I have been doing translation for Gu Wenda since 2015. Please note the studio’s house style involves all lower-case and some fairly creative use of punctuation.
a story of art
我和我的家庭 二楼文献长廊 DE
my family and me 2f archival corridor DE
at the time when she was pregnant, my mother soon found out that her father in law, Gu jianchen, was to be sent to tilanqiao prison. as they say, “when it rains it pours” — as her own father had passed away the same year. my grandmother was highly distraught by my grandfather being sent to prison — a pain which was compounded by the torment due to the loss of her father. for a pregnant woman, this had an unimaginable impact. my mother feared that the fetus inside her would be affected by this suffering and therefore she decided not to bid farewell to her dying father. this child she was carrying was named gu wenda. my mother gave birth to me at the caijin hospital, which was in a lane off of west nanjing road near north huangpi road in shanghai. as I entered the world, making my first cries, my genes were already carrying the weight of my mother’s experience.
naturally i have never met my great grandfathers, (in shaoxing dialect we called this senior generation taigwaigong and taiyeye). over time, i was only able to garner something from my mother about that accumulated history of that generation, opinions seemed to vary widely and there were lots of variations on stories and suspicions as to the facts. in short, the gu family moved from henan to zhejiang. my father was born in shangyu, near shaoxing and later settled in shanghai. i was the only one in my family to be born at the end of the republican era in shanghai. my mother often spoke of her father, my maternal grandfather cao ming, who was dispatched by the qing emperor to go to tibet, as the commander of the armed forces which controlled the region. it was said that he had a record of outstanding achievements, and was an important general of the third rank. another story had it that a tibetan leader once offered him a tibetan woman as a concubine . . . a detail which maybe seems somewhat unbelievable. once a friend messaged me to say that in the book qingshigao, “a draft history of the qing dynasty” there are accounts of my great maternal grandfather ….
Once my mother told me, “you may even have a little tibetan blood in your veins.”
at the age of one, my parents discovered that I was allergic to my mother’s milk and pink blotches of eczema emerged all over my body. my parents told me that the itching was often unbearable, and I would scratch myself all over. they eventually put a pair of socks on my hands to prevent me from damaging my skin. finally, my family couldn’t stand it and brought gu wenda (the infant) to the hospital to seek medical advice. while looking at me, the doctor told my mother that the curing of the infantile eczema would lead to asthma. even if we cured this intolerable head-to-toe eczema allergy, we could not be able to prevent the development of asthma. this was my parent’s decision. but sure enough, in this otherwise happy childhood, I nonetheless suffered from asthma.
现在想来，那还是蛮有乐观幼童的optimism。后来有人告诉我，有过哮喘病之过敏史，可能免疫癌症，我就把她看作是过敏 & 免疫的阴阳平衡了。过敏之DNA会放大感觉系统，我的over reaction之心理生态是物质物理的过敏基因之现象。有朋友半揶揄滴说：”过敏因放大感觉系统，或许益于艺术灵性，你不瞧瞧鲍伊斯，罗曼罗兰，普鲁斯特……哇塞！
thinking about it now, i marvel at my own of childish optimism. if someone told me today, that I would have to endure a life of asthma and allergies, and might be immune to cancer, i would just see it as an issue of the balancing of the yin and yang, of allergies and the immune system. the tendency towards allergies encoded in the dna amplifies the body’s sensory system. the “over-reaction” of the psychological systems, is a phenomena created by the physiological genetic tendencies towards allergies. one of my friends once said half-jokingly: “allergies magnify the sensory system, which perhaps benefits your artistic sensibility, just look at beuys, romain roland, proust … pretty amazing.
looking back, on that time, I endured a lot of suffering and pain because of asthma. I used western medicine and folk remedies and sought advice everywhere, but none of this could cure the defects of my immune system — sadly asthma is a disease which accompanies us throughout our whole lives. as the captain of the pingpong team at the shanghai school of arts and crafts, I often needed to take adrenaline in an inhaler to prevent an asthma attack. I remember, june 1st, known as children’s day, was marked by a particularly unpleasant memory; while other children were frolicking in the park, the pollen in the air would bring out my allergies, so that I was forced to stay at home, to be a good student and do my homework. the climatic changes in the spring and fall would precipitate asthma attacks, and when they would happen, I would lie awake all night, unable to sleep staring up at a sky full of stars. even now I can remember it as if it were yesterday.
