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Found in Translation 

The painting with the chicks provided the most information. 

ALBANY, N.Y. (Dec. 13, 2017) – One alumna. Two prints. A classroom of undergrads in East Asian Studies. These were the ingredients in unraveling a mystery.

Alumna Suzanne Zafonte Sennett ’77, who grew up in Lynbrook, N.Y., and lives in Averill Park, said it all started when she sent a quick email to the Department of East Asian Studies.

“For a number of years I have owned two prints and have wondered about their origin and meaning as they had Chinese text,” said Sennett, who earned her bachelor’s in anthropology and biology from UAlbany. She also started graduate work toward an EdS in counseling psychology here.

Sennett asked for a referral to someone who could translate the writing, and perhaps give her a sense of the age of the pieces.

On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Associate Professor Anthony DeBlasi turned Sennett’s question into a classroom exercise for the students in his Chinese Research and Bibliographic Methods course.

“As far as we know, no other school in the country teaches a course like this to undergraduates,” said Professor of Japanese and College of Arts and Sciences Associate Dean Susanna Fessler, who teaches a Japanese version of the same course.

“This was the perfect opportunity for the students to experience how the various skills they are working to acquire can be harnessed together to solve a problem,” DeBlasi said.

The students had to use a number of skills to translate the text: First, they had to use what they learned about calligraphy and calligraphic styles. Second, they had to use what they had learned about the sexagenary calendrical system in order to determine the date in the Western (Gregorian) calendar. Third, they had to employ biographical research methodology to find out more information about the artist.

“What happened makes me incredibly proud of calling the University at Albany my alma mater,” Sennett wrote in a note of appreciation to the department. “The faculty did what any outstanding teacher would do: They turned it into a learning opportunity for their students. Not only did I receive an absolutely fascinating summary of the history and meaning of my two pieces of art, but also witnessed a University committed to staying connected to the community and to use those as teachable moments for their students.”

The students revealed that both prints seem to be the work of a painter named Chen Zhenting, who was born in Chenghai, in Guangdong province, and educated at the Shanghai Fine Arts Academy. One source has him arriving in Shanghai in 1939 and then traveling to Thailand and Vietnam in 1942.

birds with brows

There are two possible meanings for the description on the second painting.

The painting with the chicks provided the most information. The image bears the phrase “A scene of vitality,” and then notes “Sketched by Zhenting in Bangkok in the third month of 1957.”

The second painting, of birds with bushy brows on tree branches, has the following scene description: “Happiness overflows from the brows.”喜溢眉眉梢

That makes sense given the depiction of the birds. There is, however, the possibility of a visual pun here. It is possible to read the 眉梢 as coordinate (“brows and branches”) since 梢 can refer to anything with a pointy tip. It is hard to be definite. The safe reading is the first; the more fun, the second.

The rest of the inscription says: “Sketched by Chen Zhenting of Lingdong.” The inscription is followed by his seal. Lingdong is another name for eastern Guangdong province, where Chen was born.

“I will be making a donation to the student fund at the University with a special designation for the funds to be used by the East Asian studies department,” wrote Sennett to Fessler. “But I wanted you to personally know how above and beyond these educators went.”

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