Archive for December, 2009

In a Chinese “Model Village”

by on Thursday, December 17th, 2009

It is the spring of 1985, and you have joined three teachers from Xiamen University, Fujian Province, on a trip to nearby Lin Village and its about thousand people or two hundred families. This is a “model village,” is one that the authorities recognize as exemplary, so not at all typical. This particular village was being recognized because of its rapid economic growth. Officially it was put under the “responsibility system” in May, 1985 after the villagers had a head start at private enterprise.       

Street with all new houses

Street with new houses

Your first impression is of houses made of rock and sundried brick and red tile roofs, of pig pens made by leaning slabs of cut rock against each other, of chickens running loose and dirt roads. By the side of the road there are outhouses, sewer trenches, and round wells where the night soil is aged for a couple of weeks before it is put on the fields. You’re told to watch your feet. With dry humor, your guide adds that the job of cleaning the sewer and the night soil pots is given to the last man caught engaging in adulterous behavior.

Houses and field

Houses and field

In the village you can call on anyone at any time, so your group goes to the mayor’s house. He brings out tea, cookies and a package of dried fruit. Like everyone else you meet, he is open, unassuming and genuinely friendly. He talks a great deal about the village, particularly about the changes from the old economic system to the present one. Then he takes you around to some of the houses and the brick factory.

Tiles drying at factory

Tiles drying at factory

When you’ve thought of a Chinese peasant, it’s not of a controlling stockholder in a prosperous enterprise. But here is a 90,000-yuan brick factory with money put up by nine people, six from the village. Traditionally, the villagers considered a verbal agreement good enough for dealing with each other. But when they started doing business with outsiders, they learned how to draw up contracts and fill out incorporation papers. Lately they’ve been thinking of learning English in order to do their own foreign trade.

Car kiln and brick storage

Car kiln and brick storage

Many of the workers at the brick factory come from outside the village and are paid top wages. The factory makes a breeze block—sundried brick of coal dust, plaster, and clay—for use in the second-story walls, which bear less weight than walls on the first floor. The factory also makes red brick, which is fired in a tall car kiln, where the bricks are kept moving throughout the firing. There are other non-farming enterprises as well.

The richest man in the village is one of the two men who have bought a big truck and are giving a driver top pay to haul cement into Xiamen. The truck owners are making lots of money while doing nothing. The mayor jokes that the villagers are learning capitalist ways.

In 1978 the village took in 40,000 yuan—when the exchange rate was about three yuan per U.S. dollar. By 1984 it brought in over two million. Now in 1986 the villagers are busy spending money, building houses and trying to outdo the neighbors. Every household has a television set and a tape recorder/radio. Two households have color televisions. There are many motorcycles.   

In one house you watch a television program from Taiwan and find it strange to see commercials. On the mainland watching Taiwanese television is illegal but common. The villagers are laughing at the deputy mayor for insisting that people pay a 200-yuan fine. There’s a rumor that he was spotted going into someone’s house and then coming out very quickly, as if he had accidently caught the wrong person. 
Food preparation

Food preparation

You know there was a time when a great many Chinese had only plain rice to eat were happy to have it. Now the neighbors with the television proudly offer you some of their dinner, a pork dish with green pepper and tomatoes and some sweet potato soup made in the electric rice cooker. There was no plain rice.

Drum-style charcoal stove with wok

Drum-style charcoal stove with wok

Your meals are prepared by one of the village women. The dishes at a typical meal include sliced omelet and greens, fish, vegetables with meat and mushrooms with meat. Or instead of fish there might be roast duck. All excellent.

A grandmother and grandchild

A grandmother and grandchild

On your tour you learn that in order to build a house a villager has to get permission from the “work unit,” as the employing unit is still called, which passes the application to the village unit and then higher up the government bureaucracy. This particular “brigade,” or village, is not stingy regarding space. People feel more space make for better living conditions. Everyone in the family has at least 26 square meters of space, often more than 30 square meters. By contrast, in the city of Xiamen, a family of four often lives in one room. Your own roomy accommodations at a villager’s house include the usual hard beds, mosquito nets and outside toilet.  

Village children

Village children

Rooftop around the courtyard

Rooftop around the courtyard

The typical two-story house has a first story built of granite cut by hand into building blocks and a second floor of breeze block from the local factory. It was built like a rectangular doughnut with an open courtyard in the center and passageways leading from the courtyard to the outside. The first floor has work place, storage rooms, maybe a living room, and a kitchen with a stone or brick fireplace-like stove—with depressed wells on the stove-top to put pots in. The second floor has a balcony all around the courtyard with bedrooms arranged around it. There might be a second living room as well.  Since the rooms don’t form a closed rectangle, you often have a view spreading out over the roofs of the other houses. 

