78. A Somewhat Spurious Classic

78. A Somewhat Spurious Classic

The New York Review of Books, which I receive regularly and read most of, has an admirable program for making hard-to-find “classics,” especially children’s books but also some fine and under-appreciated writings for adults, available in low-cost, well-printed editions. I have bought a number of them, for myself and my children. Seeing one such “classic” listed among their holiday offerings in the latest issue, however, inspires this Reminiscence. The book is Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China, by David Kidd.

An internet search reveals how often this book is recommended reading for visitors to China, or for those who want first-hand accounts of what China was like before the Communist takeover. Such books are fascinating and valuable; I myself can recommend several, and will do so later. Kidd’s book is not one of them.

I came to know Kidd during one of the several longer stays that I and my family—wife Dorothy, children Nicholas and Sarah—spent in Japan; it was, I believe, during my sabbatical year 1972-73, and we lived first near the Tsukaguchi station on the Denshin train line between Osaka and Kobe, so that Nick and Sarah could attend what we had been told was the best English-language school in Japan, the Canadian Academy in Kobe. The dealer Sogoro Yabumoto, whose house was a few blocks from the nearby Mukô-no-Sô station, had generously arranged for us to rent this house, and made his huge collection open to me for my study of Sakaki Hyakusen and early Nanga painting. But after a few months, during which we discovered that the Canadian Academy was neither Canadian nor academic and was proving largely a waste of our children’s time (as well as mine, commuting to Osaka or Kyoto for my scholarly purposes), we moved to Kyoto, occupying a house owned by Doshisha University; Sarah went to a pleasant if scarcely educational International School there, and we made up a self-teaching program for Nick.

Some time during our stay I was introduced by some acquaintance to Kidd, who was well-known as a collector of Asian art and as host to the Ashiya Seminar, a group that met monthly (as I recall) for lectures and discussions. I ended up giving a series of lectures on Chinese painting for the Seminar myself at his house in Ashiya. It was a great old house, which had been moved there from some place in the country--Japanese houses, built without nails, can be disassembled, moved, and reassembled. (Another friend, Meredith (Tex) Weatherby, who founded my principal publisher for many years, Weatherhill International, lived in such a house near Roppongi in Tokyo.) Kidd lived with his partner Yasuyoshi Morimoto, surrounded by handsome Asian antiques. I liked them both, and enjoyed my association with them and with the Ashiya Seminar attendees, many of them interesting members of the foreign and diplomatic community living in the Kansai region. But back to his book, which I later bought and read:

It was first published in 1960 under the title All the Emperor’s Horses—I seem to remember that parts of it had appeared in The New Yorker before that. It presented itself as an account of how Kidd, as a young student of Chinese from Kentucky who had studied at the University of Michigan, came to Beijing in 1946 on an exchange program to study Chinese poetry at Yenching University, and there met his future wife, Aimee Yu. She was the daughter of a rich and prominent Manchu family; her father was a supreme court judge. The two met in an opera house in Beijing and, so the story goes, fell in love and married. Kidd lived for several years in the huge and luxurious family mansion, with its courtyards and pavilions and ponds. After the death of her father, they moved to the U.S., where they soon divorced. Kidd moved in 1956 to Japan, where, one internet account has it, he “dedicated himself to collecting art and university teaching.” The house where he and Morimoto lived “became an obligatory stop for young bohemians.”

What is wrong with this account? First of all, I believe that while the book must be based in some truth, much of the story it relates is spurious. It was, I remember (and I must stress that all this is based in decades-old memory—it is, after all, a Reminiscence, not a book review) concocted to please anti-Communist sentiment in the U.S., possibly (I’m only guessing) encouraged somehow by the powerful and rich China lobby then working to continue U.S. support for Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist regime, chief opponents of the Communists. The book sets a cultivated and humane Chinese aristocracy against a mean-spirited new Communist movement represented in the story by conniving servants of the Yu family. In one central incident they creep into the family shrine, where incense burns in bronze containers before the altar, as it has burned continually (we are to believe) for decades or centuries—if it were to be extinguished and the bronzes were to cool, their rich luster would be lost forever and they would become worthless. The servants pour water on them to put them out.

I hope that specialists in Chinese bronzes, and technical experts, will back me up in saying that the story is completely phony—as is, I felt on reading it, much of the rest of the book. That Kidd had married Aimee Yu was plausible, although when I knew him he was plainly gay—he might have changed, or could—entirely laudably—have married her to get her out of China. But the obviously deceptive picture that the book painted was upsetting; this Is one of the few books I’ve read that made me angry. (Others include those with pseudo-spiritual messages such as Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Jonathan Livingston Seagull.) Later, I was asked by one of my former students, now a journal editor, about David Kidd as a scholar and collector--he had published a short article in Oriental Art magazine, as I recall, about a group of Chinese tantric paintings with a Ming date in their inscriptions—Kidd had owned one of them, I myself another (which I gave to the University Art Museum). I remember writing, as correction to a piece about him that she had sent me, that he was clearly a dealer, not an amateur collector, and only peripherally a scholar. My understanding is that interior decorators looking for handsome Asian antiques and art objects to grace the homes of their clients would visit Kidd and Morimoto to view and select from their “collection.” None of this detracted from Kidd’s generous and beneficial sponsorship of the Ashiya Seminar, or his kindness to me—I write this as someone who liked him, but object to seeing his false-reminiscence book presented as a “classic” that can be read as a true insider’s description of Beijing life before the Communist “liberation.”

