First published in October 2012.
Fifty one short chapters make up Richard Weihe’s Sea of Ink, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch. The novella, complete with many wonderful pictures, portrays the life of Bada Shanren, ‘one of the most influential Chinese painters of all times’.
The book sets out the tumultuous history of the period in the first chapters, using succinct sentences to present all of the relevant information without overwhelming the reader. It begins in the summer of 1644, a time in which ‘the Manchus brought the three-hundred-year reign of the Ming dynasty to an end and proclaimed the dawn of a new era’.
The story which Weihe has fashioned follows Zhu Da, the Prince of Yiyang, ‘the seventeenth son of the founder of the Ming dynasty’. After several transformations, Zhu Da becomes Bada Shanren, the painter who is ‘committed to capturing the essence of nature with a single stroke’. Through Bada’s painting lessons, we are immersed into the world of ancient Chinese art, able to imagine his every brushstroke through Weihe’s powerful descriptions. In one particularly exquisite passage, Weihe describes how Bada ‘cocked his wrist, whereupon the tips of the bristles pirouetted… then with another turn of the wrist he brought his hand down towards himself, lifting the brush from the paper in a slow but fluid movement so that the bottom of his line tapered as evenly as the top had’.
Much information has been included throughout, from the two ingredients, ‘soot and glue’ which were needed to produce the ink produced in the palace’s manufacturing workshop, to the ways in which the best ink can be recognised: ‘It should breathe in the light like the feathers of a raven and shine like the pupils in a child’s eyes’.
Some of the phrases throughout are just lovely: ‘Looking up through the water, he could see the dragon’s green shimmering eyes and flared nostrils in a cloud of steam’ and ‘He ran barefoot across the springy floor of the pine forest; he was dancing with the earth’. Small chunks of the prose itself seem rather simplistic at times and almost stolid at others, but this may be merely due to the translation. On the whole, a few of the passages do look deceptively simple, but actually add a lot more to the story than is thought at first glance.
Sea of Ink is an incredibly interesting and evocative novella, which will appeal to a wide scope of readers – from those interested in Chinese history to those who enjoy painting or studying the work of artists, there is something for everyone included in these 106 pages.