The Problem of Li T'ang

A story by Geoffrey Bush

I had a problem. I had sixteen midterm papers from my course on Chinese painting, the first papers from the first course I’d ever taught, and one of them was brilliant.

I’d spent the evening discovering from the first seven or eight of the other papers I’d reluctantly looked into that “Chinese painting is beautiful because—” and “The reason I like Chinese painting is—” The opening paragraph of this one stopped me in my tracks. I woke up, sat forward, began again, and proceeded, with difficulty, through the rest of it.

It could hardly be called easy reading. But important pieces of Chinese painting criticism seldom are. And that’s what this was.

It almost certainly ought to be published.

It almost certainly had been published.

And there, of course, was the problem. In my first term of teaching, I realized with a growing sense of exhilaration, I almost certainly had a case of plagiarism.

I got up from the sunken coffee table in the living room of my apartment and mounted the wrought iron steps to the built-in, free-form bar. I’d gone to a certain amount of trouble to find quarters with the sort of conveniences I was accustomed to. This overpriced and somewhat overdramatic penthouse had become available when its tenant had been revealed as the central figure in a series of elaborate criminal activities. I made myself a vodka and tonic, sat down on one of his bar stools, and rested my feet on his curved rail. For the first time I began to feel at home there.

I looked out his picture window at his view of midwestern city lights at one o’clock in the morning and considered what to do.

A tricky business. Made trickier by my mysterious position in the art department.

I had a year’s appointment at what I shall describe simply as a large state university. It was a decidedly shaky appointment. All that anyone had known about me when I arrived was that James Harris, recent Ph.D., even more recent victim of a slipped disk (the unfortunate young man had bent over to pick a slender scholarly volume out of a bottom shelf and had been unable to stand up), had been hired, without an interview, to teach Far Eastern art this fall on the basis of three letters of recommendation, the book he had made out of his thesis, and his reputation. Since then, thanks to my bad manners, my having changed apartments, and my general inscrutability, no one had found out much more.

Tall, bony, rude, youthful Dr. Harris was on trial. Very much on trial. If he wanted to have his appointment renewed for another year, he was going to have to come through in the clutch.

Good. I felt the familiar symptoms. The blood moving toward the brain. My fingers tapping on my vodka and tonic. One foot jiggling on the rail.

This was the kind of thing I enjoyed.

I had brought the paper with me. I opened it to its title page. “The Problem of Li T’ang,” I read. “By Matthew Karp.”

I concentrated on Matthew Karp. I summoned up a thin, pale face. I added wild, untidy hair, a dirty Tshirt, crumpled jeans, and wire spectacles. I recalled an attitude of intense and, after the first class, nearly wordless attention. “Karp,” I heard him saying, as we introduced ourselves to one another. “Matthew Karp. With a K.” Which was practically the last thing he had said.

Was this the picture of a plagiarizer?

I had no idea. Doubtless plagiarizers, like everyone else in our dubious world, come in all shapes and sizes.

So much for that. It had not got me very far. The next move was to examine the evidence.

I examined it. Binding, inexpensive. Paper, ordinary. Typing, uneven, not to say sloppy. Contents, overwhelming.

It would have been easier, I saw appreciatively, if he had tried to mix in a few sentences of his own, explaining why Chinese painting was beautiful, or why he liked it. The contrast between the true and the borrowed Karp would have been inescapable. Look on this sentence, I would have been able to cry vengefully, and on this.

But he hadn’t. He’d been more skillful. He had stolen every phrase in his twenty weighty and intricate pages, word for word. It was going to be difficult to prove that he had committed plagiarism at all. The only way to prove it conclusively was to find out where.

Iwent to bed and slept deeply and contentedly. The next morning I drove to the university, first to my office and then to the library, to eliminate the obvious possibilities. I looked at Sirén. I checked Sickman. I went through the admirable little book by Susan Bush.

