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Remembrances 2: Wai-kam Ho 1924-2002

HENRY ADAMS: “Wai-kam Ho: The Sherlock Holmes of Chinese Art”

It is a great honor to be invited to write a few words about Wai-kam Ho, whom I got to know in the late 1980s and early 1990s when I worked at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City.  He was a wonderful friend and a scholar quite without parallel.  My role was different from that of most of his close associates since I do not know Chinese and I am not in any way a scholar of Chinese painting.  But I have always loved Chinese art, and Wai-Kam generously shared his knowledge with me.  The process of getting to know Wai-kam was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.  I think it rather amused Wai-kam that I was a western barbarian with none of the special skills necessary to grasp Chinese painting without some help.  This provided a special challenge to his abilities of explanation.

Wai-kam was famous for being extremely elusive, and for showing up for work at the museum around 5:00, when everyone else was going home.  At one point a student of mine even created a board game called “Where’s Wai-Kam.”  One would draw a card, roll the dice, and then go off in search of Wai-Kam in his favorite hiding places:  the library of course, which was a favorite haunt; the coffee shop on Troost, a place Edward Hopper might have painted, on one of the tougher, shabbier streets in Kansas City, where he liked the hang out; the movie theater, where he had a favorite seat up very, very close to the screen, so as to maximize the excitement and the action; or other places of similar nature.  The goal of the game was to find Wai-kam and if you actually found Wai-kam, you won the game.

His elusiveness is suggested by an incident described to me by Art Brisbane, the editor of the Kansas City Star, who lived next door.  Art was having his house sandblasted when Wai-kam came sputtering over to see him.  He had left his window open and been blasted with sand.  As an apology, Art decided to take him out to dinner, but this proved more difficult than he had suspected.  No one answered the doorbell.  No one answered the phone. Wai-kam’s hours were clearly unusual, since he never seemed to see him, even though they lived next door.  Finally, Art mailed him a letter inviting him out to dinner.  To this, Wai-kam responded and a meeting was arranged.

Nonetheless, when Wai-kam wanted to be somewhere, he would always show up on time, although his methods for attaining this result were often unusual.  In one case, Wai-kam was due to meet some distinguished visiting scholars early in the afternoon, but no one had seen him for weeks, since he had been traveling in Asia, and no one knew if he had returned or was still wandering somewhere in the Far East.  Consequently Dorothy Fickle, the curator of Indian art, drove out to his house rather late on the morning and knocked on the door, and to her relief was greeted by Wai-kam, still in his bathrobe, since he had been spending the morning as he usually did, sipping tea and reading the Chinese classics.

Yes, Wai-kam had remembered the appointment.  But while he had been away in China he had forgotten to pay his phone bill and his service had been cut off.  Since Wai-kam didn’t drive, he needed a cab to take him in.  Naturally, Dorothy agreed to call the necessary cab and Wai-kam showed up exactly on time.  It was as if Wai Kam had planned every twist and turn of the arrangement. While his methods were not exactly orthodox, he generally got done what he wanted to get done, in his own way.

People who did not know Wai-kam thought that he was careless or lazy, but this was very far from the truth.  He simply did not want to bother with a schedule of meetings and appointments which would prevent him from doing his real work which involved endless reading of obscure Chinese texts, French symbolist poetry, and other writings of every imaginable sort, which he always somehow brought to bear on his study of Chinese painting.

Because he was so elusive, it took me years to engage in a real conversation with Wai-kam and to get to know him in a more than superficial way.  One evening, however, I sat beside Wai-kam at a party and he discoursed knowledgably about a number of unusual topics, including Chinese painting, American action movies, and Custer’s Last Stand—one of his particular interests.  At the end of the evening, he agreed to give me a tour next day of the Chinese collection.  Aware of his erratic hours, I stopped by his office a little earlier in the afternoon to remind him of the appointment, and he looked completely surprised that I would ever suppose he could have forgotten or would be late.  This was the beginning of a number of notable tours of the collection, which sadly ended when I moved on a few months later to another museum.

Chinese culture is unique in its reverence for scholarship in learning.  Whereas in western culture, scholars were treated as servant to rulers and warriors, in China they often played a dominant social role.  From the end of the 6th century on the Chinese had a civil examination system based chiefly on Confucian scholarship.  There were three examinations, the County Exam, the Provincial Examination, and the Capital Examination which was in two parts, The Board of Rites, and the Final Examination, the Palace Examination.  This last examination was personally supervised by the Emperor.  If you did well on these examination you received job security for life, rather like tenure in our modern university system, but 1,000 times better.

