Sea of InkRichard Weihe
A beautiful novella in 50 short chapters and 10 pictures about the life of Bada Shanren, the most influential Chinese painter of all time.
In 1626, Bada Shanren is born into the Chinese royal family. When the old Ming dynasty crumbles, he becomes an artist, committed to capturing the essence of nature with a single brushstroke. Then the rulers of the new Qing dynasty discover his identity and Bada must feign madness to escape.
RUNNER-UP FOR SCHLEGEL-TIECK PRIZE 2013 FOR BEST ENGLISH TRANSLATION FROM GERMAN
FOYLES BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2012
Why Peirene chose to publish this book:
Fact and fiction arrive at a perfect union in this exquisite novella. A beautiful story about the quiet determined pursuit of inspiration, this is a charming and uplifting book. After reading it, I looked at the world a little differently.
Written by Richard Weihe
Translated from the Swiss German by Jamie Bulloch.
Small Epic series
112pp, paperback with flaps, £10.00
Published September 2012
Richard Weihe studied drama and philosophy in Zurich and Oxford. His poetic biographies of influential artists have earned him a wide readership. Sea of Ink, published in Switzerland in 2005, won the Prix des Audituers de la Radio Suisse Romande. In 2010 he published Ocean of Milk based on the Indian-Hungarian painter Amrita Sher-Gil.
Jamie Bulloch is a historian and has worked as a professional translator from German since 2001. After studying Modern Languages, he obtained an MA in Central European History and followed up with a PhD in interwar Austrian history. His translations include books by Paulus Hochgatterer, Alissa Walser and Timur Vermes. He is the translator of five Peirene titles: Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius, Sea of Ink by Richard Weihe, The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, winner of the 2015 Schlegel-Tieck Prize for German Translation, The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift and The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch. He is also the author of A Short History of Tuscany and Karl Renner: Austria.
‘Delicate and moving’ Boyd Tonkin, The Independent
‘This delicate novella is about the life of Bada Shanren … He changes his names, whereabouts, but one thing is always with him – the sea of his black ink, his destiny through which he paddles with his brushes.’ Hamid Ismailov, Wasafiri
‘Intriguing, elegant, awesome in its precision and uplifting in its sheer beauty, this is a book to read, enjoy… and then read again.’ Pam Norfok, Lancashire Evening Post
‘Richard Weihe weaves a story that moves between fact and fiction, threading the two together into a full-bodied story of the painter’s life.’ The Culture Trip
‘Weihe’s poetic prose style works as a way of drawing a history out of these paintings, which he has succeeded in doing very well, to the point where I think the narrative supersedes the paintings.’ Annexe Magazine
Abbot Hongmin knew of Xuege’s desire to become a painter, but until then he had strictly forbidden him to touch a paintbrush. On that day in spring 1658, in the fourteenth year of the Qing dynasty, he believed the moment had come to begin the painting lessons.
The master gave Xuege a brush which was as long as his legs and as thick as a young tree trunk. He instructed his pupil to stretch out his arms and hold the brush by its loop so that the tips of the bristles just touched the floor.
In the tea room the master had made a large square with rolls of rice paper. The abbot pointed to a wooden tub in the corner and said, ‘Dip the brush into the bucket and wipe off the ink a few times on the rim. Then go back to your place without delay.’
When the brush was saturated with black ink it was considerably heavier. Xuege had trouble lifting it high enough to wipe it on the edge of the tub. He returned to his place, held the brush with outstretched arms as the master had instructed and watched a black dot appear on the paper, which began expanding rapidly as the ink flowed out.
The master stood behind him, breathing words into Xuege’s ear: ‘Pace out a circle, painting it as you move. Keep going in a circle until the trace of your brush has faded.’
His muscles tensed, Xuege held the brush vertically over the sheet so that the tips of the bristles were just touching the paper, and moved forwards, step by step. After the first circle Hongmin noticed that Xuege’s lips were pressed tightly shut.
‘You should paint, not stop breathing.’
In fact Xuege had great difficulty concentrating on the brush tip and the imaginary midpoint of his circle at the same time. He could not stop and rest because he would waste ink; moreover it was almost harder to hold the brush while standing still.
Xuege went on and the shining black bristles left behind a thin trace on the paper. After another circle his teacher said, ‘You went in a circle but you did not draw one. Do not make any detours. Go on, improve the circle.’
The abbot said no more as Xuege completed his third, fourth and fifth circles. Then he forgot to count. Each step became a torture. He was just blindly following his own track.
The line became ever fatter, for the brush sank lower and lower with Xuege’s vanishing strength. His arms trembled and the brush transferred even the slightest movement onto the paper.
The abbot now sounded dictatorial: ‘Your line is starting to shudder, Xuege. Let it go on for as long as there is still ink left. Stand up straight. Listen to what I tell you!’
After another half-turn Xuege’s back started giving way. But all of a sudden he felt the short, sharp stroke of a bamboo cane in his side. He completed the circle. Was it the ninth? Or the tenth? His master’s gaze burnt into his back, but he knew that he would not be able to manage yet another circle.
Then he collapsed on top of the brush. His body fell onto the cluster of bristles, squashing them so that the last remaining ink flowed out and made large dark stains
on the paper as well as on his white robe. He looked like a dying man lying in his own blood.
When Xuege glanced up, his face contorted with pain, expecting a second, possibly harder stroke of the bamboo cane, he saw his master’s severe expression.
‘If you ever wish to become a Master of the Great Ink you must learn to hold the brush firmly. Let it go only when no ink is left. Never before.’
Some questions to inspire literary debate in your reading group:
1 Identity and personal growth are two major themes. How do Bada’s many names reflect this?
2 Bada’s story is set against the backdrop of massive political change. How much do we learn about Chinese society and how does it help us understand Bada’s character and actions?
3 “ ‘Do not, therefore, become enslaved by the perspective of absolute opposites.’ ” (p 34) The author draws heavily on the teachings of Buddhist philosophy to guide the narrative. How useful are these concepts in our secular society?
4 “ ‘You have learnt to see blackness not as an obstacle, but as a source.’ ” (p.31) How does the author use colour to change perception of the everyday in both the characters and reader?
5 The author uses 51 short chapters and 11 pictures to tell the story.
What effect does this have on the narrative and depiction of paintings, characters, landscape and historical accuracy?
6 Discuss the role of the landscape in Sea of Ink.
7 The paintings are described in great detail. Is this necessary given that the paintings are placed alongside the text?
8 Bada runs away to a monastery and abandons his family. Is this acceptable? How does it colour your view of his character?
9 “ ‘Originality!’ Bada laughed. ‘I am as I am, I paint as I paint. I have no method, I do not think about originality, I am just me.’ ” (p70) How relevant is this idea to us today?
10 Bada meets a friend he thought to be dead, “…as if somewhere a huge eye were looking out for people who belonged together, ensuring that their paths crossed.” (p84) Do you agree with this idea? Have you experienced something similar?
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