Nothing in them corresponded to “The Problem of Li T’ang.” I hadn’t expected that anything would.

That afternoon, after an inadequate lunch in the cafeteria, I returned to the library stacks, but no longer to their relatively habitable upper regions; I descended to their gloomy and slightly dank bowels, never visited by the light of the sun and rarely by the foot of man, in search of periodicals. I inspected bibliographies, located references, and pulled down dusty cardboard folders containing forgotten offprints. The one colleague I saw passed by as I was reaching for a journal tucked behind another journal on a top shelf. She produced a faintly worried smile and hurried on. That strange, sarcastic Dr. Harris was going to slip his disk again.

I found out a good deal that day about Li T’ang. What there was, at any rate, to find out. The first sixty years of his life were a blank. Then, at the beginning of the twelfth century, he emerged into the limelight. The occasion was a competition for admission to the emperor’s Painting Academy. The assigned subject, I learned from a useful five-page summary by Ellen J. Laing, was “A wine shop by a bridge surrounded by bamboo.” The other competitors obediently submitted paintings of wine shops by bridges surrounded by groves of bamboo. Li T’ang, with the sort of imaginative stroke so admired by painting academies then and now, confined himself to painting the flag of a wine shop, at the head of a bridge, outside a grove of bamboo.

As he was enjoying the fruits of this triumphant demonstration that less is more, however, the Painting Academy collapsed, along with the fabric of northern society in general. The resilient Li T’ang, now in his seventies, fled south. A second anecdote illustrated his new adversities. In the mountains a brigand stopped him, demanding his life or his possessions. These turned out to consist chiefly of scrolls and paintbrushes. But fortune, in twelfth-century China, still favored the arts. The brigand, if not a connoisseur, knew what he liked; overcoming his first disappointment, he enrolled himself as a class of one and followed his aged teacher south.

In the south Li T’ang’s hardships were not finished. In a sardonic poem he described the large, gloomy landscapes he would have liked to paint and their probable effect on customers;

I already know that such scenes will not attract
the eyes of today’s people.

Most buy cosmetics and paint peonies.

But the inward resources of this elderly wanderer were not finished, either. In his eighties, in troubled times, in a new city, among the cosmetic-buyers and the peony-painters, he resumed work, caught the eye of the new emperor, and was readmitted to the new Painting Academy, southern branch. There was his late masterpiece, to prove that he deserved his success—Wind in the Pines amid Myriad Ravines, which I had looked at that day in a dozen different reproductions, a vast, dark, brooding, monumental mountain face. And there were the two other landscapes—light, casual, dreamy—which didn’t seem to be in the same style at all. Which hadn’t, according to Matthew Karp, been painted by the same painter.

And there was I, with no more notion of the source he’d plagiarized from than I’d had before.

Which was a relief. My instincts had told me from the start that this was going to be a subtle contest. And my instincts are always right.

The following morning was a class morning. My opponent and I were to meet face to face. I drove to the art department, unaccountably housed in the chemistry building, and parked my yellow Porsche in the lot. I gave a warm greeting to the art department’s thin, middle-aged secretary—there is a thin, middle-aged secretary at the heart of every organization, and it is well to be on her good side—and went upstairs to my classroom, temporarily cleared of Bunsen burners.

I did not give one of my better lectures. These required some preparation; my researches of the previous day had not left much time. I found mysell relying more heavily than I would have liked on my own sources—Sirén, and when possible, Bush—and observing the third row for signs of guilt and confusion on the face behind the wire spectacles.

Perhaps it was a shade paler than usual. Perhaps the attention it was displaying was a shade more intense. Perhaps.

“Mr. Karp,” I said, after the buzzer had sounded.

I had made it clear from the outset that I was not one of your new, matey, with-it teachers, anxious to be my pupils’ chum. Our encounters were conducted with classical formality. We were “Mr.” or, as the case might be, “Miss.” Not even “Ms.”Certainly not “Matthew.”