Ceramic fish water spout

Ceramic fish water spout

The decoration is simple, but often very nice. Courtyard tile and the tile in other areas is a plain red terra cotta. In the rooms it may be white tile decorated with a flower pattern, but without a glossy glaze. There are interesting little details, such as ceramic gutter pipes shaped like fish. Often traditional Chinese pictures or calendars hang on the walls.  The refrigerator, if there is one, is in the living room. It’s a status symbol used to cool beer for the man of the house. It may only be plugged in during very hot weather.

Hard bed with quilt and mosquito net

Hard bed with quilt and mosquito net

You realize that you’re seeing the results of the low status of women. Extra money goes for motorbikes or building a house with lots of space, rather than modernizing the kitchen or putting in running water. Women fetch water from the village well and store it large water jars. Food is not refrigerated, but kept in the cupboard or on the table under a bamboo food cover to keep off the flies. In the south people haven’t learned that cold delays food spoilage. In the north they know that from keeping food outside in winter. 

Only one woman in the village will answer questions, the one in charge of women’s affairs and family planning. She is lively, dynamic and gestures a lot—which some Chinese seem to see as undignified. She talks to you from behind the counter of her small shop as you sit on a bench made from a narrow strip of stone. Her shop is one of three stalls which sell things like pop—including Pepsi, which is imported from Hong Kong, and therefore more prestigious than locally-made Coca Cola—cookies, tea, dried fruit, cigarettes, and alcohol.    
 
Cleaning around the village well

Cleaning around the village well

The women’s affairs leader says that here the legal age for marriage is twenty-two for boys and twenty for girls. Marriage is illegal for younger people, and any resulting pregnancy means a forced abortion with a 300-yuan fine. The pressure to marry is very strong. The oldest unmarried woman in the village is twenty-four. There’s one family of four unmarried sons, reportedly because women haven’t found them attractive.  You’ve learned from other sources that sixty or seventy percent of marriages are between people inside the village. A village boy going outside the village for a bride might be forced to pay a very high bride price.

Since pre-martial sex is illegal, birth control is available only to married couples, with the common methods the IUD after the first child and tubal ligation after the second, although the pill and the condom are also available. Usually women use no birth control directly after marriage, so most have children. The women’s leader tells you of the recent case of an intelligent factory worker sent out for further education. When she decided to go on the pill rather than have children, she was the talk of the village and all the surrounding villages.

You learn that in the countryside people are allowed two children, with a three-year interval between the first and the second child. Otherwise they’re fined 10 yuan [$3.33 at the time]  for every month the child is early. Some people are deciding to have the second child early anyway because they’re afraid the government will take away that right. In other places, if people have more than the allotted number of children, they pay a fine and collect no benefits for them. Here the brigade forces people to abort the third child. The women’s leader says that recently there was a sad case. A married couple had been told that their son would die before he reached the age of sixteen. Without telling anyone about it, they planned another baby. But the village authorities thought if the son lived to be sixteen he had a good chance of growing up and being able to look after his parents in their old age. They wouldn’t permit the couple to have another child, so in her eighth month the woman was forced to undergo an abortion. 

Girls gathering firewood

Girls gathering firewood

The women’s affairs officer says she’s trying to encourage women to develop side-line businesses. Farming doesn’t pay them very much. Later you hear from one or the villagers than he’s trying to persuade his wife to give up farming. At his job he’d made more money in a month than she had in a year.

The next day when you’re climbing around on the hills, you meet some girls hauling heavy baskets of brush for fuel. This is the way girls learn to work while the boys were out playing. 
Boys on their dads' motorbykes

Boys on their dads' motorbykes

In village households there’s a strict division of labor, with the women doing almost all the farming and the housework. They work sixteen to eighteen hours a day. When the men work, they work hard, but if they’re prevented from working by rain or something else they sit around all day, talking and drinking, without offering to help their wives cook or haul water from the village well. Husbands don’t help much with child care, either.  Fathers of new babies were often very attentive, but not after the children reach five or six. Most of the women stay inside the village all the time, while the husband might go into town a couple of times a week to shop for clothing for the children and other things the family needs. 

Flooded rice field

Flooded rice field

You wander around the village and through fields, treading carefully on narrow ridges built up from the level of the land. The little plots are about the size of a large, one-family garden back home. The red clay is carefully cultivated with neat rows and no weeds, but unlike American gardeners, they don’t have the money to bring in topsoil. You watch rice being planted. One of the women invites you to step into the flooded field. On impulse you do and feel your feet and legs sink into the smelly gunk—a very unpleasant sensation.  Everyone laughs.

