More on Gao Qipei

 

Gao Qipei (1660/72-1734), Qing dynasty (1644-1911) Undated, hanging scroll, ink on paper, 70.9 × 38.3 cm:

Gāo Qípeì (1660-1734)

Chinese Qing Dynasty official and artist Gāo Qípeì (Kao Ch’i-p’ei) – also known by his courtesy name Wei Zhi, and his literary name Qie Yuan].

Gāo was born into a prominent Manchu family in Tieling, Manchuria, now located in Liaoning Province in northeast China. Gāo served as a career civil servant under emperors Kanxi (1662-1722) and Yongzheng (1723-1735). He was able to rise to very high ranks as an imperial cabinet administrator.

His governmental service included the highly powerful positions of deputy minister of the Ministry of Justice, and deputy minister of the Ministry of Rites. The latter was the office in charge of foreign affairs diplomacy, the imperial examinations, the national registry of Buddhist and Daoist priesthoods, as well as all state ceremonies, rituals, and sacrifices. Gāo also served as senior provincial official (governor) for Anhui province, and as a lieutenant-general of one of the Qing military banner regiments. His considerable diplomatic and military responsibilities nevertheless left Gāo considerable time to devote to painting, and he was one of the few Manchus in the Qing period able not only to thoroughly absorb Chinese culture but to gain a measure of respect from other Chinese painters for his artistic accomplishments.

Precocious and gifted, Gāo was already an able painter by the age of eight and his conservative early landscapes were much admired at court. By the time he was in his twenties, however, individualism was in the air. Gāo found the new expansive, individualistic style of painting that had emerged around the Jiangnan region especially congenial. The young literatus painter was searching to establish his own style and identity as an artist. This he eventually found by painting directly with his fingers and hands, rather than with a brush. By Gāo’s account, the idea for this unique approach came to him literally overnight.

In a dream, the young artist was taken to a mountain cavern by a Daoist immortal. The white bearded ancient led Gāo to a chamber whose walls were covered with a series of striking scroll paintings, each of which displayed strangely original qualities. Gāo immediately wished to make his own copies of these paintings — a standard practice of the day. However, though he found blank scrolls available in the chamber, he could find no brush or ink with which to paint. So he wet his fingers in water and started imitating the paintings. When he awoke, he tried to record the visionary paintings he had seen in his dream, but found it was difficult to use the paintbrush that had previously been so easy for him to manipulate. Once he abandoned the brush and, as in the dream, began to use his fingers, he found it easier to make accurate copies of the paintings he had seen in the cave of his dream. Thus was born Gāo’s unique new painting genre of finger-painting which eventually established him as a noteworthy artist of idiosyncratic vision and eccentric style.

[deep, deep, things of the mind

empty, empty, vast affinities

a hundred of those evil-doers (demons)

all in silence (stillness) see]

The deep clarity of the awakened mind

is vast as the boundless sky.

See and apprehend all these malicious and evil men

in the silence of contemplation.

—Gao Qipei

Someone has said of the poem Gao brushed on this self-portrait, that it is, “about using a quiet mind to tell the difference between good men and evil ones.” Yes, I think so. But I see it as even more about appreciating the need to be alert to the existence, the near and ubiquitous presence, of evil men, of men as “demons,” perhaps also “demons” in the archetypal form of negatively compromised mind-states,—one’s own especially, but also as found in the outer world, perhaps because such negative potentials also exist within oneself. The idea is to see “demons” &/or malicious men from within the experiential context of one’s own all-encompassing, silently still, boundless awareness, thus effectively “dealing with” their existence & properly “governing”, minimizing, neutralizing their presence and effects from the “perspective” of boundless conscious space, the “naked” or “empty” unified field of Total Reality of universal Mind, or universal Buddha-nature, or infinite Tao. You get the picture.

