Modern Chinese Masters Series: The Connoisseur 鑑賞家

by Wang Zengqi  汪曾祺

李復堂 荷花 0316

Li Shan (aka Li Futang, 1686-ca 1762,) Lotus in the Style of Lu Zhi, Freer Gallery, Smithsonian Museum.

The leading painter in this county was Ji Taomin. The leading connoisseur was Ye San.

Ye San sold fruit. He was not like the other fruit sellers. He did not own a shop, or run a stall. You won’t see him making his way through main streets and back alleys heaving his load on a pole. He only delivered fruit to the gentry families – all in all around twenty houses, where he was a familiar sight. The doorkeepers and the dogs knew him. When the time came, he would be there. The people inside, hearing the knock, knew that Ye San had come.

Carrying a “Gold Filigree” bamboo basket, a small weighing scale anchored in it, he would go into the inner hall and raise his voice to greet the host of the house. Sometimes the host would come out to meet him. Some spoke to him through the door.  “How much would you like to take…?” “Five catties.” There was no need to look over the fruit. Their selection depended upon, and never varied from, the time of season. Ye San did not haggle, and the families did right by him. A few paid on the spot. Almost everyone else settled their account when the holidays rolled around (Dragon Boat Festival, Mid-Autumn, and the Lunar New Year.) The fruit weighed and laid out on the Eight Immortals console in the center of the hall, Ye would say “Kindly excuse me,” and go on his way.

You didn’t have to cherry-pick his fruit. They were all good. The first good thing about them was the timing: “ahead of and brimming with the season.” You got them in his basket before they were seen in the marketplace. Second, each and every one was large, shapely, sweet to smell and to taste, and lovely to see. All his fruit had passed through his own hands. Anything sampled by insects, blemished, crate-cracked, skinned, blotchy or undersized did not make the cut, and was offloaded dirt-cheap to other sellers. All his fruit came straight to him. Some he picked up by going to the source himself. Everything was “tree-ripe,” not smothered in rice hulls to put off ripening. He took a lot of trips, spending much more time on buying than on selling. He enjoyed making the rounds. He knew the exact orchard, home garden, village or town where you could find a famed fruit tree of a particular variety. Nothing escaped him. Having worked hand-in-glove with the owners for years, he was now like family. This much effort was beyond the other sellers, who did not know all those ways and means. Traveling so much, you saw many fine vistas and found out about the differing customs in each place, which always made for good conversation. And it was good for you. Ye San rarely got sick, because of how much he got around.

Green radishes came in around the Vernal Equinox. The best ones, called “Begging for a Beating,” cracked open with a thud when thrown at the floor. When apricots and peaches were “coming down,” egg-sized White Incense apricots showed up along with the honey peach, white as a handful of snow, pierced by a single red thread beneath the pout of its tip. Then you had cherries, as red as coral and as white as agate. Loquats for the season of dragon boats. Melons for summer. July and August saw produce fresh from the rivers: water caltrops, gorgon fruit, lotus seedpods and the crisp tender lotus root, picked when the lotus flowers were in first bloom. Horse’s Teeth dates, plus grapes. Close to High Autumn, the pears arrived from the Riverside region near Peking and the sunward slopes of Shantung’s Lai Mountains. On top of the Half-catty Crunch, you also got a variety of sweet pear, on the small side. These Gold Dangle Earrings soaked your face with puffs of scent. After the chrysanthemums bowed out, there would be kumquats, and honey tangerines from Fuchou in the South, their stalk swelling into a navel. Once winter set in, chestnuts were brought, along with yuca root (thick as a toddler’s arm), lily bulbs (fist-sized), and dew-green fresh Sandalwood olives that could be eaten straight without curing.

Ye San also sold finger-citron. His customers put them out in carefully chosen plates on matching stands in their studies, to admire and to inhale the perfume of the inedible fruit that, according to legend, was modeled on Buddha’s hand.

A lot of people, who rarely stirred from their homes, only recalled what time in what season it was, when they saw the fruit Ye San brought in.