迁徒1987那年，我移居美利坚，最后落户帝都纽约的一年里，哮喘症症状减弱。那时我并无意识到地理 & environment之迁移，或许过敏原会随之变化。时执教明尼苏达大学，也应邀在美大学巡回演讲我的艺术。有那么几次，觉得从来没有过的轻松爽快，精力旺盛；我佰思不得其解，忽然顿悟，气喘不再伴随我，惊讶了！要知世间过敏原逾成佰上仟，过敏体质其过敏原大致无从验证，如何知晓某地不再有过敏原？真是仟载难逢的异想天开。匪夷之际，酿成终身惊喜！我一信仰物质决定consciousness、move & action的人，不用大夫，便猜测到纽约lifted我的过敏原！
in 1987, the year I moved to america, eventually to settle in the imperial capital of new york, the symptoms of the asthma seemed to subside. at that time, I didn’t realize that migrating to a different geographical location and living in a new environment, would affect the kinds of allergens I would encounter. when I was teaching at the university of minnesota, i was invited to give a lecture tour about my art, visiting several universities in america. there are only a few times in my life which I have felt so relaxed, rejuvenated and vigorous, but I failed to understand the reason. all of a sudden it hit me; the asthma was no longer following me. I was so surprised! the number of allergens found in the world can range from hundreds to thousands and for those with allergic sensitivities, there is not really a good way to test for these allergens, so how would one know if there are high levels of allergens in a specific place? it was truly a fantastic and rare revelation — the surprise of a lifetime. i am a person who believes in the material consciousness, who believes in movement and action. I didn’t need a doctor; simply the act of moving to new york transported me away from the source of my allergies.
基因修复，缘起基因缺陷；基因修复便是其蜕变过程，自然 & artificial are all countable。
my genes have recovered, the origins of my genetic defects and the repair of my genes is part of the process of mutation and involves both natural and artificial processes.
a mother’s gift. my mother is from shaoxing, and studied at the famous chun hui high school, with master Hong Yi (a chinese buddhist monk, artist, and teacher). her paternal grandfather was once dispatched to tibet to take command of the area for the qing empire, an important general of the third rank. my mother spoke fluent english and was an outstanding calligrapher. at the age of 90 she would still write out the text of the diamond sutra in very small and precise characters with an ink brush. she was part of the first generation of credit specialists in the overseas department of the bank of china and worked her whole life in international credit in the service of new china (china post-1949). what is perhaps most commendable is that in her last words, when she passed away, she expressed the wish that her body be donated to science, to help others. Cao Yanyu nurtured a generation of talented managers at the bank of china. my maternal grandfather cao renlin was the author of “a guide to the movements of the celestial bodies” and “ren xue shu gu” a book about chinese divination and ancient calendars, books which today receive five-star ratings on the websites of hong kong bookstores.
the second year after I left the zhejiang academy of fine arts, i was contacted by the school which told me I needed to move my things out of the humble dwelling where I lived during those hardscrabble days as an artist and teacher. I was in new york and couldn’t return to hangzhou so my mother, powered by an enormous amount of motherly love, took inventory of all of my things and found storage for all the cumulative belongings of the thirty years of my life. from thousands of books, to primary school notebooks, from our school-issued red scarves, to our student cards, these are just some of the exceedingly-precious items found at this museum. my mother was always this way — there was no emotion stronger than her motherly love and it was my mother who helped preserve this story of an artist.