I take the poem to be about recognizing such men/demons/life-damaging impulses, but not just recognizing or discerning them. It’s about seeing them, apprehending them, comprehending them, “contemplating them”, in the context of one’s own mind being otherwise as clear and open and boundless, as “empty,” naked, object-free, as the cloudless sky, — as resting consciously in co-extensive affinity and “at-one-ment” with the “sky” of infinite space.

In other words, it’s about resting securely in the state of consciousness in which one experiences one’s own untrammeled awareness itself as the same boundless “ground” as untrammeled space in its transcendent or pure unbounded “empty” or “naked” nature: the non-dual “boundless affinity” of space (spaciousness) and consciousness. And then, in that still and silent state of awareness, being also comprehensively conscious of the existence of evil men and demonic conditioned tendencies, evil states of mind, malicious intentions and behaviours, wherever those are found. The gist of the poem seems to me to be: Allow boundless awareness to be the context of, and the governing intelligence by which you, as a chief guardian and administrator of justice within society, effectively perceive and govern and neutralize evil behavior and its effects.

This is the same message as that taught in the Bhagavad-Gita in which Lord Krishna advises the warrior-hero Arjuna: “Establish your mind in Yoga, in the state of seamless affinity with the unified field which is the home and administrator of all the laws of nature, and then act from that settled position and comprehensive context of unshakeable silent stability.” Established in Unity, in universal boundless affinity with the unified Wholeness of Reality itself, take action to govern and neutralize negativity, to govern and administer the affairs of state, to restore society to the condition of dharma—harmony with the cosmic evolutionary impulse which upholds and administrates all of life.

In the Dao de Jing (Tao te Ching), Lao-tzu (Lord Lao), gives exactly the same teaching. In the Buddhist sutras, Lord Buddha gives this same teaching as well. As does Confucius in the Analects. Gao probably wasn’t exposed (directly) to the teachings of the Gita, but he seems to have been a practitioner of the classic Chinese literati “Way of the Three Sage Wisdoms”, of the combined-parallel contemplative study and application of the teachings of Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism as a three-fold unity.

Gao’s poem I take to be a “manifesto”: his own sage advice memorandum to himself; a declaration of his motto; and a statement of advice to his viewers/readers.

[deep, deep, things of the mind

empty, empty, vast affinities

a hundred of those evil-doers (demons)

all in silence (stillness) see]

The deep clarity of the awakened mind

is vast as the boundless sky.

See and apprehend all these malicious and evil men

in the silence of contemplation.

It’s a very apt poem to brush on a self-portrait if you are a life-long career diplomat and imperial government administrator. Gao’s positions included, at various times, being an army lieutenant-general, and a governor of a province. But most importantly, they also including being at times the equivalent of Deputy Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Domestic Protocol, and Deputy Attorney-General, with oversight also over government relations with the Empire’s churches or organized religions, over the national board for all civil service exams, over the proper running of all federal protocol events and procedures, and over all federal prison administration. China was a very big empire, and these were tremendously vital duties. It’s amazing that someone in such positions also could find time to paint, but painting and writing poetry were considered part of the life of the literati-officials.

As for this self-portrait, it is hardly one of Gao’s best painterly works. Part of its claim to fame is the fact that the scroll was owned by Bertolt Brecht. It is said to represent Gao as Guan Yu, the Daoist Robin Hood outlaw general, peacemaker, and ascended patron saint, or god, of literature. It also may be intended to represent the artist as the somewhat parallel legendary figure, Zhong kui, “the demon-queller.” Gao painted a number of portraits of both Guan Yu and Zhong kui. I think this self-portrait with the poem we’ve been parsing is just as likely to portray Gao as Zhong kui as it is to portray Gao as Guan Yu; in some ways, the poem would seem to suggest Zhong kui more than Guan Yu. Some of Gao’s paintings portray both legendary figures together….Gao seems to have viewed himself and his career as sharing similar values and roles, and contemplative and moral imperatives, with both these legendary figures.

武圣图 by gao qipei

指画钟馗 by gao qipei

南山进士 by gao qipei

钟馗图 by gao qipei

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