Ode to Bend: On How Meng Xianhe’s Poem Inspired My Sculpting

In the beginning, this multi-dimensional arty endeavor was hardly imagined. It's true that in 1996, I knew that ‘something special’ would spring from the roots of our cross-cultural friendship; and many special outcomes did occur. At the time, we were both teachers of English, she in China and I in Canada.  However, I had not anticipated that sixteen years later, we might be working in two languages, reflecting on Chinese poetry, and building an interpretation of a particular poem in clay. The title of the poem is Ode to Bend and responding to it just seemed like a fascinating thing to do.

I’m Penny McCahill, on a path to becoming an artist. It’s challenging to say the Picture of Penny McCahill and Kuomei Zhengleast. I feel lucky to have my friend in far away China as a collaborator in this project. I appreciate her commitment to me in general terms and throughout this particular activity. Indeed, I could not do it without her!

My Chinese sister’s name is Kuomei. Over the past fifteen years, Kuomei and I have shared bits of personal information about our individual lives. My own cross-cultural understandings have grown significantly through this interaction. At the outset, I knew so little about China, even though, when my children were teenagers, we had a Taiwanese sister and brother living with us for a year or two. They taught us much. They were the beginning of our coming to love China and it’s people.

PENNY AND KUOMEI, 2009          

About fourteen years later, I have several additional connections with this captivating culture, including my trusted friend, Kuomei. Each of us has dreamed of reaching beyond traditional classroom boundaries to opposite sides of the world; we both love learning on a grander scale!
Purple Reflector ceramic picture.

In 1996, Kuomei and I were brought together by a former student of hers. He had moved to Canada for his post-secondary education. By chance, that student met a teacher in Ottawa who worked at the same school as I did. After seeking the support of our school's Principal, my colleague introduced this student to me. His name is Zhao Yuanpeng.

Yuanpeng told me that he was an envoy on a mission to find a school willing to partner with his former school in China. With no hesitation, I agreed to make this new partnership work.

So, that is the background behind my connection to China. Now, we proceed toward understanding the substance of Mr. Meng’s poem. As always, our past experiences serve to guide our understanding new encounters.

        PURPLE REFLECTOR, 2009

Tangshan is the Chinese city in Hebei Province, P. R. China where Kuomei lives and teaches. Tangshan is also known as 'the brave city' that became the epicentre of the Great Earthquake of 1976. It had measured 7.5 on the Richter Scale. The quake was recorded to have lasted twenty-three seconds. Sixteen hours later, the death toll increased when the aftershock of 7.8 hit the city a second time.

In 1988, the Chinese government reported the quake to have killed at least 242,490 people, and to have severely injured 164,000 people. World experts have since decried that a more accurate death toll is between 650,000 – 700,000, about three quarters of Tangshan's population. Kuomei’s father was President of Tangshan Teachers’ College at the time of the earthquake. She was a young woman when she lost both her mother and father as a consequence of the quake.

In traditional Chinese thought, natural disasters are seen as a precursor of dynasty change. The 1976 earthquake happened during the final years of the Cultural Revolution, at a time when the Gang of Four was thought to be unstoppable. However, in the years leading up to and following the earthquake, the world as each of us knew it would bend and break in many senses. It did not matter whether we were in China or not.

Ten years before the quake, in 1966, Kuomei became a Red Guard. From my perspective, she must have lived through unimaginable experiences as a consequence of this assignment. In 1966 in Canada, I had my first child. The following year, I had my second. Those respective events on either sides of the Pacific certainly shaped both our lives by introducing new realities. We were  learning to bend.

In 1976, Kuomei was climbing out of a collapsed building and began rebuilding her life; I had just returned from a three-month world cruise with my family. There may seem to be an incredible contrast between my life and Kuomei’s at that time. However, the bends that faced us individually led to the restructuring of both our lives. For me, a common occurrence, that being my former husband’s infidelity, reared its ugly head on board the twenty-one ton vessel. On a ship so small, with only seven hundred passengers, awareness of the affair was widespread. When the deceitful couple tried to debark the ship in Japan, their wishes were denied. They thought that they could get away without a Landing Card.

As I reflect on how different our lives have been, I wonder at how alike Kuomei and I are several decades later. There have been countless bends and twists and rips and mends in getting to 2010. My second and current husband is the love of my life. He has helped me to be strong and has facilitated my education. More importantly, he has helped to re-build my fragmented family into the kind of family I had always wished for. Life for us bent sharply skyward.

