Starting out

how light is the heaven
the workshop is already dark

I worked on the year-end bookkeeping all day long. How many beautiful journeys are evoked by the madeleine scent of the hotel bills! I place them in air-tight bags, so in my old age they will provide me with the fragrance of Sicily and Georgia. It is two o’clock in the morning, the tabletop is bare. I drink strong Yunnan tea. In two hours I leaving for Rome, and from there, further on. It is only in the years of grace that the roads go in two directions, other years they just carry you away, like the rivers. I am leaving the year behind me.

Wu Zhen (1280-1354) was not particularly famous or successful in his life. Only after the years of Mongol rule, during the Ming era, will he be discovered by painters, and lifted up into the ranks of the Four Masters to be followed. He never obtained an office, he lived a hermit’s life, retreated to his small estate. He painted mountains and rivers, and the one small, cartoon-like figure appearing in his pictures over and over again is a lone fisherman (who, of course, is not as simple as he may seem: the old fisherman did have a social-critical connotation in the Taoist tradition). And in the emptiness, so characteristic of Chinese pictures, he wrote his own poems.


Hóngyè cūnxī xìzhào yú
huáng lú tān pàn yuè hén chū.
Qīng bō zhào, qiě guī yǔ
guàqǐ yúgān bù diàoyú.

red leaves shining with the last light
golden reed’s shadow cast by the early moon
touching his paddle, it’s time to leave
putting away his rod, catching no more fish

The large empty space, which is to be filled with the viewer’s imagination, was already a convention in the Yuan era. It is nice how Wu Zhen plays with this convention. He does not put his figure in the middle of the space, as it is usual, but down to the bottom of the picture, so that the entire invisible spaciousness is above him. Only a small visible space remains in front of the figure, but, due to the convention, we imagine under him a spaciousness of the same large size. We do not see it, but we know for sure that it is there, just as the figure knows it, and entrusts himself to it when starting out.

Magpies on plum tree

The rich Chinese houses are usually encircled by simple white-painted, gray-tiled high walls. Their only glory is the huge gate, which is especially decorated. It is a two-storey building, with slightly curved tile roofs on the top and on the two gateposts, decorated with frescos and calligraphs on every surface, which reflect the rank, richness and well-being of the house. At every lunar new year, this permanent decoration is also complemented by a changing décor, which remains there all year round: wise sayings vertically on the gateposts, the sign of happiness above the gate, and the images of the two giant gatekeepers (門神 ménshén), Shenshu 神荼 and Yulei 鬱壘, who originally stood in the Strait of the Western Hills, on the Path of the Dead, and every time a ghoulish spirit wants to get up out of the underworld, they grab it and throw it before the tigers. Because of this, they are also often portrayed tiger-headed, or rather charmingly cat-headed, on the apotropaic pictures attached to the gates, also becuase the cat, by keeping off the rats, is another apotropaic animal, and its portrait is also a common element of the permanent decoration of the gate.

The two inner sides of the gate are generally decorated with two lovely genre pictures in the light-handed, sketchy style – 文人畫 wénrénhuà – of the erudite calligraphers, including the name-giver of our blog, Wang Wei. One of them mostly depicts a beautiful mountain landscape, with twisted old pine trees, and with a hermitage between the mountains, where the weary soul can find relief, just like in this house. In the other, we often see birds, standing on floral branches, or landing on them, chatting with or standing close to each other. The birds are magpies, and the flowers are branches of plum trees.

Xu Beihong: Magpies on blossoming plum tree

The “bird-on-flower” genre, one of the most important topoi of Chinese painting, was developed in the 10th century, during the Five Dinasties (907-960). Its greatest master was Huang Quan (黃筌, 903-965) from Sichuan, and it is in his famous “catalog painting” that we find the first Chinese mapgie.

