Xue Fucheng: At a Parisian Oil Painting Exhibition

[Added at the suggestion of Paul Kahn, IRIS, by GPL and Devon Pike '93]

On the jiazi day of the leap second month, in the spring of the sixteenth year in the reign of Guangxu [1890], I paid a visit to the wax museum in Paris. The waxworks I saw there were all based on real people whom they closely resemble in gesture and expression, in the colour of their skin and hair, as well as in height and build. From princes, lords, and ministers to craftsmen and artisans, all those who have made a name for themselves have a wax statue in the museum. The figures may be standing, sitting, lying down or leaning forward; they may be smiling, crying, drinking or gambling, but the first glance always comes as a shock because they look so real. I was full of admiration for such wonderful skills.

My interpreter told me that the ultimate skill of westerners was in oil painting, and asked whether we should drive to the art gallery to see the painting of the Franco-Prussian War.

It is like this: A big round chamber is lined with huge paintings along its wall, and light is let in from the roof. Standing in the middle of the room, looking to all sides, one sees fortresses, mountain ranges, rivers and forests all positioned in massive array. Soldiers and horses from the two armies clash in confusion: some soldiers are on horse back, some lying on the ground, some running away, some pursuing, some shooting, some manning cannons, some holding up banners, some pushing gun carriages, and together they form a continuous stream. Where a shell lands, fiery blasts break forth and the smoke envelops everything. Whatever is hit turns instantly into ruins: houses are charred and walls are burnt. As for the soldiers, their arms and legs are broken, their blood soaks the ground, and they lie there either resting or stone dead; it is an unbearable sight. One looks up and sees the bright moon hanging in the sky, covered partly by passing clouds; one looks down and sees the velvet-like grass and the vast expanse of river basin. One almost forgets that one is just in a room and wonders whether this is not the actual battlefield. Only when one reaches out to touch it does one realize that it is just a wall, just a painting, just an illusion.

I have heard that the French care only for victory; why is it that they have painted such a demoralizing scene of their own defeat? My interpreter said, "This serves to hold up a warning and to arouse public wrath, reminding them to avenge themselves." In which case the painting is significant indeed.

Although the Franco-Prussian War is now very much in the past, it is a true historical event and there is much evidence of the battle. If that is the case, is this painting real, or is it an illusion? Is it an illusion which looks real, or is it real but looks like an illusion? I think it is a bit of both. [from Renditions: A Chinese-English Translation Magazine, vols 33-34: 213.]

Mo's Sour Sweet United Kingdom Overview