When the Tadpoles GlowI was looking for an ancient stele. My index finger, navigating around the map, was scrutinising the relative relation between the mathematical and the real. The alluring landscapes along the journey were reduced to an itinerary: find the river by the foothill/ trace the river along the bunch of water candles/ proceed to the upper mountain once the sunshine hits you... The stele finally entered my sight. I dropped the map and stretched my hand to the stone. The smooth windward side would compete to eggshells; the rough leeward side felt like rhino skin. Yet its broken parts resembled scabs of wounds, literally and figuratively. These tactile stimuli were delivered to me from the surfaces that had been bearing centuries of weathering and erosion. What I had touched was the 'present'.
I moved my hand to the inscriptions carved by ancient craftsmen. The hollow cuts, lying beyond reach, belong to the 'past'; the dead, the gone world. I can't reach death itself but the shape of it. Imagine a dead man that revives. While walking on the edge of life, he'd look down and sees nothing. But he knows death is just down there.
The midday sun turned the carved strokes into inky tadpoles. I gazed at them for too long that my eyes were burnt by the reflected sunlight. Stinging. As soon as I closed the eyes, a remaining image appeared—silver tadpoles glowing against darkness.
My visit to the stele was entrusted by Mr. Jing (井). I know very little about Jing. His heirloom collection of rubbings was the only knowledge I had of him. As for why the greybeard lived alone, there is a saying that Jing expelled all the family members after his Qing dynasty queue was sneakily cut off by them. But it doesn't matter to me. On our first meet he was walking through the bushes. I was intrigued by how spry he was despite his lame leg. I took portraits of him, and our friendship began to grow.
Jing used to invite me to his comfy pavilion for the practice of calligraphic copying (臨帖), in which he could always copy the characters from rubbings with high fluency. I would sit on Jing's opposite, dragging the paper upwards so that Jing could draw in the blank. Having been seeing the paper up-side-down, I could barely read the writing. In fact, I wasn't interested in the content as I thought the embraced values in it were clichéd and obsolete. Chinese rubbing art has been practised in a consistent context where certain dynasties in the past are regarded highly, and usually blindly. Jing didn't agree with me. He'd like me to check the rubbings laid on the table. They had been Jing's primary choice, all showing the 'Large Seal script' (大篆), a collective term for the script styles that share the same origin. They once developed varying ways of representing and indicating the world before standardised into one by the first emperor of China. Jing identified himself as an explorer of a variety of written communications and the notion of diversity behind it. He hated being labelled an absurd anachronism.
Anyway, I was more interested in free-hand copying in which the rubbings, the white characters in black, are processed by the calligrapher into black strokes in white. I found inversion the affinity between calligraphic copying and photographic processing. Jing would enunciate the difference between the two, saying that his art, unlike that of photography, pursues the spiritual representation rather than the faithful. I didn't argue with him as my mind was drifting away. I pictured a calligraphic piece on paper being inverted to a rubbing-like negative. And I immersed myself in an alternative ancient China where the Chinese invented the first photographic camera and the first photographic negative. Enthusiasts would produce films to larger sizes. So calligraphic works on rice paper, as opposed to those on stone or metal, can be reproduced, archived and disseminated with tremendous quantity. The Chinese-born photography would amplify the voice of the contemporary, challenging the role of the conventional rubbing practice and the classicism values it represents.
That day, I was panicking that I couldn't anchor the camera at the right angle. I stood up and removed the eye-level viewfinder, thinking to raise the tripod for high angle shots. However, my move was frozen as soon as I looked into the exposed focusing screen: the doubly symmetrical character '井' was being drawn. Due to the removal of the viewfinder, the absence of the pentamirror made everything horizontally flipped. Therefore, '井' in the focusing screen, similar to Jing's angle of view, was drawn with the regular stroke order as opposed to the reverse one I had been watching from my side. The incident gave me a privileged position to view both of the opposite stroke sequences, thus allowing me to perceive a binary sense of time; both forward and backward.
Hours later on the same day, Jing brought the rubbings back to the repository. It took much longer that time. I was bored and started taking photographs of the full-frame grids of the brick wall. I pictured Jing in the storeroom, lost in numerous drawers of full-wall shelves. Jing should have returned to the front door where we greet goodbye to each other. As I tried to look through the indoor again, Jing had been sitting there and staring at me. He was breathing so calmly that he must have been sitting there for a while. He was motionless, like a stone.
