, for instance in the name Meiguo for America--mei country--the mei isn’t there for its meaning (“beautiful” but for its sound: the second syllable of A-mei-rica.. (Adopted into Japanese, it becomes Beikoku, inescapably “beautiful country.”)

Back to x’s in pinyin: in the early to mid-1970s, when this system was introduced in what we then called Communist China, scholars of Chinese had the option of beginning to use it or sticking with Wade-Giles; and of course the more progressive (such as Fred Wakeman) adopted it immediately, while the more regressive (including myself) held out for some years. I was just beginning to write my series of books on later Chinese painting, and when I saw that the first important artist in my Yuan-dynasty book would be (WG) Ch’ien Hsûan, (py) Qian Xuan, I decided that pinyin was too much to impose on my readers and opted, conservatively, for Wade-Giles spellings. On our 1973 delegation trip to China we saw, as we drove through Shanghai, signs reading “PIXIE” and for a time wondered: are they selling pixies? But then we realized that it was the new spelling for what we knew as p’i-hsieh, or shoes. Much later I was to marry someone named Tsao Hsingyuan (WG) who explained that her father had preferred that spelling--part of what got him in bad trouble. And I pointed out (bad joke) that the py version, Cao Xingyuan, started out like a sign in the road reading “Cow Crossing.” (Xing used to appear on road signs meaning “Crossing”)

Now on to Y.

- The Y is about--nothing at all. Or about You, who were fooled--there isn’t any Y. Or if there is, it’s like the old Mickey Mouse Club song on radio--they would spell his name, and when they came to Y, it was: “Y? (Why?) Because we love you!” That isn’t my message--I don’t even know most of you--but it gets us on to:

-Z is for--you guessed it--old Mr. Zhang again, my old friend the artist-forger Zhang Daqian. He has appeared in quite a few of these blogs. So why do I bring him back again? To report and present new evidence that the painting titled “Riverbank,” a would-be antique painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is really one of Zhang Daqian’s many forgeries. You may ask: Why do we need more evidence? What you’ve presented before is overwhelming, decisive. (Thank you.) But, strange as it may seem, the True Believers in “Riverbank”’s antiquity refuse to acknowledge all this evidence, or to confront it in any way. So I can only, with the help of friends, go on piling up the evidence, with a sinking feeling of: surely there has to come a time when they feel the need to respond? But will I live to see it? Two new developments to report:

- A further insert will soon be added to Addendum 2B of the “Pure and Remote View’ series, the one titled “Riverbank: A Closer Look.” It will report, and show, the recent discovery of a “try-out” earlier version of “Riverbank” that has turned up. It’s owned by the prominent collector Gary Ho, and was brought to my attention by Dick Barnhart. Mr. Ho and the painting were both in Vancouver, and he generously brought it to my house so that I could see it and Rand Chatterjee could make lots of whole and detail photographs of it, photos we have used for the insert, along with an audio by me. It proves to be a smaller painting, ink on silk, similar in composition to “Riverbank” but simpler, and painted in the style that Zhang Daqian used for his “Dong Yuan” and “Juran” forgeries. And it exhibits the same manner of “aging” and artificial ripping, done by Zhang with the help of his “ager,” whom I believe to have been the Tokyo mounter Meguro Sanji--the same, that is, as the rest of his forgeries on silk, with the tell-tale “brickwork” pattern. The new insert will appear about forty minutes into Addendum 2B--you can fast-forward to reach it, without re-watching the whole--and will last for about seven minutes. Watch for this--I will try to notify you when this new insert is actually added to the online lectures.

- Another message, with pictures, from my correspondent (whom I know only through emails) John Rohrer--I reported his discoveries about how details in “Riverbank” match up exactly with similar details in old and published paintings signed and acknowledged by Zhang Daqian, in a blog dated to April 19th this year and titled “More About Old Mr. Zhang and His Finest Production (Or One Of them).” Mr. Rohrer now writes a longer letter, telling me how he had bought and read the “Issues in Authenticity” volume (based on the Met’s 1999 symposium about “Riverbank”--see my Addendum 1B)) and at first couldn’t decide who was right, but later became convinced that I was right in seeing it as a Zhang Daqian forgery. He writes that he agrees with my (and Sherman Lee’s) arguments about the “wrong” treatment of the water, and adds:

“Second, I think I found Zhang Daqian's signature treatment of tree branches in Riverbank. Zhang Daqian trees are at times 'mind trees' that do not really exist, but instead bend and twist into abstract patterns that could not be found in nature. He tended to leave the unpainted media as the base for some of his trees. Examples are attached.

“To quote you: ‘open mind and open eyes’

Your student, John Rohrer”

And later he wrote that this has become, for him, “a project that I have been putting some thought and energy into. Since I found the signature pattern of twisted and downturned branches in Riverbank, i have been looking for other matching characteristics. I am trying to create a detailed study that matches up the placement of 'knots' in the trees, the bark patterns, and the way trees are 'planted to the ground'. The overall placement of branches and foliage is also starting to show distinct patterns.”

I will reproduce below the two new diagrammatic juxtapositions he sent me, in which he matches (and labels) images copied from old Zhang Daqian paintings with those in “Riverbank.” They are, needless to say, entirely convincing, and would convince anyone (as I’ve said many times) with open mind and eyes. But “Riverbank”’s True Believers will, I assume, continue to look the other way and pretend that Cahill, Rohrer, and other anathemized Doubters aren’t really there. So, if you have read this far, which are you? More than the dating of a painting depends on your answer--it’s a matter of--as I’ve been earnestly advised not to say but will anyway--a matter of intellectual honesty.

James Cahill, September 18th, 2012


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