‘A ch’eng-ni (‘refined clay’) superior treasure (ink-stone) from the year 1735 during the Yung-cheng reign- era, made by Nan-ts’un (Kao Feng-han).’
Colophon on reverse:
‘I have collected five ch’eng-ni slabs, investigated and recorded one of them; this one can be considered okay, and I will look out for others. Authenticated by Lin K’an-fang.’
‘This was made by Kao Nan-ts’un (Kao Feng-han). Nan-ts’un had a passion for ink-stones, and personally wrote the Yen-cho fa, ‘Methods for Cutting Ink-stones,’ so as to make manifest his creative spirit. Nan-ts’un’s surname was Kao, his given name was Feng-han, his by-name was Hsi-yuan, and he was called Nan-ts’un and Nan-fu Lao-jen. Loving ink-stones, he collected more than a thousand, all of which had his personal inscriptions, and he wrote the Yen-shih, ‘History of Ink-stones.’ When his right hand became unresponsive, he used his left hand for calligraphy and painting, calling himself Shang- tso-sheng, ‘Student who proceeds with the left.’ During the fifth lunar month of the year 1935 in the Showa reign-era, I inscribed this box for Master Lin.’
‘…An inkstone from Taiwan has been forwarded. I want to shave off its vulgar design of pine, bamboo and plum, and wish to somehow reconfigure it with a more suitable pond shape…On the other hand, the ch’eng-ni (‘refined clay’) ink stone belonging to Mr. Lin is extremely outstanding. There is no doubt that this inkstone was created by Kao Nan-ts’un (Kao Feng-han). I also own an inkstone by him from the yimao year during the Yung-cheng reign era (1735). Because I was born in the yimao year, just more than a century and some decades later, I am extremely desirous of possessing this inkstone. Kanzan Gakei (Inuki Tsuyoshi), called Bokuo, on the tenth day of the fifth lunar month.’
Many ink stones bear the names of famous literati and in most cases one suspects that, at best, the person in question created the design that was actually executed by some craftsman. In the case of Kao Feng-han, however, the artist who created the present ink stone, we know that he was a collector of seals—more than ten thousand examples from the Ch’in through the Ch’ing dynasty—and that he was an expert carver himself, frequently creating seals to present to friends. Kao’s passion for ink stones was equally fervent, and during his period of service in She-hsien, Anhui—justly famed for its production of both ink and ink stones—Kao formed a collection of more than one thousand. His intimate and creative personal involvement with this art resulted in writing the Yen-cho Fa, ‘Methods for Cutting Ink-stones.’ Since Kao clearly had the technical expertise to shape and to inscribe the present ink stone, it seems only reasonable to give him credit for its creation.
The inscription on the base of the ink-stone substantiates that conclusion. Written by Lin K’an-fang, an important Taiwanese collector living in Tokyo during the second quarter of the 20th century, the colophon states that out of five refined ceramic ink stones he had collected, only this was authentic and worthy of being recorded. The box inscription, written in 1935, was written for Lin and affirms the authenticity of the work as having been done by Kao Feng-han. A letter accompanying the box was written for Lin by Inukai Tsuyoshi (b. 1855, Prime Minister of Japan, assassinated in 1932), stating that he too had an ink stone by Kao dated to 1735 and that the present piece was outstanding, ‘no doubt created by Kao Nan-ts’un (Kao Feng-han).’ Ch’eng-ni ink stones are known from the T’ang and subsequent dynasties, especially after the sources for Tuan and She stones became depleted. Using refined clay in relatively natural forms, such as here, became more common during the Ch’ing dynasty (fig. 1) as did an increased appearance of inscriptions. The present work by Kao Feng- han manifests an extremely elegant and restrained form, with none of the vulgar designs decried by Prime Minister Inukai, and also provides the additional pleasure of Kao’s calligraphy. A treasure indeed!
