One of Life’s Beautiful Days: in Beijing’s Fragrant Hills

After my post yesterday, some people commented on the calligraphy and the seals carved by two men in Beijing. I thought I would post more of their work so you could see it.

This is an assortment of seals carved by Ma Yue. The calligraphy was done by his partner. The only characters I can read are my name, Ma Yue’s name, Beijing and The Fragrant Hills. Here’s the story…
Ma Yue writing Tu Fu’s poem

My Happiest Day in China

One of the places we visited with Zhou* was The Fragrant Hills. These are mountains near the Summer Palace, formerly a Buddhist convent and sanctuary the emperors used as a meditation garden. Scattered throughout the hills are many vividly painted shrines built in the Tibetan style. Many of these shrines are covered in brightly glazed ceramic tiles into which are molded figures of the Buddha. When I was there, all the Buddha figures on the lower parts of these buildings had been destroyed as part of Mao’s crusade to “Destroy the Four Olds.”

We ate lunch at a fantastic, new hotel designed by I. M. Pei.

After lunch, Zhou, Jim, and I wandered through the wooded hills to an art shop. There I looked around and bought a paintbrush. One of the owners, Ma Yue, asked me in his limited English if I was an artist. I don’t think I admitted that I was, but I told him, in my equally limited Chinese, that the brush was for my brother. 

We began talking about painting, and he showed me some of his calligraphy. Some people who know about these things have told me that Ma Yue’s calligraphy isn’t very good, but his passion for his craft made up — to me — for any reputed lack of quality that I couldn’t perceive, anyway. He asked if he could write a couplet for me. I told him I would be honored if he would. He wrote a couplet from a famous four-line poem by Tang Dynasty poet, Li Bai. The couplet said (generally), “The mountains are so high that waterfalls seem to fall from the clouds.”

We spent three hours in conversation and tea with Ma Yue and his friend and colleague, also an artist, a master in the Classical Chinese tradition who did elegant, detailed paintings of chrysanthemums, tigers, koi, and other traditional subjects. These two men owned this little art shop deep in the maples of the Fragrant Hills.

They were Zhou’s friends. 

Both had been with Chairman Mao and the Eighth Route Army on the Long March. When they retired, they had their pick of places to work and live. This shop had been their dream during those thousands of miles on the Long March and in the bitter years that followed. They were two of the happiest people I’ve met in my whole life.

Ma Yue and I have the same surname. In Chinese, my name is Ma Sa, which doesn’t mean anything special. It’s a transliteration of the sounds in “Martha.” But the character for my “Ma” and Ma Yue’s “Ma” is the same. He spoke to me through Zhou as if I were his long lost younger sister.

He told me about the Chinese zodiac and the history of Chinese characters, which he could write in the most archaic style. He showed me several examples, and brought out a fan he and his partner had painted together that illustrated everything about the Chinese zodiac as well as Yue’s skill as a seal carver, his partner’s skill as a calligrapher, and Ma Yue’s ability to write ancient Chinese characters, which, once upon a time, were pictures of things slowly evolving to the ideograms the Chinese use today. A person with imagination can see a mountain in the modern character, 山 (shan),. Once it was a picture of a high mountain between two hills.

I didn’t know this, but Zhou had arranged for Ma Yue to carve chops for Jim and me. We had to pick them out. Zhou had already chosen for me a lion like the Emperor’s seal. Jim chose a little Buddha. Zhou gave these chops to us at our last meeting.

Ma Yue and I corresponded through letters and paintings for several years, then the correspondence died away. I had to have his letters translated, and he had to have mine translated, but we answered each other. It was very special, a treasure. 

Looking back on half a lifetime of marvelous experiences, that day remains one of my life’s happiest days.

*Zhou was my Chinese teacher; he had studied at the University of Denver for two years. My thesis advisor introduced us to each other.

9 thoughts on “One of Life’s Beautiful Days: in Beijing’s Fragrant Hills

  1. Amazing life!! I now know why you love the time you spent in China! I was gifted with a beautiful fan by Zhihong Peng and his wife Wei Song. I keep it in a cedar chest because I’m afraid that displaying it would make the ink fade and make the paper brittle – but I get it out every Christmas and look at it for a couple weeks before putting it away for safe keeping….

    • I keep my fan in a barrister’s cabinet I inherited when my mom died. I can see it, but it’s protected. I have realized lately, though, that most of this stuff is meaningful only to me so I’m getting it out and enjoying it more than I’m saving it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.