Ye San had sold fruit for more than thirty years, and both of his sons were now grown. Both had been apprentices with clothiers. The second son now ranked third among all the clerks, while the eldest had been promoted to Second Clerk. It was widely believed that the eldest would one day rise to Head Clerk and eventually be made manager of the establishment. He was cut out for the job. When it came to bookkeeping he was second to none. The one who sat in the cashier’s back room, clicking the abacus, days on end, for the year-end closing. They could not do without him, whether it was hosting the factory reps, or figuring out purchasing. Purchasing made up its own field of study. The year’s game plan hung in the balance; it must be decided which lines to add or drop, what items were essential, and which to try on. The second son was also very good at what he did. When measuring and tearing off the fabric – you clamp it between two fingers of both hands, and go “tssst” with a tiny deft twist through the entire length, without notching with shears first – he was nimble and neat. How a clerk went about his business reflected on the clothier. Customers are always going to prefer buying fabric from clerks who are quick on their feet, with the right light touch. It is part talent and part practice. Some people, plodding and clumsy their entire lives, simply never learn despite their best efforts. Whatever the profession, you are always going to be held up against others. It cannot be helped.

The two young men were prepossessing: fine clear-cut features, middling good height. Clothier clerks dressed quite well, wearing whatever was the last and latest word in their line of business. It went without saying that they bought at an excellent price goods that were worthwhile. They bought at wholesale prices, no margin added; for leftover cuttings, they even got a discount. That was how things were done at clothiers, and owners were happy to go along. A smartly dressed clerk made the shop look good. Often, the customer would point to a clerk’s outer gown, or the contrast sleeves of his tunic: “I’ll have one just like yours.”

Both brothers were already married. The eldest had a son. Ye San was now a proud grandfather.

This year, Ye San turned fifty – a milestone birthday. As the whole family went over the celebration plans, both sons wondered whether their father should still be making fruit deliveries to the gentry families, since they could now afford to keep him at home.

Ye got a bit annoyed. “Am I embarrassing you now? You two ‘gentlemen’ in big garment shops – you think you don’t look good with your old man peddling fruit?”

The young men hurried to make themselves clear: “It’s not that. Papa, you’re older now. It doesn’t feel right for us to just sit there and watch you always going on the road, in all kinds of weather, trudging through mud and going by water.”

I’m used to the road. I’m used to taking fruit to these families. Just for Fourth Master Ji alone, I need to go on selling.”

Fourth Master” referred to Ji Taomin. The fourth male child of his generation born into the extended Ji family, he was known to everyone in town by this title of honor.


“You don’t have to bother with birthday ceremonies and whatnot. If you want to do your filial duty by me, get those paintings that Fourth Master gave me mounted, and order me a Longevity casket.” The local custom was to get the coffin ready way ahead of time, as a token for good fortune and long life.

And so everything went, according to Ye’s wishes.

Ye San kept on selling fruit.

It really was true that he sold fruit for Ji Taomin alone. He made deliveries to all the other houses for the sake of his wages; he sold to Ji for the love of what Ji painted.

It was Ji Taomin’s particular quirk to paint and drink at the same time. He cushioned his drink, not with the customary platters of food, but fruit. After a few brush-strokes, his lips locked to the spout of the wine-warmer, he would take a swig and, a slice of fruit in his left hand, the paint brush in his right, turn back to his painting. For one painting, he would down two catties of Shaoxing rice liquor and a little less in fruit.

Whenever Ye San got his hands on the best trove of fruit, he took it to Ji Taomin first.

As soon as Ji Taomin got up each morning, he went into his small study that doubled as his studio. Ye San did not need to be announced. Entering through a smallish hexagonal gate giving onto the garden, down a winding path paved with gravel in the “ice petal crunch” style, he would see Ji through the studio window, and walk in carrying or cradling his fruit. 

Sir, loquats, White Crisp!”

Sir, watermelon from the East Mound, white skin, rind, and seed! These Three Whites have a touch of pear-blossom about them – you don’t find that anywhere else!”