Jing broke the silence in the first place by opening an old letter written by his ancestors. The message portrayed a precious stele that has been secretly owned by the family. Following the depiction, Ye Changchi (葉昌熾), an epigrapher in the Qing Dynasty, was quoted to warn that countless stelae over the past were damaged by dense activities of rubbing making. Therefore, although the Jing's has been expanding their exceptional collection of rubbings, it is against the ancestors' will to rub any single one from that particular stele. Rubbing making would bring stelae into death. I thought the message's conclusion interesting and murmured that photographic cameras were also once considered killing machines.
Jing then carefully took out an attachment from the letter. It was a map with scales and coordinates, and as Jing assumed, the earliest modern map of the vicinity of where we were. The locations of the stele and Jing's place were indicated on the map with two stamps of the character ‘井’: a yin seal stamp (陰文章) and a yang seal stamp (陽文章) respectively. Jing started telling me how long the family's ownership over the entire mapped area had been lasting until the fall of imperial China, and how upsetting the new authority had been incorporating the Jing's property. Abruptly, Jing half-folded the map and unveiled his request. He asked me to take a visit to the stele and make a rubbing out of it. The trembling old man, almost begging me, insisted that it's the only way to preserve it. I hoped what he had said is just a fiction. If it's all fictional, I wouldn't have to take such a weighty responsibility to visit the stone. However, it was perhaps the power of fiction that offered Jing sophisticated rhetoric to convince me.
For the first time, I followed Jing to his repository. The room wasn't neatly organised with full-wall drawers as I thought earlier. There were plenty of rubbings everywhere in the midst of chairs, tables, shelves...and so on. They seemed messy but were actually sorted in an organic hierarchy. Jing picked a few pieces of ruptured steles to teach me the basics of rubbing making. During the lessons, he sometimes turned off the light to direct my focus onto tactile sensations. Each time the light went back on, the inscriptions doubled onto a negative. Some moments I felt like working in a photographic darkroom.
The harsh sunlight burnt my eyes. Stinging. It took a while for the afterimage to fade. Eyes can also be imprinted with images. The Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau, for instance, turned his retinas into photographic films after 25 seconds of continuous exposure to the sun. I don't think it's merely a sad story. People who think they have no reason to move on would envy Plateau. Because he could imprint the world onto himself in such a profound manner.
The rubbing task began with the removal of moss and sand using a toothpick. The surface-to-be-rubbed was then applied with a layer of gel after being showered. Following that, I gently picked up a cropped rice paper, ready to take it towards the gelled surface. But a sudden blast snatched the paper out of my hands and tossed it flat onto the stele. The shape of the characters had started appearing while my hands were still holding the two paper shreds. That was too hasty. It took me some minutes to smoothen out the ceases and the bubbles. As the sun was still shining fiercely, the next step was done with a blindfold wrapped over my eyes. One of my hands rigorously tamped the rice paper with a brush while another performed finger caresses to make sure it was tightly fitted to every carved stroke. The art of rubbing requires a mind that is meticulous and ambitious enough to make a life-size map of a mountain. To carry out the job, you need a paper that covers the entire mountain range. Then you have to visit every single corner of it to duplicate its every single detail.
The blindfold was off. For the final step, I grabbed my fat, firm rubbing pad and soaked it in an aromatic ink. From an outer cloth that carries ink, a water-proof sheet in the middle to a wrapped lump of cotton as the core, a rubbing pad has a layered structure as a finger does. In the next hour, the inked pad became my substitute finger. It performed a slow tapping across the covered stele, leaving neutral fingerprints formed by its fibre pattern. As each tap made visible the inscriptions by not touching them, the strokes remained blank but emerged from prints of ink. I couldn't feel possessing the stele through rubbing it. With the hollow strokes on the rice paper, the stele had shown its refusal to my possession of it.
The finished rubbing was curled into the chart tube. Flowers and fawns also started huddling. I took my departure towards Jing's place in the same direction as the river flow. The floating leaves were walking me home. Yet a sneaking beam of the sun lighted up the water candles, kindly showing me the returning route. So I didn't have to keep my eyes on the map as I did earlier in the day.
I had returned but couldn't find Jing's courtyard. I opened the map again and searched in every possible corner around the spot. Each step was harder to take than the last. I leaned on a tree, nearly exhausted. The river below turned into a flickering strip, blending the floating leaves into its far-going stream. A tangerine burst hit me. The sun was dripping from the clouds, urging me to search again before its leave. I turned around, and I saw the stele sitting tranquilly between the bushes.