Well known author, commentator and historian Li Ao recently passed away on March 18, 2018. We met in 2001 through an introduction of my brother Jinzhong who is the chief editor of Open Magazine in Hong Kong. The last time I saw him was at his 80th birthday party three years ago. While I reminisced the moments we shared together and our friendship, I also thought about the article he wrote about one of my paintings in his collection, “From Mackay Practicing Medicine to Huang Dafu.”
From Mackay Practicing Medicine to Huang Dafu
Mackay, a righteous man from Canada, sailed across the seas to the Orient and came to Taiwan. From a young man to an old man, he contributed thirty years of his life to Taiwan during which he proselytized and pullet teeth – all 21,000 of them. He passed away in Danshui in 1901, the first year of the 20th Century. People on the island of Taiwan commemorated him through hospitals, schools and literature. They forgot about art however. Taiwan needed a great painting named Mackay Practicing Medicine to remember this great man. Somehow, they forgot about this painting.
“Forgot” is a kind way to put it when such a tremendous painting could not in fact be entrusted to ordinary painters. Eventually, the artist Yim Mau-Kun from China came to Taiwan and quietly took on the challenge of painting from people’s memories. The people on the island could present Mackay with their utmost respect at last; a fitting painting was finally made of a great man.
Mackay Practicing Medicine was a success but its painter did not fare so well. Yim Mau-Kun’s talent was dogged by misfortune. His achievement was no match for his background so he was ostracized out of jealousy. An artist of his caliber deserved to be treated far better but he was marginalized while the painting Mackay Practicing Medicine was buried through neglect.
Yim came to my house one day carrying his painting with sweat running from his brow. “I think I should give this to you, Master Li.” He said with a hint of sadness. “After all, you truly understand this painting.” This was how Mackay Practicing Medicine ended up on the wall of my study where it would hang for many years. There it stayed until three years ago when I sold my study. Books were emptied from one thousand crates and this painting was stored away in the warehouse.
I still thought frequently of this painting though. As someone who “really understands” the painting, I felt I should restore it to its rightful place.
Kao Hsin-Chang was a man who sacrificed much for his beliefs. When he was hospitalized at the Koo Foundation Sun Yat-Sen Cancer Center in spring this year, what little money I could give would not have made much of a difference to his huge medical bill. By coincidence, President Huang Dafu at the Cancer Center had, at the suggestion of his wife, invited me to give a speech at the hospital on May 2. My mind leapt from Huang Dafu to Mackay and then to this painting gathering dust in the warehouse. When I took to the stage for the speech I brought the painting along as well. I then made the following proposal: President Huang Dafu should purchase the painting for six million Taiwan dollars (approximately USD$200,000). Half would go towards Kao’s medical expenses, one-third of the remaining half would go to the Huang Dafu Foundation while I would dispose of the other two-thirds as I see fit. I had after all donated far more than this amount during my three years in the Legislative Yuan. I decided on this arbitrary distribution because there was just so much need for charity that I always wished I could do more.
For the next hour of my speech, President Huang sat in the first row in front of the stage and was obviously persuaded. He then gave a very moving concluding speech.
Once the event was over, the media interviewed me for half an hour before I wandered over to Chief Nurse Chang Niann-cheue to do the book signings. PR Director Rita Ho then came over and told me in a whisper that the president wanted her to find six million Taiwan dollars from somewhere so they could keep the painting. I said jokingly: “Is this for real?” She said: “The president is a man of his word so it’s settled.” I then said: “You can find six million Taiwan dollars, right?” She responded: “I’ve even managed to find ten million before.” I said: “That’s very impressive for a Pro-Taiwanese Independence supporter like you.” I then said: “I pulled a fast-one during the speech by not saying the name of the painter. Do you know who it is?”
Rita Ho said: “Nobody else has the talent for this kind of painting. I am guessing it’s by Yim Mau-Kkun. His Crossing of Taiwan’s Forefathers was very well done too.” I was really taken back when I heard this. Though Rita often joked around with me, I didn’t expect her to have such a keen eye. Rita then added: “The price for this painting by Yim Mau-Kun is around one million. Why are you auctioning it for charity at six million?” I said: “One million? Do you think the Taiwanese art market has been fair on Yim Mau-Kun over the past ten or twenty years? The value of paintings also changes depending on their collector. The Peach Blossom by Hsieh Yuan from the Song Dynasty has doubled its price several times simply because it was in the collection of Chang Hsueh-Liang. You must also look at why this painting is being sold. Don’t forget its moral message or the theme of the artwork. Look at who this painting about! Look at who it was painted by! Rita, you know art very well but beyond knowing the ‘price’ of artworks, you should pay more attention to their ‘value’.”
英國文學家王爾得（Wilde）在「少奶奶的扇子」（Lady Windermere’s Fan）裏，諷刺「犬儒主義者」（cynic），說此輩但知「價格」（the price）而不知「價值」（the value）（A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.）Rita何是被我戲稱的「台獨」分子，尚不足上語「犬儒」水平，但她未能整體看出全部作業的「價值」，我又吃了一驚。因為我認為英國回來的Rita何，一定聽過王爾得這句話。
In Lady Windermere’s Fan, the English writer Oscar Wilde took a dig at “cynics” by describing them as people who “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Though I joke about Rita being “Pro-Taiwanese Independence” and not quite a full-blown “cynic” yet, I was surprised when she failed to see the true “value” of the whole work. Since Rita had studied in England I assumed that she must have heard of this quote by Wilde before.
On May 5, Rita Ho called me on Monday and said the president would like to purchase Mackay Practicing Medicine for two million dollars. Would I accept this offer? I told her that I never haggle so please thank the president for me. She then asked if I wanted to have the painting sent back to me. I said that I will send someone to bring it back.
