The Dangerous Road to Shu

Handscroll
Title Panel: 26 x 78 cm
Painting: 26 x 333 cm
Colophone: 26 x 273 cm
October 2011
With three seals of the artist: 水松石山房 Shuisongshi shanfang  (‘TheWater, Pine and Stone Retreat’), 人磨墨墨磨人 Renmomo momoren (‘Man grinds the ink; ink grinds the man’), and 一二三 Yi er san (‘One, two, three’.

Inscriptions:

Label:
The Dangerous Road to Shu
With one seal of the artist: 水松石山房 Shuisongshi shanfang  (‘TheWater, Pine and Stone Retreat’).  

Title panel:
The Dangerous Road to Shu

A visual response to Li Bai inspired by a recently acquired strange stone resembling The Hard Road to Shu with its white veins running through precipitous peaks.  Inscribed by the Master of the Water Pine and Stone Retreat.

With three seals of the artist: 水松石山房 Shuisongshi shanfang  (‘TheWater, Pine and Stone Retreat’), 攜杖老人 Xiezhang laoren (‘The old man who carries the staff’), and
有意无意 Youyi wuyi (‘Between intention and no intention’)

Colophon:

Aiya!  Dangerous and steep!
The Road to Shu is hard, harder than climbing the sky!
Cancong and Yufu in the far, murky past founded this land;
for forty-eight thousand years after them hearth smoke of men did not stretch through the passes into Qin.
Over Mount Taibai directly west there is a way for birds whereby they can cut straight across Mount Emei’s peak.
There once was a landslide, an avalanche, and warriors died in their prime, and only after that time did ladders to sky and plankways on stone link it through, one to the other.
Above there is the high ensign where the team of six dragons bends the sun, and below is the stream that winds around with dashing waves surging back crashing.
Even in flight the brown crane cannot pass, apes and monkeys want to cross and sadly strain, dragging themselves along. 
At Qingni it loops and twists, each hundred steps with nine sharp turns that curve around ridges and peaks. 
Touch Orion, pass by Gemini, look up and gasp, with your hands stroke your breast, sit and sigh in pain.
Oh westbound traveller when you will return? – for I am dismayed by paths so craggy, insurmountable.
You will hear and see only sorrowing birds that wail on leafless trees, forest cockerels, winding their way through the woods, followed by their hens.
You will also hear the nightjar crying to the moon and casting a gloom in deserted hills.
The Road to Shu is hard, harder than climbing the sky, causing wrinkles to form in youthful features of any who hear this song.
Peak joined to peak, the uppermost but a foot short of Heaven, barren pines hang upside down, clinging to sheer cliff face. 
Torrents burst over bluffs in cascades in bellowing duels, boulders roll smashing down slopes; thunder in thousands of canyons.
Since here there is such peril you who have come so far on this way, why have you come at all?
Sword Tower looms high, juts into sky, one man could block the pass and thousands could not break through.  And the one who holds it may prove no friend, may change into wolf or jackal.
At dawn we dodge fierce tigers, at dusk we dodge long snakes.
They sharpen fangs to suck our blood and kill men like scything down hemp.  Men may speak of the joys of the City of Brocade, but best to turn home as soon as you can.
The Road to Shu is hard, harder than climbing the sky,
I sway gazing off towards the west and give a mighty sigh.

The Road to Shu is Hard was written by Li Bai, who I never met, although we had at least one mutual friend and I had intended to get together with him when news of his untimely but romantic death reached me beyond the passes.  It was not until many years later that I read his poem, and Bai Juyi’s Song of Enduring Sorrow and was reminded of Emperor Minghuang’s journey along this same hard road in flight from rebellion after the death of his beloved concubine.  I had been along the road long before, but determined to do so again with these images in mind.  And so I did.  It was as difficult as ever, and as dangerous, but now more romantic and more meaningful at every bend in the road.  Painting it from memory brings it all back to life again with such clarity that these many centuries melt away. 

The Master of the Water Pine and Stone Retreat, in the clear Autumn of 2011.