Posts written by Bill M. Mak

Whistler Exhibition at MOMAK with Professor S

201410 Whistler show

One of the great things about Kyoto is that not only it is a beautiful city full of ancient temples and cultural treasures, it attracts also great people and great things from around the world. Professor S came to Kyoto last week for an international conference organized by EFEO and I took the opportunity to meet the great scholar. Professor S is a well-known scholar of Buddhist archeology and literature in South and Southeast Asia, currently based in Bangkok. At first, I thought I would propose to visit some temples with the professor. Instead he came up with the idea to visit together the Whistler exhibition at MOMAK, the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto.

There are so many interesting exhibitions going on in the Kansai region and frankly I just cannot keep up with all of them. But I am really glad that Professor S made this suggestion as otherwise I would have missed this great show!

James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), the Boston-born painter based in London was known for his subtle yet evocative style, influenced by a number of styles, from classical works, symbolism, impressionism and — “Japonism” which was the highlight of the show. The exhibition was divided into three main parts: portraits, landscapes and Japonism. Although the best known work of Whistler, “Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1” (1871), commonly known as “Whistler’s Mother” was not shown in this exhibition, most of his other well-known works were, including the “No.2”. Overall, the presentation was excellent and the notes (mostly in Japanese) were quite informative, presenting his entire career with many anecdotes, including scandals (Ruskin trial and the scandalous Peacock Room) which I didn’t learn in my art history class.

Arrangement in Gray and Black No.2 (1873)

Arrangement in Gray and Black No.2 (1873)

Whistler’s portraits somehow have the ability to connect with the viewers although the artist himself was adamant in his refusal to layer moral messages or other meanings to the art itself. That is why we find all these prosaic titles such as “Arrangement in XXX”, which needless to say, was provocatively didactic in its time. Some of the titles are nonetheless extremely evocative, with musical titles such as “Nocturne” and “Symphony in white”. Particularly striking to me was the pairing of colors such as “Grey and Pearl”, “Brown and Silver”, “Blue and Gold”, “Purple and Rose” and so on. Of course Kandinsky’s Über das Geistige in der Kunst (1912) (“On the Spiritual in Art”) came to my mind concerning the theories of colors. Kandinsky highlighted the synesthetic experience of colors and color combinations as noted from Cezanne’s fruit portraits to a Beethoven’s listening to a Mozart symphony. The colorful “modes à transposition limitée” Messiaen, my favorite twentieth century composer, also came to my mind. When I studied some years ago through the eight “Préludes pour piano” (1930) with Lillian Ayre of Montreal and Prof. Otani Masakazu of Kyoto, that was my perpetual question. Did Messiaen really see these colors? Purple mode? Green with milky white and speckles of gold? Boulez in an interview once said that Messiaen didn’t really see them but just imagined them as a philosopher would. Personally, I did have the experience of hearing colors in my head. Most people see colors and sometimes hear sound in their dreams after all. So perception of colors and sounds does not depend on physical objects. Whistler’s choice of color combination had the same effect on me, although looking at some of the works themselves turned out to be somewhat of an anticlimax.

Beside the great portraits, I was pleasantly surprised by all the lithographs and delicate pen-and-ink works. His choice of subject-matter can be intriguing. Bridges, market, dockyard. Most of the time messy places were not tidied up, but rather, presented in a unpretentious but nonetheless artistic way. I made quite a few notes on the details on paper and printing techniques, which of course mattered a great deal to Whistler. Wove paper, transferred lithograph, lithotint and so on.

As for the Japonism of Whistler which the curator tried to highlight, I was not so convinced. Yes, there was the World Exhibition. Yes, everyone loved Hokusai. For me, however, Whistler has a very distinct style of his own which tends to absorb everything around him. It is quite striking that certain “Greco-Japanese” elements were detected by art historians in his works. Well, undeniably the exoticism of oriental art played a stimulating role in the artworks at that time. But just like hearing a pentatonic passage in Ravel or Debussy, it would be rather far-fetch to claim any direct influence of Chinese music on their work. It is more the inspiration or even imagination of the artists. So the resemblance could be superficial and the impact of “Orientalism” should be considered against the backdrop of the fin-de-siècle Zeitgeist of late nineteenth century. An example would be a work titled “Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks” (1864). What are the six marks? Those are the six Chinese characters on the bottom of the vase “大清康熙年製”. I don’t see them anywhere in the painting. Anyone? But that does not matter after all. Whistler was interested in abstract composition with real subject matter, an interesting artistic vision shared by for example the Chinese artist Wu Guanzhong almost a century later. The six characters which translate basically to “made in China” (literally, “made in the years of Kangxi of the Great Qing [Empire]”) carried little meanings to the Chinese other than what it means “made in China”. But to the non-Chinese, the exotic writing is an object of endless fascination. Leibnitz, John Wilkins and others had fantastic idea about the Chinese writing, most of which turned out to be wrong, for example, Chinese characters being logical ideograms instead of logograms as they mostly are. As always, errors can nonetheless be very inspiring.

