There Was No Need for Symbolization

Yesterday, I didn’t know what to do. The unemployment’s starting to get to me. It’s the days. They wind on while I sit in my apartment looking for jobs, working on this, reading books and watching movies on Netflix. It’s gotten to be too much. I took the Metro down to Farragut West and dropped off the checks for my old 401(k) with some online brokers to deposit in the new IRAs I’ve opened to avoid paying taxes on my miniscule retirement funds. On the way back, I realized I was passing through the Smithsonian stop, and I decided to get off the train.

Above ground, on the National Mall, I got a call from some recruiter out in Tyson’s Corner. She wouldn’t even tell me what the job was she was calling me about. I told her I’d be more than willing to meet with her hiring manager, but I needed to know what position they were offering. “I have very specific financial and career goals in mind,” I told her, which I do. Even though, that’s hard for me to believe, too. But she simply kept repeating they had multiple positions open. I sat down on a bench. By the time she finally hung up on me, I realized I was sitting right outside the Freer Gallery. Sitting still for a moment, staring at the green bushes budding with remnants of DC’s recent rain, I took a few more puffs off the vaporizer I’d bought the day I lost my job – it’s kept me cigarette-free for almost a month now, and I decided to go into the Freer to contemplate the cultural intricacies of Asian art in the United States.

The gallery I wound up in was filled with a historical collection of Chinese screens. My grandmother in California has always loved those artifacts while I’ve conceitedly taken them for granted as simple, decorative art – nothing worthy of study. But in this setting, with the museum curator’s write-ups adorning the walls, I paused. Remembering my previous unemployment in DC, I reminded myself this was the only chance I would ever have to appreciate this moment, and I wanted to make the most of that realization.

Screens conceal. They rearrange to conceal another space in a different place. In Japan, during Heian times, they were the formidable opponent every man had to overcome to discover his hidden desires. I wasn’t sure whether or not China possessed that same history, but I recalled this lecture a professor from my first master’s degree gave to our Literary Chinese class. While we were discussing a poem, he asked if any of us noticed anything odd about that particular piece. We pointed out the poet’s use of this or that character, but he said that wasn’t quite what he was looking for. He asked if we noticed any symbolism in the poem. The students, myself included, scrambled to see what wasn’t there. “There’s no symbolism in that poem because China, at that point in time, didn’t need any symbolism,” the professor said. “It’s simple,” he went on to our incredulous looks, “If there are no cultural taboos, there’s nothing to hide. If there’s nothing to hide, there’s no need to symbolize.

With my former professor’s ideas ringing through my mind, I stepped up to examine the intricate paintings decorating this selection of historically significant screens. The line work was so subtly ornate. There was motion in the tree branches, sound in the rushing waters and stolidity in the rock faces. Aware of Japan’s early respect for all things Chinese, I realized the paintings on these screens were probably the origins of the artistic traditions that have eventually culminated in Japanime during my own lifetime. These images, animated, created something like Ghost in the Shell or Akira – movies so influential on my American collegiate life of the late 1990s. No artistic tradition exists within a vacuum. Everything has to be learned somewhere.

Staring at those natural scenes of flowing waterfalls and stiff ridges, I imagined myself a wealthy merchant in 16th century Beijing, the Ming Dynasty’s bustling capital for the Middle Kingdom, what we today call China. I saw my daily cares there as not so different from my own here in DC, from my dad’s during his lifetime in Southern California. I remembered a painting my dad had had hanging in his living room back then. It had been a painting of a red brick wall outlining a lone window. Drapes billowed out that window. I’d always imagined it as being somewhere in Europe, maybe in Venice. My dad had always said what he liked so much about that painting was its implication. There was a cat sitting alone on the sill, and my dad had often told me he wondered what was going on behind that window, in the room he and I couldn’t see. It wasn’t a great painting, but it always made me think.

These screens were like that painting in my dad’s living room, and the wealthy Chinese merchant I imagined myself to be appreciated them in the same way. Escaping the bustle of the city’s marketplace, I retreated to the sanctity of my own home, but the nature I visited on those screens transported me to another location. My walls evaporated. Mountain breezes blew between the woods’ earthen scent. Punctuating the birds’ high cries, a waterfall crashed in the distance. No, there was no need for symbolization. Just like this project I’m working on right now, those screens contained everything they actually were.

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