By Sarah Rose de Villiers
China cannot be captured with words or described in a single sentence; it would be impossible to trap the enchantment of its many treasures.
In the cities, relics of distant dynasties are filled with new life as bright lights and unidentifiable smells dance amongst the ancient architecture. In alleys and small stores, amongst the trinkets and tourist attractions, the innermost heart of China is revealed in its art. Found in the cities, sites and villages, sometimes surrounded by crowds and sometimes in a silent world, artists translate traditions and talent into beauty that transcends all barriers.
1. The Forbidden City, Beijing
The Forbidden City is a sprawling arrangement of amazing architecture, ornate detail and ancient glory. The courtyards echo with the history of long-past dynasties, and the buildings are so beautiful that when they look to their reflections in the river, they must almost envy themselves. Within the walls of the city, the Palace Museum holds collections of unimaginable treasures and cultural relics – but it is just outside the city walls that the most phenomenal art is to be found.
Beneath one of the city gates, hawkers push souvenirs towards the passing people, tour guides call into the chaos and somewhere in this mess, a small group gathers around a single man as he flicks a brush over a little white plate. With sweeping strokes and controlled calligraphy, he paints a portrait in mere minutes. He then sprays the plate with a sealant of sorts, and sells it before the paint has even dried.
Standing outside a 600-year-old imperial palace that took 14 years to build, there is a man who can translate imagination to ink in under a minute.
2. The Great Wall of China, Badaling
Situated 50 miles outside of Beijing, is Badaling – the most visited section of the Great Wall of China.
As with all such places, a souvenir shop accompanies the incredible attraction and promises perfect gifts, sweet refreshments and small collectables. Beyond the aisles of jewelry and piles of silk purses, tucked up between the T-shirt displays and tables of miniature dragons, two women work on their art.
One woman bends over her worktable as she dips the side of her finger in black ink and presses it onto a piece of plain paper. With the focused curve of her fingernail, the slightest pressure from her palm and the delicate touch of her fingertip, she turns smudges into stories and a spectacular tree appears on the page. She puts the little artwork aside and reaches for another piece of paper.
The second woman sits on a stool, patiently chipping into a granite tile with a fast and hard tool; relentlessly mapping millions of dots into familiar scenes. On the board beside her, several completed works are displayed. They show both traditional Chinese scenes and iconic images from the Western world – panda bears munching bamboo are placed beside a portrait of Michael Jackson, and disciples from Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper look towards the Great Wall as it stretches into the distant corner of a granite tile.
3. The Muslim Quarter, Xi’an
The Muslim Quarter is a kaleidoscope of colours, smells and sounds, as life bursts from hanging lanterns, roasting nuts and flashing neon lights. The world couldn’t be louder or more alive than in the street lined by stalls, stores and secret doors. Bicycles snake through the crowd, people boldly barter and deep-fried squid is displayed on a stick. Somewhere in the scene, a man sits before a bucket and treats a string of beads.
Just over the wall and behind one of the secret doors a shadow puppet show is being performed and a child is entranced by the silhouettes that dance and disappear.
There is also an empty courtyard, a short stumble from the shadow puppet show, which leads to a door that has a peering face plastered over a hole in the window. Behind this door, a woman sits before a light-pad and serenely traces the outline of a flower. Her smartphone is propped beside her, and a video flashes on the screen. The smell of the market food drifts through the open door and disturbs the stillness of her studio.
If art is where life is, then it exists everywhere and all at once in this enchanted place.
4. Nansuo village, Hu County, Xi’an
In contrast to the brilliant lights and pulsing life of Xi’an, the rural rhythm of Nansuo village binds a more intimate community of children, dancers and the vice-chairman of the farmers’ painting institute of Hu county, Zhang Qingyi.
Zhang was born in 1954 in Nansuo village, and in 1973, he entered the local farms’ painting school. His works have since been exhibited, acclaimed and published, and his workshop, which tourists are invited to visit, is a testimony to his talent and devoted time. The walls are covered in colours, shapes and scenes; the table is dressed with pages of pictures, prints and paintings; and on the floor, rows of artworks line up against the walls.
Zhang sits on a stool in his studio, surrounded by a tour group and under the unblinking eyes of silent cameras. His paintbrush is a dancer, dressed in pink and touching to the page in swift twists and meticulous turns. His brush breathes petals onto the paper, until it reveals his vision of a butterfly about to kiss-land on a bouquet of flowers. It is mesmerising art; appreciated for the product, the process and the place.
Traditional Chinese architecture frames narrow streets and commercial treasure coves make every moment more exciting than the last. Somewhere in the maze of this magical place, there is a small stall that sells the art of Yuyuan folk craftsman. Each window is dedicated to a different art form, and each art form is described by the text printed on the boards above the windows. Beneath the text, which is printed in both Chinese and English, the traditional art crafts dangle on display and recall past generations of artists.
The first window frames the exquisite art legacy of the Yao minority people of China: painting on leaf veins. The transparent leaves look like windows into worlds of remote lands, bamboo forests and vivid blossoms. In the next window, glass-wire drawings catch the light and spark a tourist’s interest.
The corner window is dripping in Beijing opera masks, sequenced butterflies and splashes of brilliant red. Buckets of coloured herbs lace the air with floral scents and the man sitting behind the counter begins to barter. Startling red and stark black sculptures fill the next window, where lacquer ornaments are covered in complex patterns.
In the last window, an empty chair is framed by collections of doll figurines and hanging pottery. This is a new art form, according to the board above the window, and combines Chinese dough modeling with clay sculpture so that figurines are wrapped in fusing colours. The back wall of the stall displays finger paintings, framed calligraphy, Chinese knots, and a poster that reads “Chinese Name Leaf Painting”.
In this little stall, amid the vibrant streets of Old Town, art exists in a number of colours, shapes and scents, and the modern marketplace remembers the traditions of the past.
In this moment, it seems that all the legacy, life and future of the Chinese people can be found in the hearts of their artists, and the beauty of their works.