Those who passed were divided into three classes of candidates.  In the highest t grade only three people passed.  All three of the top candidates became part of the Hanlin Academy.  They were viewed as immortal.  The number one person was called top of class—this was the greatest honor someone in China could ever get.  Automatically his fortune was assured and he became part of history.  Most Chinese prime ministers came from this elite group.

In many ways the Hanlin academy was the first “think tank.”  It consisted of about 20 people at one time, maybe less.  They had periodic tests every four years.  If you did badly you were sent out to join the government, perhaps as a governor or even prime minister.  But if you did well you were allowed to remain in the academy, which carried even greater prestige. In theory the Hanlin academy was only the 4th or 5th grade of rank, but in actual fact to be a member was the most desirable and esteemed position in China.  In many ways, Wai-kam was a product of this ancient tradition.

Wai-kam was the son of a businessman and grew up in the south of China, between Hong Kong and Macao.  He noted that in China many businessmen have great respect for learning.  He was precociously scholarly from early childhood, and I’m told that when he was fourteen he already had a “book boy” to fetch books for him when he needed them.  In his office at the Nelson Wai-kam was always surrounded by stacks of books, which rose up from the floor to a height of about four feet.  Indeed, when he was at Cleveland Wai-kam took so many Chinese books away from the library of the Cleveland Museum that Sherman Lee waited until Wai-kam was away in China and then obtained a search warrant and rented a moving van to go collect them. As expected, Wai-kam had hundreds of Chinese texts not only from the Cleveland library, but from Harvard and other places.  According to report, the kitchen cabinets of his apartment in Kansas City were filled with Wai-kam’s books.  Allegedly Wai Ching objected when he began to put books in the oven.

Wai-kam’s chief mentor was a professor who was deeply revered in China, professor Tch’en , who had no degrees at all, but knew 27 languages and was revered throughout China and in other countries as well.  He wrote very little, but each of his articles, which were often very short, revolutionized the field of study in question.  When Beijing was surrounded, and the Communists had just captured the airport, the government sent special planes to land in a park and rescue two people-not government figures, but intellectuals.  One of them was professor Tch’en.  “They didn’t send a plane for me,” Wai-kam noted wistfully.

Fortunately, Wai-kam was able to depart on the last boat to leave Beijin and continued studying with Professor Tch’en for a year and a half in the south, before he was forced to leave China.  At that point Professor Tch’en wrote a short note which was sufficient to get him accepted at both Oxford and Harvard.  He chose Harvard.  He never finished his degree since Sherman Lee then hired him at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The unique quality of Wai-kam’s work was based on the fact that he had the training in the classics of a traditional Chinese scholar, a sort of training that is no longer available even in China, and at the same time read widely in Western art history, and absorbed its methods as well.  The first book Wai-kam read in English, when he was in the fifth grade, was The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.  I think this was a deep influence.  He approached Chinese painting as if he were Conan Doyle’s sleuth, as a mystery to be solved by siting the seemingly most insignificant and ephemeral of clues.

Another early book he read was Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.  He noted that he particularly liked to read the book as it was translated into classical Chinese.  The scene in the forest where Ivanhoe meets the swineherd reads much better, he noted, in classical Chinese than in modern Chinese.

I have had the good luck to know several distinguished scholars in the Chinese field, including James Cahill, who I often dined with at Adams house at the time when he was giving the Norton lectures at Harvard, and Laurence Sickman, the scholar and connoisseur who assembled the unparalleled collection of Chinese art in Kansas City.  At one point Sickman gave me some memorable tours of the collection.  But Wai-kam was quite unique.  The other scholars, brilliant as they were, always talked about Chinese art as if they stood outside it.  To look at the same material with Wai-kam was like being able to step inside a painting.

Chinese painting is difficult for those who do not speak Chinese, since painting is closely connected with poetry and calligraphy, and expresses the values of a special class of scholars and officials which has no exact counterpart in the west.  What was remarkable about Wai-kam was the way that he could draw upon this cultural background to make the painting seem alive.

One of the most remarkable paintings in the Nelson-Atkins, for example, is a marvelous Song landscape of mountains, lakes and streams by one of the more colorful characters in Chinese painting, Xu Daoning, who began his career as a wandering medical doctor, an itinerant physician, who sold drugs and made prescriptions.  He probably had a booth in the marketplace of Gao Feng.  He had a very businesslike mind and for his best customers he gave paintings as gifts.  Very soon he became well known because he was an excellent painter.  His name became known at court and he was eventually given a court appointment.