The division of village land is a problem. There’s supposed to be 0.7-mu per family member with a ten- or fifteen-year contract [a mu is 1/15 of a hectare or 1/6 of an acre]. But over ten or fifteen years, people are born, get married, move to their husbands’ families or die. So villagers feel that although the period is too long, if  the land were contracted for only two or three years people might not try to improve the soil but just get out of it what they could. This you see is one example of the clash between the group system and the individual system, both of which are part of the new order.

Toddler smoking a cigarette

Toddler at right smoking a cigarette

Everywhere you go, the men in your group are offered cigarettes.  It seems impossible for a man to be social without smoking and drinking alcohol—at least without smoking. Five or seven-year-old boys steal their father’s cigarettes. The village has an elite clique for young men wanting to become socially and politically active. The best and the brightest are not joining the Communist Party, not even the son of the party secretary.

So that’s your stay in a Chinese village. The next afternoon you pack your bag and walk down the dusty road to the next village to wait for a bus into town.

(For more, see the work of anthropologist Shu-Min Huang. A link is provided at the right.)

An Apprentice Temple Painter

by on Sunday, December 6th, 2009

Bowon Temple in Seoul

Bongwon Temple in Seoul

Brian Barry first came to Korea in 1967 with the Peace Corps, which sent him out to a village as a health worker. He loved the people and enjoyed the experience. After his first assignment, he returned to Korea to train new Peace Corps volunteers, and he stayed on, working part-time and learning about the culture. He got involved with Buddhism and studied at a Buddhist night college. He also did folk dancing and arts and crafts and took part in a traditional farmers’ band. Then he became an apprentice temple painter under the Ven. Manbong, also called “The Golden Fish.”  I got to know Brian through Lotus Lantern, the Buddhist center he co-founded, and in 1992 we met for this interview. 

I’ve attached links to Brian’s websites, which you can find on the right.

Brian’s Story

One day in 1983 I was doing some rice-paper dyes, and I had a strange feeling. So I did a chant, closed my eyes and folded the paper and dyed it without planning the results. Then I put it out to dry overnight. The next day when I opened it up, there was a design of a large monk’s robe, but empty, with a butterfly sitting at the top where the monk’s head would be if it were worn. The colors and design could only have happened spontaneously and unintentionally.

An American friend said, “Why don’t you name it for the Nabi Chum, or Butterfly Dance, and enter it in the Buddhist art contest?”  I did enter it, and it won a place in the show. One day I was in the hall when I saw a monk looking at it with great interest. I explained how it was done and asked him what he thought it meant. He said, “Go to a place where they do the Butterfly Dance and study Buddhist art.”  I walked away confused, wondering what I should do. Then I forgot about it. About three months later, I got a call about an American professor of architecture who wanted to examine the patterns on temples. I agreed to interpret for him. At the temple we were talking to the master in the studio when the music for the Butterfly Dance began. Two days later I started studying temple painting with the master. I feel the Buddha sent me to it.

There are paintings on the outside of temple walls, and I’ve done those as well, but what I’m referring to are the ones which usually go behind the statues on temple altars. It’s a visual art form which supports Buddhist ritual and devotion. The most common and most popular type is a large composition based on the Lotus Sutra or the Garland Sutra showing the historical Buddha giving a talk. With the Buddha are several Bodhisattvas, the Guardians of the Four Directions, and, depending on the size of the painting, from two to ten disciples. [A Bodhisattva is a being who has reached enlightenment, but doesn’t go to nirvana because she or he wants to return to earth and help the rest of us.]

The traditional course involves 9,000 practice works. First you take a line drawing of one of the Ten Kings of Bardo, and you make a thousand tracings of it using a transparent rice paper placed on top. This teaches you the basic strokes and the line which always has the same width and strength, reflecting the Buddhist concept of equality. Then you do a thousand sketches of the drawing, and then you draw it from memory a thousand times. After you’ve completed the three thousand copies of the first drawing, you’re given a more complicated drawing of one of the Four Guardians, and you do the same process again. Today the course is shorter.

Because of the body positioning you have to do all of the drawings on the floor in order to get a “weighted” line. You can really see the difference between lines drawn on the floor and lines drawn on an easel. You also have to breathe properly. Take a deep breath, hold it and do the line, then breathe out and do another one. At the beginning of the training process, you place your elbow and forearm on the floor, bring the brush down by moving the hand from the wrist, lift the whole arm and bring your arm down to continue the line. You have to practice linking the lines so that nobody can tell you stopped and started again. This takes concentration and control. It also takes practice and eye training to see the art and the difference in the lines.