He spent half a day on his deliveries to Ji Taomin. He helped Ji with grinding the ink stick, skimming the choice vermilion “fat” of the cinnabar, pestling the azurite and malachite, and smoothing out the paper. While Ji painted, he stood to one side and watched with rapt attention. His whole mind would be so taken up, he barely exhaled. Sometimes, in the middle of a showstopper, he would draw a deep breath without meaning to, and may even break into a low cry that barely rose above a whisper. Those were the moments Ji considered his best. Ji never painted in the presence of others, and would sometimes lock his study door while painting. Ye San was the lone exception. Ji was quite willing to have someone like Ye watch him. He thought Ye really got it. Ye San’s admiration neither masqueraded as expertise, nor flattered to curry favor. It was heartfelt.

Ji Taomin hated listening to other people talk about painting. He rarely went to the gatherings at his relatives’ houses. On the occasions he was obliged to go, he showed his face long enough to drink half a cup of tea before taking his leave. Some poseurs, who imagined themselves arbiters of culture, were certain to be holding forth. Since Ji was a celebrated painter, they were given to lengthy expositions on learning and art when he was around, to parade their refinement and erudition. Picked up from hearsay, their ideas were never more than half-baked. It was a great nuisance for Ji to have to submit to them. He knew well that, should he murmur one or two noncommittal replies called for by courtesy, one of these men would regurgitate his spiel elsewhere, adding: “Ji Taomin himself approves of my opinion without reserve.”

But Ye was, for him, in another category altogether.

Ji had the utmost admiration for Li Futang. Of the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou, Ji found Li to possess the most depth and mastery, excelling equally in hall paintings and miniatures. You are in good hands with both Li’s calligraphy and painting. These pieces are untrammeled, save by a vigorous direction. Their majestic reserve never overwhelms a melodious delicacy. Li is not mannered. He does not take the easy way out, like his contemporary cynics who can sometimes smack of dilettantism. One day, Ye San brought Ji four album paintings by Li Futang. Ji was stunned: the four paintings were real! Ji asked Ye how much he paid for them. Nothing, Ye said.

Ye was getting a shipment of fruit in the town of Sanduo, and noticed the four paintings, set in a vitrine cabinet, at someone’s house. He had seen a lot of Li’s paintings at Ji’s place, he told Ji, and recognized the find. He traded four “Suzhou posters” for them. The owners were pleased as anything over the tasteful antique-imitation posters of flowers and birds, bright and brand-new with lots going on.
  

Ye San enjoyed paintings wholeheartedly, that was all. He never commented without knowing what he was saying. After Ji was done with a painting, nailed it to the wall, and looked at it from a distance, his hands clasped behind his back, he would sometimes ask Ye: “Is it any good?”

Yes!”

How?”

Ye could usually, with one phrase, pinpoint what was good about it.

Ji once drew some wisteria, and asked Ye his opinion.

Ye said, “There is wind in the wisteria.”

Hmm! How do you know that?”

The flowers are rumpled.”

Exactly!”

Ji picked up an ink-brush and wrote on the painting a couplet in the Song dynasty sonnet style:

 

The silence in that deep courtyard–

No one could be seen.

The wind in wisteria vines rumpled their flowers.

 

Ji drew a miniature of a mouse climbing a lamp stand. Ye San said, “This is a young mouse.”

How do you know that?”

The mouse wraps its tail around the pole of the lamp stand. It’s being playful.”

Right!”

Ji Taomin loved to paint lotus flowers. All his lotuses were in dark calligraphy ink. While he admired Li Futang, he did not paint like Li at all. Where Li tend toward the ponderous, Ji is ethereal. Li’s brushwork favors the classical full-bodied “front-center” stroke; Ji’s leans in slightly – this has to do with his calligraphy style, the “ancient cursive.” Sometimes Li lets his ink and water flow free – “a sweet disorder in the dress” – where his thought runs ahead of his brush. Ji has none of this tempestuous abandon. Even though he paints oversize freestyles, the brush and the thought never lose sight of one another, and each touch is cleaned up and put away. His scheme is spare and airy, and he knows what to do with the empty spaces. His ink lotuses owe something to Zhang Daqian, but are more at ease. He does not line his lotus leaves with veins or sprinkle the lotus stem with spikes. He prefers long scrolls for the sake of the long lotus stems. With a single brush-stroke, he brings out the stem from beginning to end.

