On Chinese Water Calligraphy…

People have been telling me off. I grumble about China a lot, and people far beyond the circle of six layabouts I assumed were this blog’s sole readership have been getting in touch. They have been saying not unkind things (suck-ups) about my abortive attempts to make words run together nicely, but they have also commented on how a negative view of China is emerging from my posts, even to the point where I may have dissuaded some people who were thinking of coming here from doing so. This is bad. Very bad.  You should all come, all of you. See what the fuss is about, at least for a bit. I’m an idiot.

OK, it is true, there are things about this country that drive me up the wall (yesterday, in the space of twenty feet I saw a dead kitten on the sidewalk then a woman hack up so much heavy phlegm that when she tried to spit it out it just stuck to her dress instead), but that is not the whole story. There is plenty about this country that I find utterly compelling, magical even, and as my time here draws to a close I want to try and redress the balance; to focus on the positive sides of China without whining like a little bitch so much. To that end:

Water Calligraphy, Lizhi Park, Shenzhen, May 2012

Nestled among the skyscrapers and smog and hemmed in on all sides by city life are cool, calmer, greener spaces. The public parks offer a little respite from Shenzhen’s urban mania, and if you zone out the crowds and the incessant hum of traffic that pervade them, you can almost dial the clock back a full forty or fifty (or five hundred) years. It is not hard to imagine what China must have been like before Captain Industry started scrawling untidily across the countryside with his grey crayola, and it is a rather pretty mental picture. It was in one such park last weekend that I found the most wonderful thing. In Shenzhen’s Lizhi Park, I came across a little sun-bronzed man with a raggedy backpack and large sponge-tipped brush painting Chinese characters, in water, onto the stone slabs of the path. The characters stretched as far as the eye could see, though it was obvious which direction he was headed as the earliest characters were already evaporating in the heat and I realised that this wasn’t graffiti, this was art.

Water Calligraphy, via Martin Freeman Photography

It’s called water calligraphy, and I love it. Now, I am shit as an art afficionado. I can appreciate raw talent and technical skill, but I honestly admit that there’s a great deal of it I just don’t get. A lot of art seems purposefully contrived for contrivance’s sake, and the language surrounding art criticism makes my skin crawl. It’s as if the critic isn’t really commenting on art, but commenting on his or her cultural superiority over ‘you,’ the half-witted, sensually-neutered art philistine. But maybe that’s an inferiority complex on my part. I picked my art form a long time ago and I’m happy chugging away in acoustic obscurity, so if some escapes me, so be it. But it didn’t here. Not at all. This was beautiful.

It ticks all your arty boxes too. For skill: he painted most characters in less than a second, the clumsy looking spongebrush flicking back and forth to produce the most intricately complicated patterns in the blink of an eye. For inherent significance: the passages written out are often political (complaining about the CCP, which is my new favourite hobby) or ancient proverbs from the imperial China of days gone by. For innovation, both in form and style: he’s using the damn pavement and a brush made of sponge. Take note Banksy. For artistic “worth”: what better comment on the ultimate futility of human creation than a piece of art that fades to nothingness within minutes?

It say’s “art is just an excuse.” Ok, fine, no it doesn’t…

I loved it. Utterly loved it. Score 1 China.