White clouds

It is a fine irony that after all those years of studying Chinese the first calligraphy scroll I have bought should be Japanese. But its sentiment is Chinese; it is the last line of a poem by a Tang dynasty poet, Wang Wei (699-759), and the characters are Chinese. It happens to have been written by a Japanese Zen Buddhist monk, but that is just a detail, particularly in the light of its tremendous energy and its direct path to my heart strings.

            I thought that I would spend my life reading Chinese, translating poetry and doing research, but things turned out differently. So now the time when I still expected that seems like a kind of golden age, which can be very precisely pinpointed to the years of Donald Holzman’s poetry seminars in the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme on boulevard Raspail. These were on Wednesday afternoons, and afterwards we would go to the Hôtel Lutétia for tea. It was an expensive hotel, the waiters were very polite, but they didn’t know how to make tea – two of us came from countries that do know how to make tea – so we would order two pots of tea and three of hot water, and stay there, topping up, almost as long as the seminar had lasted. Later, and that was when two of my fellow students began to call him Sensei, ‘master’, Holzman started a class of Japanese for sinologists, also followed by tea, the European kind; no doubt the Lutétia has Japanese tea nowadays but it didn’t then, and we probably wouldn’t have ordered it anyway.

            A lot of Chinese poetry is about parting: the poets were often civil servants and were sent off to distant parts of the empire, or withdrew from public life to become recluses. The line of poetry on my scroll comes from such a poem, its title is ‘Farewell’: Where are you going? One poet asks the other. I didn’t achieve my ambition, comes the answer, I’m going to rest in the southern mountains. And the last line: ‘There’s no end to white clouds there.’ Five Chinese characters written in one flourish, the brush hardly taken off the paper, the ink itself streaky as a cloud with the white paper visible through it, the scroll is taller than I am: one glance at it and I am the person I was then, with my old ambition.

            It seems that I am not the only person who has bought a Japanese object to make up for a missed trip to Japan, but I may well be the only one who did it because the object is to all intents and purposes Chinese. But it does come enclosed in the Japanese way in not one but two wooden boxes, with an inscription on one of the lids by the abbot about his sensei, his master, the calligrapher. And of course if a Japanese were to read it out loud it would sound very different (just as Chinese characters pronounced in Korean so surprisingly do in the film House of Hummingbird).

            Almost everyone who was at those classes and drank tea at the Lutétia is dead now. Donald Holzman, who was the best teacher I ever had, was twenty-four years older than me (I know this only because he too was born in a year of the tiger), and died last year, as did my fellow expert tea-drinker. Last time I was in Paris I walked past the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, which looked just the same. The Lutétia, on the other hand, has been so spiffingly renovated that I would no longer dare go in.

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