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Authors: Richard Weihe

Tags: #German, #Biographical, #China, #Historical, #Fiction

Sea of Ink

BOOK: Sea of Ink
8.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub



Fact and fiction arrive at a perfect union in this exquisite novella. A beautiful story about the quiet, determined pursuit of inspiration, this is a charming and uplifting book. After reading it, I looked at the world a little differently.


Having ridden through the night, the messengers reached the northern frontier at midday on the 26th of April and handed over a letter to the
general, Wu Sangui. It stated that the rebel leader, Li Zicheng, had invaded Peking the previous day and occupied the capital. Facing impending disaster, the emperor had hanged himself. The future of the dynasty was dangling in the air.

The general had been given the task of securing the frontier against the Manchu people, the name the united Jurchen tribes of Manchuria had given themselves. The city of Shenyang they had renamed Mukden. From their new capital they gradually extended their power westwards into the borderland with China and as far as the Great Wall.

Under severe pressure General Wu resorted to
measures: he opened the border and asked the powerful Manchus for help in a campaign against the rebel Li. The neighbours agreed at once to stand side by side with their foe. Joining forces, the armies that had only recently been enemies succeeded in driving Li from the capital. It was the 2nd of June.

General Wu’s troops went in pursuit of the insurgents as they withdrew to the west. On the 6th of June the Manchus took Peking for themselves without
any resistance. Their conquest of China had begun. It was early summer, 1644. The Manchus brought the three-hundred-year reign of the Ming dynasty to an end and proclaimed the dawn of a new era.

The south of the vast empire had not yet been taken, however.


With his countless wives and concubines, the founder of the Ming dynasty had thirty-two
, twenty-six of which were sons. His
son was born in 1378. The boy was given the title of the first Prince of Ning and he established the Ning line of the imperial house. The emperor invested him with the province of Jiangxi, which lay to the south of the Yangtze river. Its capital was Nanchang, and for centuries Nanchang remained the seat of the Ning line. The prince with twenty-five brothers had many children himself. One of his innumerable descendants, Zhu Da, was born in 1626, in the eleventh generation of the Yiyang branch of the Ning line.

This story is about Zhu Da, the Prince of Yiyang, distant descendant of the Prince of Ning, the seventeenth son of the founder of the Ming dynasty.

As a prince, Zhu Da enjoyed a sheltered childhood in the palace, surrounded by splendour and wealth. At the age of eight he started writing poetry. Early on he also displayed a special gift for seal-cutting. He was spoilt and admired because of his talents. These were blissful years full of promise for the future.


Zhu’s father worked as a painter and calligrapher. His father, too, had been a much-revered painter and scholar.

Zhu’s grandfather had made him a scroll painting of a dragon for his bedroom. The young Zhu thought this dragon was the largest creature that had ever existed. Its sinuous body writhed in rhythmic loops and looked so lifelike that each morning Zhu was glad to see his dragon had not changed position in the picture.

In his dreams the fire-spitting monster broke free from the paper and little Zhu had to leap into the water to save himself. He would dive under and the flames would turn to steam as they hissed on the surface. Looking up through the water, he could see the dragon’s green shimmering eyes and flared nostrils in a cloud of steam. Even in the light of the morning, the dragon looked as if it might fly away at any moment or escape by setting fire to the paper surrounding it. The monster’s scaly skin drifted between green and turquoise depending on how the light fell.

And yet his grandfather had not used any colours, only black ink on brownish paper.

On one of his earliest birthdays his father painted him a huge lotus flower. Zhu had never seen one of these flowers before, nor did he know its name.

His father placed a large piece of rice paper on the ground and picked up a brush with compact bristles. He dipped it in ink and wiped off the excess on a stone shaped like a peach. Then, with one long, rich stroke of his brush, he painted a gentle curve from the bottom to the top of the paper. Beneath his hand the upper end of the line unfurled into a flower.

At the base of the flower stem his father painted a surface of glistening grey across the entire width of the paper, occasionally allowing the brush to create darker patches. When the ink was dry he hung the painted paper on the wall.

Now Zhu noticed the lotus flower’s slender stem shooting up from dirty, muddy water and opening its bloom in the clear spring air.

Some leaves were floating on the water and Zhu thought he could feel a gentle breeze sweeping across the surface, faintly bending the stem and wafting the perfume of the flower into his nose.

His father sat there calmly, frowning at the paper, and said nothing. Perhaps at that very moment he would have liked to talk about the flower that was hanging on the wall to his son, who was gazing at it wide-eyed and with lips pressed shut.

