The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Friday, May 27, 2011

Thoughts prompted by Oracle Bones

Studio Wall at Songzhuan Artists' Village, Beijing

I have been reading 'Oracle Bones' by Peter Hessler, who also wrote the wonderful "River Town' and 'Driving in China'. This book is a meandering account of his time as a 'clipper' for the Beijing Bureau of the Wall Street Journal - his introduction to the world of the foreign correspondent after his years teaching in China as a Peace Corps volunteer. I was amused to find that he ended up in the Peace Corps, in a small town on the Yangze River, largely due to his disillusionment with the postmodern literary theory he was studying as a postgraduate at Cambridge. I was also delighted when I realised his connection with my other favourite books about China - he is married to Leslie T. Chang who wrote the wonderful 'Factory Girls', and was friends with Michael Meyer who wrote 'The Last Days of Old Beijing'

These are books in which China is so fully present, in all its chaotic, confusing, fascinating complexity. His descriptions of changing Beijing neighbourhoods are so accurate: " I always returned to a changed city. Once, I came back from a reporting trip and went to my favourite noodle restaurant in a neighbourhood near my home, only to discover that the whole area had been cleared away to make room for a new apartment complex. Beijing homecomings were jarring: a month-long journey could make me feel like Rip Van Winkle." Everyone I know in Beijing has stories like this, usually involving an attempt to take friends to a favourite bar or restaurant, only to find the whole street gone.
West Beijing Street Market

Here is a link to a blog in which the writer expresses what I imagine many travellers to China, including myself, feel: that no other westerner has ever had these extraordinary experiences before, except of course that it is all in Peter Hessler's books. Luckily I didn't read them until I had left mainland China and was back in Hong Kong, and then Australia!

I have been going through my notes of my interviews with artists, and my photographs of their works, in preparing some talks for conferences and some teaching resources for senior art students. In some ways my journey seems already a long time ago, and yet still has such a potency that I dream about being in China almost every night. I am not quite sure why it has affected me in such a deep way; I love New York too but I don't come home feeling changed by the experience. Partly it is the sense that there is so much to learn and it can only be learned with considerable difficulty, and with shifts in one's own paradigms and assumptions about the world. Speaking about the works of Hu Qinwu and Shi Qing at a conference at the Art Gallery of NSW on Wednesday, I saw the works anew through the eyes of people who had never encountered these artists before, and was impressed once more with the freshness of their vision, and the scope, confidence and ambition of their practice.
Hu Qinwu, 'Earth Grid'

I received an invitation in the mail today to a party in Shanghai - now that really seemed like a cruel joke in the middle of the school day!