I'm travelling into a new way of working, a new country, a new language, and a new hobby which I'm passionate about. Come with me for some of the journey...

Sunday 29 May 2016

Beijing - Liulichang, The Artists' Quarter

It's travel time again at Words and Pictures today.

Normal crafty service will be resumed shortly - and it will be full creative steam ahead for a few days at that point.  But we're heading for Chinese craft supplies today!

There's no denying the Forbidden City was awe-inspiring and deeply impressive (catch Part I, Part II and Part III - the Emperor's private gardens, if you missed them) but my favourite place in Beijing was undoubtedly Liulichang - a long street (nearly a kilometre) full of shops selling calligraphy materials and other artsy supplies and artefacts.

And I do mean "full" - there are no other kinds of shops at all, barring the odd art gallery or glazing factory.  It's all arts and calligraphy supplies.

The stores range from huge emporia...

... brilliantly decorated...

... to tiny little one room huts, packed to the rafters (and I do mean to the rafters) with brushes, ink stones, seals and wax.

I'm lucky in that my Danish aunt's brother is living with his family in Beijing at the moment  When his wife, Bettina, asked what I'd be interested in seeing, the answer was simple - art/calligraphy supplies and demonstrations, if possible.

On arrival in Beijing I had a quick shower and set out straight away to meet up with her.  (By the end of the day I'd gone 30 hours without sleep, but it was worth it!)

Fortunately, she's of a similar artistic mindset and was more than happy to spend several hours wandering in and out of endless stores comparing prices on brushes, brush stands, ink stones and rice paper.

As well as the art shops, we also stepped in to see inside some hutongs - the traditional alleyway dwellings of which there are just a few left in Beijing.  It didn't feel right taking photos of private homes, so I don't have pictures.

But if you imagine this courtyard with five or six small houses built inside it, housing up to eight families, you'll have some idea of how the hutongs work.

Liulichang is crossed by a main road at one point - this is the decorative footbridge which delivers you to the other side to continue your artsy journey.

In one of the larger shops, there was a tiny studio out back where at several desks, back to back, at least seven craftsmen and women were busy making brushes.  It was incredible to see them in action, so we asked whether it would be okay to take some photos.

The first man was taking the soaked animal hair and shaping it into the brush heads.  His hands were moving so fast you couldn't get a photo without them blurring.

The next man was holding fine twine between his teeth and using his hands to wrap it around the base of the brush heads to hold the bristles in place, several heads at a time to one piece of twine.

To his right was a man sorting them into sizes and the two women behind were fixing them into the handles - some of wood, some bamboo.

At the final stage, this man was adding calligraphy to the handles - sometimes carving it in, sometimes inking with gold or black ink.

Astonishing speed and dexterity from every single one of them to churn out brushes by the hundred.

I'm sure you're wondering whether, with all those riches and that crafsmanship on display, I bought anything...

Well, I knew before I went that I wanted one of the large size brushes if it was affordable, and thanks to some excellent haggling by Bettina I came away with rather more than that.

I have a large bundle of rice paper and a rather beautiful linen covered album.  Rather than separate pages, the whole thing opens out as a wonderful accordion (several metres long), so I'll have to come up with a way to make the most of that.

The white headed brushes are made of goat's hair (the large one's bristles are 4.5 inches long and nearly 2 inches in diameter), and the brown ones are wolf's hair (from the tails, as far as I can make out).

Inside the silk-covered box is a trio of exquisitely fine-headed rabbit hair brushes.  And the whole lot came in for around the £30 mark.  Colour me happy!  I only wish I'd bought a stand to hang them from too, as Bettina did.  Ah well... next time (I'm kidding!!).

Thank you for dropping in.  I hope you've enjoyed this little artistic detour as much as I did.  One of these days, I may even get to try out my beautiful Chinese brushes.  Next stop (some time)... Shanghai, but first there will be some new crafty creations to share with you.  Watch this space!

Calligraphy may well be simply an artistic version of another form, that is the ideograms which make up the poem, but then not only does it reflect the character and temperament of the artist but . . . also betrays his heart rate, his breathing.
From Once on a Moonlit Night by Dai Sijie

Friday 27 May 2016

Beijing - The Forbidden City Part III

Hello all!  It feels like ages since I've managed to check in with you all and, apart from some projects which I can't share with you yet, there's not much going on at the craft table either.  It's the first time since I started blogging four years ago that I've had to take prolonged time away from it all (not to mention having to say goodbye to various Design Teams), and it's a strange feeling.  Work schedules mean it will stay this way for much of the rest of the year, but I'll keep dipping in and out when I can.  There are some exciting Guest Designer spots coming up, and there are still plenty of Encore projects awaiting their moment!