I enrolled in the chinese painting department of the zhejiang academy of fine arts to do a master’s in chinese landscape painting; ours was the first class to enroll after the cultural revolution ended. the system, with all of its prerequisite qualifications for enrollment, was a complicated affair. the school said that, for this particular graduating class, there would be no master’s degree awarded, because none of us had second language speaking abilities. a year later, after studying english in a condensed year-long course at an American university, and after having given lectures in English as a visiting scholar in both america and Europe, my mother had an idea. she planned to go to the zhejiang academy of fine arts to collect my degree. like a campaigning politician, she went around trying to convince the members of the academic committee, such as the dean xiao feng, the vice-dean song zhongyuan and the head of the chinese painting department, pan gongkai. in the end she won; the committee decided to grant my degree by a vote of seven to four! this was quite a remarkable achievement, to obtain a degree for an avant-garde “instructor” working within an extremely conservative education system. the school was planning to kick me out, but had instead demoted me to working in the “teacher-training” department of the school. on one hand, the school had issued an edict that nothing could be published about the works from my graduating show, on the other I was living and studying together with the students, adored by them and was held in great esteem. Of course, in their eyes, I was “leading the students astray.” I was really surprised by the lengths my mother went to win this war.
my grandfather gu jianchen’s screenplay “a flower of passion” and also jiang wen’s “Gone with the bullets,” both share the same inspiration: a strange tale of republican era china, the quirky case of yan ruisheng. actress shu qi plays the role of the original wan yanying, just like actress wang lianying who enjoyed brief popularity with the earlier film “a flower of passion.” jiang wen correspondingly plays the role of Ma Zouri, which is of course based on yan ruisheng himself.
Jiang wen said that this case was only one element of several which inspired the making of the film and that the plot is not completely similar, and that is precisely where the problem arises: what was the actual story behind the real-life case of Yan ruishen? and why is it referred to as a “strange case” of the republican era? and finally, besides jiang wen who else has made adaptations based on this case?
the 1927 film “a flower of passion.” was made into a silent film, with the legendary and gorgeous, yang naimei, during the height of her popularity and of course the writer of the screenplay was the gu jiancheng, the paternal grandfather of the famous contemporary artist gu wenda. unfortunately, no copies of the film remain.
once in an interview, jia zhangke said: “gu jiancheng, a director in the 20s and 30s shot a film called ‘a flower of passion.’ in the film there is a brothel called flower kingdom. gu wenda once wanted to use his grandfather’s silent film to make something, but because he couldn’t find a copy of it, in the end, he was not able to make it. this work would have been called “prostitute supermarket,” maybe he wanted to elucidate the relationship between the past a certain kind of situation today.
ears ringing with the cacophony of the bustling and chaotic xianheng restaurant, I nonetheless possess a certain aura of quiet tranquility. the atmosphere of visiting the grave in shaoxing still lingers over me, and this calls to mind two or three things about my grandfather….
When I was a child, I had a very strong memory of my grandfather, gu jianchen a someone who was severely nearsighted. he was so nearsighted that when he would read books, his nose would practically skim the page. it seemed like every day he would diligently read and make study notes on mao zedong’s five key articles: “serve the people,” “In Memory of Norman Bethune,” “The Foolish Old Man who Removed the Mountains,” “Combat Liberalism,” and “on correcting mistaken ideas in the party.” I didn’t have too many memories of my grandfather at that time, just only those two. apart from this, I was practically ignorant about anything else in his life, because we didn’t experience much time together. thinking of this estrangement, I realize that it was orchestrated by my parents, but in fact, it was really no more than an attempt by them to keep our family safe and sound. people are never perfect and society even less so. it was not long after the beginning of the revolution and I was in grade three. Though young i had already been through the kinds of journeys that would seem unimaginable even to an adult. shanghai was one of the birthplaces of revolutionary activity and was born from the founding of the party marked by the January revolution. i personally experienced the moment of this critical juncture at school. because I was young, I remember when the hetian road primary school was closed “to engage in revolution.” i have faint memories of being in a trance reading a textbook for the last time in my chinese class, “pitter, patter, pitter patter, it’s raining. the little seedling says: ‘let it rain. let it rain. I want to grow up’…” and then all of a sudden, there were no text books. learning was replaced by the observation and supervision of the teachers, their faces turned against the outer wall of the school, standing absolutely still in rows, mumbling to themselves. at that time, I was really too young and immature. I had no idea what happened. I just felt really happy, that I no longer needed to go to school anymore.
