Sea of Ink – Book Review


This story is about Zhu Da, the Prince of Yiyang, distant descendant of the Prince of Ning, the seventeenth son of the founder of the Ming dynasty. – from Sea of Ink, page 8 -

Richard Weihe makes the observation that the paintings and calligraphy of the influential Chinese poet and painter, Bada Shanren (a pseudonym), “show mountains, forests, and rivers, many species of plants, birds and fish – and yet they always seem to be self-portraits.” It is this understanding of Bada Shanren’s work which informs Weihe’s novella Sea of Ink.

Bada Shanren was born Zhu Da, a descendent of the royalty making up the Ming Dynasty which ruled China for 276 years (1368–1644). The Qing Dynasty came into full power in 1662. As families of the old Ming Dynasty were killed, Zhu Da fled into the countryside and entered a Buddhist monastery where he remained for 40 years. Later he re-entered society and began painting professionally. His life was defined by odd behavior, a type of madness which may or may not have been feigned in order to prevent being co-opted by the Qing regime. It is from this biography that Weihe constructs his fictional narrative of Zhu Da’s life as painter.

Sea of Ink is a luminous story of a man whose devotion to his art defined the life he lived. Eleven of his works are included in the pages of this slim book and linked to the narrative. Throughout the novella, Weihe uncovers the hidden side of the artist by evaluating his work within the context of self-study. Wholly original and in poetic language, Sea of Ink takes the reader along a magical journey into the heart of an artist.

The novella is broken into 51 short chapters, and like poetry, the writing forces the reader to ponder each word and phrase. I found the experience to be rewarding, albeit not always easy reading. I waited a couple of days before writing my review of this book and I am glad I did. Sea of Ink is one of those books which sticks with the reader and is more appreciated in the days after turning the last page. I found myself thinking of Bada Shanren, and seeing the world around me a little differently after experiencing his artwork through the interpretation of Richard Weihe.

Peirene Press has made a name for itself with these short, translated works and Sea of Ink will not disappoint fans of their press. Richard Weihe is well known for his poetic biographies. This book was translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch.

Readers who love poetry, historical fiction and art will do well to pick up a copy of Sea of Ink.

Highly recommended.