For now, I'm back with another instalment of my travels.  As always, you can click on the photos for a larger view.

We're still in Beijing (so it's still February - see, that's how far behind I am!), and after being suitably humble as we made our way through Part I and Part II we've been allowed to pass through the final palace chambers and enter the Emperor's private garden at the very far end of the Forbidden City.

This area has a completely different atmosphere... it's much more intimate and welcoming.

That's mainly to do with the trees, I think, but also the smaller pavilions, and the twisting paths and grottoes - so different from the formality and scale of the preceding courtyards and buildings.

There's still plenty of grandeur, of course, and the Imperial symbology is still present in full force.

Look at these splendid fellows guarding one of the many arched gateways, one each side.

The golden metal really gleams in the sunlight, and that ferocious scowl should be enough to daunt any triflers.

I'm thinking they could do some damage with those tail tufts too...

And look at the glorious carving on the plinths on which they sit.

As you might guess, I was very taken with these gnarly twisty tree trunks.  Love the patterns and texture in the winding stems and roots.

And the fabulous knobbles, rubbed shiny where people have touched them for luck....

This ancient specimen has to be protected from the superstitious stroking for its own good!

And the foliage is magnificent.  It really does look like the beautiful foliage in Chinese paintings, somewhere between leaves and needles.

You keep catching sight of enticing pavilions between the trees...

... full of colour and exquisitely decorated...

... with those glorious Imperial Yellow ceramic roof tiles glowing in the sun.

And remember, each one of those end circle tiles is a work of art in itself.

The decoration even extends to the pathways under your feet.

This is pebble-dash with a difference!

Can you imagine how many hours the makers of the many pathways must have spent on their hands and knees?!

There are lots of rather weird, unearthly stone sculptures - mainly, as far as I could tell, natural stone formations chosen for their strangeness and mounted on plinths.

I wasn't sure that I liked them very much (but don't tell the Emperor!).

The entranceway to this particular pavilion shows that status and segregation was still the rule here in the gardens.  Servants and lower-ranked family members had to scuttle up the narrow steps at the sides.

Only the Emperor himself was allowed to walk up the central slope over these wonderful carved dragons (just as well, I suppose, or they'd be completely worn away).

There are more of the vast cauldrons standing around which would have held water to put out any fires.  They're so impressive.

And there's fabulous carving even on what appeared to be storage sheds!

Of course, what you discover pretty soon is that these gardens are where the Emperor's concubines whiled away the hours, awaiting his pleasure.

One of the larger pavilions is the "selection chamber", where aspiring mothers would bring their daughters, in the hope that they might be chosen as part of the elite corps of Imperial courtesans.

There are stone carved seating areas, where I'm sure perfectly innocuous tea-drinking might take place, in full public view.

But you can just imagine what might go on in any of the smaller pavilions dotted around the garden.

And the trees cast deep shadows allowing for liaisons to go on both inside and out, secure from prying eyes.  Suddenly the intimacy becomes a little more secretive and a little less delightful!

Since the buildings in the gardens are on an entirely more human scale, it was here that I was able to get closest to some of the moulded ceramic ornamentation which I'd enjoyed so much in the earlier courtyards.

It's still tucked under the eaves though, so it's almost always in deep shadow.

The construction is amazing, and the sheen of the ceramic glaze catches the light beautifully.  You can probably imagine how much that appeals to me.

So, we've finally made it to the end of our Forbidden City trilogy.  This is where I'll come in future to remember this extraordinary visit, so I'll make no apology for the number of photos, but I hope you've enjoyed the tour too.

I've one final Beijing post for you, and that one will take us from this seat of Imperial power (and sexual shenanigans) to the artists' quarter at Liulichang - easily my favourite part of my Beijing adventure.  Prepare for ink, paper, and thousands upon thousands of brushes!!

Princes are fighters or administrators.  Neither of those things do much to spread joy in the world.  Whores, concubines and catamites, on the other hand, are all about giving satisfaction.  Now granted, sexual pleasure is a temporary sort of happiness, but it is better than a new tax or a sword in the gut.
Jill Knowles

My wish is to ride the tempest, tame the waves, kill the sharks.  I will not resign myself to the usual lot of women who bow their heads and become concubines.
Trieu Thi Choi