It is a pleasant fresh Wednesday evening in Shanghai, nice breeze and mild weather, which I have now adjusted to. I disembark from the train at Dapuqiao metro station, head along Taikang Road, and turn left on Lane 210 as directed and think to myself wow, “Am I still in Shanghai?”
At first sight this hidden, narrow street with fairy lights, brick walls, flower pots hanging above, cute little art shops reminded me of somewhere in Europe. Only later did I realise I was in the heart of one the most popular areas famous among the Shanghainese art crowd – The creative quarter Tianzifang, surrounded by Lilong style houses with Shikumen entrance doors, a true organized chaos.
I see the sign of my destination, “The Shoubai Art Centre” on the left side. A very charming open space studio, I snuck upstairs and quietly took my seat and dove into the world of Chinese Calligraphy.
Calligraphy (/kəˈliɡrəfē/, noun)
…is the art of producing decorative handwriting or lettering with a pen or brush (Google dictionary, 2016).
Chinese Calligraphy (or Shūfǎ in Traditional Chinese) is the art of writing Chinese characters. It is one of the highest forms of Chinese art, serving the purpose of conveying thoughts while also showcasing abstract beauty of lines (China Culture, 2016).
Lovely Liya, the business development manager at Shoubai Art Center, and Li Laoshi himself (full name Li Shoubai (李守白), the artist whose works are represented in the gallery) were involving us into the art of Calligraphy. First Liya introduced us to the history of calligraphic art, its evolution, main elements and purpose.
The calligraphic tradition of East Asia originated in China at least four thousand years ago. Calligraphy is one of the four basic skills and disciplines of the Chinese literati, along with painting, stringed musical instruments and board games. However, rhythm, lines, and structure are more perfectly embodied in calligraphy rather than in other three skills.
It is said that calligraphy is more than just characters and writing, it is about capturing the energy of the movement and translating it into strokes. It is very much on the ideational level, and inspired by everything one can see in the universe.
After we learnt a bit about the roots of this beautiful art, we finally got down to work. Each of us was given the main attributes of the evening: ink brush (máobǐ), rice paper (told to be very expensive!) and ink. But we don’t stop here, the way you hold your brush, get it ready for the first stroke and the drawing pressure is just as important.
The brush that is used in the calligraphy has a finer tip, so it can deal with producing various lines required by different styles. It is usually made from either bamboo, or some rare materials like red sandalwood, glass, silver and even gold. The head of the brush can be made from a hair of wide variety of animals, mainly goat’s hair and wolf’s hair.
There are five types of Chinese calligraphy scripts
The first character we were given was 永(yǒng), eternal. A beginner calligrapher is usually given this character to practice first, as it is composed of different strokes, eight altogether. Also, some people claim that it summarizes all the different strokes of the regular script. First, Li Laoshi (Lǎoshí in Chinese, apart from meaning a “teacher”, is also a polite and respectful way to address a senior) gave us a short demo of how to draw the character, from visually demonstrating position of the brush to the order that the strokes should be drawn.
When you take the brush, and dip it in the ink and actually start painting on the paper, you get very excited. However, at the same time some kind of fear grips you.
What if you start and it is not as perfect and beautiful as you want it to be? Once a stroke is painted, it cannot be changed or erased.
After practicing for a while and spoiling a few sheets of this exquisite, white paper we moved forward. Next, we were already given the whole sentence, which I personally liked very much, it describes Shanghai and its character so perfectly. 海纳百川(Hǎinàbǎichuān) or “Ocean Refuses No River”.
Ocean Refuses No River in Chinese Calligraphy
Let’s backtrack a bit and discuss the history of Shanghai and why “Ocean Refuses No River” describes Shanghai perfectly.
In many senses, Shanghai is not a typical Chinese city.
Some Asian cities, like Shanghai or Hong Kong, act as the medium of East meets the West. During the “Colonisation” Era 1843-1943 (a term, the Chinese and the Shanghainese are actually ashamed of and trying to avoid) Shanghai was compelled to open up to foreign trade under the Nanjing Treaty in 1843, due to its distinctive geographic location at the mouth of Yangtze River.
During this time Shanghai attracted a large number of immigrants, mainly from Britain, France, America, Japan, Germany and Russia and settlements ruled by foreigners, known as concessions, emerged during that period. Concessions grew very fast and by 1914 they became the centre of the city as whole. It is in these settlements where Chinese first realised the power of modernisation and industrialisation.
Meanwhile, frequent wars occurred during that period (e.g. Taiping Heavenly Movement Kingdom (1855-1865), World War II (1937-1941), the War of Liberation (1945-1949), which resulted in larger influx of domestic immigrants to the city. Concessions, to be said, provided great humanitarian care to refugees during those times, due to the gates that separated the concession area and the walled town.
This history also gave the older generation of Shanghainese a strong appreciation of the West.
This period of time was very rich for the events and origination for Shanghai. That is the beginning of “Hai Pai Culture” (or Shanghai style), “Chinese Bourgeoisie”, Chinese-English hybrid Lilong alleyway houses, and stone-framed-wooden doors, known as Shikumen.
The history of Shanghai is very long and interesting, but let’s get back to the aphorism “Ocean Refuses No River.” All the events that happened in Shanghai during the “Colonisation” Era happened in order to develop the nature of a mother, who is very kind, welcoming, and gave shelter to those who were in need. There is a saying in Chinese “上海是中國的女人” (Shànghǎi shì zhōngguó de nǚrén), which in English literally means, “Shanghai is the Lady of China.” So this is why the aphorism came in place and Shanghainese people are very proud to say so. After reading and going through the history myself, I understand the reasons and I too agree with the sayings.
This drawing was probably the most responsible and hard one to do, both because of the meaning and number of characters to write. But winner takes it all, we made it!
The final piece we did was made on red paper (a very meaningful colour for Chinese people) of another meaningful character 福Fú or “Happiness”. Chinese people write the happiness character on red paper and glue it to a transparent surface as decoration for the Chinese New Year. It is said to attract and bring happiness to the house for the upcoming year. So, I guess I am totally prepared for the New Year 2017. Overall, an enlightening and interesting night of Chinese calligraphy that I wasn’t expecting.
I ended up wandering around the gallery for a little while, to check out the works of Li Shoubai Laoshi dedicated to preserving Hai Pai Culture. The heavy coloured paintings of Chinese ladies in traditional Qi Pao dresses are just amazing.
I would highly recommend the “Taste of Art” series of events organised by the Shoubai Art Center. This particular event was in collaboration with LaoWines, an imported wine delivery service in Shanghai, which helps host every second week of the month. The main idea of such events is to promote Hai Pai Culture, and to combine education and appreciation of Chinese arts and Wine Culture of Western civilisations. They have an array of events including “Brush Painting”, “Paper Cutting” and “Fabric printing.”
Anyone is welcome to join; no previous experience in any of the workshops is needed. It was my first time holding máobǐ in my life.
If interested in finding out more about upcoming events, follow the WeChat account @shoubaiart.
You can also read more details about the master on www.lishoubai.com (that’s his personal website) and the gallery on: www.shoubaiart.com
Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/shoubaiart/
LaoWines website: http://www.lao-wines.com
LaoWines Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/LaoWines/641257055988850?ref=ts&fref=ts