the cultural revolution, to hear the people who experienced it or to hear the stories about it was characterized by very direct feelings. the mood, whether it was boisterous or melancholy, whether it was a situation of happiness, anger, grief or joy — the whole gamut of human emotion — things always changed as time passed. If you read it from the point of view of human civilization, if you read it and understand it, you will understand that this is merely human history. the bitter experiences that i encountered are merely a drop in the ocean. even those not directly involved were involved as we were like the cogs in the machine, like in charlie chaplin’s “modern times.” our functionality, our use-value, our individual value was so infinitesimally small that it’s hardly worth mentioning. finally, the hetian lu primary school closed to allow the students to engage in full-time revolution. this allowed me to spend time with my paternal grandfather, which was pretty much my only memory of him. at that time when the school was closed, my grandfather was at home teaching me Chinese. he even gathered some of the other neighborhood students and taught everyone together. i remember in our class we often read tang poetry. my father would speak in a very standard mandarin, and would correct my pronunciation. we learned the old-style of pronunciation or articulation, not the romanization system of pinyin. what I didn’t realize at the time, was that in shanghai it was almost impossible to find people speaking standard chinese. it was only when I was living in new York, that it dawned on me that my paternal grandfather had a brilliant career in theatre and film in shanghai.
later on, the red guards came to raid our home, turning the house completely upside down. not even the flowers were safe, the pots getting tossed helter-skelter. the general goal of these search and destroy missions was to find out if families were hiding counter-revolutionary treasures in their homes. they also forced our family members to write criticisms of my paternal grandfather, which were then placed in a grand column of criticism on the inside wall of our home. the red guards were displeased by the black and white painting of chairman mao because of the incorrect ratio of the flag of the people’s republic of china. they also criticized the fact that mao’s portrait was not painted in color. Of course, they had ulterior motives. my father brought the educated youth (zhiqing) to Heilongjiang province as part of the thought reform through labor movement. even after the death of my paternal grandfather in 1950, and my mother’s voluntary donation of her inheritance to the nation, she was still hounded by troubles … there are so many of them I can’t remember. my paternal grandfather went to live in shaoxing alone. when my brother got married, my grandfather came back to shanghai for the wedding, but he went directly back to shaoxing afterward. later on, we found out that he was living in the kitchen of our old house. not long after, we found that he had died of a cerebral hemorrhage. there were no family members by his side at the time of his passing.
besides knowing that gu jiancheng was my paternal grandfather (the shaoxingnese call them zufu), I really had no idea who he was. no one ever spoke of him and my family was completely silent on the topic. 1973, the year that I left fenghuo middle school, was the same year that the shanghai arts and crafts school began to recruit students, but the catchment area did not include zhabei district. fortunately, they were willing to look past the catchment area rules for exceptional students and i was one of the ten exceptional students which enrolled at the school. the school was located in the town of waigang in jiading district, and was once a kind of socialist college, used for the re-education of capitalists. they replaced the door and it became an arts and crafts school; naturally, the conditions were quite good. one day, while I was writing calligraphy in the classroom, the director of the class, teacher xu shihuang said, “your paternal grandfather also had a very good hand for calligraphy.” “Oh!” I said, shocked, “I never saw him write calligraphy.” teacher xu looked at me bewildered, but didn’t say anything. this was the first time another person said anything about my grandfather gu jianchen.
i was a very hardworking student. when i graduated in 1976, other classmates would often see me slip away at night to jump over the wall of the school to go to red star bearing factory across the street only to return at dawn to the dormitory. despite pondering it over and over, I nonetheless remained perplexed as to why I cared about nothing except painting; I didn’t even think about the need to find a girlfriend…
coda: not long after i moved to new york, a friend of mine, xu gan, a teacher at the maine college of art, gave me a call to say that he had randomly bought an overseas edition of the “People’s Daily” reviving this long-forgotten memory. He had found an article written by a staff member of the shanghai library, in memory of gu jianchen’s 100th birthday entitled, “Don’t forget gu jianchen.”
