Brian Salter's Blogs:
Ink stamps, Concubines and a Chinese Parrot

 

Connections, it appears, are everything.

I discovered a perfect example of this recently when I met a charming lady by the name of Ji Zhijuan who happens to run a highly regarded English language school in the Huilongguan region on the north side of Beijing. It turns out that she is a ninth-generation descendant of Ji Xiaolan (纪晓岚) – otherwise known as Ji Yun (纪昀) – who was a well-known scholar of the Qing dynasty.

I happened to mention this to someone at work and was amazed at the reaction. “What! You mean you actually KNOW someone who is descended from Ji Xiaolan? Wow! That’s so amazing!” Well, given the fact that JXL had three kids, and the fact that over 200 years have passed since his death, it surely can’t be that amazing, I thought. Yet a similar comment to another colleague got an equally over-the-top reaction.

It could of course be something to do with the fact that a TV series was made in 2002 about his life – ‘The Eloquent Ji XiaoLan’. Ironic in a way that a 20th century invention should have made him an overnight sensation 200 years after his death!

I decided that I should quickly look up who this amazing Qing scholar was, such that by the time Zhijuan had discovered that I was working my way around Beijing’s many museums and asked me if I would be interested in going to JXL’s museum, I was able to thank her most profusely for the offer.

The museum – on Zhushikou Xi Dajie in the Xuanwu District, a ten minute walk due east of Caishikou subway station on Line 4 – is unlike any of Beijing’s other siheyuans, in that it boasts a Jesuit Rococo entrance on either side of the former main entrance, of which very few examples can be seen today in the capital.

The mansion itself was actually built in the early 18th century for a 21st generational descendant of the renowned General Yue Zhongqi of the Song Dynasty. (General Yue fought alongside General Nian Gengyao in quelling Muslim and Tibetan rebels in what is today Qinghai, and was highly honoured in Beijing.) Ji Xiaolan lived here on and off for some 60 years altogether, including the last 30 years of his life.

One instinctively knows this is a place worthy of a visit if you read some of the things written about it. For instance, BJpinker.com describes it as: “Former residence of Ji Xiaolan pool of more than two years of ups and vicissitudes of life, with many historical stigma and the profound cultural accumulation.”

Not quite clear enough? Oh, come now!

OK. How about turning to informationbible.com, or else sooperarticles.com, both of which tell us in exactly the same words: “The former residence of Ji Xiaolan pool of 200 years, the vicissitudes, has many historical stigma and rich cultural heritage.”

Sounds like all three have used Mr Google’s translation engine. OK. Whatever….

What is undeniable is that the residence has survived the Opium Wars, the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, WWII and the Chinese Civil War, and perhaps the biggest destroyer of all – Beijing’s modernisation programme!

According to timeoutbeijing.com, entry is 6 kwai; whereas BJpinker.com knows better and goes on to tell us “Tickets: $ 10, no longer free. Tickets + explain + Ji House tea and other packages are $ 40.” And so it proves to be. We find out that if you enter via the left hand side, you are encouraged to buy a 40 kwai ticket which offers you a guided tour and a cup of tea at the end of your visit; while if you are a mere cheapo like your favourite blogger, you will enter on the right hand side and pay just 10 kwai entrance to wander about.

The entry ticket purportedly doubles up as a postcard if you open it out, though I suspect that it wouldn’t survive very long in the China mail service, given its flimsiness. Besides that, it doesn’t give a great deal of room on which to scribble “The weather is here; wish you were beautiful!” or whatever it is one writes on postcards these days, that is assuming people still do actually send postcards and it’s not just me who lives in a time warp.

Now, in order not to lose you as you wander off to Wikipedia – or whatever fount of knowledge it is you use for your research – let me give you a potted history of this legendary hero from the days of yesteryear.

