Abbot Hongmin knew of Xuege’s desire to become a painter, but until then he had strictly forbidden him to touch a paintbrush. On that day in spring 1658, in the fourteenth year of the Qing dynasty, he believed the moment had come to begin the painting lessons.
The master gave Xuege a brush which was as long as his legs and as thick as a young tree trunk. He instructed his pupil to stretch out his arms and hold the brush by its loop so that the tips of the bristles just touched the floor.
In the tea room the master had made a large square with rolls of rice paper. The abbot pointed to a wooden tub in the corner and said, ‘Dip the brush into the bucket and wipe off the ink a few times on the rim. Then go back to your place without delay.’
When the brush was saturated with black ink it was considerably heavier. Xuege had trouble lifting it high enough to wipe it on the edge of the tub. He returned to his place, held the brush with outstretched arms as the master had instructed and watched a black dot appear on the paper, which began expanding rapidly as the ink flowed out.
The master stood behind him, breathing words into Xuege’s ear: ‘Pace out a circle, painting it as you move. Keep going in a circle until the trace of your brush has faded.’
His muscles tensed, Xuege held the brush vertically over the sheet so that the tips of the bristles were just touching the paper, and moved forwards, step by step. After the first circle Hongmin noticed that Xuege’s lips were pressed tightly shut.
‘You should paint, not stop breathing.’
In fact Xuege had great difficulty concentrating on the brush tip and the imaginary midpoint of his circle at the same time. He could not stop and rest because he would waste ink; moreover it was almost harder to hold the brush while standing still.
Xuege went on and the shining black bristles left behind a thin trace on the paper. After another circle his teacher said, ‘You went in a circle but you did not draw one. Do not make any detours. Go on, improve the circle.’
The abbot said no more as Xuege completed his third, fourth and fifth circles. Then he forgot to count. Each step became a torture. He was just blindly following his own track.
The line became ever fatter, for the brush sank lower and lower with Xuege’s vanishing strength. His arms trembled and the brush transferred even the slightest movement onto the paper.
The abbot now sounded dictatorial: ‘Your line is start¬ing to shudder, Xuege. Let it go on for as long as there is still ink left. Stand up straight. Listen to what I tell you!’
After another half-turn Xuege’s back started giving way. But all of a sudden he felt the short, sharp stroke of a bamboo cane in his side. He completed the circle. Was it the ninth? Or the tenth? His master’s gaze burnt into his back, but he knew that he would not be able to manage yet another circle.
Then he collapsed on top of the brush. His body fell onto the cluster of bristles, squashing them so that the last remaining ink flowed out and made large dark stains
on the paper as well as on his white robe. He looked like a dying man lying in his own blood.
When Xuege glanced up, his face contorted with pain, expecting a second, possibly harder stroke of the bamboo cane, he saw his master’s severe expression.
‘If you ever wish to become a Master of the Great Ink you must learn to hold the brush firmly. Let it go only when no ink is left. Never before.’