Noe Valley Voice May 2001

Florence's Family Album: The Way of China

Reminiscences by Florence Holub

Most fortunate are we who reside in San Francisco, because throughout our city there are so many places that reflect the spirit and flavor of strange and exciting lands. At this moment in history, China seems to dominate the scene.

I won't dwell on China's recent clash with the U.S. over our surveillance flights, but instead I want to recommend the wonderful, prize-winning film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I had to watch it at two different matinees before I could fully appreciate its riveting, action-packed special effects combined with a beautifully conceived and executed story. Another good movie, I'm told, is The Tao of Steve, a comedy whose main character tries to apply the tenets of Chinese philosophy to dating and relationships.

However, the main current attraction I'd like to suggest you see is "Taoism and the Arts of China," an exhibition at the Asian Art Museum in Golden Gate Park featuring 150 works of art created between 500 B.C. and 1800 A.D. Ancient Chinese scrolls, sculptures, paintings, calligraphy, textiles, and ritual objects have been gathered by
curator Stephen Little from 50 collectors in nine countries. Little has provided edifying labels and panels of explanatory information that can help generate a deeper understanding of Far Eastern civilization.

He tells us that the Chinese word Tao (pronounced "dao") means a road or path, or in more metaphorical terms, the way of all things, "an empty void pregnant with infinite possibilities." The word's philosophical origin can be traced to the sage Laozi (also known as Lao-Tzu), who was a royal archivist in the library at Loh, in the province of Hunan, during the sixth century B.C.

As an old man, Laozi became disenchanted with the corruption of courtly life, and left the city to seek refuge in the hills. One of the art works in the exhibit depicts Laozi's departure, riding on an ox and carrying a scroll in his right hand. As he approached the summit of a tall mountain, he met the guardian of the pass, who urged him to dictate his philosophy in order to record it for posterity. The result was a 5,000-word document, the Tao teh ching, or as we call it, Lao-Tzu: The Way of Life.

What then happened to Laozi no one knows, but his beautiful, poetic words live on. His ideas are a guide for human behavior, stressing the importance of cultivating simplicity, detachment, virtue, and living in harmony with nature. Significantly, Taoism teaches that there is no supreme being, only the Tao itself, the powerful force that permeates all reality.

Laozi's little book has endured throughout the centuries, giving the world an understanding and appreciation of the philosophy, religion, government, art, medicine, and even the cooking of China.

According to Taoist belief, the qi (pronounced "chee") is a primordial energy from which yin and yang emerged. The tiger and the dragon are the ancient symbols of the forces of yin and yang, respectively. Later, the taiji diagram, which we in the West know as the circular black and white yin-yang symbol, was created. The circle represents the Tao, the void of infinite energy perfectly balanced and centered, with the two opposing shapes representing the yin and yang that gave birth to the material world and its many forms.

Yin, considered the "female" energy with heavier elements, sank to create the earth, while yang, the male energy with lighter elements, rose to become the heavens. All things carry yang and yin, and their blended influence brings harmony.

Taoism, which began as a philosophy, became a religion in the second century A.D., conforming to Buddhism and Confucianism, and accommodating other beliefs as well. Like every other religion, it has undergone many changes over its long history, resulting in a vast pantheon of gods and goddesses, many of whom are represented in the paintings and sculptures on display at the museum. The triad of gods known as the Three Officials of Heaven, Earth, and Water, who protect and prolong life, are perhaps the earliest in the Taoist pantheon.

Throughout Chinese history, women have been revered along with men as deities and spiritual teachers. For this reason, and in honor of Mother's Day on May 13, I have chosen to draw a goddess called the Dipper Mother, who has been celebrated since early times. She is thought to be the mother of all the constellations in Ursa Major -- the Big Dipper!

The Dipper Mother is associated with healing and childbirth, and has 18 arms, holding the sun, the moon, and a variety of sacred weapons and symbols. Clearly, there is Buddhist influence, for she sits on a lotus throne, and has a third eye on her forehead. This elegant piece in porcelain is part of the San Francisco Museum of Asian Art's permanent collection.

One forgotten immortal was discovered by curator Little, as he searched storerooms for Taoist art in England. Among the Egyptian sculptures, he spotted a large, dusty, bronze statue of an unidentified male. Noting the long hair down the figure's back and on his bare feet, Little determined that the sculpture was a warrior in the service of a Ming dynasty emperor. Ancient Chinese scrolls record that he began his service as Xuanwu, the Dark Warrior from the North. He must have done great deeds, for he was later elevated to Zhenwu, the Perfected Warrior, and later still to Protector of the State and Imperial Family. Zhenwu is also credited with giving taiqi (tai ch'i) to the world!

The first Chinese landscape paintings that I ever saw were in the home of Paul Q. Forster, Leo's and my favorite art teacher at the California School of Fine Arts in the late 1930s. Back then, I wondered how the Chinese painters could consistently manage to create such masterful, yet subtle renditions of the natural world. The last gallery in the Asian Art Museum holds the answer. In Taoist belief, the landscape of the earth corresponds to a person's inner landscape, and the art of painting lay in arousing the painter's inner energies, or qi, to capture the qi animating the scene before him.

When I went to the museum, I lingered over the painting "Cloudy Mountains" by 14th-century artist Fang Congyi, who was a priest at Tiger and Dragon Mountain, where he spent most of his life. His horizontal scroll painting shows a lush spit of land and a river meandering through a long mountain range, which rises, turns, and twists like a dragon flying through space, dissolving into an empty mist. This struck me as being quite similar to the ending of the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with the heroine drifting upward and disappearing into the clouds.

"Taoism and the Arts of China" will be on display only until Sunday, May 13, so hurry over to Golden Gate Park to catch this amazing exhibit.

Postscript: Last month, our friend Dr. Else Cabos-Forster, the widow of the abovementioned art teacher, who now lives in the Netherlands, phoned to inform us that she would be coming to visit her Bay Area friends in May. After reading my March article in the Voice, she said, she would very much like to dine at the Chinese restaurant I mentioned, Alice's, on Sanchez Street near 29th. Of course, we shall, I replied, and maybe on another night I will cook up a batch of Chinese pork chops.

This is the perfect dish for visitors, for most of it can be prepared ahead of time and warmed up as the rice is cooking, allowing the cook to spend time with the guests instead of leaning over a hot stove.