Huang Quan: Birds, insects and turtles after life (寫生珍禽圖). Beijing, Palace Museum

Of the many winged creatures, the magpie excels not only with its long tail, but also with its name, 喜鹊 xĭquè, meaning “happiness bird”. In fact, its first syllable is identical with 喜 xĭ, “happiness”, attached to the door of every house at the Chinese new year. This is what we see in the opening picture of this post, on the gate of one of Shaxi’s richest houses the Ouyang merchant house (about which we will write more later). The same syllable is part of 喜欢 xĭhuān, “love”, of which thus it becomes an intermediary and a messenger. For example, acording to a popular legend, two famous separated lovers could meet again at certain times through a gate formed by magpies. Therefore, the name of a magpie couple, 双喜 shuāngxĭ, also means “double happiness”, displayed in the sign of a double on the red flags of Chinese restaurants decorated for wedding.

Xu Beihong: Double happiness. Observe the similarity of the two figures to the 囍 sign

Happiness is a big word. Double happiness is unspeakably big. How can you further enhance it? By planting the two magpies on the top of a blossoming plum tree. In fact, the plum tree is called 梅 méi, which is homonymous to the word 眉 méi, “eyebrow”. Thus, 喜上梅 xĭshàngméi, “magpie on plum tree” is homonymous to the good wish  喜上眉梢 xĭshàngméi(shāo), “happiness to the top of your eyerows!” That’s why we see a magpie couple flirting on a plum tree as a pendant of a landscape in the gate of most old city palaces. For example, in this ancient merchant house in Shaxi, which, in spite of the unhappy times past since 1949 – the term is paraphrasing the famous film by Zhang Yimou – still resist to the temptation of depression.

Guo Gan: Himalaya. Erhu solo

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Budapest, a golden city

Lao Shu Huahua: “Jiangling is a thousand miles away, yet it is only one day”

This verse, illustrated by the popular contemporary Chinese artist and media professor Lao Shu Huahua, is from the great Tang-era poet Li Bai’s Early morning departure from Baidi (759). Li Bai in this poem, getting to know that he had received the emperor’s pardon in his exile, feels an exuberant joy and considers himself able to return to his distant home within a day. Lao Shu represents this dreamlike travel with his constant figure, Mr. Minguo, floating above the mountains. But the Air China airline company, by including this drawing as an advertisement in the October issue of their board magazine Wings of China, provided it with a new meaning, almost declaring that they could have helped Li Bai in really getting to his home in one day.

At least they helped me to do so. Not that much the company, since I read the October issue on the inverse way, by traveling from my homeland to the country of Lao Shu Huahua and Li Bai. But rather the magazine itself. Each monthly issue of Wings of China focuses on a different city, entrusting a known author to write an essay about it, and provides short reviews and useful information about it on dozens of pages. And the city in the focus of the October issue is none else but Budapest. 布达佩斯,金色城池, Bùdápèisī, jīnsè chéngchí – Budapest, the golden city. And the author who writes an essay about it is the most important Chinese writer living in Hungary, Yu Zemin – the Chinese translator of Péter Esterházy, Imre Kertész, László Krasznahorkai, Sándor Márai and Péter Nádas, and author of eight volumes of essays written mainly on Hungary (but never translated to Hungarian), as well as of three European travelogues.

We can be grateful for this text not only because it brings close Budapest to eight million people – that is, one twelfth of the 90 million annual travelers of Air China, the readers of the October issue. But also because it shows to us, how beautiful, how intimately close it is considered by someone who had lived half of his life in a different culture on the other side of the Earth. His vision, however, is very close to ours, who have learned in Budapest how to see a city, and now we look at every other city in this way. As he slowly moves from place to place in the city, evoking history and musing on the details, and as the past, coming alive, merges with the present which is seen as soon becoming a nostalgic past.

Yu Zemin: Budapest, a golden city

As every man has a different smell, so every city has its own color. If Athens is enamel blue, and Rome is green, like old bronzes, and Vienna is coffee brown, then Budapest is the purest gold.