It seemed to me that my antagonist jumped a little.

“Sir?”

I regarded him blandly. “Would you be so good as to come to my office for a conference at 10 o’clock tomorrow morning?”

It was perfectly proper for him to look nervous at the prospect of a conference. All of my students, at least all of those who had handed in their papers on time, would be conferring with me nervously during the next week or two. But I had picked him out first, a trifle pointedly, and for no evident reason.

It seemed to me he looked a bit too nervous. I was gratified to note, however, as he left the room, that I wasn’t sure.

There was one move left. Plagiarism was not a topic to bring up lightly in academic circles. I could not go about asking casually if Matthew Karp was likely to have committed it; it was too grave a sin. But I could inquire of my fellow members of the art department, in the cafeteria, or the men’s room, or in our other byways, if they happened to have had a Karp in any of their classes. Matthew Karp, with a K.

Several of them, after their surprise at being approached by the unsociable Dr. Harris, admitted that they had.

What sort of a student had he been?

Their eyes brightened. Their voices lost their customary tones of complaint. Fine young man, they said. First-class scholar. Top-grade mind. Reminiscent glows lighted their faces as I turned brusquely away.

Had he been taking in every one of them?

Handing in a succession of fraudulent papers?

Masquerading his way through the art department?

Anything, I was aware, was possible. But as I stretched out that evening in what my real estate agent had called my conversation pit, it didn’t seem probable.

Matthew Karp could hardly have bamboozled so many for so long. Yet he hadn’t written that paper. I was almost certain he hadn’t. All my instincts told me he hadn’t, and my instincts arc always right.

I opened it once more. Now that I had untangled most of its Germanic syntax, it was somewhat less diflicult going. It even rang a distant bell. As if, somehow, I did know something about it.

As soon as I tried to work out where the bell was, its ringing vanished.

I began to feel uneasy.

At 9:55 the next morning I disposed what I liked to think of as my lanky. Ivy League frame behind the desk in my office. From my tweed jacket, on the sleeves of which I had had a tailor sew leather elbow patches, I extracted a pipe, lighter, and pouch containing a black mixture specially prepared at a nearby tobacconist’s. Through my window I looked out at the undergraduates perambulating to and fro through the bright October leaves.

How could I have imagined that academic life was dull? How could I have begun to wonder if it was time to move on?

I looked keenly at the closed door, by way of practice. I cleared my throat. “Come in,” I said austerely, tuning up.

I glanced at the small traveling bag I kept packed in the corner, just in case.

here was a knock on the door. I looked keenly at it. I cleared my throat. “Come in,” I said austerely. He came in.

There was no question about it. His face was paler. His hair looked wilder, his T-shirt dirtier, and his jeans more crumpled. He was in a state of controlled agitation.

“Sit down,” I said.

He sat down on the only other chair, which I had positioned uncomfortably close to the corner of my desk. He attempted to find room for his legs, without success. He looked up, with a gaze that was not only intense but squinting. Light Hashed off his wire spectacles.

“Sun in your eyes, Karp?” I inquired.

No “Mr.”this morning. I sat forward, an inch or two, in the insulting fashion of someone offering to get up and pull down a window shade with no intention of actually doing so.

“That’s all right, sir,” he said.

I sat back. The inch or two I had sat forward. “Ah,” I said irrelevantly. I allowed an empty silence to grow, more and more pointlessly, in which he was free to twitch, or bite his lip, or exhibit other indications of cracking under the pressure of increasing meaninglessness.

He did not move. Neither did his somewhat magnified eyes. Instead, under his continuing regard, I felt a desire of my own to change position, or cough, or do something or other, no matter what. I checked the impulse. But it was a warning.

“I asked you to see me, Karp.” I said, “about your paper.” It was lying in front of me on my desk. I pushed it away from me slightly with the tip of my finger, the first suggestion that there might be something offensive about it.

He did not speak.

