Often when I’m looking for something “fun” to think or write about, I leaf through cacheted covers I’ve purchased inexpensively at stamp shows, simply for their visual appeal.
Today I did just that, and was drawn to the 1993 stamps from the People’s Republic of China featuring paintings of Zheng Benqiao. The six stamps of the set were used on two first day covers—three stamps on each. One of the covers is shown above. The beauty of the calligraphy and the use of delicate brushstrokes in the paintings gently, but profoundly, convey a sense of peace and balance in life.
Zheng Benqiao (1693-1765) was from Xinghua, Jiangsu Province, along the eastern-central coast of China. He began life poor, and his father taught him as a child to paint. Through singular application to his studies, he became a magistrate in Shandong Province, but was uncomfortable with the magistrate’s life and critical of the life of government officials. After a little more than a decade as magistrate, he was reportedly criticized for building a shelter for the poor, and he resigned his position. He then began selling paintings to earn a living.
Zheng expressed himself through his artwork. He was adept at freehand ink and wash painting and was eventually recognized as one of the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou, known for their individualistic and expressive artistic styles. Zheng is best known for his drawings of bamboo, orchids, and rocks. His calligraphic style was influenced by his drawings of graceful orchids and firm bamboo. He stressed the combination of poetry, calligraphy and painting, adding lines from poems to his paintings to more fully express this themes.
And so an inexpensive first day cover becomes a meditation on a philosophy of life: Simplicity—less is more.
Spring is coming to the Mid-Atlantic (too slowly for me). Has it always been thus?
Some 800 years ago, Liu Shong Nian (1155-1224) approached the seasons in a more contemplative frame of mind.
His exacting watercolor renderings of the seasons are featured on a 2018 Chinese souvenir sheet (from right to left: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter). His seasons express the harmony between nature and human activity.
These are exquisitely detailed miniature paintings, each about 4″x5″. Note the white tree blossoms at water’s edge and the abundant greenery of Summer in the enlarged stamp (top left). And below it, notice snow covering roofs and distant mountains. All is in harmony.
In 2006, Deutsche Post photographically rendered each season as the year unfolded, beginning with a Winter stamp in January. The intent of the stamps was to convey the beauty of personal communication via the ordinary letter. Then and now, electronic mail hungrily devours personal postal communication; however, the beauty of a snow-covered oak, white tree blossoms in Spring, yellow-flowering rapeseed, and a beech forest, combined with the personal touch of a simple letter, impart a truly unique dimension to human messaging.
What a difference 800 years makes—even 10 years! In 2016, Liechtenstein gave us the four seasons on one stamp. Designer Hans Peter Gassner presents the seasons in the four quadrants of the stamp beginning with Winter at top left and proceeding clockwise through Spring, Summer and Autumn. Gassner’s approach to the seasons is totally abstract. Pallets of color dots, circles and squares within a seasonal grid convey the feeling of distinct times of year. And though images of nature and mankind are absent, perhaps that same sense of harmony that Liu Shong Nian conveyed in watercolor, and Germany via photography, is conveyed by this stamp. When I ponder the color fields with a contemplative mind, I can see and feel the beauty of the snow on the distant mountain, a soft Spring rain, exuberant summer flowers, and Autumn’s mature coloring.