At the foot of Splendid Cloud Mountain there is a small village of huddled roofs and great banyan trees called Chin-k’an-pei. Somewhere in this region is the Pekin Mining Syndicate, but rather more important than any syndicates are the small houses covered with vines and approached only by long avenues where a few distinguished scholars have retired. This afternoon we called on an old scholar who is famous because in a book of a hundred pages published more than thirty years ago he made a reasonable attempt to synthesise the philosophies of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism.
It was one of the smallest houses I have ever seen, a single room which he used as bedroom and study. He wore an old tattered gown and a grey patched skull-cap; yet he was not poor. He was absorbed in his studies – those studies which would lead him in another ten years if he survived to write another small book of perhaps eighty pages on the religion of the Chinese. He was thin-boned and had once been tall. His skin seemed paper-thin in the light coming from the paper windows. His white beard, like his clothes, was torn in places; but the great jade ring on his wrist, his courtly manners, his sharp beaked nose and the small black eyes peering from behind heavy lead-coloured spectacles, suggested an enormous capacity for sustained thought. We talked about his first work – that small pamphlet which had changed a little the opinions of scholars ever since.
“But scholarship is dying,” he said. “The old order is dying – that is true. Yet scholarship is so precious in itself and as an example to others. In the West you have to put your trust in scholars who are scientists, and perhaps that is legitimate; but I would prefer that there should be some good scholars who remain.”
He apologized for not speaking English perfectly and confessed that he had neither read an English book nor spoken to anyone speaking English for forty years, yet he spoke perfectly. “You have a good few scholars still in the Universities – there is a scholar who has studied the Chinese calendar in all its phases, having read 80,000 books on the subject, in your University. Perhaps he will write a book of 300 pages, or even of 400 pages, for all these things are important. People speak too much – speaking is an excuse for not thinking – and they study too little. Before the revolution we thought carefully before we spoke: today we think little, and talk too much. I cannot read the newspapers. There are speeches; there are battles; there is no thinking. In the old days Chinese scholars were chosen by the Emperor. On them was imposed pure trust, and rarely did they misuse the trust. They lived frugally, governed honestly, wrote little and were content with the world. Our military commanders were scholars, Tu Fu and Su T’ung-po were scholars and officials – even Tao Yuan-ming was an official. This was a world in which the behaviour of scholars was the hallmark of everyone’s existence. Then how could we fail?”
His room was even poorer than the rooms of the Chinese scholars in the University; he was talking a language which they alone understood. There was the table; three or four ivory brushes, a tattered scroll on the wall, a jeweled fly-whisk, which, since it was high summer, he was occasionally flicking against our clothes; there was cheese-cloth mosquito curtain and the thick-soled slippers under the bed, and here and there on the walls, cut out from the scrolls which he had once possessed and considered insufficiently dignified to grace his bedroom, were single characters of Chinese, written boldly and elegantly, with tremendous passion and effrontery. It was as though the calligraphers at the moment of writing had seized the secrets of nature. There were perhaps twenty of thee characters written in different styles and at different epochs; and it was clear that the old scholar believed that in the whole history of Chinese handwriting no characters as good as these had ever been painted. Later, just as we were about to leave, I noticed what appeared to be a bronze umbrella-stand behind the door filled with rolled-up scrolls.
It was then that the room became charged with excitement. One could not ask him – even as a favour – to show us the scrolls. One could only hope that he would notice their presence before we had gone. I felt sure that they were good; and they were better than anything I had ever seen before – copies of T’ang Dynasty paintings, a painting of a monk, perhaps Bodhidharma, in a red robe, a single curlew on a swinging branch painted in thick monochrome like tempera, some golden birds and some court ladies dancing at the foot of the throne, and four or five other paintings and a few pieces of calligraphy.
“The rain has got at them,” he said sadly, pointing to the yellow spots, “but perhaps it is better like this. The world no longer appreciates good painting or good government. The world is covered with high clouds, and we hear only the murmur of the rivers and see nothing clearly. All that is good in China has passed and I am too old to hope for a resurrection.”
Robert Payne, Chungking Diary, 1945.