There’s a memorable story about how the painting was acquired.  Apparently a servant knocked on the door of Laurence Sickman’s house in Peking at 3:00 in the morning and offered to sell the scroll if he could come up with a certain sum of money right away.  Sickman immediately recognized the quality of the work and expressed interest in purchasing it, but noted that he couldn’t come up with the money until the banks opened the next morning.  When the banks opened he took out the appropriate amount and purchased the work.  The general supposition is that the owner of the scroll had run up huge gambling debts that evening, and was being detained until he came up with the money he owed.

Wai-kam noted that the title of the scroll, describing it as a view of rivers and mountains, wasn’t quite correct.  If you look closely you can see that there are fisherman in the foreground and that they are celebrating the end of the day.  Several of them are drinking:  one of them actually has two bowls of wine, which he is holding up, one in each hand. Thus, the true subject of the painting, Wai-kam noted, is clearly drawn from a famous poem of the Tang dynasty (8th century) Wang Bo’s “Preface to Poems from the Pavilion of Prince Teng.”  The most famous line of this poem mentions fishermen celebrating the end of the day.

In the poem, the parts of speech are parallel in each line.  One also must not violate the pattern of the tones:  if the tone of a word in one line goes up, the one below it must go down, and vice versa.

“Fishing boat singing the evening
Wild geese formation invokes the wintry feeling.”

The line “Fishing boat singing the evening” perhaps best translates as “The Fisherman’s evening song.” Wai-kam first recognized the subject; then later found a listing of this exact painting in a catalogue of the Song dynasty which lists it by this name, confirming that his hypothesis was correct. Wai-kam noted that as a child he could recite the poem all the way through, from beginning to end.  “Now,” he said regretfully, “I can only remember the first forty lines.”

To confirm this identification, he had found this very painting listed by this title in an early inventory.  In short, when you looked at the painting by Xu Daoning with Wai-kam you not only learned to appreciate the style and brushwork of the painting, but also were treated to fascinating digressions about the circumstances of Wang Bo’s poem, and careful explanations of its imagery and its poetic form and structure.

When we got to the Nelson’s famous scroll by Ma Yuan, Wai-kam was careful to point out the figure of the poet Su Dongbo, who was recognizable from his beard and the distinctive style of his hat.  He also carefully described the cucumber snacks which were being savored at the wonderful banquet of poets which is the subject of the painting.  I almost felt that Wai-kam and I were fellow guests, just arriving at the party.

In some cases, Wai-kam’s observations were amazingly original.  One of the first paintings we came to, for example, was a very early figure painting traditionally identified as the Eight Noble Worthies.  Wai-kam, however, pointed out, that the people in the painting were dressed in two contrasting styles of costume.  He went on to explain that it must represent Chinese emissaries to some kingdom in Central Asia.  Paintings of such subjects were known from Sung inventories.  This must be one of them—perhaps the only one to survive.  What was the occasion of this painting?  Wai Kam noted that one of the figures was wearing white, a color that the Chinese seldom wear.  He was also wearing an elaborate horned headdress.  Wai-kam had come across references to the “White King of Tung Yuan.”  This must be that king.  Indeed, through careful research, Wai-kam had discovered that the Chinese signed a treaty with the White King in the Song Dynasty, right around the period when the painting was made.  That treaty must be the subject of the painting.  My notes transcribe Wai-kam’s explanation nearly verbatim:

“These are the Ugars.  Between them and the Chinese was a local kingdom centered in Tung Yuan.  Few people understand because the historical record is extremely slim.  Most Chinese scholars have never heard of this kingdom.  It survived for half a century.  The King termed himself the White Dress King.

On the left is the Chieftain of the Ugars, and on the right is the White Dress King.  This white is extremely rare.  Buddhism forbade people to wear white except the lowest classes.  They usually wore black or very deep colors.  Never white.  This is extremely unusual.  This is one of the things that leads me in this direction.

The headdresses are interesting.  Each has very characteristic kinds of headdress.  This headdress is typical of the Ugars but not of the Kara Koto, who shaved their hair at the center of the top.  An important clue is the trident on the headdress.  This is Ugar.

I looked for the closest possible confrontation between the Ugars and this kingdom, during the short period when Tung Yuan was ruled by the White Dress King.  After many battles between the group, when the Ugars tried to dominate Tung Yuan, they finally made a treaty in favor of the Ugars.  This painting must commemorate this occasion.