It was unexpected when, upon the death of my father in 1999, life became a nightmare on several fronts. The skyward bend plunged deeper than the TSX ever has. With too much to explain, I will only say that if the skeeziks does not get the best of the scuttlemagoon, then one day at sunset, I will be able to send the pipsiwahs on a mission of love. All will become clear and good will be done in a world that, at the moment, is driven by greed and an intolerable quest for revenge.

While considering how to move forward, I muddled my way through puddles of oil paint, dunes of sawdust and shards of clay as I strove to regain my stability. If the victim of cruelty is an artist, various states of mind can impact rudely on the artistic rendering of the chosen subject matter. Art is not food but it feeds the mind and has the potential to rouse or calm the soul.

In the relationship between Kuomei and myself, I am the ‘elder sister’ by nearly six years; however, Kuomei is wiser in many respects. There are things in her life that she has managed to put behind her. Now, both of us have begun, in part, to trade the academic world of education for the worlds of art and travel. Kuomei modestly announced not so long ago that she has begun studying traditional Chinese painting while I enjoy woodturning and working with clay. We both enjoy our summer properties on water and we both like writing.

Our characters, as individuals, find us ready to accept full responsibility for any decisions we make. We are quite confident and independent. Kuomei’s husband is a treasure, just like mine, and the two guys in our lives get along well.
Red Reflector ceramic picture
In writing this epistle, I marvel that I feel so close to Kuomei. We laugh out loud at many of the same pleasures and we share many of the same values. Kuomei can be as stubborn as I can; we know that one’s principles matter; at the same time, it is not difficult for either of us to escape a clash and bridge any gap that may have developed.

Kuomei could never have anticipated the earthquake or its significant consequences; and until I visited the Earthquake Museum in Tangshan in1998, I had not even known that the quake had happened. In 1976, I was so caught up in my own little world. Many windows were opened during my incredible voyage in 1975 and I could see more clearly. Life for me was beginning to spin into a new reality. Big-time bends had been spotted on the horizon and they were now coming at me head on.

            RED REFLECTOR,2009

I will now let Kuomei tell a portion of her story:

I was born in Tianjin in 1951. I went to the Tangshan Foreign Languages School in 1964 as a student of English. It was a school run by the State Education Ministry and the State Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A few other similar schools were in Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. Such schools educated students who would become workers in foreign affairs; however, everything changed as a result of the Cultural Revolution. I became a Red Guard in 1966. During the Cultural Revolution, every young student who was born of a worker's, poor peasant's, or a revolutionary cadre’s family was to become a Red Guard.

Soon after, in 1968, there came the Movement of Educated Urban Youth Working in the countryside and mountain areas. I went to the countryside with tens of thousands of young students that year and worked as a peasant for about four years.

In 1972, universities began to enroll students from factory workers’, peasants’ and military soldiers. Very few such people had a chance. I was lucky to enter Hebei Teachers' College to continue my English study. I graduated in 1975.

Then I worked for two years in Tangshan Eighth Middle School as a teacher of politics as well as the principal's secretary. In fact, I knew nothing about politics. During the Cultural Revolution, politics teachers just read the editorials of leading newspapers to the students.  They did not have to give any explanations.

In 1976, when the earthquake hit Tangshan, I had just fallen asleep after finishing a school report for the principal. I was buried in the ruins and managed to rescue myself. In 1977, a year after the earthquake, I went to Tangshan Teachers' College to teach English. I was a Teaching Assistant, a lecturer, and a Wise Dean of the English Department.

Seven years later, I went to Tianjin’s Nankai University for further English study. In 1985, I returned to Tangshan Teachers’ College and worked there until 1990. After that, I worked as an Associate Professor, the Wise Dean of the English Department of Tangshan University and taught reading, practical English phonetics, translation, and writing there.

In 1996, I transferred to Tangshan No. 1 High School. My son would be a student there.At the time, I was formulating a personal educational  philosophy. I believed it was quite necessary for a school to open its doors to the outside world in order to improve its approach to teaching English, and so, with thepermission of Principal Meng, I told this to Zhao Yuanpeng, my former student at Tangshan Teachers' College. Yellow Reflector ceramic pictureHe was soon going to Canada to further his studies. Not long after that, he would meet my Canadian sister and our partnership would begin.

At this point, the pen is returned to Penny.

There are many details within a close friendship that must remain untold. Some such things may include experiences too deep to share with strangers. In a cross-cultural context, some matters could be easily be misinterpreted. Consequently, within this text, what’s personal is personal and can only be shared within limits. What those limits are will be culturally determined and some subject matter is out of bounds. What I am trying to say here is that the reader must read into the factual text that we are delivering, to arrive at a more in-depth understanding of what has been written.