it was only when i read this article “don’t forget gu jianchen” that i finally came to know my paternal grandfather. he made an outstanding contribution to the early era of drama and film, but because he was close with the league of left-wing writers, he was left behind in the “purgatory” of tilanqiao prison. though he would have to suffer this bitter lot, he was but one among thousands. surprisingly, at the time when i found out that my mother was pregnant with me, the year that he was sent to jail, it did not fill me a desire for spite and vengeance, or lead me to spew out a string of expletives. i actually felt especially peaceful, given the fact that a person, a family, a society, and consequently a whole entire race, all of this is just a split second in the time-scale of the universe. I saw it as an inherent element of humanity and a necessity of history.
in the 1930s, the magazine “new culture” published an article signed by many authors in support of a “woman’s right to inherit property.” my paternal grandfather gu jiancheng and cai yuanpei, signed their names in support. talking with gao qianhui, a taiwanese curator who had immigrated to chicago, about this issue of women’s inheritance rights, i was surprised to learn that in modern taiwan, all of her family’s inheritance was unexpectedly given to her brother; not a single cent was left for her.
gu jianchen is one of the founders of the china educational film association, and was once the first dean of the shangahi school of drama, which was the precursor to the shanghai theatre academy. he was also the dean of the stars film school, and the founder of the theatre association along with director ying yunwei. hong shen, who returned from harvard, helped to introduce gu jianchen to the stars motion picture company, and he soon became known as a kind of dark horse in the film circles of old shanghai. soon after, I began to search for the publications of my paternal grandfather online.
I was very pleased to receive copies of Gu Jianchen’s “local gentry,” published in 1930, by the Shanghai Modern Book Company, along with “make-up for theatre,” published by the commercial press in 1933, “Methods of Modern Drama,” published in 1936 by the world press, and “Screenplay Writing,” published by the commercial press in 1936. collecting these memories sent me into a kind of wonderland; I am helpless to finds words to express, the joy of finding these marvelous things; each one brought me great surprises, each one more wonderful than the next.
it is a pity that my paternal grandfather only got to experience the era of silent films. the acetate on which the films were printed does not have a long lifespan and they needed to be copied or else they would no longer exist. what really moved me was that at that time 85% of the population was illiterate and that due to the chaos and turmoil of the time, the materials needed to be brought to the archive by horseback. Travelling with my assistant shen lingling, we searched the four corners of the earth, going to visit film archives in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Beijing, looking for even one film. We were so disappointed.
my grandfather was a forerunner of chinese theatre and film. once, when speaking of chinese film, one of the directors said that he wrote the first drama with lines (rather than opera lyrics) “isolated troupes,” which marked the beginning of chinese drama. In addition, his “the history of the development of chinese film,” was a seminal work in the early period of chinese film history, a work which many people owned and read. of the early works on the history of film there were two kinds: the 1934 edition of the “china film yearbook,” which published gu jianchen’s “the history of the development of chinese film,” in 1936 and “the history of the development of early modern chinese art,” the earnings of which were used to fund zheng junli’s “a brief history of modern chinese film.” my grandfather’s “the history of the development of chinese film” was a trail-blazing text in the history of chinese film, a testament to his pioneering efforts.
another fact which still puzzles me to this day is how my father ended up in jail. though he brought the amateur theatre troupe “xiju xieshe” around the country — leaving its footprints in sichuan, shanghai, and Nanjing, and catalyzing the public to resist japanese aggression — though he was the kind of person with a strong social conscience and who possessed an outstanding record of service, he still ended up in the tilanqiao prison! my brother gu wenyuan said that, when he was “sent-down” to guizhou to join a rural commune, “enrolled” as a student at “the university of the workers, peasants and soldiers,” (i.e. the period from 1966-76 when students were admitted to universities not based on their qualifications but on their proletarian class backgrounds) he had attained the highest marks in the whole province of guizhou as a highschool student. but he didn’t enroll, because my grandfather was from the chen family, named as one of the “four big families” who held influence in the republican era china. Within the anti-Japanese resistance there were strict delineations between the communists and the nationalists, and before the Japanese war, families were already divided into different camps or positions.
（摘自《蜕变中的基因》，《雨中清明》）(from: “genes and transformation,” “a pure brightness in the rain,” )