22.Nelson Wu

22. Nelson Wu (Jason Kuo writes me, 12/6/07, asking about my relationship with Wai-ikam Ho and Nelson Wu, and the part they played in our field.)

I wrote a short tribute to Wai-kam for some kind of celebration of his 80th birthday; it will give you some insights into our relationship and my feelings about him. It is attached.

As for Nelson Wu, the relationship was closer, at times, and yet more distant in the end. When I arrived in New York on a Met fellowship in 1953, he was teaching at Yale and giving lectures at China Institute (China House), some of which I attended. Since there weren't all that many young people then in Chinese painting studies, we became friends. He talked about Dong Qichang and introduced the idea of "primary" and "cultivated" forms. Whatever one may think of this idea now (I'm a bit vague myself on just what the argument was) it was my first inkling that intellectual issues could be tied to Chinese paintings and its circumstances. I went up to New Haven and out to his Yen-ling Yeh-yuan, was it called? He had bought a piece of land cheap, from the railroad which owned a narrow right-of-way of some kind; his property included a strip of woodland quite long stretching nowhere. The house he designed himself—a "wen-jen" house I called it—which he designed by buying some used windows of different shapes, laying them out on the ground, and conceiving the house around them. There were no bedrooms; he and his wife Mu-lien and their four children—Ming, Ch'ing, Ping, and Ying (really Chao-ming etc.) slept in various lofts and bunks. A stream ran through the living room. He had added a pond, or lake, to the property by renting a bulldozer and dredging it, pushing rocks up into symbolic Chinese arrangements. And so forth. It was an inspiration to see—the creation of this bit of Chinese cosmology in the midst of a forest in Cheshire (I think it was). You will find some description of it, I think, in his book on Chinese and Indian architecture. Every year he would hold a cultural festival there, inviting various performers, so there would be a poetry reading in one place, a string quartet playing in another, and so forth. Students loved it.

Bad departmental handling of promotions, which led to the departure of several younger faculty including Nelson, pushed him out of Yale—actually, I think he could have stayed but left out of protest for what the older faculty had done. To Washington U. in St. Louis, where he never had quite the same status or following, to my knowledge. (Nancy Steinhardt, when I met her as a fellow at Harvard, had studied with him; I suggested that working with Nelson may have been more an inspiration than a training.) He attended one of the Confucianism conferences and wrote the very good paper on Dong that was published in the Confucian Personalities volume. And of course he had a long paper on Dong's paintings in the 1970 conference in Taipei. But he never wrote much else. (He is the author of what is reportedly a popular novel in Chinese, written during his student years? or shortly after.) That Wai-kam organized his great Dong Qichang project without ever involving Nelson at all was, to my mind, a bitter insult. They didn't get on well, very different personalities, Nelson playful, Wai-kam dead serious and intense. They were both on my 1977 delegation to China, and I could write about that—at our final dinner, for instance, Nelson was delighting all the Chinese speakers by doing funny mis-interpretations of what I said.

So I think they both played important parts in the development of our field, Wai-kam's no doubt more important because he published a lot more, worked at the Cleveland collection, etc., but Nelson should be given a place too. What you write about neither of them having the kind of intense drive and ambition as Wen Fong, not quoting Greenberg etc., is true enough. They remained, in their very different ways, more Chinese.

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