After having done several hundred tracings, you can tell that your lines express your feelings that day. When you learn to see that, you can read other people’s lines, and you can see what state of mind they’re in, the flow of the emotion, the mood. The lines are a reflection of your heart. I get a tremendous joy from this work. I love the meeting of black ink on white paper—both the visual effect and the way it reads your mind like a perfect mirror.

I’m now in my seventh year at the studio. I’ve done not quite three thousand copies. I have increasingly less time to do copies, although I certainly feel the need for them. But a lot of other work comes into the studio, and I have to make a living in the afternoon.

As Korea’s most renowned master of Buddhist art, the master gets a lot of orders from temples for various paintings.  After students have done their first thousand tracings, they are allowed to do some work on the larger paintings, depending on their amount of expertise and experience, in order to break the monotony of copying and to ease them into the process.  So we do these.

 Once an order is received, we go out and get fabric like the kind used in bed sheets.  We tie the cloth to a frame and apply a watered-down version of cow’s glue, or carpenter’s glue.  We prime it on both sides several times, then take it off the frame and put it on the floor to do the line tracings.  We figure out the positions of all the characters going into the painting and draw them into the composition, putting a line drawing of each figure under the cloth and tracing it. The tracings are done with brush and ink just as we did them in the learning process.  We start with the Buddha, then do the Bodhisattvas, then the lesser figures like the gods. .

The cloth goes back on the frame.  The purpose of priming with water and cow’s glue is to prevent the colors from running and spreading.  That’s also the reason for what happens next. We put on four or five layers of rice paper and paste on the back, which gives the painting form and helps absorb the colors and keeps them from running.  That takes a couple of days because the painting has to dry between layers.  When it’s all dry we take the cloth off again and put it on the studio floor and begin the painting operation.

Another reason for doing the painting on the floor is that Korean floors radiate heat.  Since Korea has a monsoon season, it’s subject to a lot of mold and must.  When the paintings are done on the floor, the heat dries them on the bottom, and the air dries them on the top.  This prevents mildew.

The paint is a mixture of chemical colors, water, and cow’s glue.  The colors go on in order of the importance of the figure in the painting.  The Buddha colors go first, then the Bodhisattvas, then the Heavenly Kings or Guardians. We always start with red, which covers the most area. That is followed by green. I suspect that the prominence of these two colors is an indication of Taoist influence.  Anyway, the red and green go first, then blue, then orange, then yellow.  Most colors require several applications of a weak solution of color.

The facial features are, of course, the very last thing to go on.  The look of compassion in the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas is terribly difficult to get down.  Not only is there a tremendous amount of technique involved, but the compassion doesn’t come from the brush.  The feeling has to flow out of you. The master almost always does the eyebrows and mustaches and whiskers. 

Now that the painting is completed, we order the frame. On the back we apply three layers of rice paper, and then we turn the painting face-down on the floor and apply a generous layer of water with a large brush to soften up the five layers of rice paper on the back.  We do this before fixing the painting because when it dries it will become much tauter.  Then the frame goes onto the painting, and gradually we pull frame and painting into an upright position so that the bottom of the frame is holding the bottom of the painting on the floor and the top of the painting is up with the top of the frame.  We have a real workout then, pulling and tugging and fixing the painting to the frame.  Then it’s allowed to dry.

It’s astounding, the effort that goes into this—and the care with the colors and brushes and not making mistakes.  Fortunately, after hundreds of years, methods have been developed to correct just about any mistake, but of course you want to make as few as possible.  This is very much paint-by-number, but it’s how you paint that’s important.

I do the Kwanyin chant to myself when I’m painting—or rather, it just comes out and does itself now.  [Kwanyin is the female Bodhisattva with a position similiar to the Virgin Mary.] Sometimes we turn on the Buddhist radio station or put on a tape of chanting or Western classical music.  Sometimes we get to talking and nobody concentrates, and you can see that in the painting.  The master said when he was young the monks would come into the studio and chant while people painted.  I would love to work in an atmosphere like that.  All those vibes go into the painting.  I’m sure that’s why we have such masterpieces from years ago and centuries ago—because of the total commitment and dedication pouring into them. The facial expressions in many of these old paintings are absolutely astounding.