Kao Feng-han was born in Chiao-hsien , Shantung province. His early education, especially in literature and poetry, was received from his father, who served as a provincial education officer. Together with Chang Yuan and another friend, Kao formed the Willow Dwelling Poetry Society, the members of which were strongly influenced by the poetry and theories of Wang Shih-chen (1643-1711). Kao eventually met that eminent poet and scholar and in later years would visit his grave and pay his respects to him through posthumous portraits and poems. A prolific writer of poems himself, Kao estimated that he composed 2,366 verses between 1708 and 1744, and he lived four years beyond that. Kao was also famed for his calligraphy. The basic forms of Kao’s hsing-ts’ao calligraphy were derived from such late seventeenth-century masters as Cheng Fu, but he transformed these models by writing with his left hand. While this became a necessity after 1737, when his right arm was disabled, Kao wrote with his left hand before that date to achieve the spontaneous and intuitive effects of that technique.
In 1701, the year of his marriage, Kao passed the district examination, but failed the provincial examination the following year. It w as not until 1728, in Peking, that he passed a special examination and was appointed to office in She-hsien, Anhui. During the intervening years he traveled frequently in Shantung, staying with friends and meeting many scholars and officials. By 1710 both Kao and his younger brother, Feng- ch’i, were fairly accomplished painters. During a trip Kao made to Nan-ch’ang in 1709 he met the artist Shen Tsung-ching and must have seen paintings by Chu Ta (1626-1705). However, Kao did not develop a serious interest in painting until the 1720s, by which time he was already well established as a poet and calligrapher. During his examination visit to Peking in 1728, Kao met Kao Ch’i-p’ei, who painted fairly conventional landscapes with a brush but was better known for his paintings done with the balls of his fingers or the split end of a fingernail.
During the nine years that Kao Feng-han served as an official in Anhui, from 1729 until the summer of 1737, he traveled frequently to Suchou, Nanking, and Yangchou, meeting many artists, poets, and scholars. Anhui had long been famed for the production of ink and ink stones and Kao Feng-han had formed a collection of more than one thousand ink stones during his sojourn there. He also collected seals; his collection of Ch’in and Han dynasty seals numbered over five thousand, and his examples from the Ming and Ch’ing periods numbered about the same. Kao used a large number of seals on his own paintings and most were personally carved in his interpretation of the miu-chuan script of the Ch’in and Han periods. He also presented seals to such friends as Cheng Hsieh. Kao’s interest in seal carving and in the script styles of the early dynasties ally him closely with the artists of Yangchou.
The official career of Kao Feng-han was not markedly successful; his rank in 1735 was no higher than that with which he began, and it seems clear that his main interests lay in areas outside the official domain. When his superior wanted to recommend him for participation in the extraordinary examination of 1736, Kao refused, a rejection of special opportunity for advancement which may be related to his close friendship with the important official Lu Chien-tseng (1690-1768). Lu was also from Shantung and, with the help of Kao’s fellow poet Chang Yuan, would later compile an anthology of poetry written by Shantung poets, including Kao Feng-han. Kao’s official appointment, to She-hsien in Anhui province, was made on the recommendation of Lu Chien-tseng. Thus, when Kao was accused of accepting a 5,000 tael bribe in a murder case, Lu was also called to account. Lu told the provincial governor that ‘this is certainly calumny, for Kao is not that sort of man,’ and the accusation was later judged false. In 1736 Lu was appointed chief commissioner of the salt gabelle of the Liang-Huai region with headquarters in Yangchou. As a powerful and influential official, one whose position related directly to the extremely lucrative salt business, Lu was welcomed wholeheartedly by such merchants as Ma Yueh-kuan and Fang T’ing-chang. Kao Feng-han, a close friend of Lu, was introduced to these merchants and also to such artists and scholars as Cheng Hsieh, Li Shan, Chin Nung, and Fang Chen-kuan, the uncle of Fang Shih-shu. The elegance and seeming security of a life of low official but high social status in Yangchou must have contrasted greatly with the unknown and uncontrollable world of officialdom, and Kao elected to remain in the south rather than pursue success via more examinations. However, when Kao’s term of office ended in 1736 and Lu recommended him for a vacant position, a charge of power brokering (specifically used against officials who gathered cliques about themselves for their personal ends) was brought against Lu, with Kao also implicated; Lu was banished to the border regions for two years, while Kao was able to refute the charges against him. However, a paralysis of Kao’s right arm prevented him from returning to office and he then moved to live in a Buddhist temple in Yangchou. Thus reads the account left by Lu Chien-tseng himself.