The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks

Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks (1864)

Thoroughly satisfied, Prof. S and I had lunch at the posh gallery café. The freshly made seafood pasta was lovely (Prof. S chose tofu-fettuccine!) and so were the hors d’oeuvre with fig and macha ice cream. We shared some news about our fellow Canadian colleagues, admittedly not much. I got many second-hand booking-hunting tips for my upcoming trip to Paris and I will definitely try the pastries at Dalloyau when I pass by Les Jardins de Luxembourg! Prof. S informed me also about his current works on the Indian stupas and his rather special interests in Meiji Buddhist artworks. Upon learning Prof. S’s interest in cosmology, before we parted, I thought I would leave him my latest edition of the last chapter of the Yavanajātaka. He asked me to autograph it in English and Sanskrit, which I happily complied. While waiting for me to fetch the copy from my office, Prof. S picked up a few books from the museum bookstore and wrote a poem. He later showed me his poem and asked me if I could guess which painting he was referring to. The poem has a very subdued tone but very evocative at many levels which I thought suited Whistler’s aesthetics very well. The title of his poem gave it away though as it carried the word “Brittany”. I told him that the girl at the lower left corner struck me as rather odd as if she was there only for nothing other than compositional purpose. “L’art pour l’art” exemplified?

201410 the-coast-of-brittany-aka-alone-with-the-tide

Coast of Brittany (Alone With the Tide) (1861)


We could have spent a few more hours talking about art and Buddhism. But a following lecture cut our meeting short.

腳氣,米飯與麥鐵杖公 Beriberi, rice-based diet, and my ancestral history

2014.10.5 Kyoto University, Institute for Research in Humanities

Professor Takeda today read a passage on Beriberi (Pek. Jiaoqi/ Jp. kakke) 腳氣 from the Ishinpō 医心方, the oldest Sino-Japanese medical treatise extant (984 CE).


There was some discussion on the exact nature of this disease and whether it corresponds to beriberi, the disease associated with the deficiency of thiamine or vitamin B1. Thiamine is the first water-soluble vitamin discovered and its discovery was connected to beriberi, namely the exclusive consumption of polished or dehusked rice leading to thiamine deficiency. Beriberi itself refers to a cluster of symptoms and the lower body, especially area below the knees, is often affected. This is likely the origin of the Chinese name Jiaoqi, literatally “feet-qi” or [discruption of] vital energy in the feet.

According to a study by Liao Yuqun 廖育群, “A Study of the Disease Called Kakke in the Edo Period” 江戸時代の脚気について(日本研究, 07/1996, 巻 14), Jiaoqi 腳氣 was first used as a name of disease from the Jin 晉 Period (265-420). It was described in great details from the Tang period onward. The medical knowledge was then transmitted to Japan before the tenth century.

Besides Liao’s essay, there are two books on the subject:
廖温仁. 東洋脚気病研究 : 一名東洋脚気病史. 京都: カニヤ書店; 1936.
山下 政, ヤマシタ セ. 脚気の歴史: ビタミン発見以前. 東京: 東京大学出版会; 1983.

There is also another work on the same subject by Liao Yuqun in Chinese:

The strange thing about jiaoqi is that most Chinese today do not know about this disease, at least not beriberi associated with thiamine-deficiency. Rather, jiaoqi was confused with the fungal infection of the feet, commonly known as athletic’s feet or Hong Kong foot as it is known in some parts of the world (including Hong Kong!).

There was some interesting discussion why it was called Hong Kong feet and the answer is far from settled.

How about origin of the term beri-beri then? There appears to be at least two explanations, one from the Sinhalese meaning “cannot cannot”, the other from Malay/Indonesia biri-biri meaning “trembling”. Prof. M. Mayanagi of Ibaraki University follows the Indonesian explanation, which of course is closely connected with the reports of the disease by the Dutch in the Dutch Indies (Indonesia) as early as the 17th century. I checked with my Indonesian and Sri Lankan colleagues. It seems that neither beri nor biri mean anything in contemporary Bahasa Indonesia (except beri for “berry”). As for Sinhalese, beri is the adjectival form of “behe” which means cannot, hence “being unable”. It however does not convey the sense of weakness. So there is still a bit of mystery and perhaps someone has worked on this problem already.

