The entry in Google describes my uncle Read Lee (Lee De 李德) as an important artist of the older generation in Taiwan. He passed away last year at the age of 89. From July this year until 25th September, Taipei Municipal Art Museum staged a large and very important exhibition of over 180 of his works which took up three large halls. My wife and I flew to Taipei just in time to see it.
It is hard to describe Read Lee’s art. I stood in front of his paintings for a long time and I felt that I wanted to get back to the world and into the sunshine. I am sure there will be debates and many interpretations about the works of his different creative periods. The works seem to be steeped in philosophy and perhaps even religion. I wrote a poem in Chinese, in classical “qiyan lvshi” style. The first four lines are my impressions of his oils of the 1970s and 1980s and I used Chinese legends. Then in the next four lines, I grabbed “Yangming” , a mountain just outside Taipei city, and “Maogong”, an ancient bronze vessel being displayed in the Palace Museum, to describe the pivotal moment in a person’s life. Read Lee likewise experienced such a moment sometime in 1989 and he started to paint differently. Coincidently, both the mountain and the bronze vessel are named after real persons.
The Museum is huge, spacious, modern, and very impressive. The exhibition is unforgettable.
Picture-taking was not allowed. So I only managed to take a photo at the entrance showing San Jiujiu (that’s how we address him) working in his studio.
For three weeks or more, Zhang Yuhe had been running a high fever. Now in the early hours on the 28th day of the sixth moon in 1923, his body could not take it any longer. He died , age of 34, leaving behind his wife and four children. Among the six brothers, Yuhe lived the longest and he was the only one who had children who continued the line.
What did he die of? The family tradition blamed “shanghan”. Now we know it as typhoid fever. It is an infectious disease that attacks the digestive system. The victim runs high fever for3,4 weeks until he bleeds internally. Before the advent of antibiotics, typhoid fever mortality rate was over 50%. Changshu in 1923 was still very backward in medical care although the Anglican Church had started a hospital nine months earlier and another small local western-style clinic had been in existence for some years. There were good hospitals in Shanghai, but apparently no one thought of sending the patient there. Ever since chlorine was added to urban water supply, the disease had been eradicated in the Western world, and with antibiotics, the mortality rate is down to 1%.
Yu Mengying took the blow in stride. One winter day five months after her husband’s death, she instructed the servants to dress up the children. She herself had her hair combed by her maid with the sticky Tong wood peel water. She put on her newly tailored ao, with a design of bold stripes which was in fashion. For earrings, she picked a pair of pearls. The family, accompanied by maids, then rode rickshaws to the studio on the main street.
In the photo, Menghing’s eyes seem to be saying “I am here to hold it up even if the sky falls”. She was carrying her baby daughter on her knees. She would pose like this many times with her grandchildren in the coming years. When she was 80, she posed holding her great-grand daughter and smiled.
No one in the picture smiled. No one said “cheese” in those days. Even westerners did not smile in photos. Being photographed was a serious thing. For Mengyin, she smiled a bit only after she turned 60.
Her son, Yaozhang, seven and half in the picture, knew clearly that he was now the only male in the family, with heavy responsibilities on his shoulders. From now on, he would represent the Zhang family of the Nanjingtang branch at all social functions. For such formal occasions he would put on his long silk gentleman’s gown with a black brocade magua . He would wear a “melon peel” cap and follow his personal servant to attend weddings and funerals. The servant Genghe would hold up his name card, a large piece of paper with his name written on it, and walked in front of his master into those venerable old courtyard residences. The boy would try his best to catch up and step over the high wooden “menkan” at the gates and doors. He would raise both arms and bowed long and deep to the hosts and other guests, and they would do likewise as if he was an adult.
Yaozhang would also attend the clan’s ancestral worship rites. At Qinming, his mother would hire a boat and Yaozhang would follow her to visit all the ancestral gravesites where he would burn paper silvers and perform the kowtow. He was a good student under the private tutor and then at Xiaoyou School. He had the children of Zong Xiusong as his playmates and many cousins in Suzhou. His mother’s brother became his “jidie” who helped his widowed sister raise the boy to adulthood.