I promised earlier to mention a few real such accounts, and can think quickly of two. One is John Blofeld’s City of Lingering Spendour, A Frank Account of Old Peking's Exotic Pleasures, written in 1961. Blofeld, whom I never met, was a specialist in esoteric Buddhism and Taoism, a true scholar, who not only enjoyed the erotic pleasures of Beijing but was willing to write about them in some detail. The other is The Years That Were Fat: Peking, 1933-1940, published in 1952 by George Kates (1895-?) who also published Chinese Household Furniture—he was a pioneer scholar of Chinese furniture, at a time when few were taking it seriously. (Another was Larry Sickman, who taught Sarah Handler, now herself a distinguished Chinese furniture specialist. I remember Sarah telling me about how she had located and talked with Kates when he was old and ailing, living in a rest-home.) I don’t remember when I myself met Kates—it was probably during my first Freer Gallery fellowship, or during my early Freer years. What I do remember is that he was one of three people who, while I was still a young scholar,  advised me earnestly, on the basis of their own bitter experience, not to try to make a career of Chinese art studies, since there was clearly no future in it. The other two were Helen Chapin and John Hadley Cox.

Helen Chapin I met in Korea when I arrived there in 1946 as a language officer; she was working as a civilian in the Occupation. At the PX one could buy Asian antiques, pieces confiscated from Japanese who had been repatriated from Korea and allowed to carry back only a few belongings; the confiscated pieces were sold at the PX at low prices to anyone who knew enough to choose among them. I wish I had known more. Helen Chapin obviously did; I recall her buying a late Chou bronze object. I came to know her, not closely but enough to talk with her and learn something about her past. She was a professor at Mills College in Oakland, and continued there for some years after; I may have met her there later, but can’t remember when. Nor do I know her dates—one internet source writes that she was 55 in 1950. Her pioneering and excellent studies went largely unrecognized in her time, and she was unsuccessful in arousing interest in Asian art among potential collectors in the Bay Area. And she, too, advised me not to try for a career in Chinese art. Her achievements were later recognized by Alexander Soper, who in 1970-71 republished, with some editorial revisions and a tribute, her study of the 12th century handscroll by the Yunnanese artist Chang Sheng-wen, first published in 1936 in the Journal of the Indian Society of Oriental Arts as “A Long Roll of Buddhist Images.”

The third person who advised me to change my career direction was John Hadley Cox, whom I must have met first while at the Freer? He had taken a degree in Asian art at Yale in 1935, and published an article on Southeast Asian ceramics; he was best known for his studies of the lacquers and other objects excavated at Ch’ang-sha, where he spent some time and acquired many pieces, mostly lacquer vessels but also the famous Ch’u manuscript. I could write a whole Reminiscence about that—the attempts by Aschwin Lippe to acquire it for the Met, where it was kept for some years (he was unsuccessful, since the Met trustees, seeing it, asked “Why should we pay that much for an old, dark piece of silk that is scarcely exhibitable?); how the dealer Tai took it away, against Lippe’s desperate efforts, and eventually sold it to Arthur Sackler (see my Reminiscence no. 59, on “collector-donors I didn’t like”—Sackler was one of them). How it was photographed with infra-red light at the Freer, so that the text could at last be seen and deciphered, and how I obtained the four 8x10 photographs made there, which covered the whole manuscript, and made a present of them to the great Japanese calligrapher Nishikawa Nei, who developed a new calligraphic style based on them and used it for a whole exhibition (see Reminiscence 15 for information on Nishikawa and the story.) And how the Chinese, especially those at the new institute of Chinese archaeology that Sackler founded at Beida, hoped to get the manuscript but didn’t. I believe it is now at the Freer-Sackler (how I hate writing that second name after the hyphen!). In any case:

I met John Hadley Cox by chance, many years later, in (of all places) Las Vegas. Sue Fawn Chung, formerly a Berkeley History Dept. Ph.D who had taken a seminar with me and was now a University of Nevada professor, managed to get me appointed in 1992 to an annual endowed lectureship there (my lecture was “The Place of the Artist in Chinese Society,” see CLP 108). Besides introducing me to other attractions of that flamboyant city, she took me to meet Cox, who was living there in retirement. I continued to correspond with him afterwards—mostly about his new theories on the meaning and significance of the manuscript, which I remember as being rather wild. But I can’t find the correspondence now, or remember what his argument was.

So, those were the three who failed, as they themselves saw it, to achieve satisfying careers in the early period of Chinese art studies. I came in at a better time, and had the good fortune to go on to a rewarding career, one that I can look back on—sixty-odd years of it—with some satisfaction.