“ ‘The Problem of Li T’ang,’” I quoted. I paused. “Tell me about the problem of Li T’ang.”

He took a deep breath.

“I tried to. sir.” he said, “in my paper.”

I tested the ring of those words, silently, on instant replay. Apprehension, yes. But not the panic I was listening for.

“Tell me again.”

He took another deep, and slightly ragged, breath.

“Li T’ang was a landscapist. The most celebrated of all the Sung landscapists.”

“What do we know about him?”

“He was born in the 1050s. He died in the 1130s.”

That much was right, anyway.

“Go on.”

“When he was in his sixties he was accepted into the Painting Academy. The assigned topic was ‘A wine shop

“Yes,” I interrupted. “What else do we know?”

“After the fall of northern Sung, when he was in his seventies, he went south. During his journey through the mountains he was held up by a—”

“Yes,” I said. “What else?”

“He died in his eighties.”

“And that’s all we know’ about him?”

“We have a poem he wrote about— ”

“A curious figure.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Elusive.”

“Yes, sir.”

“But one who landed on his feet.”

“On his feet?”

“Wherever he jumped. In difficult times.”

“I suppose so. sir.”

I picked up my pipe. I put it down again.

“Tell me about his work.”

“His style became the model for two generations of southern Sung painters. And that’s the problem.”

“What is?”

“What is his style?”

I regarded him.

“You tell me, Karp.”

“On one hand, there’s his great mountain landscape in the Palace Museum in Taiwan, Whispering Pines in the Mountains.”

My ears pricked up.

“Wind in the Pines amid Myriad Ravines?

“That’s another translation, sir.”

I relaxed. “Ah.”

“On the other hand, there are two more landscapes attributed to him in a monastery in Kyoto. And they’re completely different.”

“In what ways?”

“They’re airier. Freer. The brushstroke is different, the conception, everything.”

All that was right, too.

“In that case,” I said, “why not attribute them to someone else?”

“Because one of them seeins to have his signature. The first character of his name may be visible, and the second character appears to show up in infrared photography.”

“ ‘Appears to’?” I repeated.

“Yes, sir.”

“ ‘May be’?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Not exactly conclusive evidence.”

“No, sir.”

I shifted gears, to a slightly slower and more significant delivery.

“And a signature doesn’t prove anything, does it?”

“No, sir.”

“Anyone can take someone else’s work and attach his name to it.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Can’t he, Karp?”

He gazed at me. sitting rigidly in his chair.

“Yes, sir.”

“Hm,” I said. I toyed with a pencil. “What’s your view?”

“I think that’s what happened.”

“What?”

“I think they were painted by someone else.”

“Hm.” I was beginning to repeat myself. I’d been waiting for him to give himself away with phrases from his paper, learned by rote. But he hadn’t. He’d explained the question in his own words, so far as I could tell, and just as succinctly as I could have explained it. Perhaps more so. “Why?”

“I don’t think they could be by the same painter as the landscape in Taiwan.”

“They couldn’t?”

“They’re too different. I don’t think they could be by the same person.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t think it’s possible for a painter—for anyone—to turn into a different person.”

“You don’t?”

“No.”

Ah, I thought, the certainties of youth.

“Even if he had to?”

“Had to?”

“To start again? In a new place?”

“If he could change that much—”

“Yes?”

“Like a chameleon—”

I thought I heard a quaver in his voice.

“Yes?”

“Ed feel sorry for him.”

“You would?”

“Really sorry.”

At last he was beginning to look upset. Somehow I had got through to him. I wondered how.

“Because he was able to adapt himself?”

“Because—”

“Yes?”

“Because he had so little self to adapt.”

“But isn’t that,” I inquired, not wholly grammatically, “what an artist is?”

“What an artist is?”

“What all of us are?”

“All of us?”

“Chameleons?”

He clenched his hands.

“I don’t think so, sir.”

