Homepage Everyday Adventures Work Visit! Contact


Sidewalk calligraphy

The girls were starting to go stir crazy after several days of running errands and seeing friends during our April 2004 trip to Beijing.  So we decided to switch to enjoying some "quality family time" by going on a fun expedition to Beijing’s Bei Hai Park.  More than 1,000 years old, the park was off-limits to all but the Emperor and his court until the 1920s.  It is next to the Forbidden City , and is so large that it stretches from one end of that massive fortress to the other.  In some ways, it is reminiscent of New York 's Central Park : it's filled with meandering paths, beautiful trees and flowers, and is overrun with locals whenever the weather is nice (despite the park's hefty $10 admission fee!).

It being a beautiful day, the park was filled with locals out enjoying the weather with friends.  It must have also been graduation day from the local police academy, since the park was crawling with youngsters in uniform, enjoying a day off with their buddies.  Luckily for us, we were much more interested in them than they were in us; we thought they were so cute that we asked if they would pose for a picture:

The highlight of our park visit was a paddle around its beautiful lake, which is always filled with a variety of watercraft that you rent by the hour.  We decided to go for a simple pedal-pusher.  We had lots of fun tooling around the lake, as our daughters took turns pretending to be the Empress.

We had lunch at Beijing’s famous “Imperial restaurant”, located on an island in the middle of the park.  The waiters dress up like Palace slaves, the food is based on what the Emperor ate, and the dining takes place in beautiful lacquer-wood pavilions with gold leaf ceilings.  Unfortunately, what sounded terrific in the guide book turned out to be very disappointing to the palate.  We ended up asking for the check before the others in our pavilion had even started their second cup of tea!

Tired from our aquatic adventure, and famished by the less than successful lunch experiment, we decided to look for better food outside the park.  We were almost at the main gate when I saw an old man drawing Chinese characters on the cement sidewalk with some sort of giant calligraphy brush.  Every so often he would dip the brush in a 5 gallon paint drum filled with water, before continuing with his sidewalk poetry.

None of the passersby seemed to notice, but I was fascinated.  His calligraphy was beautiful.  I wondered where he had found the brushes.  There were a couple more brushes soaking in the paint drum, so I grabbed one to look at it more closely.  The brush portion was a piece of foam rubber that had been whittled by hand to resemble an oversized version of a calligraphy brush, complete with its distinctive point.  The handle was a telescoping rod, the kind used to extend the reach of a brush when you want to clean cobwebs from the corners of a high-ceiling room.  A thoroughly ingenious combination!

Seeing someone interested in his hobby (or perhaps nervous that I was about the steal the brush), the man rushed over.   He was surprised that I spoke Chinese, and even more surprised when I wrote my Chinese name on the sidewalk with his brush.  The conversation quickly focused on the proper way to write the "simplified" version of the second character in my 3-character name, since I only knew how to write my name with “traditional” characters.

(The written Chinese language exists in two versions: the first, or "traditional" version, is the language of Chinese classics and is still used today in Taiwan and in most overseas Chinese communities; the second, or "simplified" version, was created under Mao's direction so that more people could learn how to read and write.  When I began studying Chinese in the early eighties, traditional Chinese was the only form taught at Yale – simplified characters were a curiosity confined to the Communist PRC, and therefore not really worth studying (or so I was told).  Nowadays, Americans interested in learning Chinese are taught the PRC’s simplified version.  Only scholars interested in Chinese classics attempt the much harder task of memorizing the complex traditional characters.  How times have changed!)

The man showed me all of the simplified characters which have the same sound as the one in my name.  I finally pulled out my dictionary, and together we figured out which character was the right one.  (Our confusion was not unusual.  The Chinese language has about 30,000 unique written characters, but only about 300 unique sounds.  Knowing the proper character to write is therefore sometimes a matter of a discussion that is far more complex that selecting between English-language homonyms such as “their”, “they’re”, and “there.”)

Meanwhile, the girls decided it would be much more fun to grab the two remaining oversized quills and try writing on their own.  As you might imagine, the sight of two fair-skinned Western girls attempting to write Chinese characters on the sidewalk of a busy park caused quite a stir.   Like me, they started with their names.  A curious crowd quickly formed, and the man walked over to see what they were doing.  

It was a defining moment: the master calligrapher easily understood their writing, and pronounced the characters as they were finished!  Thrilled that the man could read what they were writing, they kept writing more characters from their lessons, egged on by the cackles of approval from the master.

All around us, the now-sizable crowd was engaged in an ongoing debate: were the girls strange-looking Chinese kids? Had they been born and raised in China?  Were they adopted from overseas by Chinese parents?  How was it possible that they could write Chinese characters?  Luckily, the girls were oblivious to their sensational appeal, and happily continued to write, sometimes re-tracing their strokes when the master showed them a much more elegant way to draw a character.  

Pretty soon they had exhausted their Chinese vocabulary.  Realizing we were getting really hungry, we decided to get going.  I asked the man where I could buy the brushes, since it was clear the girls had found a wonderful new toy.  I was surprised when he said that he made them himself and sold them.  It simply never occurred to me that I had been interacting with yet another form of Chinese entrepreneur!  I thought he was there simply for his own pleasure.  Silly me. 

He said that he used to teach calligraphy at the University, and now took in private students.  He made these brushes as a sideline business, and used his sidewalk writing exhibition as a way to find more paying students.

He said the brushes cost six dollars each, which would be a hefty price in any currency.  But given his story, and the fun of the entire interaction, I gladly bought two without the obligatory haggling.  Of course, as I walked away, I heard him sell another brush to a local less than a dollar.  But who cares? 

As they say in those Mastercard commercials, it was a priceless moment.


Homepage Everyday Adventures Work Visit! Contact