©Barbara Bornet, 2014

©Barbara Bornet, 2014

I am eating breakfast with the famous Chinese brush painting master, Wu Chang-shuo. You say he passed away in 1927?Not at my house. My name is Barbara, or “Ban de” in Mandarin, a name given to me when I began Chinese studies. Here comes Master Wu now.

Ban-de: “Good morning, Teacher Wu (Lau shr),” I say. “ How are you? Have you eaten?”

Master Wu: “Ban-de, I want you-tyau ( Chinese doughnut) and hot soup.” He hails the waitress.

Ban-de: “Teacher, isn’t it a beautiful day ? We can say ‘the courtyard is darkened,’ since both of us are ‘retired.’Right? Now we have time to paint wild plum, the fearlessness of this flower, which blooms now in the frosty air. Here comes your breakfast.

Teacher, although my mother just passed away, I am hoping for some painting tips which might help me concentrate. Thank you for meeting with me.”

Master Wu: “ Don’t be so polite. Your mother?Ah…,” says Teacher Wu with a distant look. “Ban-de, stay close to nature.Try to avoid the ‘red dust’ of the world by keeping your brushes on your table with your ink ready to grind. Here, I brought one of my plum paintings for you to see even though I am not very skillful. I painted this one on my 82nd birthday. I wanted it to resemble Wan Chao-lin’s style (1689-1759), a man of honesty and integrity. Do you know him?He was a simple man whom I’ve admired all of my life.”

Ban-de: “No, I don’t know his work.Oh. How lovely!Please forgive my ignorance. I’m a foreigner, as you know, Teacher. Would you please translate your poem?”

Teacher Wu points to his bold calligraphy:

“My sparse strokes depict the plum grasping the clouds and snow.

The whole tree of cold fragrance expels ten thousand calamities.

You desire to fly high, but I am clumsy.

Today is the day when we share our birthday.

The butterfly has left and nothing can make up for it.

The zither is unstrung and every time I touch it, I sob.

It dawns on me that there is never any reason for aging and death.

Finishing the painting, I see myself transformed into the radiance of a lotus.”


Ban-de: “Your writing touches me, Teacher. May I ask a question if you don’t mind?”

Master Wu: “You can. Actually, when I woke up this morning, I missed my teacher friend, Ren Yi (1840-1895.)

Ban de, take my advice.Study only the great masters. Don’t waste your time on minor artists.”

Ban-de: “Thank you. I will try, “ I say.“What do you mean in your poem by ‘sparse strokes?’ Actually, your lines are powerful. Strong.Your gnarled tree trunk is in bold ink.”

Master Wu: “Well, sometime around 1880 when I moved to Suzhou, I was trained to carve seals which gave me some income.When I paint, I try to make my strokes like carved stone. I can’t carve now…hands are too weak. At that time I called myself the ‘bitter junior official.’”

Ban-de: “Why?”

Master Wu: “  See this second line of my poem says ‘10,000 calamities.’ You need to understand that war killed my family. They starved.  We ‘ate suffering!’ Then 20 years later, war burned my hometown called Zhang-wu Village in Zhejiang Province. Wars and wars. British and French foreign powers brought opium here; we lost Hong Kong and the foreign concession in Shanghai.  Internal rebellions weakened us…. ” 

Teacher Wu shifts uneasily in his chair, as I feel the weight of Chinese history. He continues sternly, “We Chinese try not to talk about these times. Sorry.”

Ban-de: “I’m shocked to know about your family. I am so sorry. How did you ever pass your Imperial Literati Exams? It’s a miracle yousurvived!”

Master Wu: “Luckily, I was invited to Shanghai in 1914 where I wrote about ‘metal and stone objects’ (jin shi qi), ancient carvings, and calligraphy like Stone Drum writing. Japanese collector friends kept me from starving.

Ban-de: I imagine you were lucky to meet Shanghai artists after you moved there. Shanghai must have been a bustling artistic center like New York City.I read you retired to Su Zhou’s peaceful, canal life.Now I see why. ”

Master Wu finishes his you tyau and soup by lifting the side of the bowl up to his lips.