Somewhere I had touched a nerve. Where? But this was not the time for a discussion of identity crises in the modern world. It was time to come to grips with the situation, and the problem, my problem, was that I didn’t know what to do next. I could not continue this interrogation much longer without its becoming apparent that that was exactly what it was, and at that point he would have every right, or almost every right, to get up, announce that he was not required to listen to any more of this, and walk out. Leaving matters twice as snarled as when he had walked in.

He unclenched his hands. I observed that he bit his fingernails.

I looked up.

“Why did you take this course, Karp?”

I meant the question to be unsettling. It wasn’t. He had the fixed, desperate air of someone preparing himself for a last stand.

“I admired your book.”

“You did?”

“Yes, sir.”

I felt an inner tremor. If he admired that book, perhaps he could have written this paper. “You embarrass me,” I said, waving a hand. “It was unreadable.”

“Not at all.”

“Ph.D. theses always are.”

“Not that one.”

“I looked at it myself, last summer, and could scarcely get through it.”

“You couldn’t, sir?”

“No.”

“Really?”

“No.”

“You’re joking, sir.”

“Certainly not. I never joke.” I gave him a penetrating look. “And that’s the reason you took this course?”

“That and my cousin, sir.”

I stiffened slightly. Why was this new character being introduced into the drama?

“Your cousin?”

“Andrew Karp. He’s in the art world, too.”

I had been drawing something with the pencil on a sheet of paper. I saw that it was an airplane. A jet, in flight. I wondered what it meant.

I glanced up. “Have I met him?”

“I don’t think so, sir.” I looked down. That was a relief. “He’s an assistant curator at the Met.”

“He is?”

“He’s a few years older than I am.”

“About my age?”

“Yes, sir. But he doesn’t look like you.”

I glanced up again. Sharply. Why had he said that? “Why did you say that, Karp?”

“He looks more like me.”

I continued to scrutinize him. Closely. There were hairs, I noticed, growing out of his nose. I decided not to probe the question any further. “Hm,” I said,

“He’s going to Taiwan this summer, and he’s invited me to go with him.”

“To the Palace Museum?”

“To arrange for the loan of three of their scrolls.”

“I see.”

“I wanted to be ready for the trip.”

“I see.”

“To know something about what I was going to look at.”

I began a wiggly line underneath the jet. It looked like waves the jet was flying over. Perhaps my unconscious was trying to tell me something.

“So you’ll have a chance to examine Wind in the Pines amid Myriad Ravines.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Or. if you prefer, Whispering Pines in the Mountains.”

“Yes, sir.”

“An opportunity to settle the problem of Li T’ang.”

“Yes, sir.”

Our conversation seemed to be losing direction. I decided to get it at least partly back on the rails.

“You’ve never been there?” I asked carelessly.

“No, sir.”

“But your cousin Andrew has,” I added lightly.

“No, sir.”

“They’re acquainted with him, though.”

“No, sir.”

“They’re not?”

“They’ve never met him.”

Andrew’ Karp, about my age, the Met. Palace Museum, never met him. I filed it all away.

“I envy you.” I had finished the waves the jet was flying over. I began a round-cheeked wind, blowing it westward. “I’d like to go there myself.”

“You’ve never been to Taiwan either, sir?”

I thought rapidly. “Once. To do research.”

“There must be nothing like seeing the real thing.” He sounded almost unhappy. Why?

“The real thing?”

“The paintings themselves.”

“Oh.”

“Instead of reproductions.”

“I suppose so.”

“Reproductions aren’t the same, are they?”

“No.”

“Even the best ones.”

“No,”I said. “I suppose not.”

“May I ask you something, sir?”

I leaned back.

“That depends.”

“When you were appointed to the art department, last summer, sir—”

I sat without moving.

“Yes?”

“Without being interviewed—”

“Yes?”

“Because of your slipped disk—”

“Yes?”

“Were you in a hospital, sir?”

“Yes.”

“Would you mind telling me which one?”