But his father remained silent. Zhu had never heard his father speak. And yet he felt as if he knew his voice.

They sat there beside each other, looking at the picture. All of a sudden Zhu thought he could hear a rattling from his father’s throat and he grabbed his arm. But his father had said nothing; he merely turned his head, fixed the boy with his old, watery eyes, and the line between his lips turned up a whisker at the ends.

‘You just gurgled then, Father,’ Zhu said. ‘Like a fish underwater.’

He fixed his gaze on the lotus flower once more.

The fish remained silent.

‘I expect you’ve told me everything already.’


On one occasion his father made him step
into a bowl full of ink and then walk along the length of a roll of paper. To begin with, Zhu’s footprints were wet and black; with each step they became lighter until they were barely visible any more. Then he hopped from the paper back onto the wooden floor.

His father took a brush and wrote at the top of the scroll:
small segment of the long path of my son Zhu Da.
And further down:
A path comes into existence by being walked on.

The palace had its own workshop for manufacturing brushes and ink. Zhu liked to watch the master and his assistants at work. The open stoves made the workshop dingy and dusty. The fire, Zhu thought, so that’s where he gets his colourful dragon, and the lotus flower too.

One day, after Zhu pleaded with him insistently, the master explained how ink is made.

‘To make ink we need two ingredients,’ he said, ‘soot and glue. The soot provides the colour, the glue binds it. We mix them together, working them into a kneadable paste in mortars. We then press the paste into carved wooden moulds and let it dry until it’s completely hard.’

‘What’s soot?’ Zhu wanted to know.

‘In the forest we collect resinous branches from old pine trees. We burn them in the stove. What remains afterwards is a fine black powder. This powder is the soot.’

‘And how do you make the glue?’

‘To make glue we order stags’ antlers from Dai
. We cut the horns into finger-length pieces and place these in the river. They stay in the water for twelve days and twelve nights until they’re washed through and clean. Then we put the pieces in a large pan. If you cook them for long enough they turn into a thick sludge. If you cook them for even longer they eventually turn into glue. And the glue and soot need to be pounded thirty thousand times in the iron mortar to mix them properly.’

The master encouraged him to peer into the huge pan where a soup with chunks of stags’ antlers was boiling away, but Zhu held his nose and turned aside fast.

‘That stinks!’

‘I agree, the smell is somewhat unpleasant. It always troubled your father, too. So he developed his own recipe.’

The master took a small bottle from the shelf.

‘Here, take a sniff, Prince.’

A pleasant, spicy aroma wafted into Zhu’s nose.

‘That’s a mixture of cloves, camphor and musk. We use it as a perfume. It has a stronger aroma than the glue.’

Now the master held a second phial under his nose. Zhu was instantly taken by the fruity, heady smell.

‘An infusion of bark from the pomegranate tree,’ the master said. ‘Your father always adds this secret
. That’s why his ink is called “The envoy of the pomegranate tree”.’

The master raised his forefinger and looked Zhu sternly in the eye.

‘But you didn’t hear a word from me, my prince.’


At the age of thirteen, Zhu Da enrolled in Nanchang as a student for entry into the civil service. A
future lay before him: the life of a cultivated art-lover and man of letters, dividing his time between the study of beauty, managing provincial affairs and pleasure.

A few years later his family chose a girl from a good family as a suitable wife for the prince. In the very first year of their marriage she gave birth to a child.

This was also the year when the Ming dynasty came to an end and the Qing dynasty began.

First, the capital fell into the hands of the Manchus. But after the conquest of Peking the majority of the country remained under Chinese rule. From the capital the Manchus embarked on their systematic conquest of the entire empire. It did not take them long to win over Chinese collaborators for their campaign.

Nanking had long been regarded as a second capital city in the south. There the Ming princes were able to maintain their rule after the fall of Peking. But a struggle broke out over the succession. From among the many rivals a clique of influential officials finally named the Prince of Fu as emperor.

The Prince of Fu preferred the easy life. His father had tracked down and killed followers of the rebel Li. The prince now sent four armies northwards to the banks of the Yangtze as protection. But the four generals fought among themselves for supremacy. Instead of forming a united front against the Manchu onslaught, the soldiers marauded and plundered their way through the villages. Only one of the generals, Shi Kefa, showed the
resolve in the fight against the advancing enemy, until a faction of adversaries from Nanchang toppled him from power.

Zhu’s home city of Nanchang lay to the south-west of Nanking, in the province of Jiangxi. There the prince lived with his wife and young son in the palace.

Dark clouds were gathering in the sky, but no storm had yet brushed the earth.

BOOK: Sea of Ink
8.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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