Twenty-six years ago, on a late autumn morning, a train from Moscow to Vienna rolled into Budapest’s Eastern Railway Station. As soon as I opened the door, and looked out, I was immediately grasped by the impressive golden view, the walls of golden shades pierced by opaque glass windows, and the huge glass dome, like that of the temple of a rich deity. The bright, but not burning autumn sunlight broke with golden bars through the metal and glass structure of the roof, and reflected on the solid golden walls. The air in the station trembled in one golden dazzle.

The main façade of the Eastern Railway Station. Photo by Péter Visontay

The eclectic-style Eastern Railway Station was built in 1884, during the heyday of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. “Eclectic” does not mean compromises in the spirit of the building, but rather that it combines the form language of multiple styles, instead of rigidly sticking to one of them. If I go to travel, and pull my suitcase along the halls of the station, I always look around like in a museum, and every time I found new details. I spend the most time in the Lotz Hall, attached to the long corridor of the international ticket office. Károly Lotz was one of the greatest Hungarian academic painters of the 19th century, and as the name of the hall shows, the frescoes here are his masterpieces, imbued with a rich symbolism.

Later I discovered an even more stunning Lotz Hall on the upper floor of the Parisian Supermarket, between the Opera House and Liszt Ferenc Square, along Andrássy Avenue, which is a local equivalent of the Chang’an Avenue in Beijing. The supermarket’s predecessor, the Terézváros Casino was a renowned dance and music venue, built in the same year as the Eastern Railway Station. In 1910, the casino was converted into the Parisian Supermarket, then it went through the smoke of the war, and was reborn in the 1990s as a member of the Alexandra Bookshops’ network. Coffee was also served, and the well-known bookstore café was open until late evening. They had many regulars, and I also often came here. Unfortunately, the network recently closed down, and the bookstore café became history. Nevertheless, I hope it does not take long, and the Lotz Hall will be again filled with the scent of coffee.

Most of Budapest’s visitors dutifully visit the Chain Bridge, the Fisherman’s Bastion, the Royal Palace and the Heroes’s Square, but very few know the charm of the underground city. The metro lines in Budapest are marked with four colors, yellow, red, blue and green. The history of the “yellow subway” goes back to the oldest times, since this is the second oldest underground line after that of London. But it is the first two respects. It is the first electric subway line, and the first one that was awarded the World Heritage title. It is also called “millennial subway”, because it was built in 1896, on the millennial anniversary of the Hungarians’ ancestors coming to and settling in the Carpathian Basin. Franz Joseph, Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy personally tested the line. Some years ago the renowned British film critic and film historian David Robinson came to Budapest to watch some movies, and he invited me to keep with him on the yellow subway. The yellow wagons shook incredibly, but exactly that’s why we felt much more like traveling through space and time.

Not just the yellow subway, but the trams running on Budapest’s surface are also yellow. They meander between the old houses, there is almost no distance between two stops, and they follow each other by short intervals. This makes easier the life of the locals, and it also shows the small size of the old town. The yellow trams form a kind of yellow landscape on the boulevards, the banks of the Danube, and in the junctions connecting the old city to the suburbs. To me, they are much more lifelike symbols of the city life than the Chain Bridge or the Fisherman’s Bastion. The latter live in static, two-dimensional form in my memory, while these are dynamic and three-dimensional.

“This is a yellow city. Yellow is the tram convoy with rusty spots, which writhes with metallic noise between the yellow façades, blue-gray roofs, high-rise palaces with deep doorways and high windows, dang-dang, ding-ding, it is heard in both stops, as it passes from the one to the other. In this city, every sound is also yellow, a golden yellow sun casts ocher yellow shadows, the dim yellow street attracts yellowish moths. The park under the spring sky is full of yellow flowers, autumn leaves, dead leaves, yellow-green moss. Even the air tastes yellow, as it is penetrated by the sour smell of rusty river water and decomposing plants. A girl with long wheat-colored hair walks with her golden-brown beagle on the uneven, glittering dark cobblestones, the proud shining of both filling the whole unpopulated little street…”

