Mingwei as a teenager with his teacher, a Ch'an monk.
Mingwei as a teenager with his teacher, a Ch’an monk.

I grew up in Taiwan in the mid-seventies. Most of my free time was spent in the kitchen, not cooking, but serving as a (fat) guinea pig for the family chef. At that time, we knew a number of families who had their own chefs. Most of these families were Kuomintang elite, wealthy and influential through their association with the ruling party, who had fled China with the Nationalists in the late forties and who had been residing in Taiwan comfortably, if not luxuriously, ever since. The families we knew traded chefs periodically in order to enjoy a change of cuisine. Whenever a new chef would arrive in our home, he would always bring two things: a fine lacquer box containing his well-cared-for and well-used cooking implements, and a collection of his own secret sauces. Since I was already famous among the chefs of Taipei as what we call in Chinese a “greedy mouth,” they always used me to find out whether their sauces and dishes had the right amount of spice or salt for my family.

Sometimes I would find myself in a kind of reverie in that kitchen, lulled by the rhythmic sound of chopping and the whistle of the kettle into fantasizing that I was riding on the train to my grandmother’s house in Puli. But my most vivid memories from that time are the stories told to me by the chefs of their heroic deeds back in mainland China. Their battle epics were poetic and colorful, nurtured and decorated through years of telling, and accompanied by the sounds of their powerful and skillful chopping. It was as though they were hacking away at their Communist enemies while preparing our food. Once served, however, the aromatic meal would silently cast its spell of comfort and intimacy.

As a child I also spent many summers training under an elderly Ch’an monk who taught me Buddhism—not through lectures, but through allowing me to help him with everyday monastic chores: cleaning, cooking, gardening, sitting in silence. He sensitized me to Buddhist ideals of awareness, compassion, and the value of interpersonal exchange and cooperation in fostering personal growth.

My artistic language is not primarily that of visual images, shapes, or words, but rather of awareness, internal experience, and interaction. My work raises questions about what art is and can be, about how it changes our experience not only of the present, but of our interpretation of past and future experience. Can art be the attentive performance of simple actions? Can art be the manipulation of attention itself, the bringing of greater awareness to ordinary things, thereby transforming our life and our perceptions? Such questions arise naturally in a Buddhist context.

The Buddhist influence on my work is not limited to my interest in nurturing interactions (compassion), but is also evident in my focus on process as opposed to content, on the changing world of feelings and ideas as opposed to that of the (seemingly) more permanent world of objects. My works are more temporal than spatial, like music and dance, but they are primarily interpersonal, relying more on the movements of mind and heart than on those of the body or instruments. My spaces are temporary and minimal, my artistic products the subtle influences of interpersonal encounter on spiritual growth.

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