This brings another story to mind. During the “White Terror” period I was persecuted by the government. I lost my job, ended up in prison, and for fourteen years the name “Li Ao” was banned from all Taiwanese media and publications. The pressure gradually eased but the blacklisting continued. At the suggestion of his student Huang Hong-chen, Dr. Winston Chang, the President of Soochow University, invited Li Ao to teach at the university in order to emphasize their academic regard of Li Ao. When Chang became ill and ended up in a virtually vegetative state, I held a charity auction of my collection and donated seven million to him (six million for his wife and two children, and one million in his name to Soochow University). Someone asked me afterwards: Isn’t Winston Chang the illegitimate grandchild of Chiang Kai-Shek, your sworn enemy? Don’t you regret donating so much to him? I said that two thoughts crossed my mind one after another: “The first thought” was to donate seven million; “the second thought” was to donate less, say around “one-third.” So I was in two minds when faced with seven million dollars. One mind was very generous while the other mind was a bit of a miser. At this, I could only mock myself. I ended up hosting a press conference to publicly donate seven million dollars and tell the world how much Li Ao loved the grandson of Chiang Kai-Shek; at the same time, I launched the book Jiang Jieshi Ping Zhuan that I co-wrote with Professor Wang Zurong to tell everyone how much Li Ao hated Winston Chang’s grandfather.
I thought of this story and also thought of President Huang Dafu. He probably ran into the same conundrum that I did when faced with six million dollars.
Maybe he wasn’t in two minds but I am certain he had to choose between “reaction to value” and “reaction to price.” “Reaction to value” was “the first thought” and it is usually completely selfless; “reaction to value” was “the second thought” and all sorts of considerations start creeping in. Once “the second thought” emerges, we can come up with a hundred excuses. When that happens, we might believe in those excuses ourselves but we could’ve done more as well.
I am older now and when I think back on the seven million dollars that I donated all those years ago, I can now practice a more sophisticated form of “self-deception”: “Seven million and one-third of seven million are ultimately different in ‘value’. When I have the ability and the desire to donate seven million, then one-third of seven million is the wrong thing to do.”
佛蘭克林（Franklin）在「可憐的理察曆書」（Poor Richard’s Almanack）裏，提醒人們「錢的價值」（the value of Money），他把Money有意大寫，並且與value銜接，似乎提醒我們把「價格化」的金錢升等到「價值化」的意味。黃達夫院長為陳耀昌醫師「生技魅影」一書寫序，讚美陳耀昌「善盡知識分子的社會責任」，當年我為每人五十萬義助慰安婦、捐出一百件藝術品義賣三千萬的時候，其中一百萬，是由陳耀昌醫師「買單」的，那是一件胡適寫給李敖的條幅，若照「價格論者」的評價，當年陳耀昌醫師似應討價還價。但是，「善盡知識分子的社會責任」的名醫，自是「價值論者」，他在「生技魅影」的新書發表會上，還懸掛了胡適這幅字給大家看、給李敖看。我並沒對這件「吾家舊物」的離我而去而傷情，因為我割愛了這幅字，卻義助了兩位慰安婦，每人五十萬，又何樂而不為？胡適先生死而有知，也會樂見這樣犠牲了紀念品吧？
Benjamin Franklin reminded people about “value of Money” in the Poor Richard’s Almanack. He seemed to have capitalized Money and linked it with value as a way of reminding us of how “price” in monetary terms has been elevated into actual “value.” In the preface that he wrote for Dr. Chen Yao-Chang’s book My Cell Career, President Huang Dafu praised Chen for “fulfilling his social responsibility as an intellectual”. On one occasion, I wanted to give NT$500,000 to every surviving comfort woman so I auctioned 100 off artworks to raise thirty million Taiwan dollars. Dr. Chen had “footed the bill” for one million Taiwan dollars by buying a work of calligraphy that Hu Shih wrote to Li Ao. According to supporters of “Price Theory”, Dr. Chen should have haggled. As a doctor who “fulfilled his social responsibility as an intellectual” however, Chen was naturally a believer of the “Value Theory.” He even hung up the Hu Shih’s calligraphy for everyone and Li Ao to see during the book launch for My Cell Career. I did not feel sad about the departure of this “item from my household” at all because even if I did give it away, I still managed to help two former comfort women by giving them NT$500,000 each. Why pass up on an opportunity to perform a good deed? Perhaps Hu Shih himself would have applauded the sacrifice of this souvenir from beyond the grave?
I admire President Huang Dafu as a person. I knew what kind of person he was so I brought Mackay Practicing Medicine with me. He immediately asked Rita Ho to find six million Taiwan dollars and I admire this selfless aspect of his. The unfortunate thing about life is that you sometimes get a tug from your selfless aspect. At other times, whether by chance or by coincidence, when you are truly divided or when a thought first pops into your head, the light tug comes from your other aspect. The result of that tug is a sense of loss when you suddenly take stock. Who knows where Mackay Practicing Medicine will eventually end up?
Maybe it will end up hanging in the Mackay Memorial University. Maybe it will end up dropping anchor at the Aletheia University in Danshui. Maybe it will join the permanent collection of Taipei Fine Arts Museum. Or maybe it will sail across the seas and end up at Mackay’s hometown in Canada…. Who knows? In the end, “art is long” while “life is short.” Maybe one day when time finally runs out and Li Ao is lying in the mortuary of the Cancer Center, after saying farewell this troublesome friend President Huang Dafu might look back and feel a sense of loss as well. He may even sigh and say in a low voice to his wife: “The master is gone and there is peace at last. Now I wish I had spent six million dollars to keep that painting all those years ago!”
South of the Mountain, May 8, 2008