In my childhood, there was no enlightening education, especially for painting. Sixty years ago, in the depths of the country of my hometown, it was hard to see a picture, let alone a drawing teacher.
In my memory, the earliest pictures I saw were in my mother’s room: one was a New Year picture in which a beautiful woman was holding her plump baby in the arm; another was a pair of mirror-screened pictures with some flowers like wintersweet or peony. Both of them were my mother’s dowries.
In addition, what gave me the deepest impression was the pile of books in the attic of my old house. Most of the books were the magazine that I knew later was Dongfang Zazhi, the East Journal. In the eyes of a little boy like me at that time, very, very big were they in which there were many pictures: film stars, genre paintings, cartoons, and the like. They were so attractive that I looked on over and over, again and again.
As for the Chinese traditional paintings I saw in my early times, they have remained fresh in my memory till now. It was in the houses of other people that I accidentally saw such paintings that maybe were authentic works in my earliest memory.
The first time was when I, at fourteen years old, went to sell orange. In a small street, there was a rich and big family. Its front door whose dark coat of lacquer was almost fallen was opened. I looked in through the door, finding two paintings of landscape, flowers and birds on the wall of the central room. They were so attractive that I, forgotten buying orange, set my back basket on the ground, went silently into the room and knelt on the big armchair to look them carefully. I was engrossed in the paintings when suddenly came footsteps, so I tried to hurry my way out. “My dear child,” a kind old woman, neatly dressed, said to me, “don’t hurry to leave. Look at them carefully if you want.”
In another time, my mother took me to visit one of my grandpas. In his central and winged rooms, there were many paintings on the wall. In one of them, two ancients were playing musical instruments, sitting oppositely, with trees, mountains and waters. The other paintings concerned about landscapes, flowers or birds were all attractive. I still knelt on the armchair to look at them carefully one by one, thinking: “Why are they completely different from my pictures? How ugly I usually draw on the ground, on the wall or on the paper!” I admired them while ashamed of my own. At that time I wanted very much to know how the painters had painted them, but I dared not want one day I could paint like that.
Since then, I was thirst for a sample, and even for a teacher.
But this for me was only an extravagant hope. In the depths of the country in the central part of Sichuan province, the children like me were wild grass emerging and perishing of ourselves, and grew ignorantly in our small world. The old house of Dus—my family name, where my family people had lived for generations—was my kindergarten as well as my Eden where I scribbled everywhere.
My biggest shortcoming in childhood was to make doodles. I always drew anything I had looked and thought on flagstone, on sand, on door, cupboard, waste paper, whitewashed earth wall, and the like. And I often felt self-satisfied over such doodles although it was in disorder everywhere. Sometimes I could be praised by my pals or even by grownups but frequently I was berated for I had scribbled in the places where I should not, or I was hit on the head by some grownup with his tobacco pipe when I was engrossed in my doodle. In this way I drew my pictures, forgetting everything. How I expected someone could instruct me!
But I had not come across anyone until I went to the county middle school. There, Mr. Huang Chun（黄纯）, who had graduated from an art school, taught me Picture Drawing. Strict and stern, he always kept a straight face in the class.
At the very beginning, Mr. Huang talked a lot about visual art, plastic art, spatial perspective, and the like, which made us confused and uninterested. Possibly he felt this was to cast pearls before swine, so that he one day started to do instead of to talk in the class.
It was indeed a real painting class I saw in the first time, still alive in my memory up to the present.
We had already prepared two exercise books, one grass-papered book for pencil drawing, and one water-papered book for ink painting, each fifty or sixty centimeter long, which was different from other middle schools.
In that class, Mr. Huang, having told us to put the water-papered book on the desk, used some rice to put a piece of the same paper on the blackboard, saying, “You prepare a small dish, a cup of water, and two brushes.” With our preparation, he shouted, “Make ink!” Then there in the classroom was no any sound except the one of ink making. This perhaps was caused by his serious face and his brief words.
“Finished?” he asked. “Finished!” we answered.
“Good. Put down your ink stick!”
So we did.
“Take up the small brush. And give it two rinses!”
So we did.
“Dip in thick ink!”
So we did.
“Scrape at the edge of the cup!”
So we did.
“Look! Dip in thick ink! Have two twists!”
So we did.
“Pay your attention! Look!”
We watched him painting. Within a minute, on his paper appeared some branches that looked artistically spaced and just right of the shades. I at once watched in a daze while admiring his inspired strokes.
“Now,” he commanded, “imitate!” So we did with reverence and awe according to the sample on the blackboard.
“Use the big brush!” he cried out. With his eyebrow frowned and his face straight, he was like a foreign drillmaster in the burning sun delivering command to train his recruits, a serious appearance and a sonorous voice.
“Dip in the water! Use thin ink! Have one twist! Take a little thick ink, on the brush point!”
Oh! A stroke like this has its own thick and thin, smooth, and natural, so that the leaves painted with such strokes look fresh and alive. At that time in the class, admiring Mr. Huang very much, and being satisfied with my own copy, I was extremely excited with every cell of my body skipping and jumping about, just as an opium-eater who had enjoyed smoke to the full.
Whenever I remember the class, I think of Mr. Huang, full of my reverence. As the result, in the only two times when I returned to my native town, I paid my special visit to him.
The first time was in 1959 when Mr. Huang was nearly sixty years old.
