Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Water calligraphy

An anecdote about street calligraphers in Beijing...

Street calligraphers give the poems of the Tang and Song dynasty a fleeting form on slabs of the pavement. They use water as ink, and the stone is their paper. [...] Their creations are ephemeral, lasting no more than three or four minutes, but that doesn't bother them. They are spending time with their friends. Passers-by admire and comment on particularly spectacular verses - for example, those by Li, a retired bookkeeper. Li Wendao imitates Chairman Mao Zedong's calligraphy. 'A great leader,' says Li, 'and an accomplished calligrapher and poet.' In one respect Li surpasses the Great Chairman himself: he writes Mao's verses backwards.

Sometimes in winter a small miracle occurs. Teacher Wang Jiuxiang adds a little salt to the water. The characters freeze and the verses are like little sculptures, fixed in a silvery frost. Wang fiddles with the clip and from his brush flow the verses of the drowned poet Li Po. He writes in powerful, clear kai shu (block characters):

'...Oh, let a man enjoy his life before it fades'

'Can you imagine that? Silver frost?' Wang asks excitedly.

- from "China A-Z" by Kai Strittmatter. I'm not suggesting you buy it, it's crap, just semi-conscious tourist stories. But I liked this passage, and the hint of things buried beneath it. Second time round, it is Mr Li who catches my imagination, and the observation that the calligraphers 'are spending time with their friends' that makes me think.

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