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

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

北京日记 Beijing Diary: Spring in Beijing

I'm back in Beijing, almost exactly twelve months after my last visit, to interview artists Ma Yanling, Tao Aimin, Bingyi and Xiao Lu about how they are using Chinese ink as a material imbued with many meanings, some of them subversively feminist in intent. Beijing in Spring is lovely, although the blue skies of the past weekend had sadly returned to the familiar haze by the time I arrived.
Beijing wiring: scary sky calligraphy
Exhausted from 12 hours on a packed flight, I needed a day just to wander in what remains of the hutongs before the intensity of my conversations with the artists. And to begin using my rusty and limited Chinese, which I imagine sometimes sounds like the first attempts at lucid speech by a toddler: 'This machine broken!' (when my yi ka tong subway card inexplicably fails to let me out of the subway after working perfectly to let me in) or 'Do not want!' to every pedicab driver, ever. At other times I know I'm making sense but getting the word order backwards so I sound like a cliched Middle European character speaking English in a novel: 'Please to me a menu bring'. Speaking Chinese is like a rusty spring that needs oiling, and after a few days it gets better - but I despair of any possibility of fluency. And as for reading, forget it!

But every little successful exchange, from recharging subway cards to asking passers-by which street you are standing on in a maze of grey alleys, to negotiating times and days with a driver, builds confidence. And at least this time around I didn't ask him to pick me up the day before yesterday! ('Houtian' - always so confusing. 'Hou' is behind so how can it mean the day after tomorrow for heavens sake?)
painting attached to hutong alley wall
And those hutongs are always a delight, from the large lady in her flanny pyjamas and curled hair taking a tiny ancient dog for a walk, the father helping his staggering toddler to take his first steps, the wizened old men who have a good laugh at me when I say hello, the lovely paintings adorning many walls, and the nut sellers from Xinjiang hoarsely yelling their wares. Am I romanticising? No doubt, a little, but the Beijing hutongs and their courtyard houses are a unique and threatened form of architecture and social organisation, one that is worthy of preservation.

Love the KFC advertisement on the bottom of the Spring Festival calligraphy!