The Ven. Manbong shows a painting to a nun

The Ven. Manbong shows a painting to a nun

For me it’s impossible to separate the master, Ven. Manbong, from the painting process.  I don’t think of the thing as separate parts—the teacher, the painting and the temple.  What’s important is the karma of the whole thing, the flow of everything.  He sets such an example—the devotion, the love, it shines in his eyes when he’s doing anything.  I couldn’t imagine learning from somebody else. You would never know he’s a National Treasure by his attitude.  He’s completely laid-back, completely unpretentious, very humble.   He’s just one of the funniest, nicest, most pleasing people you’d ever want to meet in your life. He has a tremendous sense of humor—he s always joking—and a heart of gold.  The other monks at the temple call him Buddha.  He’s eighty-three and still going strong—up painting until midnight every night, and he loves to paint in the dark.  As a teacher he’s very strict in a traditional way, something I’ve come to appreciate.  He doesn’t tell you what you should be doing or how you’re doing it.  He let’s you figure out a lot of that for yourself.  Although he pretends to be nonchalant about the students, he’s very concerned about us.  You can tell he’s always calculating which level each individual has reached and who should be doing what.

There were times when I was very frustrated because the master was strict and often acted indifferent. You sat there doing the tracing and drawing, and he wouldn’t let you do things you weren’t ready for. As a Westerner I wanted to be “creative,” and I wanted to try everything. But this is training, and his job as a National Treasure is to train people in a centuries-old tradition. In the Buddhist books, the temple paintings are described exactly—the figures and how this is supposed to be painted, the position of the colors on their clothes, everything. You can’t just do your own thing when it comes to a temple wall painting.

It makes a difference that this is considered a handicraft, not an art form. In the National Art Exhibition you have creative Buddhist art—water colors or oils of Buddhas and temple scenes. That’s fine. Creativity is important with those things. But with this way of learning, after all those drawings suddenly ideas and improvements will come out of nowhere. So I have verified for myself that there is something to this process.

There are lots of Buddhist teachings involved. First, there’s reverence for everything. Before you start tracing, when you’re sitting on the floor with your equipment ready, you do a half-bow from the waist with hands folded. This is an expression of genuine humility and a sense of awe at the universe and everything in it. Second, patience. Third, equality, as expressed in the equal width and strength of the lines. Fourth, purity of mind and body—you have to be physically clean, and your mind has to be pure. Fifth, concentration on the here and now—absorption in what you’re doing at the moment. Sixth, “beginner’s mind,” being completely in the tracing you’re doing and not in the 799 others you did that year. Seventh, emphasis on the process, rather than the result. Of course, when you have a deadline for large temple paintings, you have to have the result, and timing is crucial, but when you’re doing practice work you should be completely inside the process. Eighth, the peeling away of the ego. You can’t continue with an attitude of wanting to do things before you’re ready. You forget about yourself. You realize that it’s not important who did the painting. Maybe it will inspire someone. Over the years, millions of people have seen the master’s paintings, have prayed before them and been inspired by them. That thought gives you perspective. You see how the ego is responsible for a lot of trouble in the world. Before I came here I might have bragged about having done something like the two paintings I just finished. Now, I didn’t even sign them. I do get commissions now. At first it seemed amazing because nobody ever thought a foreigner would be asked to do one of these.

I find a tremendous joy, not only being with the master, but just working. After decades of searching, I found what I really wanted to do. There are good times and bad times. It’s a question of faith and trust.

It’s funny how things come full cycle. As a Buddhist, I’m likely to call it karma. A friend of mine belongs to a computer forum. He was writing to a man in Wakefield, Massachusetts, my home town and asked me for something about Wakefield that he could put in his e-mail. Now, I had noticed once when I was flying out of Logan Airport that the shape of Lake Quannapowitt looks like the shape of the Korean peninsula. So I said jokingly, “Why don’t you tell him that Wakefield and Korea have a karmic relationship?”  The next day my friend received a reply saying that a Korean Buddhist temple had recently opened in Wakefield. That’s the last place on earth I would expect a Buddhist temple, let alone a Korean temple.

So here I am. I’ve spent twenty-five years in Korea and become a Buddhist and a temple painter, only to find a Korean temple opening in my home town. When I went home this summer, I met the monk in charge. I had brought with me a small painting as a gift, a painting of the Bodhisattva of Wisdom. The monk asked me to do a big painting for the temple. I can’t think of anything nicer to do than a painting for my home town. I’m so happy. I have always had this longing that sometime the Buddha would make his way to Wakefield and people would learn his teaching there. It’s as far from Korea has you can get. Here’s this boy who was brought up ten miles north of Boston, played Little League baseball in a quiet little suburb and chased the ice cream man down the street in order to buy an orange popsicle. I wonder what that ice cream man would think about my doing a Korean Buddhist temple painting.

I have no regrets whatsoever. I find joy that wells up from the heart. To be able to paint a Bodhisattva or a Buddha—this is paradise. It could not be anywhere else. I don’t know what enlightenment is, but I don’t need it. I can think of no greater joy.