Saturday, July 11, 2009

Kiki: Check-in, and the "SYZ" goal explanation

We've made it through the end of Week Three!  Can you believe it? 

Plenty to write about today, so let's just jump right in to the week's assessment:

Writing Goals: July 6-10
*Write SWIM post explaining this chapter and its acronyms (like "SYZ") - About to happen below
*Transcribe and complete preliminary translations of all poems related to the SYZ site - Yes! 12!
*Write visual analysis of this chapter's focus painting - Found some wonderful new things, as well
*Write visual analysis of at least two other supporting paintings - Completed just in the nick of time
*Continue posting daily at The Prosecco Life - So far, so good...
*Write 2.5 Morning Pages each day (slowly working up to three) - This is bearing wonderful fruit.
*Revise and update my 1001/101 Project to better reflect its evolution and get it back on track - It has turned into a bigger project than I expected. That's Sunday's task!

 By this point, you know that I'm in my final (read: seventh) year of a Ph.D. in Chinese art history. This summer I'm doing a mad dash across the pages to complete a full draft of the opus they tend to call "a dissertation" by September 1, with two chapters left to come alive. Basically, it deals with Chinese use and adaptation of European trompe-l'oeil painting techniques during the eighteenth century. Check out the best and most complete site with wall and ceiling paintings inside the Forbidden City, "Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service" - before conservation. Be sure to pan up to the ceiling!

There aren't many of these paintings left, and because they fall in between the cracks of Chinese and European painting, they have essentially been ignored until very recently. They are huge - covering entire walls of buildings, and most paintings were probably destroyed when the buildings they were in were destroyed by fires in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Miraculously, some made it out of those buildings.

The painting that forms the focus of this chapter is a mysterious doozy that made it out alive: never published, never displayed, otherwise completely unknown. The multiple digital images of it (because it is so big) in the Forbidden City's digital database had never been stitched together into a full image of the painting until I asked for it. Even the woman who runs that office and has worked at the Forbidden City since the 1980s had never seen it before! It's incredible, and if it weren't breaking all sorts of copyrights and permissions I would post an image. 

But what is most incredible is that it has the equivalent of two imperial post-its on it: two bright yellow pieces of paper stuck onto the painting, one giving its original location, and the other identifying the main figure and giving the 19th-century date it was taken down from that site. This is huge: officially, none of the original locations for these orphaned paintings are known (but I've managed to track them down in my research!), and the fact that we have the exact date it was put into storage further fills out the story.

Because my dissertation deals with Chinese culture, I use a lot of shorthand to keep from having to write out all the long romanizations, translations, or resort to headache-inducing characters. For example, "Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service" is known in Chinese as the Juanqin Zhai, so that becomes "JQZ." The current "SYZ" chapter stands for Siyong Zhai or something like "Studio of Eternal Thoughtfulness," where the painting was originally mounted according to the imperial post-it. That was within what is called the Yuanming Yuan or the Old Summer Palace, on the outskirts of Beijing, where "A" is the Forbidden City and this site is in the upper left corner of the map as "Ruins of Yuanmingyuan" about 12 miles away.

So that's the basic story behind my professional writing goals for this month, and the crazy acronyms that go with them.  It kills me that I can't post a shot of this painting, because I would love to share it with you! 


  1. I'd love to see the painting! Can you tell us what is like? What's on it? What's its story? (Well, a summary). Well, maybe you can't. I'm just very intrigued about it after your post.

    It goes without saying that I find your thesis topic so so so interesting. I never knew of this type of Chinese paintings. Thank you for sharing it with us and congratulations on your extremely productive week.

  2. By the way, can you speak Chinese?

  3. Speaking Mandarin is one of my cooler superpowers, although these days I use it only for a combination of poetry translation, reading takeout menus, and muttering under my breath at obnoxious tourists.

    The painting is actually very simple: it's a toddler waving in front of a young woman in an open passageway that looks out onto a lakeside landscape with mountains in the distance. The child has "broken the fourth wall," to use film terminology, and looks straight out at the viewer in a way that makes you think he has recognized whoever it was viewing this piece - which, in this case, was the reigning Emperor. It's pretty fantastic - no written description does it justice!

  4. I loved reading this post - thank you for sharing so much about your work :)