We have records that painters were hired to record such events.  But almost never is any pictorial record left.  This is probably the only one to survive today.  I am almost one hundred percent sure.  This painting now provides new material for the study of this whole area.”

What he told me, to most scholars, would constitute a major scholarly article.  But what to most people would be a great discovery, to Wai-kam was simply a starting point for asking still more questions.  For example, when I asked him if he had written up his theories about the emissaries and the White King, he told me that he was not ready to write it up yet because he was still doing research on the White King’s headdress.  So far as I know, he never got around to publishing his discoveries.

Another notable discovery:  One of the earliest and most important Chinese paintings in the Nelson-Atkins Museum is a scroll attributed to a legendary figure in Chinese Art, Li Cheng.  Wai-kam was able to date the painting on the basis of a seal at the upper right.  Generations of the best Chinese scholars had looked at this seal but none of them had been able to read it.  Wai-kam, however, was able to demonstrate that this was an imperial seal that was used at a time of a reorganization of government collections in the early 11th century.  There were two government collections:  the Imperial collection and a second one which hung in government offices.  This is the seal for the government offices.  The seal is found on only two paintings, this example and a painting in Cleveland.  In the case of the work in Cleveland he was able to identify the very office where the work originally hung.  Most likely, in Wai-kam’s opinion, the Nelson-Atkins scroll is not from Li Cheng’s hand, but was made by a first generation follower.  Nonetheless, establishing the early date of the piece indicates that it probably conveys a reasonably good sense of Li Cheng’s style.

Similarly, the Nelson-Atkins has a very grand Song fresco whose provenance was not recorded, except for the fact that it was purchased in Paris.  Wai-kam, however, spotted a little inscription which no one had noticed, which dated it to the very year.  Then through further sleuth-work, he identified the temple which the piece came from—and then produced a reconstruction of the temple and showed how the fresco fit into the general ensemble.

At the time I looked at the collection with Wai-kam, the Song paintings were on display and the later literati paintings were in storage.  At one point, which was truly an amazing experience, we went down to the basement and unrolled some of the great scrolls which were not on view, including the famous album by Shen Zhou which ends with the wonderful scene of the poet standing on a cliff, looking out at a poem which is suspended in the void in front of him.

The climax, of course, was an album by Dong Qichang, a fascinating, somewhat mystifying figure who is a sort of Chinese equivalent to Cezanne.  With regard to Dong Qichang, Wai-kam noted that the first step towards appreciating his work is to realize that he is not painting things, he is painting a theory.  But this is only the first step.  The final step is to see things and theory united in the quality of the brushwork.  He noted that after one comes to appreciate Dong Qichang, the work of other Chinese painters starts to seem thin and without substance. When we came to the most remarkable leaf, a landscape after Wang Meng with Dong Qichang’s distinctive twisted cliffs, Wai-kam became so excited that he got up and did a little dance to illustrate how the master had handled the rhythmic twisting of the forms.

I suppose it’s poetically fitting that I didn’t take very good notes from this last session.  I was too entranced by Wai-kam’s dance, and when I looked them over earlier this year I discovered that I was writing so quickly that I can read only about half of them.  So I will never quite be able to recapture what Wai-kam said, and his remarks to me will always remain a little like one of Dong Qichang’s paintings, in which the central mountain peak is partly shrouded in mist.

I should note that Wai-kam clearly played an enormous though largely uncredited role in assembling the Chinese painting collection in Cleveland, through the advice he gave to Sherman Lee.  Lee did not read oriental languages or Chinese seals and simply did not possess the level of connoisseurship necessary to assemble a collection of this sort without help.  In fact, the connoisseurship of Chinese painting was so difficult and disputed in this period that most museums simply stayed away from the area as too difficult to dive into.  It was Wai-kam who provided the visual acuity and scholarly knowledge that made possible this achievement, who was, as it were, Sherman Lee’s secret weapon; and it is clearly Wai-kam who pushed Sherman Lee in the direction of literati paintings which he would not have known how to appreciate without Wai-kam’s guidance.

It’s striking that in his books Lee never wrote very sympathetically about Dong Qichang, clearly wondered whether he wasn’t a charlatan, and could never quite understand why he didn’t paint what he saw in a more straightforward and realistic way.  But arguably the greatest single Chinese painting in Cleveland’s collection is a huge hanging scroll by Dong Qichang of the Qingbian Mountain, whose amazing twists of spatial representation bring to mind Cezanne’s great landscape of Mont St. Victoire.  The fact that it’s there is clearly one of Wai-kam’s most notable legacies.