Ji Xiaolan was a Qing Dynasty scholar who was born on 26th July 1724, dying at the ripe old age of 80 – or 81, or 82, depending on which internet source you believe. (As Zhijuan tells me he was 80 when he died, I will go with her version of events!) He has long been portrayed as an honest and incorruptible official who was not only a talented academic, but also did good deeds for the masses. In other words, he was a jolly decent chap who played a straight wicket; in short, a thoroughly good egg.

Ji published five collections of supernatural tales between 1789 and 1798, and in 1800 these five volumes were produced under the collective title of ‘Yuewei caotang biji’ 阅微草堂笔记 (which loosely translates as ‘Jottings from the grass hut for examining minutiae’). But he is actually better known for what was the magnum opus of Qing editorial achievement: Siku quanshu 四库全书 (The Complete Library in Four Branches) – which could be likened to an early offline version of Wikipedia.

This might never have happened, had it not been for a turn of events that occurred in 1768, when Ji became an accessory in a bribery case after he tipped off a brother-in-law about the severity of charges pending against him. For this heinous crime he was banished to Urumqi in Xinjiang Province (what is now also known as Chinese Turkestan). A year later, he received a pardon and, on his return journey in 1771, he wrote a travel account distilled into 160 poems called Xinjiang zalu (Assorted verses regarding Xinjiang) which to this day remains one of the most useful information sources on life in Xinjiang Province in the late-eighteenth century.

As a result of this, when Emperor Qianlong returned from Jehol to Beijing in 1771, Ji was ordered to write a poem about the return of the exiled Turgut Mongols from the banks of the Volga. His rendition of this inspiring tale delighted the emperor, and Ji became an unofficial poet laureate. The job of compiling Siku quanshu was thus given to him. And from 1773 onwards, Ji Xiaolan edited this massive work together with another guy called Lu Xixiong and a number of helpers.

So, back to the present. On entering the compound, you pass into a courtyard, at whose southern end is reputedly the original reception room used by JXL and which now contains an assortment of art works and a shop selling souvenirs.

The entire house and garden covers only 600 square metres, which does appear somewhat modest for one who eventually rose to the position of assistant Grand Secretary just prior to his death in 1805.

So I turn once again to BJpinker.com for inspiration. ‘The layout is facing south, the street door hard top good luck for the style gatehouse, located in the southeast corner of the house. Connected with the large openings of the south west door of the room for the four “back seat.” The former compound of a wisteria, legend hand of the plant for the year of Ji Xiaolan. Despite two hundred years now, but still coiled, tangled, green leaves shrouded...Front yard front escort for the next six Hall, Hill set up a two front windows, enclosed by a brick, the mountain and a door through the inner courtyard, hall after the gallery. Upper hall has wood lattice beams rose window. Bright and spacious hall, elegant and luxurious.’ There you go. I couldn’t have expressed it better myself!

On looking up I notice how close to the workings of the new subway line 7 we are – it’s due to open later in 2013 – a couple of centuries too late for JXL, but useful nonetheless for future visitors to his house.

I mentioned earlier that it’s amazing that the house has survived this long, while so many other historical places have been torn down. One reason is the fact that JXL’s heirs decided to rent out his property and this decision in turn earned it a unique place in twentieth century history – as is recorded on a marble plaque in the garden…

In 1930, a prominent left-wing scholar from Shanxi and an avid supporter of the Communist Party – Liu Shaobai – rented the house. Shortly after, it became a safe house for Communists and the location of a clandestine cell linked with the Communist Party organisations in Hebei and Shanxi provinces. Seven years later it became a dormitory for Peking Opera students of the Fu Lien Ch'eng Peking Opera troupe of Mei Lanfang, but remained a liaison point for Communists. On the eve of the 1948 Communist take-over of Beiping (later renamed Beijing), it also acted as a branch of an old-style Shanxi bank which channelled funds to the Communists.

In 2001, the street was widened and members of the public, concerned that the former 'mansion' of Ji Xiaolan might be demolished, called for the restoration of the building. This was carried out and the next year what remained of it was opened to the public.