But what brought about the confusion between these two diseases among the Chinese? One explanation is that the Northern Chinese migrated to the South since before the Jin Period and began to develop problems with their feet after subsisting exclusively on rice instead of wheat. Jiaoqi as beriberi was thus considered a disease endemic to the South 風土病. As both beri-beri and fungal infection were thought to be caused by excessive heat and humidity of Southern China, hence the two became confused. Beri-beri eventually became a rarity in Southern China, as the region especially along the coast became prosperous, boasting some of the most delightful regional Chinese cuisines (Cantonese, of course) as well as a well-balanced diet (second only to Okinawan). Meanwhile, jiaoqi became exclusively associated with fungal infection of the feet — a problem for people with sweaty feet and not only in Hong Kong. Please!

Luckily I have not met anyone with either beri-beri or athletic feet. But this issue with polished rice consumption does have an interesting connection with my family history. My last name Mak 麥 (pek.Mai, jp.baku/mugi) is an ancient last name originated in Ling Nam 岭南 (pek. Lingnan) region, that is, the Cantonese region. According to the family book 族譜 past down to us, our earliest ancestor is traced back to the time of the famous Buddhist Emperor Liang (r. 502 – 549 CE). The most illustrious Mak who was recognized as our forefather was “Mak the iron staff” 麥鐵杖公 who was a warrior during the six dynasties in the late sixth century. He was a decorated general for the two Sui emperors and fought a number of important battles against the Turkic invaders in the northern frontier. There was a certain legend which tells that after General Mak the Iron Staff fought a number of battles, the Sui Emperior Wen 隋文帝 asked what reward he desired. The general, out of modesty, replied that he wished to have everyday just enough wheat grain to subsist and hence the surname Mak was given to him by the emperor. The legend implies that General Mak had a different last name before or no surname at all.

I thought the legend is quite interesting because wheat is not grown in the south, and even today we subsist mostly on rice, and especially the kind of nice white polished rice which leads to thiamine deficiency and beri-beri. Wheat is indeed a more complete foodstuff and should make up the preferred diet for the warriors. Even today, in Northern China, rice is often eaten as a side dish at the end of the meal on its own, unlike in the South where it is the main carbonhydrate one consumes together with the other delicious dishes. During those years I live in Beijing, I always thought the food was kind of bland, rough and lacked variety. I definitely missed my rice. Somehow I was quite healthy. Maybe just like in Herodutus’ History, when Cyrus refused to leave his barren Persian homeland to move to the fertile Babylonia, claiming that “soft lands breed soft men”. I believe that goes with the food as well. Of course, the Buddhists have totally different views but I will think about that another time.



《賢愚經》卷11 <45 無惱指鬘品> :「時王長跪,復白佛言:「指鬘比丘,殺此多人,今已得道,當受報不?」
爾時阿難,及諸比丘,王及臣民,一切會者,聞佛所說因緣行報,皆悉感厲,思惟四諦,有得須陀洹、斯陀含、阿那含、阿羅漢者,有種辟支佛善根本者,有發無上正真道意者,或有得住不退轉者,皆護身口[23]剋心從善,聞佛所說,歡喜奉行。」(CBETA, T04, no. 0202, p.0426,c03-TML)

1)行必有報。行即karma,亦作業。 報即vipāka,報應。佛經故事,要說明的大多是因果關係。英譯報可作retribution,但英語此詞帶負面含義,嚴格來說報應可以是善報,亦可以是惡報。Effect或consequence較妥當。
2)戶排。國譯一切經注「西語(Lde-mig khyer te)(戸の鍵を持して)とあり」。「戶排」亦見於大智度論(是時佛手持「戸排」入諸比丘房…)。應該是指鑰匙,因為文中說明「刺戶孔中」。這樣生硬的描述,看來鑰匙對譯者來說還是比較罕見的東西。
4)使我得見永脫生死。永脫生死:forever liberated from transmigration. 「使我得見」可接下文:[By the Buddha] I can be forever liberated from transmigration。「見」為被動虛詞。但後文「復遇見我,得度生死。」,「使我得見」意思應該是allowed me to see [Him, i.e., the Buddha] and be forever liberated from transmigration。譯文四字句表達欠準確,需看上下文來判斷。
5)皆悉感厲。They were all moved.


法國遠東學院京都分部 EFEO Kyoto Centre