This is the beginning of my novel 纸鱼缸 Zhī yúgāng (Aquarium), which I wrote in the yellow color of Budapest, from inside to outside, from near to far, from me to him, from the moment to the history. I emigrated here twenty-six years ago, and the number of years that had passed before it and after it is the same. The first half of my life I lived in the red-walled capital, the second half belongs to this golden city. To me, even the blue Danube is golden in color. If you come to this city, go to the golden-glittering Opera House for a performance, to the yellow-walled Széchényi Bath, where you can bathe in hot springs for a half day, or just sit down somehwere in the golden shade, drink a cup of coffee or a glass of beer, and let the golden time slowly infiltrate and settle in your memory.

Photo by ḆΞ₪¡

Fiddler on the Silk Road

To Gyuri, for his birthday
To Shaxi, one of the most beautiful and most archaic caravanseray town along the tea-horse-road, the millennary caravan road enters through the northern gate, together with the stream running along it, and leaves it through the southern gate, to soon reach Heisu river at the bridge once crossed by Marco Polo. Between the two gates it is flanked by tea houses, and narrow pedestrian alleys branch off it. Some of the wealthy trading houses standing in these alleys have already been converted into guest house, for the wanderers of the modern-age Silk Road. Others are still inhabited by old people, who also cling to the coattail of tourism by renting a room or selling souvenirs on the tables in the front of their houses.

“Today we have room for rent: both standard and with king size bed!”

The door of the house offering room for rent is open, waiting for the guests. Music is heard from inside. We look in. In the middle of the big hall, right opposite the door, an old man with beautiful, lined face is sitting on a chair, and playing erhu, two-string Chinese violin.“May we come in?” “Of course, qing zuo, qing zuo, sit down, please!” We are offered place at the big table, just in front of the old man. The family members are sitting around. To the right, a historical film is running on the large TV screen, but the sound was taken off. The old man plays with closed eyes, looks inwardly, as if he were transmitting to us the music from within, precisely, clearly, with an impressive lightness. Like the fiddler of Okudzhava.

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After about half an hour of continuous playing, the old man takes a break. He does not look at us, he jokes with the family. The European public is unusual for him, but he likes the situation. We call him to listen to the recording. He puts on the earpiece, and listens inwardly with the same devotion as before, as if he were comparing the two sounds inside.

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He starts asking questions, but his strong dialectal accent almost cannot be understood. He takes out a medicine box from his pocket, rips it up, and writes his questions in Chinese characters: where we came from, what we are doing here. We talk in writing for a while. Then he sits back, plays again. The head of the family stands up from his place at the TV, and photographs him so, that we also could be in the picture.

Some fifteen minutes more, and then he shows with his hand, that he is dry, and wants to drink. He puts the instrument in the corner, and he is poured a glass. We also see timely to say farewell. We thank to the old man and the family, we bend. The head of the family accompanies us to the door.

On our first day in Yunnan, in Dali, we were invited by my friend Shi Tanding, one of the most successful Chinese folk music collectors. Since 2006, she has released more than two hundred CDs from the music of Western Chinese ethnic groups. In her lecture finished well after midnight, she demonstrated with several recordings, how vivid hist musical culture is still today, how much it penetrates the life of towns and villages, and what excellent performers still can be traced. This bautiful encounter has now illustrated it.

Photos by Gábor Illés, Dani Kálmán and Tamás Sajó, videos by Dani Kálmán

A village in the valley

When traveling from Dali, the northern center of Yunnan, to the west, the Burmese-Tibetan frontier, some ten miles ahead of Nuodeng, the thousand-year-old royal salt mine town, the road makes a sharp bend. Turning to the right, a beautiful small river valley opens up gradually. First the lines of the nicely cultivated terraces are laid before us, like a fascinating nomadic carpet, and then unfolds itself the village lying in the valley. Seen from the road carved in the hillside, the overlapping mosaic of the whitewashed or adobe brown façades, curved tile roofs, carved gates and irregular windows of the hundred-year-old houses is lined up on the other hillside like the houses of Český Krumlov on a picture by Schiele.

