Painting chickens in China
I have just returned from a three-week adventure in China. The purpose of my trip was to explore and research some areas of Chinese art and culture that have intrigued me for a long time, but the experience became so much more than just research.
China is an exciting place to visit, and it is very multi-sensory – I took many photos to give me a visual reminder of the things I saw when I was there, but China has its own particular smells and sounds too. Whether it was the morning birdsong, the unusual-looking musical instruments being played in the parks, people chattering in busy markets, or the announcements at railway stations or when travelling on the metro - everything sounds very Chinese! Let’s not forget the taste of Chinese cuisine; I loved the choice of different dumplings to dip in vinegar, bowls of steaming broth with floating pasta parcels (wontons) or noodles, and the tofu. Breakfast in Shanghai consisted of homemade soya milk with a lump of rock sugar and a steamed bun filled with a green vegetable called Shepherd’s Purse. I ate fresh ripe mango and lychees almost every day. After 3 weeks on this diet I felt energised and healthy.
In April 2017 I went on a two-week tea sourcing trip to some Chinese tea gardens with a friend who owns a tea business here in Dorset. During that trip, I happened to sit next to an artist at a lunch hosted by a tea producer in Anhui. Despite the fact neither of us was fluent in each other’s language, we both reached for our mobile phones and showed each other photos of our children! I also admired the photos of her beautiful paintings of flowers and birds using the traditional Chinese brush technique. At the end of the meal, she presented me with one of her paintings (something, I was told afterwards, she rarely does) and we exchanged contact details.
Two years later I am climbing aboard the bullet train at Shanghai Hongqiao railway station, destined for Wuhu in Anhui province for five days of traditional Chinese brush painting lessons with “Teacher Wang” in her own home. It had taken many months to organise and a great deal of personal courage to turn a wish into a reality. When the train finally docked (I use that word, because the bullet trains feel and look a bit like a space ship!) I made my way to the exit where I hoped Teacher Wang was waiting.
This was the part I was most nervous about. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, we had been “chatting” quite successfully on a Chinese social media app called “WeChat”, but we had only met once face to face. She had voiced her concern openly about how she would be able to teach me if she doesn’t speak English. I had reassured her that we would find a way! Doubts re-surfaced; what happens if we can’t communicate? What happens if there are a lot of really awkward silences? What happens if I am completely rubbish at Chinese painting? When we spotted each other, however, we just smiled in recognition and it was all very easy really. We gave each other a warm hug; she took my hand and led me to the car. She asked me a question, I looked at her blankly, and we both burst out laughing!
After an evening meal together, Teacher Wang walked me to her home briefly so I would find my way the following day. Then she escorted me most of the way back to my hotel and we did a small detour round the park. I shall say more about parks later, but for now we strolled along and for some unknown reason I burst into song! It was a very famous and beloved Chinese song I had learnt on my tea trip in 2017 and Teacher Wang immediately joined in. We sang it out loud together the whole way around the park and I think that moment probably cemented our friendship the most.
Suffice to say, the five days I spent with Teacher Wang surpassed everything I could have hoped for. She pushed me hard but I was a willing student. We painted bamboo (Looks easy but it really isn’t!), wisteria (“your blossoms look like bananas”), chickens and cockerels (probably my most successful day), little birds (head and body proportion difficult to master, combined with awkward brush strokes for a left-hander!) and orchids. Mr Wang cooked us lunch every day, which was unexpected and very generous, and with the help of various translation apps we even managed some philosophical discussion!
When I mentioned to my husband that I would like to go to China for painting lessons, he was not as concerned as you might think. He knows I am terribly risk-averse! He quite rightly suspected that I had done a lot of research and planning to ensure I would be safe. I was staying with friends in Shanghai for the first four days of my trip, which felt like a sensible start to my crazy adventure. On day one I was taken out to lunch but otherwise felt too exhausted to go very far. On day two I walked round all the streets adjacent to the apartment and found out where the nearest metro station was. On day three I spent all afternoon walking along broad, leafy avenues of the nearby French Concession area and admired the colonial architecture. I sat in a café and ordered a pot of marigold, jasmine and honeysuckle tea. On day four I used the metro and travelled to the Shanghai Museum. Each day I became bolder and more Shanghai street-wise.
I felt very safe wandering round the backstreets of Old Shanghai, or in fact anywhere I explored. People stared at me because I was white-skinned, had white hair and blue eyes. This is not a common sight in China and people are just curious! I usually just smiled and occasionally they would ask to have their photo taken with me. The benefit of travelling alone is that you notice everything a lot more and it is easier to make connections with people. This of course needs to be balanced with the idea of keeping safe, but all perceptions are heightened when abroad and alone, and this includes our gut instincts about people. I would never have contemplated accompanying anyone to a café but I had many short conversations with people out in open spaces, and I welcomed this to improve my fluency in Chinese.
Parks are truly fascinating and wonderful places in China. They are incredibly well tended and beautifully landscaped, with many seating areas provided in secluded bamboo groves, several pagodas and always a magnificent pond or fountain. Most Chinese people in cities do not have a garden, so they really appreciate these green areas. In the “outdoor months” the parks are meeting places to play cards or Mah-jong, perform dance routines, sing, or to exercise. The key difference is that Chinese people come together to do these things, rather than treating the park as a solitary space. The People commonly stroll around parks hand-in-hand – not just lovers. During my six days in Wuhu visiting Teacher Wang, I skipped breakfast in the hotel every morning so I could sit in the park for 30 minutes before my painting lesson and watch a group of people exercising to music whilst balancing a ball on a racket held in each hand. There was a leader demonstrating the graceful movements required, but sooner or later the balls would drop off the rackets!
I can’t finish a description of my trip to China without mentioning the Shanghai Museum. On my return from painting with Teacher Wang in Wuhu I had two weeks in Shanghai to immerse myself in all aspects of Chinese art and culture, and Shanghai Museum almost became part of my daily routine. I limited myself to two hours in each visit, because there is so much to see and it is easy to “glaze over”. I visited each gallery on separate days, starting with the Chinese painting gallery, followed by the ceramics …. On the day before my flight home I visited the Ethnic Minorities gallery and was stunned by the beautiful costumes on display belonging to the 56 ethnic cultures in China. The diversity of colour, textiles, skills in embroidery and dyeing were a revelation to me.
Diversity is important. I find it incredibly inspiring from a creative point of view; I love learning how people in other countries use their skill and imagination to create beautiful objects. I was worried about how this trip would benefit my career as an artist. My husband told me to go without a mission statement and just absorb everything openly. This was wise advice, but it also left me feeling uncertain about the outcomes. After my final visit to the Shanghai Museum, I wandered along to Renmin Park and jotted a few reflections in my travel notebook. Here is part of what I wrote:
“It doesn’t matter what language you speak; certain pleasures in life can be enjoyed by all of us in all parts of the globe. Many beautiful things are universal – wherever you go in the world you will find people who feel happiest in a natural environment looking at flowers and listening to birds, or admiring an incredible hand-painted porcelain vase. When I return home, I want my art to reflect techniques and ideas I have discovered on this trip. I want to see my environment in rural Dorset with new eyes refreshed by the knowledge that I belong to a larger tribe of people (beyond Dorset) who are like me. Create so I can show others, but create for myself – and be myself.”