Wei Ligang: Rhapsody on Writing-Image

Fu, or rhapsody, is a classical Chinese literary form of rhymed prose. Most popular during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 200 CE), it simultaneously defines and expands the definition of an object or theme with ornamental diction and extravagant parallelisms and imagery. Here Wei Ligang uses the rhapsody form to elaborate the concept of shuxiang (tentatively translated as “writing-image”), narrate a history of Chinese writing, enumerate his intellectual and artistic influences, and envision a universal abstract art based in Chinese characters. Many of the phrases reappear in his “Thirty Terms.”


Shu (writing) refers to the great resource of Chinese characters. It encompasses the written characters, spells, and diagrams of various regionsand peoples of the world. Xiang (image) refers to the energy fields of the myriad existences of the universe. It is an infinite expanse, profound and vast; within it, myriad beings reside and myriad things thrive. Chinese characters are a resource, embodying the qualities of the descendants of the dragon, flourishing and explosive. Chinese characters are a bridge, connecting China and the world beyond, conjoining ways of seeing and sensing. Chinese characters are a platform; skirting its perimeter, we evaluate our neighbors. Chinese characters are a space-time, containing heaven and earth, structuring all that exists.


Excavate the Western Gorge, open the stone gate; divinations ontortoise shells; spring clouds twirl, autumn rain falls. Embrace the immortals, drink from the sweet spring; tiger talismans and tomb guardians; the mountain valley is emerald, the river spring white. Incense burns in the Cauldron of Duke Mao; gods arise on the San Family Plate. A night visit to Kang Nanhai [Kang Youwei, 1858-1927], an omen on Wufeng Mountain. Lugong [Yan Zhenqing, 709-785], the progenitor of regular script, and Yi Bingshou [1754-1816], the master of clerical script, taste unfiltered wine and stay at the Studio of the Stream. Cézannethe grandfather of image and Matisse the wild uncle forge bronze vessels and gather at the Lantern Studio. Visit the old man [Wang] Duo [1592-1652] and rock on a boat in Mengjin; swirl up the mountain of Fu Shan and break a donkey-drawn rake with a kick.


Luan and feng phoenixes with emerald wings summon spring; moonlight filters through the bamboo curtain. Qilin and dragons with fiery scales ascend clouds; Sirius illuminates the wine bottle. I write drunken in an embroidered robe, lying along a verdant stream washing over pebbles. Bathed in ten thousand clouds of purple vapors, rabbit hairs and black kite feathers scatter. Van Gogh with the severed ear collapses under lamplight; Jin Nong [1687-1764] with the red beard splashes ink. A pine split like a zither’s lines explodes in iron flowers; the fierce ni lion uproots a tree to carve dragon teeth. Character patterns and engraved blocks; talismans, spells, and ritual instruments; totems and flags flying atop a mountain fortress. A withered pine of ten thousand years; blunt iron of a millennium; the way of ink charging towards the Heavenly Terrace.  A small elm stands solitary, covered in snow, its withered branches lifting a bird nest, as the sun is concealed by fog and clouds. With a weathered axe a master forges a shrine, revealing a dragon’s horn in a snowy field, as mist twirls around a mountain. Beyond the threshold, the sounds of the manger tell rain and shine; before the window, the shadows of the candle capture geese in flight. The classics of the human world record all the joys and sorrows of humans and animals; the images and diagrams of the heavens condense the magic of the realm of metal, wood, water, and fire.


[Qi] Baishi’s paintings convey the petty pleasures of chickens pecking at earthworms. Xiali’s constructions employ the Myriad Methods of the Great Empire of Flies. A formation of shields becomes a wall of bronze and iron, thwarting feathered arrows. A skyscraping column rises like a fierce dragon and a spirited phoenix, thrusting into the dome. Seal, clerical, regular, and cursive scripts conjoin like embroidered flowers, summoning the scenes of the marketplace. Yan [Zhenqing, 709-785], Liu [Gongquan, 778-865], Ou [yang Xun, 557-641], Zhao [Mengfu, 1254-1322] with their dots, strokes, and hooks define the conventions and rules. Leaning and overlapping in multiple dimensions, gazing deeply into holes and cracks, I examine the profundity of the things of the world. By turns immersed and circumnavigating, inspecting the main road, I marshal the vast forms of myriad images. Making tea with water from a spring drilled open on a cliff, I invite Darwin to explore the black holes of my magic squares. In a lake concealed by dense mist and willows, I dine with Bill Gates and expound on his empire of networks.


A pagoda bell tolls in the quiet, surrounded by blue mist, and an immortal from a grotto with her bracelets and pendants of red jade. A barbican stands in silence, its flags lowered, its jade walls with patterns of yellow and blue like dragon scales. Knife-edges and blades clash and abrade, opening rocks to connect waterways. A soft brush sings a gentle song, and on silk flowing like water partridges call. As the sandalwood palace is erected the mountain ridge quakes; the jade and pearls are carved and set into the shimmering gold screen. A withered sunflower and an iron bird in candlelight at night; an incense burner and ancient classics in a dream of blue wisteria. As the brush-tip swirls ink splashes about, like horse-hoofs leaving deep impressions on rocks, like twin peaks splitting the blue sky. I banish the decadent and feeble, like leopards leaping across a scorched field, like a lone wild goose calling atop a pine in snow. I drink from the spring of the Jinci Temple, dwell on the Taihang Mountains, enjoy inscriptions on Cinnabar Cliff, read the paintings of Mojie [Wang Wei, 699-761]—authentic lineage of the Shanyaodan School. I apply Newton’s formulae, listen to Chopin’s music, tour the Grand Canyon, and ride Marco Polo’s gondolas—a magician of colors and lines.


Ink in the ink-stone washes over strange rocks and rusted iron on the riverbed; the edge of the beam pounds the field with crops consumed by locusts. On the smoke-filled ruins, scorched earth and life-giving bacteria share an origin. A pirate ship’s complex structure is analogous to that of a grasshopper or a mallard. The great library of stelae and model letters is my foundation. Foreign cultures and regions furnish my hall. The breath and pulse of the East fill my breast. Channeling the myriad into one, I construct my Writing-Image.


In early autumn in renchen, Year of the Dragon, at the Iron Lantern Studio, Songzhuang.


(Translated by Alan Yeung)