The Six Persimmons by Mu Ch’i. Chinese, 13th century
The material remains of our past are finite and sacrosanct; by denying them the respect they deserve we at once relegate them to whatever is fashionable at the moment whilst denying future generations their cultural heritage.
Though perhaps somewhat outside The Heritage Trust’s remit, I was reminded this morning of the selfless act of a Buddhist monk who allegedly gave up his life to save a precious Chinese painting – an act that stands in stark contrast to those who would destroy our heritage for fleeting fame or ideology
Browsing through some of my old art books this morning I pulled out one of my favourites – Chinese Painting by Peter C. Swann. I picked up the book in Oxford during the early 60s while still an art student at Swindon School of Arts and Crafts. The book, and particularly the cover painting, had a profound effect on me as a young man – life-changing you might even say. The book’s cover shows a painting (above) by Mu Ch’i, an early 13th century artist and Ch’an (Zen) practitioner. Measuring only 38cm x 36cm, the painting depicts six persimmons, simply but masterfully executed in ink on paper. The painting (in hanging scroll format) is now housed in Ryoko-in, one of the sub-temples of the Daitoku-ji temple in Kyoto.
I was so struck by this painting, and with a growing interest in Zen Buddhism, that I decided to go to Japan to see the scroll for myself (the faith and innocence of the young!). It took me some two and a half years to raise the money for the trip, get a place at Kyoto University of Fine Arts and organise a visa. But in the end I did find myself knocking on the gate of the Ryoko-in temple one autumn morning in 1966 and asking if I could see the painting – only to be told by an incredulous looking monk to go away as the painting was hardly ever put on display and never shown to passing strangers.
After waiting so long and coming so far I was naturally disappointed – muttering to myself that a painting as famous as Mu Ch’i’s Six Persimmons should be on permanent display somewhere. Only later did I learn that displaying Far Eastern works of pictorial art on a permanent basis is not a very good idea from a conservation point of view. More importantly, the Six Persimmons painting is revered so highly that having it on permanent display would in some way devalue its importance. There’s even a story that the Ryoko-in temple once burned down and the painting was only saved from the flames by the dedication of a monk who cut open his belly and thrust the scroll inside for safekeeping – the stains in the right half of the painting are said to come from his act of selfless devotion – a far cry from the pottery-smashing antics of Ai WeiWei, the religious bigotry of the Taliban or of any group or individual that wantonly destroys our common heritage for their own narrow and self-serving agendas.