China (part V)


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The spherical unity of the modeling, which expresses the immemorial soul of China, is the image of its substance. By its configuration, by its soil, by the race that peoples it, the Middle Kingdom is a unit. China and the Chinese form one agglomerate thing in which the moral and the social solidarity, the passivity and the impersonality of the crowds, cause their inmost being to become a mere extension of the country itself. It is a yellow mass without contours, composed of the dust and clay of the land: the age-old dust that is brought by the north winds and that whirls in never-ending clouds across the disk of the sun, and the clay carried along by the rivers to cover the earth with their deposits; the dust and the clay are mixed into plaster for the walls of the houses, and the houses, again, and the men with their yellow skin which continues the soil, merge into the entity which we call China. The yellow earth goes to the very heart of the cities, and the perpetual exchange of misery, of dirt, of provisions brought in by the caravans and the river traffic, gives to the whole mass, and to the life that runs through to its depths, a slow, compact movement that never leaves the circle which it first followed. The horizon is as closely limited as the life, and all the space and all the duration of the world cohere and are one.

An agriculturalist, or rather, a gardener—for ten thousand years, perhaps—cultivating his square of earth with slow patience and solicitude, accumulating human fertilizer for it, getting his food and the food for his family and his beasts out of the smallest space, always bending over his soft soil and often living beneath its surface, his whole skin, his feet, and his hands impregnated with that soil—the Chinese knows its weight, its consistency, its degree of moisture and dryness, its very taste. He hears the dull murmur that stirs it when seed is sprouting. One would say that his whole sensual imagination has concentrated in the desire to handle that unctuous earth and the substances that he takes from it, the fat jade, cornelian stone, crystal, agate, chalcedony, the hard stones whose spots he knows how to utilize, whose veins he knows how to follow, the kaolin and the flint, the white earth, the copper and the tin that he melts together to produce his black bronze. He knows his material so well, he is acquainted to such a degree with its habits and customs and peculiarities, that he can melt or boil it by holding back or by forcing the fire, so as to render it more or less hard, more or less brittle, to vein it, to mix it with other materials; he causes powdered metal that has been liquified by heat to flow through it, or breaks its surface with a crackle. His brass is deeply mottled with the green gold that he runs through it, with yellow, red, or violet gold, and with irised blues that have an appearance of danger, like sleeping waters. As he works his brass, weighty, dense, sonorous, and hard, the metal flattens and swells and takes on the aspect of solid blocks; the incrustations on its rough outside, with all the interlacings of slimy skins, of spines and tentacles, still leave its heavy profile intact and pure. His bloated dragons aroused by the rumbling and writhing of the sea monsters, his snails and his toads swollen with pustules, are brought from within the metal by repouss√©, and with so sure a stroke of the hammer that the creatures seem to adhere by their own viscosity. The Chinese artist grinds coral and turquoise into an imponderable powder that he may melt it again and compel it to flow between narrow bands of copper or of gold, and in the enamel made somber by flame his deep blues, his mat greens, and his dull, opaque reds form flowers of blood, thick leaves, and the shining, golden plumage of the birds. On porcelain, finally, he defines his gifts as a painter, for they had never been quite able to become a part of their own time and free themselves from the calligraphic processes to which they adhered in the monasteries.

When he reaches porcelain painting, the Chinese can incorporate the color with the paste and with the glazes of vitrified silicates, and in strokes as fine as cobweb or as broad as petals he projects upon the object to be decorated his childlike gardens, his lakes, brooks, and cascades, his kiosks and bridges, his butterflies and dragon flies, his beloved and well-fertilized countryside that blooms under the spell of his science of the sky, the winds, and the crops; there are rain-washed azures, there are flocks of birds swept along by squalls, there are clouds, flowered branches, reeds, and aquatic corollas. Here is the flower, here the insect; all the living tissues are here—the wing, the stamen, the antenna, the pulverulent pollen; all the moods of the air are here—its unfathomable transparence, its sudden opacity, its infinitude of shades from dawn to night, from the shower of rain to the dust, and from the pale moonlight to the red of the sun. Against the moving background of the blues, the greens, the reds, the pinks, the yellows, the violets, the whites, and the blacks, he sets the varied stage on which are performed the painstaking, concrete, and monotonous labors of those who cultivate the soil. If he desires to present clear daylight and smiling gardens, his painting is as if drenched with dew, it is as fresh as a water color, and it is sharply outlined against the beautiful glazed and translucent backgrounds. If the cloudy sky blackens the surface of the waters, then the branches, the leaves, the dragons, and the landscapes arise from infinitely opaque depths and are seen vaguely, like mosses and plants through the water of a spring. And if a sumptuous evening is the subject which the ceramist has in mind, he lets the flame of his furnace creep over the sides of his vase again, and the variegated enamel gleams amid its wall of gold.

Brass and terra cotta take on the sheen of great, ripe fruits armed with thorns and ready to leave the branch. How heavy, how subtle, and how pure is Chinese form! One might say that it is less a material form, despite its heaviness, than a crystallized sound. The strange, positivist people! without an ideal, it still hears, in the depths of its obscure soul, this clear music. In the cylindrical form, the ovoid form, or the spherical form there is always the circular rhythm of China. Will China always turn in a circle, with the same patient, indefatigable, and slow effort which permits her to keep up the movement that is her salvation and to live without advancing? Or will she break this circle and adopt as her ideal the constant renewal of herself at the crest of the mounting waves of things? Will she not attempt, in this incessant pursuit, to gain the illusion of freedom? It is probable. She is stirring. Her five hundred million men are going to be swept into the movement of the Occident; they will break our painful, age-old equilibrium, overturn the economic rhythm of the globe, and perhaps, in their turn, impose on us an immobility that they themselves will require a thousand or two thousand years to regain. We know nothing. The complexity of the present and future world is a thing beyond our grasp. Life rumbles, life rises. It will yield up its forms to the men yet to be born, that they may be consoled for having been born.

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