Transnational Geek

Author M. H. Boroson shares his geeky passions: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, spirit magic kung fu movies, the ethics of cultural appropriation, Chinese American literature and history, The Dresden Files, Daoist magic, strong female characters, Asian monsters, spirit world depictions, traditional Chinese foods, race, class, gender, and culture.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Sōu Shān Tú (搜山图)

I've never made a study of Chinese art.  There's too much else, the lore and language, clothes and customs, literature, history, music, and religion of dozens of different ethnic groups with the regional diversity you'd expect on a land-mass the size of the US and its outlying territories, except with five thousand years of history.

Have you noticed, by the way, that I like monsters?  Always have.  I don't want to conceptualize "the nature of the monstrous" or any other abstractosity before really looking at what's in front of me, but I like monsters.  I have an interest in them.  So imagine my delight when I discovered an entire genre of Chinese art dedicated to a particular monster encounter?

A group of human women are sitting in the wilderness with anthropomorphic animals.  The women and animals are apparently lovers.  But demons attack!  And across these long painted scrolls, a battle takes place, demons vs. animals, with some human women caught in the fracas and crossfire.

I want to do some more research in Chinese texts before speculating more about the meaning and nature of these wonderful painted scrolls.  So for now, I leave you with a rather silly write-up from California.

According to Annual Report University of California & Berkeley Art Museum,
Sou-shan T’u starts with a drunken party scene, where Chinese women offer up copious alcohol and the peaches of immortality to large monkeys, serpents, and oxen. The overblown curves of the women and the flowing scarves and robes they wear represent Tang dynasty (618–907 ce) figure style and tastes, but the faceted rocks and the trees dotted with lichen that form the background landscape are clearly a Ming invention. The partygoers come under attack from a horde of demons wearing armor and carrying the latest in bladed weaponry, and the animals and women are rounded up and led off in chains. The captured women fight with passion to protect their animal children, and some even begin to sprout animal characteristics (monkey hands, a reptilian tail) as they are carried off.

The narrative climaxes with a breathtaking scene of a rearing dragon tamed by the fetters demons are placing on its limbs and tail in the midst of an olive-dark sea. Narrative handscrolls have their own flow that depends on how quickly a viewer unrolls and rerolls it to follow the story—some sections we hurry through to find out what happens next, others invite us to linger over details or puzzle out clues to the story—and this scene always stops us in our tracks, exactly as the unknown artist planned.

The final segment shows a misty landscape that becomes peopled with a galaxy of varied and slightly comical demons (a particularly hairy one seems to be channeling Cousin Itt from the Addams Family cartoons), many drawn from folk sources and unlike the serious warriors of earlier scenes. They crowd meekly around a relaxed Chinese gentleman seated on a camp chair and clearly in charge of the proceedings. The scroll ends with a colophon, an added section of paper with a calligraphed text, which was written by a scholar at a much later date in an attempt to explain the pictured events. He calls it a battle of demons and animals, but doesn’t say—and clearly doesn’t know—why they fight.

Even without a good sense of what’s happening (are the demons the bad guys or not?) we get caught up in the impetus of the storytelling here, and also become aware of the visual strategies that create this quickening rhythm—the landscape features that open up and close in to frame the characters, subsidiary figures that lead the eye from scene to scene—and other aspects that occasionally slow the eye down, such as beautifully detailed renderings of sea creatures or humorous asides like the scrawny demon burdened by a hefty and upside-down female captive.
hyakki yako

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