by Ely Finch
This silk cloth inscribed with fine calligraphy forms part the Kira Brown family collection. Its subscription indicates that it was written at the request of a certain 金滿 “Kum Moon” by the prominent and prolific late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century Chinese intellectual 梁啟超 Liang Qichao (a.k.a. Liang Kai Chu, Leung Kai Chiu; 1873–1929). Liang Qichao toured Australia in 1900–1901, and visited the Chinese communities of New England, NSW, during his trip.
It is likely that the Kum Moon for whom the calligraphy was written was 方文厚 Fong Mon How, a storekeeper in Inverell, NSW, at the time of Liang Qichao’s visit, Kum Moon being his courtesy name. Much of the Kira Brown family collection derives from Ellen Mon How (née Too Tong; later Ellen Hyde), who was the wife of 方文厚 Fong Mon How. Ellen and Mon How later lived in Tingha, a short drive south of Inverell.
Genuine inscriptions by Liang Qichao are important. In addition to its encouraging provenance, the handwriting and diction of this inscription also seem to be highly consistent with its being genuine.
The poem inscribed on the cloth is a work by 杜甫 Dù Fǔ (a.k.a. Tu Fu, Douh Póu), who is considered by many to have been the finest poet in Chinese history. Specifically, it is the fourth of a set of five lesser-known poems that were composed by him in the year 766 of the common era, under the title 諸將 “O Generals”. This set of five poems concerns the Chinese state of Tang, and the incompetent and self-serving actions of its military leaders, from the time of the 安史之亂 An-Shi Rebellion (a.k.a. the An Lushan Rebellion) onwards, a period that was marked by foreign incursions and internal insurrections.
The fourth poem, the poem reproduced on the cloth, seems to be distinctive in that its content is the most amenable to allusion to contemporaneous concerns in the early twentieth century around the Qing state’s governance and territorial integrity. In particular, it concludes with a couplet that expresses support for the Chinese court, which is consistent with the message of the Chinese Empire Reform Society (Chinese name: 保皇會 “League for the Protection of the Emperor”).
The stated aim of the Chinese Empire Reform League was to save China from ruin, through the introduction of constitutional monarchy, and the revival of the Emperor’s reform program. This reform program had been devised by Liang Qichao’s mentor and leader of the Chinese Empire Reform Society 康有為 Kang Youwei (a.k.a. K‘ang Yu-wei), but had come to an abrupt end, with the Emperor being placed under house arrest, and power being taken back by the Empress Dowager 慈禧 Cixi. The purpose of Liang Qichao’s Australian tour was to attract support for the Chinese Empire Reform Society.
Transcription of the poem
(Formatted so as to delineate the lines and couplets.)
Translation of the poem
To Foo-song’s copper columns let your gaze be now transferred,
See how those emblems high are by a dark miasma blurred.
There is of Yuet-sheung’s dazzling blue king-fisher plumes no word,
And of the sparkling South Sea pearl what year was news last heard?
The title grave of Minister of War ‘twas blithe conferred,
And now Commanders large and small are all ermine spurred.
From scorching south to snowy north, this realm’s each inch and third
Depends upon the good and loyal at court to undergird.
Transcription and translation of the subscription
By Cheuk Yu, Leung Kai Chiu,
At the request of Kum Moon.