I will start from the back. I grew up in Maryville, a small town in the Northwest corner of Missouri. Our backyard opened to a large field where my brother and I sometimes flew kites. We wrote wishes to send up the kite line and if the paper vanished by the time the kite was reeled in, it meant the wish had been granted. This summer, I asked my mom about the wishes she made as a child and she told me about how she wished for long beautiful hair, but that her mother always cut it short. 5 years ago, I began growing my hair out.
During the Qing dynasty, Chinese women sometimes wore detachable collars with cloud-like scalloping patterns as a way of protecting their clothes from the dandruff and oils of their long hair. These collars were called yunjian 雲肩, or cloud shoulder. Chinese philosophy sees the sky as round and the Earth as square and with its four corners and circular neckline, to wear the yunjian was to penetrate one’s body through the sky. Up there, peering through the neckhole, I wonder if I can see where all our wishes went to rest.
The design of the yunjian is theorized to stem from the calyx of a persimmon and the cloud-like shapes of a ceremonial scepter of good fortune known as ruyi 如意. Ruyi is written with two characters: Yi 意, meaning wish, will, intention; ru 如, meaning as, like, in accordance. This also happens to be the same character used in my mom’s name. Together, the characters read: as desired, according to one’s will, as one wishes. Or perhaps, for me, a mother’s wish.
A wish is a sound. To write yi 意, you place the character for sound 音 on top of the character for heart 心. A wish is the sound of one’s heart. My name is comprised of two characters: Hai 海, meaning ocean and Wen 聞, meaning listen. Even though she grew up on the coast of Taiwan, my mom tells me she wished she could have seen the ocean more often. The character for mother 母 sits within the character for ocean and I wonder If I place my mother’s wishes in the sea, if I would be able to hear them more clearly.
Historians theorize that the ruyi originated from a monk’s backscratcher. After all, to scratch one’s back is to satisfy an unreachable desire. A backscratcher is also human. The Chinese word for backscratcher, buqiuren 不求人, translates to “person who doesn’t ask for help.” Perhaps the act of using a backscratcher is the act of holding someone who doesn’t typically ask for help.
I find myself running back and forth again. Present to past, past to present, scratching across time and language, waiting for my kite to catch wind. I’ve heard that it is only in the Western Sphere that we conceive of the past as something behind us. The past is visible; we see it before us. In this conception of time, time flows through us from back to front. So when I look back, I know I am peering at a future unknown. I know it is there, where new worlds emerge. I know it is there, where I will find everything I wish. I am not sure how I will get there, but I will start from the back.
Hai-Wen Lin is a Taiwanese-American artist whose work explores constructions of the body and its surrounding environment. They are an alumnus of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, previously a LeRoy Neiman Fellow at the Ox-Bow School of Art, and earned a Master of Design in Fashion, Body and Garment from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where they were selected as a Fashion Future Graduate by the CFDA upon graduating. Lin has published research on smart textiles and taught workshops at UC Davis, UC Berkeley, and MIT. They have performed publicly at the Chicago Cultural Center and MU Gallery, and have exhibited work in a variety of places including the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles, 3S Artspace in New Hampshire, the Pittsburgh Glass Center, the walls of their home, their friend’s home, on a plate, on a lake, and in the sky.