British Library acknowledges the genius that was Mu Xin
Nearly a decade ago, the name Mu Xin (1927-2011) did not evoke much excitement among the literary or the art community in China. But today, his name, his thoughts and his books are widely worshiped.
Throughout his life, Mu, a poet, scholar and artist, was a complex but also inspiring figure who kept a low profile and avoided the public attention. He spent much of his time in New York but returned to China in 2006 at the age of 76 — still relatively unknown. Only his essay collection, “Shadow of Columbia,” had been published on China’s mainland by then.
Today, Mu Xin Art Museum is a must-visit in Wuzhen, Zhejiang Province, a canal town near Shanghai where Mu was born.
Currently, the exhibition “In Mu Xin’s Words: Treasures of the British Library” features original manuscripts of Mu’s four favorite writers — Lord Byron, Charles Lamb, Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf.
It runs until January 14.
The exhibition celebrates Mu’s love of English literature. The rare and valuable manuscripts are visiting China for the first time as part of British Library’s wider three-year program of cultural exchange — connecting through culture and learning.
Roly Keating, chief executive of the British Library, said, “We are delighted to bring these treasures of English and Irish literature to Wuzhen so that people in China can see for themselves original drafts. Throughout his long career, Mu himself exemplified the breadth and depth of cultural exchange between Britain and China, so it’s doubly appropriate that we are displaying works by four of his favorite authors in the spectacular museum dedicated to his life and art.”
The exhibition includes the original 1923-24 manuscript of “The Hours” by Woolf, handwritten manuscripts of Byron’s poem “Love and Gold,” typewritten and extensively corrected manuscript of act one in Wilde’s play “Lady Windermere’s Fan” and the original letters from Lamb, co-author of “Tales from Shakespeare,” a book which was instrumental in popularizing Shakespeare’s works in China.
Besides these manuscripts, visitors will also find Mu’s own comments plus huge portraits of these masters on the wall.
Mu, who had a classical Chinese education, was later schooled in Western art and culture. When he was only 15, he enrolled at the Hangzhou National Art College (now China Academy of Art). Throughout his life, Mu chose to keep distance from his audience and believed in French novelist Gustave Flaubert’s credo “Reveal the art, conceal the artist.”
Mu lived through China’s turbulent times and risked his life to create “Prison Notes” and the misty, metaphysical “Landscape Paintings” during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76).
The “Prison Notes” were penned when he was in solitary confinement for over 18 months. Some of the notes and paintings are on display at another exhibition titled “Tower Within Tower, Mu Xin’s Prison Notes and Facsimiles of His Paintings in the Yale Collection” at the museum.
In 1982, Mu left China for New York where he had no relatives or friends. In order to earn a living, he held classes at home on the history of world literature.
From 1984 to 2000, Mu published around 10 short novels, as well as essays and poetry. He was called by some the “Robinson Crusoe in literature,” a reference to the character in Defoe’s 1719 novel about a castaway who spent 28 years on a tropical island.
Mu won a following especially among the overseas Chinese community. Some of his writings are an innovative combination of fiction, philosophical reflections and sanwen (three writings), a Chinese genre with elements of poetry, fiction and essay.
“I admire Mu not only as an ordinary individual, but also as a Chinese intellectual. The way he spoke and did things was never too hastily yet elegantly. He was good at cooking, home decoration and even at making clothes himself,” says Chen Danqing, director of Mu Xin Art Museum.
Both Chen and Mu lived in New York where they were introduced by a friend in 1982 on a subway.
Chen, a renowned artist himself and an admirer of Mu and later his student, has been trying to ensure that Mu gets the recognition he deserves in his homeland.
Mu died in December 2011 at the age of 84 in Wuzhen. His tomb bears no inscription, only his name.
“It is a honor for the Mu Xin Art Museum to host a display from the British Library. When Mu Xin referred to these great authors in his lectures, the idea that their manuscripts would one day find their way to Wuzhen was unthinkable," Chen says.
Mu was a passionate reader of all these authors and wrote at length on the four writers and their works. He described Byron as “the strongest voice in human civilization against authority and for freedom, absolute freedom of the individual.”
Of Lamb’s impact on him as an adolescent, he wrote, “It was love at first sight.”
Writing about Irish author Wilde, he could be more ambivalent, “Wilde was witty, sharp and eloquent. At times, however, I want to say to him: ‘Do not say too much. The more you say, the more mistakes you make’.”
Recalling a lifetime’s reading of Woolf, Mu commented: “Age really matters. I read her when I was in my 30s, 40s and even 50s. In my 60s I understood. I understood where she had been right, and where she had been wrong.”
Chen says he has realized a dream that Mu never dared to dream of when he was alive. He plans to borrow more manuscripts of literary giants from overseas to exhibit at the Mu Xin Art Museum in the future.
Apart from the manuscripts, several screens show scenes of the four writers that have been captured in movies or documentary films, such as the Oscar-winning movie “The Hours.”
“Reading the manuscripts written by the masters is quite thought-provoking,” says Leung Man-tao, a well-known writer and critic from Hong Kong. “The texture of the paper, the style of handwriting and even the pen that the writer used all can help visitors get close to these masters.”
If Mu were still alive today, would he be happy with all the recognition or still shy away from the flash and camera?
“I think he would be elated to attend the grand opening of the exhibition. As far as I understand, he was not a recluse and there was still some mundane bit about him, which can be called lovely and cute,” Leung says.
In any case, Mu had his own thoughts on life and death.
“Heaven is one’s neighbor. It was hell’s front door that we entered. Now we are through with hell, standing at its backdoor. A sky full of stars in our eyes. Every star is waiting for you. It greets and salutes you.”