Partly to avoid ending in that dangerously self-congratulatory tone, I will add two brief notes concerning Chinese art matters that have come to my attention recently. One concerns a book I am reading, Richard Bernstein’s The East, the West, and Sex: A History of Erotic Encounters (New York, Knopf, 2009). He has done good research (although I miss seeing a reference to Blofeld’s book) and makes his text as entertaining as one is led to expect by the title. If I could write him, however (he provides no email address or invitation for comments), I would point out that his single illustration of Chinese pictorial erotica (p. 172, “An erotic print from the Ming dynasty, published 1624”) is—you guessed it—one of R. H. van Gulik’s forgeries, drawn by vG himself in his own distinctive style and presented in his Erotic Colour Prints of the Late Ming Period as redrawn from tracings of Ming prints sent him by a mysterious “Collector X” in Shanghai—who, I believe, never existed. Bernstein credits the Dutch publisher Brill in the caption, so presumably must have used Brill’s 2004 reprint of van Gulik’s book—which includes an Introduction by myself in which I attempt to expose these forgeries for what they are. The mistake is excusable, however, when made by someone unfamiliar with the real style of late Ming erotic prints, which became accessible only with the publication of articles about the rediscovered Shibui collection and its acquisition by the Muban Foundation, in Orientations for April this year. Still, if anyone who reads this knows Bernstein, please tell him to choose a better example if his book is reprinted.

The second is about the recent (Nov. 22nd) sale of an “Eighteen Arhats” handscroll by the late Ming artist Wu Bin, at a Poly Auction sale in Beijing, for the highest price ever paid for a Chinese painting. A correspondent wrote me today:

“Dear Dr. Cahill,

“I just came across this bit of auction information, and thought perhaps you might have missed it.

“’A rare, classical scroll by a Ming dynasty artist fetched $24.8 million at a Beijing sale, the highest price ever paid for a Chinese painting at auction, in a positive sign for the downturn-stricken Chinese art market. 

The painting, "Eighteen Arhats" by 16th century Ming dynasty painter Wu Bin, was sold to Shanghai private collector Liu Yiqian for 169.1 million yuan including commissions, almost eight times its pre-sale estimate of 20 million yuan, said auctioneers Poly Internat’”

“I looked up your thoughts on Wu Pin, and was amused by the comment about his Arhat paintings:

"’...they seem more the entertaining outcome of artistic inventiveness and in the end have more in common with the creations of Dr. Seuss than with the great monuments of Buddhist painting from the Chinese past.’ Did you really write that?  Want to bet some ingenious newspaper reporter will add your words to the news about this  25 million dollar painting?”

I responded, in part:

“A quick response to your email—I’ll write more later. I heard from another correspondent about the crazy price paid for the Wu Bin scroll. Imperial seals and provenance have much to do with it, and perhaps the striking composition, with strange rockeries as settings for some of the figures. I admire Wu Bin—I really “discovered” him, giving his first scholarly paper at the 1970 international symposium on Chinese painting in Taipei, when he was quite unrecognized, and arranging his first “one man show” (persuading the Palace Museum to get out all the paintings they had by him, including one “Anonymous Sung” landscape, adding a few brought from the U.S., showing them all in one room during the symposium.) But I also stand by what I wrote. (Yes, I really wrote that, and would write it again.) I admire Dr. Seuss too, and believe that Wu Bin’s stature comes from his landscapes—my ideas about them, and how late Ming people must have responded to them, are in my Distant Mts. and Compelling Image. As a figure painter he is, yes, entertaining and inventive, but never touches the heights and depths of, for instance, Chen Hongshou. I must write something about this for my website.”

So, here it is on my website. About my “discovering” Wu Bin: the first discussant after I presented my 1970 paper, a young Chinese scholar named Sun Ch’iao, began this way:
“I feel that the paper read to us today by Mr. Cahill has been exceedingly valuable, and if Wu Pin were alive now he would be extraordinarily grateful to him. For Wu Pin has been forgotten in China for several hundred years, and has probably never received such praise as this. Now we have the moving spectacle of his having found an admirer on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.” He went on to question or deny (wrongly, of course) the presence of “European influence” in Wu Bin’s landscapes.

I can only add that a longish, serious discussion of Wu Bin’s Buddhist paintings is in my Distant Mts., pp. 221-24. Enough for today.

P.S. In writing Reminiscence no 74, about rokushô-yake, the chemical deterioration of silk in paintings caused by mineral green pigment, I concluded with three paragraphs about another once-mysterious phenomenon in pigments, and quoted the painter Cheng Shifa’s explanation of how it was done. I failed to make an important point: why it was done. The puddling of the heavy colors, with some deposit of sediment (the pigment itself, presumably), has the effect of keeping the areas of pigment separate, preventing them from running together. Much of the rich effect of flower paintings by such late artists as Zhao Zhiqian and Ren Xiong, an effect that approaches that of oil pigments (and may have been inspired by their seeing European paintings), is accomplished in this way. If the artists had used ordinary Chinese watercolor pigments, or pigments with the usual amount of glue, the areas of color would have run together more and blurred.

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