Ban-de: “Teacher, may I return to your poem? I like your poetic image of ‘cold fragrance’ in line two, because it seems to mean that although the plum is fragrant, it is so sad that you survived but your loved ones did not.”

Master Wu is motionless.

Ban-de: “Teacher Wu, would you explain the images of the butterfly and the zither?”

Master Wu: “Well, Chinese painters love to remember Chuang tze, our ancient philosopher, who awakened from a nap and wrote that he did not know if he were a man dreaming he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was a man. I am referring to my lovely wife, who passed away in 1917. ” (Sigh.)

Ban-de: “How sad,”I say, “and…the ‘unstrung zither,’ as well?”

Master Wu: “We cannot make music with a flat, Chinese guitar that is ‘unstrung,’ can we?”

Ban-de: “When my mother was dying, I asked, ‘Why?’ There is no answer.’”

Master Wu: “Yes, but painting will help you. Do you play piano?”

Ban-de: “Yes.”

Master Wu:“Concentrate on music now. Focus on painting. I have written on one of my paintings, ‘Artists should have the strength that eats metal and stone, and a mind that nourishes grass and wood.’”

Ban-de: “Thank you, Teacher. You have the ‘ radiance of a lotus’ in my heart.”

Wu Chang-shuo stands, bows slightly, puts on his Western style hat, and says, “I’ll meet you next time for breakfast when you’re ready.”

He saunters across the street to the park where the old men are airing their caged mynahs and playing Go.

I place a book mark of pressed leaves back into the Cantor Gallery art book, savoring each sip of coffee.


*Iris and B. Cantor Center for the Visual Arts

Book is titled, Tracing the Past, Drawing the Future:

Master Ink Painters in Twentieth-Century China, by Xiaoneng Yang

Essays by Zaixin Hong, Long Shaojun, Pan Gongkai, Kuiyi Shen, and Richard Vinograd and others.

©Barbara Bornet, 2014

Barbara Bornet Stumph is relishing the unique role of a grandmother of seven. She delivered a Chinese brush painting lecture at Beijing University during the East West Center, University of Hawaii meeting in 2012.  Barbara manages a group site: ChineseBrushPainting @ Yahoogroups.com

12 Responses to “Breakfast with Painting Master by Barbara Bornet”

  1. martywill Says:

    I love this conversation with Master Wu. Very moving. And the painting is stunning, Barbara.

  2. Thank you so kindly. Barbara

  3. Caroline Sanchez Says:

    You did it again, keeping your name out there. Congratulations.
    Caroline Sanchez

  4. Elaine Starkman Says:

    Stunning! I’m impressed.
    lv, Elaine Starkman

  5. Kit King Says:

    Wow! You are amazing, Barbara. I so enjoyed reading this interaction.
    Kit King

  6. many thanks to my writing coach , Elaine Starkman, and my AAUW writers group for abiding support! Also friends in Delta Kappa Gamma , who sponsor arts in creativity nights.

  7. A stunning painting, Barbara. And I so enjoyed reading your imaginary tale with the artist. A lovely idea to combine your own brush painting with the “master’s conversation.” Bravo!

  8. Karen Yee Says:

    Your painting, the care and respect you give to your painting master, provocative symbolism and imagery… lovely! Thank you, Barbara!

  9. Beverly valentine Says:

    Dear barbara,
    Your painting and creative story are so remarkable! You embody what you love and have studied for so many years. I too am finding refuge in my art and piano, but not with your dedication and commitment. I’m inspired and will bring myself more fully to my art table. Xoxo bev

  10. While I am thanking my teachers in the past, please let me thank my brush painting teachers over the past decade since I retired, namely, my current teacher, Celia Chou Huddleston, Aiqin Zhou, and Feng Chen. These dedicated artists have inspired me on my artistic journey. Thank you one and all, Mahalo, Barbara

  11. Julie Lins Says:


  12. Barbara Bornet Says:

    Why did I thank my adult education teachers and not the BAWP teachers who have supported me over many years? Carol Tateishi, Smokey Wilson, Bruce Greene, and Evan Nichols and all. Thank you. Please forgive the oversight.

    My father, Dr. Vaughn Davis Bornet, is my role model for writing; my husband and family give me courage. I will always love you. Barbara

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