It was in a teahouse that I met him. At a distance, I saw a grey-bearded man sitting in a bamboo chair, a big drawing book on his hand. Once I recognized him, I went quickly in front of him, saying, “Hello, Mr. Huang!” He looked uneasy, hurrying to put the book to his bosom. I pretended not to have noticed his action, only to speak out my name very slowly and to tell him that his student came to look in him. “Oh,” he said, “I know.” And then, he let me sit down, and asked another cup of tea.
At the time, he recovered his natural manner, again a serious and calm one. I found that he was almost the same with the teacher in my memory, except his grey hair and his unsmooth face.
I politely offered him a cigarette and lit for him, saying that I was sorry not to visit him for a long time, that it was fortunate for me to get his teaching, and that I would never forget his favour. He immediately responded with politeness that he did not deserve my words, and that he was satisfied if not to have misled the students.
And then, I told him my early story in search of a drawing teacher. Once upon a time, my father brought me, a little boy, to a teahouse where he met a drawing teacher, Mr. Wang. My father told him that I liked drawing pictures and asked him to teach me. But unexpectedly, Mr. Wang did not take any care at my father’s words, only to chat with others, and I felt very, very embarrassed. After the story, I then told Mr. Huang that it was in the middle school that had my first drawing teacher so that I felt extremely happy and especially grateful.
Mr. Huang got delight with my good memory, and invited me to go around the middle school.
On the way to the school, we had a free talk. I said that in those years I feared him very much for he was hot-tempered. I could still remember that once an old student, about two dozens of years old, made a joke to Mr. Huang, and Mr. Huang asked a school worker to carry a bundle of bamboo into the classroom, pressing the old student on bench to beat his ass. With half a dozen of the broken bamboo pieces aside, I was so afraid of his terrible cry that my hair stood on end. After hearing this, Mr. Huang forced a smile, saying that he was in the time too young to forgive his students, which was not good.
When talking, we arrived at my Alma Mater. A belt of wall was built at the foot of the hill. On each side of the front door stood a big oak, and this kind of tree could be seen here and there in the school. The school had come from a temple. It was named the Wen-Zheng Middle School, after Sun Wen (Sun Yat-sen) and Jiang Zhongzheng (Chiang Kai-shek), originally a private school. In the front of the classroom that had been changed from the Tianzidian Hall (the Hall of Son of Heaven), we were likely brought back to the past, talking a lot about the interesting events of my schooling days. And at last, we waved good-bye to each other, reluctant to leave the old school.
The latest time I visited Mr. Huang was in 1995 when he was an octogenarian.
In an afternoon of the late autumn, the grey-white sunlight was slanting on the rough road of flagstone. Along the both sides of the small street stood the old grey houses, two rows of stooping old men. If there was not a popular song in the air, you must feel that you were in an old street before a century.
Once again, I saw that familiar doorframe, declined on one side. At one glance, I recognized the old man was my teacher, Mr. Huang Chun, leaning against the doorframe, a walking stick in his hands.
I hurriedly went up, said eagerly “Hello, Mr. Huang!” and made a deep bow to him. Having opened his cloudy eyes, he looked me carefully for a little while, and said, “It’s you, Yongqiao! Come, into my room!”
His eyes and his voice evoked immediately my past memory: a tall young teacher, with his face bright, serious, stern, loud-but-clear-voiced in class as if a commander delivering his command, making my ear ache; I wanted his instruction but feared him to be close to my ear.
Here, I helped him, much shorter now, into the room where his daily wares were clear at a glance: one bed one table and two stools, spotted, old and broken like some unearthed relics. I put a bag of gift on the small round table with its coat of lacquer fallen. Having waited him sit down on one stool, I sat down on the other that protested under my weight.
An honest and simple man, Mr. Huang had kept his duty all him lifetime. During the Great Cultural Revolution (1966—1977), he suffered persecution so much that he made an attempted suicide by jumping from a building to the ground, with his leg broken as his deformity forever. Worse than that, his wife was dead years ago. And at the present time, his living was supported only by his daughter’s slender income.
Looking on his silver hair and his wrinkled face, I seemed to see a lonely old man, stooping more and more, appearing and disappearing in the schoolyard. Suddenly, a fit of sad feeling surged up in my mind.
Mr. Huang was deeply moved with my visit, saying, “You’re well-known, which is recorded in the county annals, but you’d like come to see me. Apart from you, none of my students have come and visited me though I have many of them. Thank you for your sending me Xuan paper, ink, brushes and pigments.” As he spoke, his cloudy eyes glistened with tears.
I said, “You’re my first teacher guiding me correctly to draw and to paint. Perhaps, I have a little achievement, but that should be contributed to the favor of your teaching. An old saying goes like that the favor of a water drop should be repaid with a spring of water. I’m not able to do like that, but I’m at least able to come and see you, repaying a little of your kindness.”
Smile on his face, Mr. Huang handed me a pile of his paintings, and asked me to speak of my opinions. Moved and apprehensive, I said, “You still make efforts to paint in your so high years that I really admire you. Don’t think too much. Just paint as you please.” He nodded with smile.
After a while, he invited me out to eat. I asked a bowl of rice noodle to save his money. And then, he took me into the teahouse, introducing me to the people, and saying that it was his biggest satisfaction to have me as his student.
In the Beimen Street, I took with him a photo that I have selected to put in one of my painting collections published in recent years. Mr. Huang is my be-loved teacher forever.