In later years, after his reinstatement as the chief salt-commissioner of Liang-Huai, Lu Chien- tseng would be a very important patron who supported artists, employed scholars to work on a variety of literary projects, and established or improved educational academies. In contrast to such direct support, Lu in his earlier years apparently recommended many of his friends for examinations, for offices, and for promotion; such enthusiastic support of his friends could well have been misconstrued as an attempt to establish a clique of officials owing primary allegiance to Lu himself rather than to Peking. Another interpretation of the events of 1736 is suggested by the famous satirical novel, Ju-lin Wai-shih, in which Lu appears in barely fictionalized guise as the major character Hsun Mei. In the novel Hsun Mei was suddenly arrested for accepting bribes and, in the words of the novel, ‘went from good fortune to disaster between dawn and dusk.’ In the year 1768 Lu Chien-tseng and two subordinate officials were accused of having received gifts valued at 900,000 taels from salt merchants who had illegally retained nine million taels of profit belonging to the government. Wu Ching-tzu, author of the Ju-lin Wai-shih, died in 1754 and could not have been referring to the later case (in which Lu was convicted of receiving only 16,000 taels). Moreover Wu Ching-tzu was a close friend of Lu Chien-tseng and portrays him in the novel as a generous, open-handed patron of talented men; Wu is thus not likely to have defamed Lu Chien-tseng as a corrupt official if there were not some basis in fact. Since Kao Feng-han was a protégé of Lu Chien-tseng and was involved in the same case, some of the same ambiguity beclouds the end of Kao’s official career in 1737.
About the paralysis of Kao ’s right arm, however, there is little doubt. In support of Kao’s own statements are those of such friends as Cheng Hsieh: ‘After being crippled, Kao used his left arm and his calligraphy and painting became even stranger.’ Kao’s works became not only more eccentric but also more numerous; the years 1737 and 1738 were among the most prolific of his entire career. This suggests that his earlier practice in writing with his left hand had already given him sufficient training and control to paint with that hand at well; it also suggests that deprivation of his official position and of the support of Lu Chien-tseng left him more dependent on his painting than at any other point in his career. Kao also joined Li Shan and Cheng Hsieh as the only calligraphers who are known to have engaged in writing name-plaques for Yangchou’s famous pleasure-boats decorated with paintings, and Ma Yueh-kuan wrote that Kao even sold rare books that he had collected in more prosperous days. In
1741, after four restless years of shuttling between the Yangchou and Suchou areas, Kao wrote poems of farewell to his friends and supporters: the salt merchants Ma Yueh-kuan, Ma Yueh-lu, and Wang T’ing-chang, and the artists Cheng Hsieh and Chin Nung.
With his return to Shantung Kao Feng-han was reunited with his family, but his health did not improve and he was sick in bed for most of the following two years. In 1743 he prepared his coffin and wrote his own epitaph:
‘Knowing this life, what need have we to learn about death?
having seen the beginning, what need have we to see the end?
Oh! Would that life could be arranged like this!’
Five years later, Kao Feng-han died at the age of sixty-five.
The paintings produced by Kao during the last twelve years of his life were all apparently done with his left hand. Several of his statements suggest that around 1739 he regained partial use of his right arm but decided to continue painting mainly with his left. As Kao explained in a letter to a friend: ‘When my right arm was paralyzed I suffered indescribable hardship. Recently I have tried using my left hand instead and there is an extremely different flavor, an irregularity, roughness, and awkwardness, that can never be attained with the right hand.’ Many of Kao’s earliest paintings could indeed be characterized as regular, smooth, and skillful, and early on he tried to mitigate the limitations of firm and rational control. The use of his left hand produced even more spontaneous images that utilized as well fortuitous developments occurring during the act of painting. That such paintings by Kao were valued by his peers is attested to by Cheng Hsieh: ‘Kao Feng-han’s left-handed works and Chin Nung’s calligraphy are requested from me by friends throughout the empire; short notes and long letters have all departed, and even of the fakes I have done there are no more to spare.’
Fig. 1. Ch’eng-ni inkstone in natural form. After Lee Pic Shan and Rosanne L.S. Hui, editors: Inkstone Collection of Zi Fang Guan, Hong Kong, 2006, cat. 218.