I let a moment pass.

“Yes. I would mind.”

He didn’t speak. Neither did I. I let several moments pass, while we both sat without moving.

“Is that all?” I said.

“Yes, sir.”

“Is there anything else you’d like to know?”

“No, sir.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Very well. There’s something I’d like to know.” “Yes, sir?”

“About this paper.”

“Sir?”

“This paper is magnificent. Almost impossible to read, of course. Because of its wretched writing. And arriving, in my judgment, at the wrong conclusion. But superbly researched, splendidly argued, and authoritatively presented.”

I paused.

“Thank you, sir.”

I leaned forward.

“Who wrote it?”

He leaned forward, too. That wasn’t right.

“You did, sir.”

That certainly wasn’t right.

“I beg your pardon?”

“ft’s Chapter Seven of your book.”

“Ah.”

I stood up. I began to put pipe, lighter, and tobacco pouch into my pockets.

“I’m sorry, sir.” He was still addressing me as “sir.” Good. “I didn’t think you were real from the beginning. With that pipe that you never smoke, and that tweed jacket with the elbow patches, and the whole old-fashioned, Ivy League bit.” Ah, well. At least it hadn’t been my lectures. “And your lectures. They were just paraphrases. Of Siren and Bush.” I stopped listening and started calculating. No time to go back to the apartment. Leave the Porsche in the parking lot. It wasn’t paid for, anyway. The nearest form ol public transportation was a Greyhound bus. And then—

Why not? A few letters, a passport, a discreetly trendy New York suit, and I’d be equipped.

He was still talking, more and more anxiously. “I couldn’t ask you about it. I couldn’t ask anyone about it. It was too—too awful.” He halted. “But l had to find out. And this seemed like the only way.” He seemed increasingly distressed. “I couldn’t let you get away with it, could I, sir?”

“Of course not, Karp,” I said soothingly.

“I think if I knew which hospital the real Dr. Harris was at, and called them up. I’d find out that he’s still laid up somewhere with a slipped disk.”

“Very likely.” I looked around the office. “We weren’t able to do much for him.”

“I think that’s how you got this impossible idea of coming here in his place.”

“Yes.” I picked up my traveling bag. “Goodbye, Karp.”

“I think you need help.”

“Help?”

Was this an offer of assistance?

No. He was standing barring the door.

“I think you were a patient at that hospital.”

“What?” I was stung. “A patient?” I couldn’t let that go by. “Certainly not. I was the head surgeon.”

“You were?” His voice faltered slightly.

“Certainly.” Perhaps a little more accuracy was called for. “For three weeks.” I reached past him for the doorknob. “And I don’t need help. You do.”

“I do?”

“You’re wrong about the problem of Li T’ang.” I turned the doorknob. “It’s not only quite possible to turn into a different person.” I opened the door. “In these uncertain times—” I stepped through. “It’s essential.”

I closed the door behind me and walked briskly down the empty corridor.

“Karp,” I said to it, smiling cordially, striding forward, gripping my traveling bag, feeling the familiar rush of blood to my head, on my way to the Palace Museum in Taiwan, a few months ahead of time, to arrange for the loan of three of their scrolls. Perhaps more. Six. A dozen. “Andrew Karp. With a K.”

Who has been, I may say, a very pleasant, amiable, undemanding person to be.

Until the day before yesterday, at the end of the second week of my visit, when the Palace Museum received word that another Andrew Karp, no doubt alerted by his cousin Matthew, is to arrive this afternoon to make sure that the eighteen scrolls to be loaned to the Met are delivered to the real Andrew Karp.

If there can be said to be such a thing as the “real” Andrew Karp.

Or “reality.”

But that is hardly a topic I can touch upon when I disclose, to the rather excitable director of the Palace Museum, half an hour from now, my current, challenging, and possibly extremely brief assignment as an agent of the U. S. State Department sent from Washington to try to clear the problem up. □