As pleasant as the late afternoon tours of the collection with Wai-kam were the dining experiences afterwards.  Going to a Chinese restaurant with Wai-kam was an experience since we ate completely different things than they had ever served me before, which were ordered from a special Chinese menu.  Wai-kam was quite fierce and demanding about getting exactly what he wanted.  Quite aside from Chinese painting, Wai-kam was a font of information on other subjects, such as Hollywood action movies or military history.  He was also often remarkably shrewd in his practical advice, although it never seemed to occur to him to apply his practical thinking to himself.

In one of my early discussions with him, Wai-kam noted that he wanted to tell me about how hard it was, as a Chinese scholar, to adjust to life in the United States.  Sadly, this is a subject he never got around to discussing, but I think this issue was somehow connected with his brilliance as a scholar and a human being.  Wai-kam knew Chinese literature, poetry, and calligraphy in a way almost impossible for a westerner to attain, since he received an intense traditional Chinese education from the time he was a small child.  Wai-kam’s genius as a scholar, however, went even beyond this extraordinary early training.  He also mastered western scholarship and western approaches to art history:  he even learned to like such all-American things as Hollywood action movies and McDonalds hamburgers.  He completely lacked the defensive, xenophobic attitudes which are the weakness of much traditional Chinese scholarship.

At some level, I think Wai-kam’s struggles to deal with America had something to do with his appreciation for Dong Qichang.  Like Dong Qichang, Wai-kam believed that the most breathtaking originality comes from a mastery of tradition, but also that one must move beyond it.  In addition, Dong Qichang’s paintings, at the deepest level, are about the struggle to reconcile unresolvable conflicts, to put together things that will never quite harmonize.  Wai-kam’s scholarship was also the outcome of a constant struggle to reconcile different cultures, different viewpoints, in a special kind of harmony and dynamic tension.

As I’ve indicated, Wai-kam was deeply influenced by his Chinese teacher, Professor Tch’en.  Wai-kam once told me of his last meeting with his revered professor, just before Wai-kam fled from China to escape the Communist takeover.  During this last meeting he asked his teacher:  “What makes a great scholar?  What makes a great one different from other scholars.” “Very simple,” replied Professor Tch’en.  “Accuracy and imagination.  Accuracy in research and imagination in using this research.  The first is the basic requirement.  It sounds simple but not many scholars achieve this level of excellence.  However, this level of excellence can be achieved by hard work.” “But accuracy won’t make you great.  The second thing is imagination.  You must use your imagination to break through to new insights.”

I think it is apparent that Wai-kam’s writings meet this difficult test.  Each of his articles not only gathers factual material, with painstaking accuracy, but is filled with marvelous insights.  His little articles identifying a seal or an inscription expand into journeys that illuminate whole epochs.  His great catalogue on Dong Qichang is not simply a study of one of the greatest Chinese masters but presents a special way of looking at all of Chinese painting.

But this was not all of Wai-kam.  For those who knew Wai-kam, he was more than a brilliant scholar.  Indeed, his writings, marvelous as they are, express only a part of the man.  His writings, for the most part, address an audience of specialists.  They can be somewhat difficult and esoteric.  But what was remarkable, when one was in his presence, was his ability to put very complicated concepts in clear and simple language, and to apply his vast erudition about obscure matters in a way which was very direct and to the point.  When you were in his presence, Chinese painting was not something obscure and mystifying, but something real and concrete.  If I may say so, even a painter like Dong Qichang, who is in fact very mystifying, and who even has puzzled many illustrious scholars of Chinese art, became strangely easy to understand, if not logically, nonetheless in a matter-of-fact, solidly graspable way, through some sort of immediacy of feeling.

Wai-kam had an amazing ability to communicate to people of all sorts, as is suggested by a little episode, which in a way sums everything up.  I recall once taking a cab to the airport in Kansas City.  When I mentioned that I worked for the museum, the driver wanted to know if I knew Wai-kam Ho.  He was delighted when I told him that Wai-kam was a friend, but seemed to be concerned that I might not realize what a unique figure he was—what an important scholar.  His words sum up what was wonderful about Wai-kam.  “You know, Mr. Ho is a brilliant man,” he reported.  And then he added:  “I love to hear him talk.”

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