I (Penny) began teaching as a Primary teacher of reading; a few years later, I was appointed to the Secondary panel as a teacher of ESL and English; I completed my Bachelor of Arts degree part time after I had had my two children. My ESL Specialist qualifications and my Master’s degree were completed in the same manner, part time. Through the ESL students I taught over twenty-two years, I gained a tremendous, and cherished appreciation for the peoples of many cultures.

My Doctoral degree in Education (Ed. D.) was next. It involved both part time and full time study. Once complete, and when I was an Associate Professor at an Ontario university, I added my Special Education Specialist qualifications to my repertoire. In my heart, I felt a need to be able to help children like my brother to learn to read.

Although my brother is now communicatively competent in two languages, in his formative years, he had struggled to learn to read English. He had also struggled at the hands of my father as a victim of physical and emotional abuse. Thank goodness for bends in this saga. Life is now a sort of 'merrily down the stream'! Things are good.

I first began monitoring the treatment of my brother when he was an infant and I was four years old. Trying to protect him and deal with the rest of my family, is the most difficult task I have ever undertaken. Those episodes that spread across many years, I will never forget. My involvement in what should never have been, has impacted on every day of my life since my brother was born. Sadly, much of my woodturning and working with clay is reflective of this theme of abuse.

In 1990, I became an Assistant Professor of Pre-service Teacher Education, and soon after, a Graduate Studies Instructor of teachers seeking M.A. or M.Ed or Ed.D. degrees. I also worked at delivering Ontario Ministry of Education additional qualifications (AQ) courses for several years. Between 1989 and 2003, I worked at three Ontario universities and trained teachers across Canada in the implementation of language arts software that I had designed and developed for the Ontario Ministry of Education.

In 1999, I began shifting from the academic world to the artistic one. I began developing skills in woodturning, painting, pottery, and working with glass. I also worked in construction. For me, design and development and hands-on implementation has proven to be lots of fun.

To me, it seems that it was in the stars that Kuomei and I were destined to meet. Picture of Penny and Mr. MengThe fact that I was also working with a young Chinese student who was completing his Master of Education degree at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, proved to be yet another thread in my international growth as an educator.The day that I met Andrew Chen was the same day that I said a temporary “Good-bye” to Kuomei and Mr. Meng (pronounced ‘Mung’) who were visiting Canada in the fall of 1996. Interestingly, the Mr. Meng that I met in 1996 was a very different Mr. Meng whom I learned to cherish as another very special friend between 1998 and 2009.

PENNY AND MR. MENG, 2009             

Let me tell you more about this man. Mr. Meng speaks very little English and I speak very little Mandarin. However, Mr. Meng and I got to know each other through Kuomei’s very patient efforts to translate our conversations, from English to Mandarin and Mandarin to English.

Picture of Penny, Mr. Meng and Koumei in apartment

                                                     IN DISCUSSION IN MR. MENG'S APARTMENT,2009

A young man at the time of the 1976 earthquake, Meng Xianhe, author of the poem that inspired my sculptures, had worked from 1959 to 1978 as a teacher of Chinese language in Primary and Middle schools. He was also an Educational Researcher, and later Vice Director of the Chinese Language Teaching Research section of the Laoting Education Bureau in Hebei Province.

In his early years, Meng Xianhe was keen on literary creation. During the Cultural Revolution, he was criticized for his publications of poems and prose and was discharged from his teaching post. He was forced to be reformed through labour in his home village over the course of three years.

Following this period of re-education, Mr. Meng was allowed to come back to work in education; he had given up pursuing his writing. Only recently, has he picked up his pen again and has published some poems and prose in various newspapers and other periodicals in China. This undertaking has enriched his retirement and allowed his literary dream as a young man to come true.

I first met Mr. Meng in 1996 when he and Kuomei paid an official visit to their partner school in Canada, my school. By that time, Mr. Menghad been promoted to the position of Principal of Tangshan No. 1 High School in Hebei Province, following several consecutive promotions related to teaching and research within the Tangshan Education Bureau and the Culture and Education Department of the Tangshan Municipal Government. Brown Boatman ceramic pictureHaving visited Mr. Meng and Kuomei several times between 1996 and 2009, and having kept in touch via e-mail, I know them to be two wise, cherished, and trustworthy, life-long friends.

With Mr. Meng’s permission and Kuomei’s literary support, here is Mr. Meng’s poem entitled Ode to Bend.  The first column below shows the poem written in Chinese characters. The second column shows the poem written in Pinyin. This translation allows a person not able to read the Chinese characters but familiar with English phonetics to get a sense of the rhythm of the poem.