One day, Ye San brought him a big bunch of lotus seedpods. Inspired, Ji painted some ink lotuses with a number of seedpods. He asked Ye: “What do you think?”

Ye San said, “Sir, there’s something wrong with your painting.”

“Wrong?”

‘Eat seeds from the red flower, eat root from the white.’ You painted white lotus flowers, but look at how big these seedpods are, bursting with seeds. The ink shade is dark too. These seeds belong with red lotus flowers.”

Is that so? I never knew that before!”

Ji Taomin rolled out an eight-feet sheet of unvarnished rice paper, painted red lotuses, and signed off with a poem:

 

Eat seeds from the red flower, eat root from the white,”

Ye San the fruit-vendor said;

This ignorant painter stands corrected.  

For you my own rule I will breach,

To paint just this once with rouge.

 

Ji Taomin made a gift of a lot of his paintings to Ye San. Sometimes Ji crumpled up and tossed something he was not happy with. Ye would pick it up, and eventually bring it back to Ji. Ji would then think that it did pass muster, dab at it a little, add a dedication, and give it to Ye San again. All the paintings that Ji Taomin gave to Ye San mentioned Ye by name. Ye San, known to everyone by his birth order (san means “third,”)did officially have a name. At his birth, the fortune-teller pronounced Ye’s astrological lineup to be unsatisfactory, there not being enough of the water element. To make up for it, his family named the newborn Runsheng (“enlivened by water. ”)  Accordingly, Ji conferred the name Zezhi (renewed in rain”)  on Ye. Ji often signed off the paintings he gave to Ye San with: “To Zezhi, my Third Older Brother,” complete with the form of address painters use toward those whose good opinion they seek. Or Ji may simply undersign, “For Ye San,” explaining to the latter that addressing others using their birth order was a norm among the ancients, so no discourtesy was implied.

Sometimes, after finishing a painting for Ye San, Ji Taomin would say, “I won’t put a dedication on this one. That way you can get some money for it. Paintings with someone’s name on them are harder to sell.”

Ye San said, “It doesn’t matter to me. But I won’t sell your paintings.”

You won’t?”

Not a single one!”

He put all the paintings Ji Taomin gave him in his coffin.

More than a dozen years passed.

Ji Taomin died. Ye San no longer sold fruit. Throughout the seasons and for the holidays, Ye still scoured the countryside for fresh fruit, to make offerings at Ji’s graveside.

After Ji Taomin died, his paintings soared in price. Some Japanese collectors would take nothing else. It was widely known that Ye San was the holder of a considerable and choice hoard of Ji’s paintings. A lot of buyers made offers. Ye San said, “No.”

One day, a stranger came to pay his respects to Ye. Ye San peered at his calling card. The man had a very strange surname, Shi, that could not be found in most dictionaries, and his first name meant “Listening to Waves.” Some questioning revealed that he was Japanese. Shi said he made the trip expressly to see the paintings by Ji Taomin that were in Ye’s collection.

Because the traveler had come such a long way, Ye San felt compelled to bring out the paintings. Shi showed great piety. He asked for some clean water to wash his hands, lit some incense, and even bowed down three times to each scroll before unrolling it. As he looked at them, he never stopped marveling:

Oh! Oh! How great they are! Divinely inspired!”

Shi wanted to buy these paintings. Ye San could name any price.

Ye San said, “No.”

And there remained nothing for Shi to do but leave, forlorn.

Ye San died. His sons did as he instructed. They put Ji Taomin’s paintings, along with their father, into the coffin, and buried them.

 

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