Illusion and reality: the painted wall

Huabi

Source here.

Around Yanggao in north Shanxi, home of the Li family Daoists, the common dialectal term for “chat” (liaotianr 聊天 in standard Chinese) is guada 呱嗒. Usually duplicated as guada guada, its wider etymology evokes the click of the clappers accompanying kuaishu 快书 story-telling, the smack of the lips while eating, or the thwack of the dough on the board—it’s also the name for a Shandong street-snack. Guada suggests just the kind of rapport to which fieldworkers aspire, rather than “interviewing” “informants”.

Knowing my fondness for the Yanggao term, as Hannibal Taubes was reading the “Painted wall” (Huabi 畫壁) story from the celebrated Liaozhai zhiyi 聊齋誌異 [Strange stories from a Chinese studio] by Pu Songling (1640–1715), he was soon beguiled by the expression guada 挂搭 there—which Chinese commentators had felt the need to explain. 

Alas, here it has nothing to do with the Yanggao term! My introduction has been a red herring! (For more wilful misreadings of the classics, see Fun with anachronisms).

Huabi guada textSo while our fleeting linguistic frisson soon became a wild goose chase (A really wild goose chase), at least it prompted me to read up on the story… It opens (in Judith Zeitlin’s translation):

Meng Longtan of Jiangxi was sojourning in the capital along with Zhu, a second-degree graduate. By chance they happened to pass through a Buddhist temple, none of whose buildings or rooms were very spacious and which were deserted except for an old monk temporarily residing [guada] there. When he caught sight of the visitors, he respectfully adjusted his robe, went to greet them, and then led them on a tour of the temple. In the main hall stood a statue of Lord Zhi, the Zen monk. Two walls were covered with paintings of such exceptionally wondrous skill that the figures seemed alive. On the eastern wall, in a painting of the Celestial Maiden scattering flowers, was a girl with her hair in two childish tufts. She was holding a flower and smiling; her cherry lips seemed about to move; her liquid gaze about to flow. Zhu fixed his eyes upon her for a long time until unconsciously his spirit wavered, his will was snatched away, and in a daze, he fell into deep contemplation. Suddenly his body floated up as though he were riding on a cloud, and he went into the wall.

Chinese commentators glossed guada there as 挂, “hanging his monkly robes”. I’m somewhat disturbed to find that even Qing-dynasty classical texts require such exegesis—yet despite our attachment to dialect, they are quite right! The radicals flanking the phonetic elements clearly matter. To some readers the term may even suggest guadan 掛單, the temporary enrolment of a wandering monk at a temple.

Judith Zeitlin reflects on the story’s blurring of the boundaries between reality and illusion. [1] Indeed, this is just the kind of topic that Hannibal explores on the basis of his rich archive of temple murals (see e.g. his Trompe l’oeil category).

Huabi monk

Source here.

Pu Songling added a final comment:

The Historian of the Strange remarks: “ ‘Illusion arises from oneself’—this saying seems to be the truth. If a man has a lustful mind, then filthy scenes will arise; if a man has a filthy mind, then terrifying scenes will arise. When a bodhisattva instructs the ignorant, a thousand illusions are created at once, but all are set in motion by the human mind itself. The monk was a bit too keen to see results. But it’s a pity that upon hearing his words, Zhu did not reach enlightenment, unfasten his hair, and withdraw to the mountains.”

Fahai si

Zeitlin illustrates the theme with murals from the Fahai si temple in the Beijing suburbs (for technical aspects, see Ritual artisans in 1950s’ Beijing):

Peering into the semi-darkness as the figures gradually emerge, we can almost visualize how the contemplation of such dazzling images sets the story into motion. […]
The small and deserted buildings of the real monastery are transformed into a large and bustling complex in the painted world.

* * *

The Liaozhai, and this story, are popular subjects for glossy Chinese film and TV adaptations. Here’s a trailer for the Hong Kong film Mural (Chan Ka-Seung 陳嘉上, 2008):

And the first episode of the 2011 mainland TV series:


[1] Historian of the strange: Pu Songling and the classical Chinese tale (1993), pp.183–99, with full translation 216–18. Cf. John Minford’s translation, and the old version by Giles; among other Western scholars who addressed the work were Jaroslav Průšek.

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