Ma Yuan (active ca. 1190–1225). Viewing Plum Blossoms by Moonlight. Fan mounted as an album leaf; ink and color on silk; 25.1 x 26.7 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art
This last year, I had the privilege of taking a year-long course in Chinese Humanities, studying the literature, philosophy and history of the Qin/Han and Song dynasties for a semester each. One of the hallmarks of a Reed College education is the introductory humanities class (Hum 11o) that is required of all entering students and functions as an interdisciplinary writing seminar and common point of reference for Reed students. Hum 110 surveys Greek and Roman studies, with detours through Egyptian, Jewish and early Christian texts. The humanities model continues in upper level classes with medieval (Hum 210) and Early Modern/Enlightenment (Hum 220) studies.
Chinese Humanities, Hum 230, is an attempt to take that same model and apply it to Chinese studies. The first semester focuses on the Qin and Han dynasties (221 BC-220 AD) in order to look at the birth of the Chinese state and the rise of Confucianism, and the second semester focuses on the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD), which has remarkable parallels with early modern Europe (and, indeed, our own time). The course is taught by a team of lecturers and conference leaders, with a mixture of language experts, historians, art historians, and Chinese literature professors. I was speaking with one of our visiting professors, a modern China specialist, and he remarked that Reed’s program was unique in teaching this material in this way.
I came into the course with very little knowledge of China, ancient or modern, and one of the things that impressed me constantly was just how old the literary tradition of the country is. The stability of the Chinese literary canon, and the cultural emphasis and importance of the written word through such a long history is unparalleled by any culture the world has ever seen.
One fascinating manifestation of this tradition is functional poetry from the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD). The poetry from this period was so vibrant and masterful that it was held up as a model for the next thousand years. Some of the most charming of these poems were simply mementos of a visit from a friend, or written to preserve the memory of an arresting vista, or even left at the door to show that one had visited while the master of the house was out. For example, this poem, “Visiting and Old Friend at His Farmhouse” by Meng Haoran, is a simple poem that captures the bliss of friendship, conversation, and the comfort of the countryside:
An old friend prepared a meal of chicken and rice,
And invited me to join him at his farmhouse.
The village is surrounded by green trees
And the pale blue of outlying mountains.
The window opens to the garden and field,
While holding wine in our hands, we talked of mulberry and hemp.
We are looking forward to the Autumn Festival,
when I will return to visit the chrysanthemum bloom.
All of this is a very circumspect way to get at the singular pleasure that maintaining a Tumblr blog has given me in the past few months.
When I first encountered this blogging platform, I was convinced that it was not for me. It was first established as an image sharing service, and several aspects of it’s design and use are still a product of that function. It places an emphasis on sharing and reblogging over content creation, text-only posts are awkward, and the traditional blogger-commentator dialogue is unwieldy. Tumblr’s fluidity of display can also be a bewildering experience. Reading posts in Tumblr’s dashboard or arranging posts by tags is more akin to reading Facebook’s news feed than a traditional blog, and the infinite scrolling functionality can give the impression that one is wading through an infinite stream of consciousness rather than a deliberate arrangement of thought. As someone with more of a traditional bent than most of my age, the lack of constancy was frustrating.
As I’ve explored the service, however, and especially through my efforts to take a photograph each day, I’ve come to appreciate Tumblr less as a platform for artistic or personal expression and more as a tool for ordering and preserving subjective experience. The process of being aware of my surroundings, of constantly looking out for that moment or view with which I will represent my day has made me more engaged with myself. There is no question that it took more intellectual engagement and artistic technique for the Tang poets to preserve their own experience in verse, however I think they are at heart the same response to the same impulse. And in the way that a poet’s body of work became a literary avatar for the poet’s experience, so have my photos become a digital avatar for my own life, my own mind.
The internet confronts us constantly with the knowledge of just how unspecial we are, just how common our experiences and thoughts are. As a response, we look inward. Everyone is special. Everyone is unique. It just takes a little more effort to find what those special qualities and unique perspectives are. I think the internet has made us more aware, as a global culture, of the value of those with a compelling and unusual point of view.
This is why I can never take seriously the charge that my generation is a narcissistic generation of navel-gazers. We have become a culture unstuck in time, where the products of culture grow ever more available: streaming audio of every record ever made, online archives of writing, television, etc. In such a culture, the only thing that can be truly cultivated is one’s own artistic efforts and the lens that you view art through.
This blog is a lot more “serious” than my Tumblr, which can be found at iconochasm.tumblr.com. I usually try and keep the projects separate, however I’ve become lately convinced of the futility of segregating one’s online life.