Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Of all the Places...


One might think that one must go to a major city, or even a minor city to get some really unusual cultural experience, however, one might occasionally be wrong about that thanks to serendipity and a really persistent Cultural Art Center director, thanks to whom I was able to enjoy a weekend of Chinese calligraphy taught by an esteemed professor from Nanjing who is also one of the most highly regarded calligraphers in Mainland China. (I wonder if that is a full sentence?)

Thanks to Karen at the MACC on Signal Mountain (claimed population of about 9,000) about 20 people were able to take an austere and wonderful 2 day vacation playing with brush pen, ink and paper. This event also allowed your’s truly to speak more Chinese than I have for years. Heaven on Earth for me.

Professor Zhou from the University of Nanjing, China ran this two-day seminar with the help and several wonderful translators. His English was only a little better than my Chinese but he was so earnest and charming and gentle, as well as totally puzzled by us Americans that the class had a sweet, soft, humorous tone. He brought us each the gift of an ink-stone, a ‘pen’ (brush), ink and practice paper. The brushes were engraved with the event of “Dr. Zhou, Tennessee, 2006” on them in old-style script. It was funny to see how moved we all were from these objects even though the translator kept saying,
“Dr. Zhou says to shake up the ink, it may have been on a shelf for a while!”

Having some knowledge of Chinese classroom etiquette I could see a little of what we were like in Dr. Zhou’s eyes. We were able to sit still for a whole 10 minutes of lecture on the ‘4 treasures’, pen technique and history before almost everyone started playing with the ‘4 treasures’ like 2 year olds. Finally he gave up the lecture and said,
“Ah, how would you like to work now?”
(as we opened our ink anyway)
“Americans are doing people, I see that.”
(as we sloshed some into the ink-stones)
“We can learn some history later”
(as we looked, puzzled, at our brushes, stiff with glue from the factory)
“Ok, ok let me show you how to soften the brushes…!” (panic)
(as we prepared to break the bristles off)

We tried to be as polite as possible, Southern American style, however we looked more like an untamed rabble and that is probably as polite as possible. We were quite a contrast, he, in his formal dark mandarin collar suit and us in our sweat, T-, tie-dye shirts and jeans. Once everyone settled down, though, and stopped sniffing their ink, everything was butterflies and bunnies, or mao bi and shuan. (Brush pen and rice paper) (I have no idea how to say bunnies and butterflies)

We began to practice strokes and fill the paper at an alarming rate unheard of in a Chinese writing class. Dr. Zhou had to show us repeatedly that it was not speed but art that timed the stroke and after about 10 pages we got the point and slowed down. We then sat in a freezing lecture hall (they don’t turn on the heat in the building on weekends) for an amazing tour through the history of Chinese calligraphy. Both the translator and Dr. Zhou would punctuate the lecture with comments like;
“I really like this guy’s style,”
The ‘guy’ being an ancient scholar 1000 years dead.
For some great examples of ancient script go to http://www.chinapage.org/callig1.html#han and click on some of the scholars.

We also saw some shots of Dr. Zhou’s son on a field trip to an ancient planetarium sight. Here was this adorable kid sitting on amazing historical stones and ancient architecture…eating Pringles.

On the first day we all went to lunch together at a Chinese restaurant on the Mountain. Someone asked Dr. Zhou if he liked the food, and after a long pause he answered that he liked American food very much, then whispered in Chinese,
“…This is not Chinese food…”

During this time he also discovered I learned Chinese in Boulder, Colorado and from then on told everyone I learned Chinese in Boulder, China. The translators and Dr. Zhou were very complimentary about my pronunciation and expressed great pleasure in that I, “Had speaking tones!” I was, of course, very flattered even if they were just being kind.

The class was so energizing and inspiring that I went home that evening and practiced before the next class. Both girls were fascinated by the process and we all spent a wonderful night making big black blotches on paper along with pictures and poems. Chinese calligraphy is a very compelling process perhaps because it has the weight of 5000 years of effort behind it.

The next day Dr. Zhou was greeted by a Daylight Savings Time deranged bunch of Americans armed again with brush pens and ink, who were working in silence when he arrived. I imagine he thought he must of tamed the circus. Five minutes later he introduced something new and whoa! Who let the dogs out!

During this class I had Robb bring the girls by since they had made pictures and practice calligraphy for Dr. Zhou. He seemed very, very moved by their efforts and was especially impressed with Ceili’s work, saying she was doing as well as students much older in China. Of course she had not only written Fire Dragon and Water Dragon in fine form but had also illustrated them with the dragons in question. Since the Dr. and I had previously discussed the possibility of marriage between our children he seemed very pleased by his future daughter-in-law. We explained this to Ceili who luckily took it with good humor and only a little suspicion.

After much attention and doting we all got back to work until a rumor spread like wildfire that we could actually buy some work of the Dr. Zhou right on

the spot. Again chaos reigned made even more so by Dr. Zhou pulling out a large brush, handmade, with bristles of rushes for large interesting works. We all gave it a good try and large paper with much ink splattering and happy dances.




In the end it seemed to be a mutually beneficial Mardi-Gras of cultural exchange, Dr. Zhou getting a close in intimate look at American excitement about learning something new, willingness and yes, that ‘doing’ thing. We had a terrific view of some of the treasures and values of China with a very fine and gentle ambassador of the best of a country that many people in the US have a very limited perception of.

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