The Ancient Art of Brush Painting by Lillian Howan

The Ancient Art of Brush Painting

From SIGN: A collection of stories by the members of Seventeen Syllables, curated by Guest Editor, Grace Loh Prasad (introduced here)

With ink and brush in the Lotus Moon Viewing Pavilion, I paint mountains, flowers, and bamboo — a multitude of different scenes. Outside the pavilion grow plum trees and a wisteria with heavenly flowers blooming for two weeks in the spring. The rest of the year, the wisteria reverts to a nuisance, gnarled and twisted. The gardeners of the Chinese Garden always debate whether they should just cut it down.

Visitors from all over the world stroll through the garden, pausing here and there to admire the seasonal flowers: plum and cherry blossoms in the spring, peonies and water lilies in the summer, chrysanthemums in the autumn. At all seasons, koi glide through the water, beneath the graceful bridges connecting the islands and courtyards that compose the Chinese Garden.

A sign next to my table proclaims: The Ancient Art of Chinese Brush Painting. Tourists enter the pavilion to watch me paint. Some ask questions in English, others ask in Mandarin.

My parents did not speak Mandarin. They spoke Toishan, although my father also spoke some Hakka. His mother spoke no Toishan, only Hakka. She was a bad-tempered woman who referred to my other grandparents, including her own husband, as punti. She smoked a noxious-smelling pipe. Her idea of baby-sitting me was to turn on the television, although she did choose the public broadcast station.

This is how I first started painting. When I was little, a Chinese man would appear on TV on certain afternoons and teach brush painting. He taught how to paint bamboo and how to paint orchids and how to paint a rooster — pronounced wu-ser — and my Hakka grandmother would hand me a brush and even an inkstone, seemingly from nowhere, so that I could follow along. This was the only time when her stern mood would lighten: when I painted. She would hold up my dried brush painting, carefully, by the top two corners and gaze at the bamboo, the flowers, the roosters. She produced a book, checked out from the public library: You Can Paint in Chinese. It was such a relief not to have her scowling, yelling, and scolding, that I found myself diligently following the 1-2-3 instructions of the book.

It was much later, a lifetime later when I retired, that I started taking Adult Night School classes on Chinese Brush Painting and Mandarin. The painting teacher was a woman about the same height as my grandmother had been: four feet even. To my surprise, I found that I actually loved brush painting. It wasn’t just something I had done long ago to please my po-po — or perhaps her surly nature had planted a seed that had laid dormant for decades, all during my youth and my adulthood, growing roots only in my senior years. Looking back, I realize that now I’m much older than my grandmother was then. Her life had aged her so that she looked fifty by the time she reached thirty — and by the time I knew her, she seemed ancient.

The garden is called Chinese, but I never heard her speaking in these terms. Her world was Hakka — and there were all types of Hakka depending on what district you came from — everyone else was just demons and ghosts: red-haired ghosts (the English) and flower-flagged ghosts (the Americans) and the punti (the Cantonese) — which included all my other grandparents and my mother. Once I heard my father pleading with her, that we didn’t use such terms anymore, the world was changing. We were Chinese and they were not demons; we called them people. She ignored him completely. I’m not sure how my grandmother saw me. Was I ambiguous and blurred in her world of rigid categories or was I already hopelessly an outsider?

I could not speak her language. I could not say or write the words that she understood, except when I picked up a brush to draw the strokes that would create birds and flowers. Then the hard lines of her face would almost soften as she gazed at the world on the page, a language of ink dots and lines turning into ponds and streams and fish and gardens with pavilions where old painters sat with their ink brushes dreaming and drawing black ink into life.


The Ancient Art of Brush Painting


Lillian Howan spent her early childhood in Tahiti and later graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. Her writings have been published in Asian American Literary Review, Café Irreal, Calyx, New England Review, Vice-Versa, and the anthologies Ms. Aligned 2: Women Writing About Men and Under Western Eyes. She is the editor of Rosebud and Other Stories (University of Hawai’i Press, 2011), a collection by legendary playwright Wakako Yamauchi, and the author of The Charm Buyers (University of Hawai’i Press, 2017).


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Art (cropped) Poet on a Mountaintop Shen Zhou public domain