the beijing posts – part 2 – “it’s real pretty, but what does it say?”

11 08 2009

The Beijing series
Sometimes it was confusing, sometimes it was revolting, but always interesting.

Part 2 – use of text

Given the work I’m doing in the studio these days, I’ve become sensitive to seeing both uses of text and repair sights.  I’ll  deal with images of repairs I found tomorrow.

when text is exoticisized, unrecognizable as information, it becomes pure line and design language.  What I see looking at written Chinese is different than how someone who speaks mandarin views it.

But there’s also the element of the use of calligraphy as an art form that was different.  In it’s graphic dimensions, calligraphy was definitely used differently and in unusual places.

The best example is the practice of calligraphy by older beijingers in the temple of heaven park.

text 8

It was easy to see the extension of writing skills into calligraphic line with this particular writer.  For all the writers, the posture was the same:  bent over, left arm behind the back, right arm perpendicular to the ground.  She was particularly fluid in her lettering and her movements were like ballet.


Using brushes made of plastic tubing with tips of shaped foam

The ephemeral quality of the writing itself made it particularly beautiful to me.

text 1
Painted with water, on a hot day the writing would simply evaporate in front of us.

Another odd and beautiful place that I found text was on these carved wooden figures at the panjouling market.  They were about 2 feet high and covered head to toe with text.
text 4
A very happy couple.

The figures were not local, presumably coming from northern china, possibly Tibet.  The writing may represent essentially medical illustrations for acupuncture.  That’s only a guess.  What I do know is how much I wish I wasn’t afraid to buy big, huge, ridiculous things for fear of how to carry them.

Another place that I saw text that I enjoyed were in the imperial treasury in the Forbidden City.  There were lots of things worth noting in this collection and I’ll highlight my favorites later.  But these are two pieces that caused me to pause.

text 2

text 2 detail

Book in gold gift from Tibet. Prayers written in Tibetan and mandarin.

text 3

Coral “bonsai” sculpture with prayer hanging from tree.

The summer Palace is quite outside the city situated on a number of man-made lakes.  The huge sight is now a park dotted with small pagodas and more intimate spaces.  Some of these intimate spaces become hang-outs for kids who mark up the walls with the ancient art of grafitti.

text 5

In none of these cases did it bother me that I didn’t know what was being said.  It didn’t occur to me until it was too late that I might have been curious about the context of these writings.

But I have to say in many cases, I’m not sure that translations would have helped.

text 6




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