It’s a beautiful day today and spring is already turning into summer. Beijing always has incredibly short spring seasons – blink and you miss them. Magnolias, for example, have only sprung into life these past couple of weeks, but already this one in JXL’s garden has obviously thought it has made its statement for the year and has all but given up trying to seduce its daily quota of visitors.

We wander about the grounds as the cream of Beijing’s security staff keep a watchful eye…

Now, JXL was by all accounts quite a diminutive figure. There’s a statue of him in the garden and assuming it is made to size, he comes up only as far as my chin.

He was married to Lady Ma, who died 10 years before he did, and he had three children – born in 1743, 1766 and 1784 – from which I can only deduce that he didn’t have a very big sex drive (or perhaps Lady Ma used to complain, a lot, of headaches?). Mind you, if he fathered a son when he was 61, I guess he can’t have been that impotent!

And there’s more!

It appears that he also had six concubines and a fair selection of GFs - of whom this one, playing the guzheng, was his favourite, though she died when she was just 20. It is said that he loved her but never got around to marrying her as, for starters, she was of too low a class for him.

He planted two trees in memory of this favourite of his (but none, it would appear, for his long suffering wife!) though unfortunately one of the two trees didn’t survive. I suspect JXL didn’t water it properly when it was just a sapling – a common mistake to make.

Also in the garden is the only one left of four original fire water tureens, around which some goldfish swim while admiring the generosity of passers by who have thrown in some spare change for good luck.

I’ve mentioned that JXL was a man of slight build. Here is perhaps his best known portrait painted onto silk, which hangs inside the museum.

There are also plenty of other pictures and statues of him of course…

And as you would expect, there are numerous ‘objets d’art’ to fill up this museum, though precious few which actually belonged to JXL himself. Here’s a porcelain pillow – the kind of thing he might have used for resting his head, perhaps, when GF number one was serenading him with her guzheng.

There are also plenty of examples of pen and ink sets – so appropriate for the home of a writer, don’t you think! (And yes, you can even buy these blocks of ink in the souvenir shop for a mere 500+ kwai!)

There are all kinds of artistic works on show, which I suspect is more to do with the fact that local artists needed somewhere to hang them and there was plenty of space going spare here at JXL’s house. I have no idea about the origins of this vulture, for instance, but I have to say I think he’s pretty cute.

One of the things you find many people comment on is the fact that although he was a very heavy smoker, JXL lived to be an octogenarian. He was known for the very long pipe he smoked and he even had a nickname :“纪大烟袋” – Ji Da Yan Dai or Ji with the long pipe!

Another ‘Gosh I never knew that’ piece of trivia: Here’s an inscription written by the Emperor Qianlong. It’s a Buddhist term about success and luck. But what is strange about it is that the word for rain – Yǔ – is normally written as 雨; but Qianlong decided to be a Smart Ass and wrote it with the bottom two strokes missed off. There were apparently a lot of floods during that time in his hometown in Hebei Province, and the emperor wanted there to be less water around! (Sounds to me like he had a King Canute complex!)

Now, we’ve already seen that JXL was a prolific writer – helped, nonetheless by a huge team working for him. Many copies of his books are on display in cabinets – a definite case of never mind the quality, feel the width!

His famous Yuewei caotang biji – 阅微草堂笔记 contains 24 parts. Here are some samples.

Another room is called SIku shufang 四库书房 (Siku Study) and there are a number of cupboards in it.

It is said that 80 cupboards would be needed to hold all of his books. There were several full sets made. One set is in Taiwan, for instance, and another in the Imperial City.

And it is also said that if a 10 year old boy started reading his works and managed to get through 200 pages a day, he would still be reading the works by the time he was 70.

JXL’s study has now been divided off into smaller rooms – two on each side of a large open area with yet another portrait of the guy dominating the room.

I forgot to mention, by the way, that the curator of the museum is a well known calligrapher and artist in his own right. Li Xin Yong is also an avid collector of ink stamps from the Qing dynasty, among other things, and in the study area of the museum is a massive collection of such things.

One of these subsections contains various art works and examples of calligraphy – a reflection of much that has been collected by Li Xin Yong.

