Ed Young is a much-decorated Chinese-born artist and children’s book creator and Beyond the Great Mountains is a marvel of a picture book. Young uses ancient calligraphy to inspire and illustrate concepts–each double-spread features one or more “chops,” red symbols enclosed in seals. And each page displays one line of a poem that explains the evolution of the world and the physical wonders we know of it. The book opens sideways and reads like a calendar–the art covers both leaves. And it is gorgeous art. Young makes paper collages with rice paper and textures, vivid and rich colors, cut-out shapes for grasses and rivers and birds. It’s seductively beautiful.
Each line of the poem, a poem infused with Chinese sensibility and tradition, is written on the bottom of its two pages and the pages are graduated so that you can read the whole poem before unveiling the art by turning up each succeeding page. Young subtitles the book A Visual Poem about China and explains that ideas in Chinese literature are not literal, the way they are in the West. The art and the words are evocative–the pictures capture a feeling rather than an example. The words hint at a larger story. “A precious stone embraced heaven and earth, jade” suggests a world of tradition. Jade had many qualities and associations, and was even used to protect the ancestors in their tombs.
The endpapers are a key with ancient and contemporary characters for each word used in the poem pictures–the rounder shapes giving way to the more angular writing we are familiar with. Paper, of course, is a Chinese invention so using cut paper to illustrate the calligraphy closes the circle. Everything about this book is a pure pleasure, not least its evident intelligence. According to Ed Young, “There are things that words describe that pictures never can, and, likewise, there are images that words can never describe.” True. So get hold of a copy of Beyond the Great Mountains and explore it yourself.
Beyond the Great Mountains: A Visual Poem about China Ed Young | Chronicle Books 2005