Scrolling The River


Paintings with the title 千里江山, “a thousand miles of river and mountain” have been talked about for a thousand or so years in China. Handscrolls that reveal a few inches of the image at a time, while the remainder disappears to the left or right as it winds around the rollers or comes bit by bit into view from the other side, have an even longer history. The landscape handscroll has recently been championed (by David Hockney for example) as a way to break out of vanishing-point perspective: a brave and inadequate attempt to claim it by reference to what it is not. The handscroll has no single point of view, but not because it forswears omniscience. Rather, multiple points of view are what the format uses to create its effect, an effect in time. The side-to-side movement of the paper brings surprise from one moment to the next, a sliding that causes the beholder’s eye, like the painter’s brush, to engage with a narrow segment of the whole at any instant. Otherwise there is no narrative, and narrative is what handscrolls are mainly engaged in building: seeing this land from a boat on a lake or a broad slow river, coasting by.

(Gary Snyder, “Endless Streams and Mountains,” from Mountains and Rivers Without End)

A landscape scroll records movement on a surface defined by movement, like the inscribing head of a seismograph. Its narrative is happenstance. One thing after another, discovery, repetition, variation: the shape of a travel diary, not necessarily building to a moment of recognition or resolution, just to a destination and the end of the story.

The phases of the journey down the Long River are celebrated. Poetry – for example, Li Bai’s and Du Fu’s – tells us what to look out for: in the hills where the river first becomes navigable, you hear monkeys moaning in the trees (猿声天上哀); downstream, travelers fear capsizing in the rapids (江湖多风波,舟楫恐失坠); the whirling waves make a liquid match for the forbidding solidity of mountain passes, both river and mountain walling off the core of Chinese civilization from without (江间波浪兼天湧,塞上风云接地阴); to get past the Three Gorges and their rapids and into the central plain is a triumph in itself (即从巴峡穿巫峡,便下襄阳向洛阳). The journey from Sichuan to the coast was an upwards pilgrimage for the aspirant scholar, a return from exile for some disgraced officials, or a process of transformation for the goods that it turned from agricultural produce to imperial revenue.

Jiangshan 江山, the flowing river counterposed to the unmoving mountain, made up a poetics in themselves, the primary dialectic of forces and images that poetry and painting play with and around. But what happens when the river gets reshaped, indeed ceases flowing, and the mountains quiver? 国破山河在:”Though the state is broken, the mountains and rivers remain,” said Du Fu, in a line that must have seemed until recently to crystallize the inevitable. Now the state seems to be doing fine, while mountains shake and the great river is dammed up, all within a few miles of Du Fu’s reconstructed grass hut.

The painted half of Bingyi’s “Qianlijiangshan” unrolls from left to right, giving a seismographic image of change breaking in on the eternal artery of China. (In the register of change, forget those 1960s paintings that merely added power lines and smokestacks to the ancient brushwork formulas.) A river emptied of its water dragons, with cars, houses, people dashed to the bottom of its bed; at rest on the pebbles are car mufflers, bronze cauldrons, lightbulbs, boots, birdcages, a skeleton dating perhaps from the Banpo era or perhaps from last year. Black smears make a grim pattern of the water’s surface. A few people survive, tethered in boats to the river’s edge. Others band together, stretching out in a line of hands, anchored by a mermaid at one end; is the sketchy field to their left a row of X and Y chromosomes? Nearby, the palace of the Dragon King appears as an underwater resort with zoo animals and giant clams, wrecked sailing junks, many-legged creatures and the odd dinosaur. The tremendous, transforming power of the coiling qi or force of nature, realized in one spot as topographic contour, in another as waterfall, in another as cloud, is mimicked by a mountainous, nuclear-looking eruption. On the shore, bulldozers bring down the abandoned cities, while deep in the eddying water their remnants are full of activity. Further to the right (which I interpret as meaning both downstream, closer to the sea and to the present) the blooms of mud thrown up by the diverted river have turned into strange immense roses or peonies, dotted with froglike speckles: the cities of the Chinese coast, massive statistical blurs of human action. Thereafter, a blankness: the river merges with the sea. A lone hermit on a raft drifts toward an iceberg in the midst of which an Ötzi, the tattooed Neolithic mountain man, lies calmly refrigerated, under the shadow of a mothlike headless bird that hangs on the sky as if to play the arrowhead, the invitation to read further, beyond the right margin of the scroll.

And what is beyond the right margin is an open question. If the traditional scroll was the record of a pilgrimage, a particular imagined or experienced journey through landmarks recognized after centuries of collective experience, this scroll introduces us to a river that has become turbulent by being caught up into a system larger than itself: now the river as a whole journeys through historical time. Time of technological change, time suspended on a gradual temperature curve: when Ötzi’s iceberg has completely melted, will there be time left for his descendants? 春花秋月何时了,往事知多少?

By Haun Saussy