The English translation for readers of English provides a window into the meaning of Mr. Meng’s poem. Kuomei completed the original translation into English, but I couldn’t help myself when it came to broadening Kuomei’s interpretative work by adding a phrase to two myself!

          BROWN BOATMAN, 2010

N. B. To have the Chinese characters appear on your computer screen, you must have font "ヒラギノ角ゴ ProN W3" available to your browser..

曲之歌  (Title)                                   Qu zhi ge (pinyin)


世上有直                                        Shi shang you zhi,

更多的是曲。                                     Geng duo de shi qu.

            查一你周身的血脉                        Cha yi cha ni zhou shen de xue mai,

瞧一瞧沙地里留下的足迹            Qiao yi qiao sha di li liu xia de zu ji,

看看漫的河道                     Kan yi kan man chang you yuan de he dao,

望一望绵长不断的山脊                  Wang yi wang mian chang bu duan

   de shan ji


曲在地上是走向                             Qu zai di shang shi zou xiang,

曲在海里是波浪                             Qu zai hai li shi bo lang,

曲在天空是彩虹                             Qzai tian kong shi cai hong,

曲在地上是情思。                             Qu zai di shang shi qing si.


曲形成圆满                                      Qu xing cheng yuan man,

曲早就震                                      Qu zao jiu zhen chan,

接开与未来                         Qu xian jie kai chuang yu wei lai,

曲通的境地。                          Qu tong lian you yuan de jing di.


曲是美                                              Qu shi mei,

曲是力                                              Qu shi li,

曲是自然                                          Qu shi zi ran,

曲是哲理……                                        Qu shi zhe li…

The following is Kuomei’s literal translation, and cultural interpretation when necessary.  As noted above, this version that was further edited by me, Penny. Between us, Kuomei and I wrestled with the challenge of sticking strictly to the literal translation of Mr. Meng’s poem and the yearning to add a more interpretive dimension to the text. Neither Kuomei nor I intend to diminish Mr. Meng’s intentions; we both respect his genius and love him dearly; however, we both feel an intensity in our hearts for what Mr. Meng is communicating and we struggled with our own commands of English to make him heard.

Here is our translation of Mr. Meng’s poem:

曲之歌                                               Ode to Bend

世上有直                                       Life is about rigidity

更多的是曲。                                   Yet, it is more about learning to bend.


你周身的血脉                   Have a look at all the blood vessels in your body;

瞧一瞧沙地里留下的足迹           Your foot prints on the sand,

看看漫的河道                   The long long river courses,

望一望绵长不断的山脊……             And the ridges of hills without end


曲在地上是走向                           Bend is the run and roll the land,

曲在海里是波浪                           Bend is a wave in the sea,

曲在天空是彩虹                           Bend is a rainbow in the sky,

曲在地上是情思。                           Bend is a feeling in one’s mind.

(In the 4th line, Mr Meng uses “
地上di shang on the land.  I think 心底 xin di in the mind is better. K.)

曲形成圆满                                    Bend makes for perfection, a perfect whole;

曲造就震                                    Bend creates tension, vibration; allows for



接开与未来                       Bend joins the beginning with the future;

曲通的境地。                       Bend leads to deep and remote situations.


曲是美                                            Bend is beauty.

曲是力                                            Bend is strength.

曲是自然                                        Bend is nature.

曲是哲理……                                      Bend is a philosophy, an approach to life.

Both Kuomei and I feel that this academic exercise or activity has helped us to share common understandings.

Can you see Mr. Meng’s message in my sculptures? See below:

My first sculpture, Representation of Mind, was the first sculpture on this theme of dealing with rigidity and learning to bend. It is created using wood and clay. I focused on the notions of rigidity and flexibility and how these notions could be contextualized in everyday life. What Picture of Potteryprinciples of order and procedures within tasks contain elements of rigidity and flexibility? How can this first sculpture (above) be applied to many of life’s situations?

The second series, Boaters, (see below) grew as I enjoyed working with clay and remembered the many toasts that we had proposed in China. “Gambai!” A salute with Mao Tai. The ever full glass… In China, the educators I met drink alcohol only with meals. Not so, in much of Canada. Not so with me. In my mind, the notion of drinking could be attributed to swallowing your sorrows that accompanying the heavy-duty bends in life… the ones that you have a hard time accepting. Consider, countless tiny sips of wine or alcohol while drifting down a mindless meandering stream with fellows who also want to forget. There is camaraderie in understanding and sharing with true friends.


Fancy Dress boatman picture Myboatman pictureRakuboatman picture

    GREEN REFLECTOR, 2009                            LEGGY REFLECTOR, 2009                         RAKU REFLECTOR, 2009

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