China is stunningly beautiful from every angle. Even our hotel has an outdoor garden courtyard surrounded in lush vegetation and places to simply sit and enjoy. I can already tell I’ll miss this place when it’s time to leave.
Following our stay in Suzhou, we leave with stomachs full of traditional local fish and vegetable dishes and begin the journey to our next destination: the humble, ancient water town of Zhouzhuang. What I found there, hidden amongst the merchant tents and fishing boats, inspired me more than anything I had seen in China so far.
Adventures in Asia
Part II: A Treasure Trove of Talents
Upon our arrival into the small river town of Zhouzhuang, the tiny streets and alleyways were absolutely crammed with tourists, making it a little difficult to fully comprehend and appreciate the historic hamlet and its many fine details. It wasn’t until a few hours later that I truly found my stride in Zhouzhuang; following a boat trip through some of the canals, my friends and I wandered down some streets lined with merchants selling everything from roasted chicken feet to incredibly intricate Chinese paper cuts.
What resonated with me most were the artists and makers throughout the area; there were rows upon rows of handmade goods finely furnished from paper, wood, leather and bone. One man sold scrolls of Chinese calligraphy that he painted with a custom message while the buyer watched. I purchased a traditional Chinese chop stamp from another, which he engraved with my name in Chinese characters. At one point someone pointed out a framed page of calligraphy that was hand painted by I. M. Pei, the famed architect behind the glass pyramid at the Louvre Museum in Paris, who is also a native of Suzhou.
At first glance, ancient Chinese calligraphy can seem overwhelming, even indistinguishably similar to the untrained eye. The country’s rich cultural history, however, has played a crucial role in the evolution of the written characters; for thousands of years the script progressed through different dynasties, each one leaving its own impression and aesthetic on the way the brush strokes were created. Beginning as inscriptions on bone and bronze in the Shang dynasty as early as 1600 BC, the pictographic symbols were created as representations of spoken words. By around 475 BC, a standardized system of cursive and regular scripts was established, which spawned an array of diverse styles that were used in different regions throughout different time periods. Purpose transitioned into expression, and calligraphic masters across the country came to be revered for their skill and artistic style in the craft.
As an artist and designer, one of things I have come to appreciate most about Chinese culture is the practice and evolution of calligraphy over the country’s extensive lifespan. I have always been a strong advocate of the handcrafted aesthetic, and do my best to incorporate as much of this type of methodology in my own work. More specifically, hand lettering is what fascinates me more than anything; the ability to combine letterforms to portray a message and tell a story is an art form that is practiced by many but mastered by few. It pleases me greatly to see this handmade approach still being employed and appreciated in Chinese culture today. Despite contemporary technology’s multitude of time and cost-efficient commercial alternatives, calligraphy remains a truly integral component of the country’s culture as a direct link to China’s abundant artistic heritage.
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