Egon Schiele: Krumau an der Moldau, 1914

Many times I went along this road, and passing by the village I always wanted to stop the bus, so that I could go down to the valley, enter the Schiele picture, ramble through the streets, admire the carved gates, and cross their threshold. Now the time has come.

Heping village, 和平村 Hépíngcŭn is so small, that it is not on most maps. The driver of the minibus hired for our minitour does not even believe that it exists, and he stops instead in the village of Guanping, fifteen kilometers earlier. “What do you want to see in this one?” he points over the dusty main street. “In this one, nothing. But go a little further”, I show him the pin inserted in He nods. It is not the first time that I can show something new in Yunnan to him, accustomed to the demands of Chinese tourists. We set off.

Three-wheeled tuc-tucs are parking in front of the river’s bridge, the rides of the most well-to-do villagers, who go with these to the city of Yunlong, ten kilometers away, and bring goods from there. Old stone lions watch them with a hard gaze from the balustrade of the bridge. There is no motorway beyond the bridge. We set off on foot to the village.

The lower main street is lined by elegant, classic Chinese houses, with high façades and magnificent carved gates. These are the houses whose whitewashed, two and three-story back façades look to the river and the road. Most gates are locked, and most façades are losing not even their plaster, but even their adobe bricks. The bourgeoisie has left the building.

As we move forward, eight Europeans with huge telephoto lenses, the doors of the houses in the sidewalks gradually open up, curious women climb up the stairs to the main streets. Even some men, as if they were just passing by. They watch us as if a filming were going on, as if a parallel reality were coming across the village. I address them in Chinese, they give a start, reply with a laugh, they also enter the picture.

We climb up to the upper street. Here is waiting for us the house which, seen from the highway, stands in the middle of the Chinese Schiele picture with its ornate gate as if it were a temple, the house of a big farmer, a keeper of historical secrets. The village is built around it in the picture. I have often imagined how a chariot stands in front of it, goods are carried in, they illuminate it, a dinner or a wedding is held in it. It has something about the inviting atmosphere of the old Transylvanian houses. Here we stand now. Above the beautiful gate, a marble plaque with a green inscription – sometimes obviously painted with gold-colored copper –, as it is usual in large manor houses.

Two meek men invite us in the porch of the house. Their grand-grandfather was still a servant, and after the bourgeoise, they remained in the house, which is only a shadow of its former self. The former painted wooden panels are covered with decades-old newspapers, but they are also coming down, there is no energy to renew it, let alone the house. The central atrium is conquered by grass, hens are creaking in it, a rusty maize mill stands in it for the late pigs.  One man calls me out to the backyard, he points to the back wall of the house. Ohe wall, drawings and inscriptions from imperial times, which were sheltered from destruction by the roofs of the stalls.

But the village is not dead. After the decades of decay, desolation and misery, it seems that some of the benefits of China’s economic boom starts to drift down here. Although the village, as shown in the social security tax register pasted up on the wall of the main street, has only a hundred and fifty-two residents, they recently started to repair a number of houses. They invite us to a courtyard. The adobe walls were replaced by concrete bricks, and the wooden panels with cheap tiles. The former stone pavement of the yard was poured over with flat concrete. Whatever survived Mao’s system, is now falling prey to the new world. Probably these are the last years, that the traditional villages hitherto surviving in the Yunnan mountains can be seen in their original form.

The lions of the bridge tighten their eyebrows even more, when Csaba turns on the drone. Someone might have made a phone call, because soon a police car comes down from the highway to the bridge. They do not even get out, they turn around and go back, leaving the foreigner to take aerial photos of the strictly secretive village. This is already the new world. The drone flies over the village. Under the shields of the gray roofs, the main street is a thin ditch, dark rectangles the enclosed courtyards. From bird’s eye, you cannot see the details.