Memoirs from a unique trip to China: “my new old dragon” (Part II)

China Unlimited Trip-1

China Unlimited competition winners at Ningxia Zhenbeibu Film Town (Claudia Ribeiro, 2016)

Suite from Part I

This article was exclusively written for the Sting by Ms Claudia Ribeiro, PhD in History and Philosophy of Sciences (University of Lisbon) and one of the winners of the China Unlimited competition/trip to China in 2016. The opinions expressed in this piece belong strictly to the writer and do not necessarily reflect The European Sting’s view on the topic.

Another Professor was sitting in our table at lunch time that same day and we kept talking about Chinese calligraphy. He mentioned that, due to the use of computers, the Chinese are forgetting how to handwrite the characters. They recognize them easily but when it comes to handwrite them they are unable to remember all the strokes. I told him I considered this situation disastrous. The reason is because, in China, calligraphy does not merely mean “beautiful handwriting” (kallos + graphein) as in the West, but the “Method of Writing” (shufa) or “The Way of Writing” (shudao). Apart from being an art form, it is a real ‘dao’, a Way, a practice to grasp the fundamental way of the universe. If calligraphy is lost, it is an art form and a Way that is lost. However, the Professor thought that as long as the Chinese could recognize the characters, it was good enough. I then hypothesized a catastrophe, perhaps an object coming from outer space, or a beam of gamma rays with the power of destroying the entire computer network on planet Earth. Westerners would have to re-learn how to handwrite 26 letters. But the Chinese, with their thousands of characters and a whole civilization based on writing, would be in deeper trouble.

The catastrophe would mean a tremendous loss and a gigantic decline in their civilization. Although the Professor recognized that it would be disastrous for China, he was an optimist and could not imagine such a catastrophe to really happen. Moreover, he thought that nowadays there are more important things than calligraphy; for instance, learning English. He said that his parents knew a lot of characters and that their calligraphy was excellent. But they could not speak English! Well, according to my view, foreign languages and Chinese calligraphy cannot be compared; they do not even belong to the same team. First, it is more important to be able to say meaningful things in our own language than to be able to small-talk in no matter what number of foreign languages. Second, to speak foreign languages is not on the same level as to master a form of art and a Way, like calligraphy is in China. Anyway, both of us agreed that the etymology of Chinese characters was a fascinating field of knowledge. Despite his point of view, the truth is that he was very curious about Chinese scripture and loved to attend to Professor Fu Qiang’s classes in order to learn from him.

We also received a paper-cutting lesson by a third Professor. Chinese paper-cutting is recognized by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage of humankind. I confess I wasn’t keen on paper-cutting, a very finger stressing activity. But somehow the Chinese have the ability to make everything look interesting. This happened when the Professor mentioned that paper-cutting is actually linked to Taoism and its praise of emptiness. The empty parts, the ones that have been cut off, are the ones that give life to the piece of paper. She made me recall what is written in the Dao De Jing, a classical text of Taoism:

Thirty spokes are joined in the wheel’s hub.

The hole in the middle makes it useful.

Mold clay into a bowl.

The empty space makes it useful.

Cut out doors and windows for the house.

The holes make it useful.


Therefore, the value comes from what is there,

But the use comes from what is not there.

Tell me then, how can nowadays Chinese be described as money-oriented and shallow, if even when a Chinese does something seemingly trivial as paper-cutting he is actually engaging in Taoist thought, not to mention a form of art?

In a hutong we met a lady who could paint inside snuff bottles, a traditional Chinese art. Hutong? Did you not read in Western newspapers that the hutong had all been demolished and replaced by tall buildings and that the few ones left were just a fake and a joke? Well, at least some hutong survived in all their sweet confusion, its fusion of vegetables and furniture piled on winding pathways, its old people in shabby clothes sitting on their ankles and waving a fan. And some of those money-oriented and shallow Chinese are still there wasting their time painting infinity inside a tiny snuff bottle. The lady invited us to do the same. I have no words to explain the degree of difficulty of painting inside snuff bottles! It is impossible. But, like writing poems on a grain of rice, the Chinese keep on doing the impossible with those magical hands and fingers Nature seems to have given but to them.

Meetings were arranged even to talk with the imam of Yingning Najiahu Mosque in Ningxia. We were also interviewed by the students of Ningxia University. The students, as it is expected nowadays, were mainly interested in business issues. But they also wanted to learn our opinion on issues like the teaching of mathematics and the arts in our countries. Chinese youth is very impressive indeed. They are great learners and highly capable. I must add that our very young guides and interpreters mastered English, a language as exotic for them as Chinese is for us, to an awe-inspiring degree, and were extremely competent and friendly.

I am deeply thankful, not only for all the wonderful travel we did in Beijing and Ningxia province, but also for the opportunity of actually engaging in conversation with Chinese people and listen to their words.

About the author

Cláudia Ribeiro 轲龙, PhD in History and Philosophy of Sciences (University of Lisbon), studied Chinese Language and Culture in Beijing (BFSU) and briefly in Taiwan (NCCU). She translated several classical Chinese texts into Portuguese. She is also the author of a book about her life and travels in China. She has been teaching Mandarin to Portuguese students and Portuguese to Chinese. In September 2015 she was one of the winners of a trip to China (2016) as a result of her submission to the China Unlimited competition, sponsored by the Mission of China to the EU and Atlas International Culture.

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