There are also assorted collections of jade and other stones, which may not have had anything to do with JXL, but as collectors’ pieces they are exquisite in their own right.

Inside another sub section of the study area is a guzheng, but this is unlikely to be the one his favourite GF used.

Although we had gone in via the cheap entrance, paying for a basic 10 kwai ticket, Zhijuan sees an official tour guide talking at a group of followers and she sidles up and joins the group surreptitiously. I listen from afar and am amazed just how this guide is spouting out her acquired knowledge like a parrot reading from a prepared script. I ask Zhijuan if she sounds like a parrot in Chinese. Yes, comes the answer. She undoubtedly does!

Ms Parrot – or should that be鹦鹉, Yīngwǔ? - is telling her audience that although few of the original items from the time of Ji Xiaolan remain in the house, the desk and mirror in the main study are original items. The glass mirror in the zitan timber frame (behind her right ear) is one of the earliest mirrors (made with lead paint) in China.

Now, I mentioned earlier on that It appears that JXL was often getting into trouble with the authorities for being too outspoken. You'll remember on one occasion he became an accessory in a bribery case and was demoted and sent to Xinjiang Wulumuqi (what is now Urumqi) in the far north west of the country on China’s critical border with the countries of Central Asia such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Here he lived for more than two years. He wrote more than 160 poems on his way back to Beijing. They are all about the local conditions and customs; and some were selected and put into Yueweicaotang biji (阅微草堂笔记).

A museum in his name was set up in Renmin Park in Wulumuqi. Many calligraphers wrote his poems (the yellow one below was written by Mr Li, the curator) and even had them engraved on stones. Apparently some of these stones were later found in Xinjiang. And because the Muslim Uighur population shares much in common with Muslim groups across these borders, both China and these bordering nations worry about potential separatist movements attempting realignment along cultural lines. So the fact that these inscribed stones were found here has been seized on by the Beijing government that it adds credence to the view that the territory used to belong to China even in the 18th century, for why else would a senior officer be sent to live there?

At the very back of the house is a room stuffed full of yet more artistic material which has been put together by a group of local artists who use this venue to sell their works (I am assured that the portrait of Mao was not a favourite wall hanging of JXL’s!). Part of the income thus raised goes towards the upkeep of the place, which used to get a grant from the Beijing government of 200,000 kwai every year, but now copes admirably on its own. Indeed, it even makes a profit and can afford to employ eight staff.

The room adjoining this modern art gallery is where guests can sip tea with the curator – assuming, that is, that they have paid their 40 kwai each.

The kettle is already on the boil, controlled by an electronic hot plate.

At a quiet moment, Zhijuan slips across to Mr Li to say hello. He remembers her from her last visit and immediately asks us if we would like a cup of tea. Without waiting for an answer, two glasses are brought to us by an over-eager helper as Zhijuan and Li chatter away like long lost friends.

The tea is the type you have to strain through your teeth to stop the leaves clogging up your mouth. I have had it before and it is much more difficult than at first it appears. (The secret is to take purely tiny sips, rather than trying to gulp it down.) As the level in the glass falls, so Over-Eager-Helper is on hand to top it up again.

It appears our clever Mr Li was responsible for the design of a set of postage stamps marking the zodiac animals that make up the Chinese calendar. There is even a poster to that effect on the wall. I am asked what my birth year animal is and I reply I am a Tiger. Zhijuan is a Horse.

Before we know it, we are each the proud owners of a calligraphic work of art that is presented to us by Mr Li. It is explained to me that if you squint a bit and turn your head to one side you can see a tiger in the character – yes, there are the four feet and a tail as well! (OK, I suppose it could also look a little bit like a scorpion, but this, I am told, is definitely a tiger!)

We clutch our gifts and with heartfelt expressions of 谢谢 (Xièxiè = thanks) we are escorted to the door by Ms Over-Eager-Helper, as Ms Parrot and Mr Li wave a tearful goodbye. It’s been a grand morning.