I close my eyes and place my hands on my lap. There’s rice paper spread on the table in front of me, along with three ink brushes, plates and a porcelain water bowl. I take a deep breath and smile slightly. I’m content. Today I’m not brushing shoulders with thousands of tourists in the Forbidden City or racing around the Temple of Heaven searching for the exit. Today I’m living like a Beijing expat, meandering off the well-paved tourist track.
The teacher’s voice is soothing as she tells us to open our eyes. Meditation is over and we can begin painting. She points to an example of our project, a vertical composition of clouds among a mountainous landscape, with calligraphy in the top, right-hand corner depicting the words “cloud forest” in Chinese characters. She begins demonstrating brush techniques on a wall in front of us, controlling the spontaneous nature of the ink with swift, methodical strokes and dots, varying in thickness and tone.
I pick up my brush and hesitantly run the soft bristles through black ink. I dip the tip into the dish of water and watch gray patterns swirl. We begin to paint the first layer on long, vertical sheets of rice paper. Thick, light gray brushstrokes form the mountains’ foundations. It reminds me of the ancient Taoist scrolls that I studied in a college class on Asian art, the spiritual power of nature expressed through a meditational painting practice.
I come to my senses and realize that no, I’m not on a sacred Taoist mountain. (Although I was hiking one a few days before.) I’m actually sitting in a classroom, though it’s not your ordinary white-walled classroom with weathered, wooden desks. This classroom is quaint, and smells like a variety of herbs mixed with paper and ink. Calligraphy and ink paintings hang on the walls in thick frames as sunlight bursts through the windows on the right side of the room. There are two rows of long tables, covered with felt, accompanied by six chairs with cushions. I sip green tea from a small ceramic cup without handles.
I’m participating in a Chinese landscape painting class at the CCC, the Chinese Culture Center, an organization dedicated to educating expats and foreign visitors about Chinese culture. I’m the youngest one here, sitting among an exuberant Polish mother of two who attends the class each week, an American woman in her 30s who teaches English at an all-girls university, a grandmother from Venezuela and a French woman in her late 20s.
Before I arrived in China, I researched educational activities where I could experience a taste of Chinese culture in addition to the typical sightseeing. As an avid learner and self-professed nerd, I was ecstatic to find the CCC online. I printed out the monthly calendar of events, circling activities that caught my interest, from Zen meditation to traditional medicine and foot binding to Feng Shui. I wanted to learn it all, but sadly, I would only be in Beijing for six days. My interest in art guided me toward the traditional landscape painting class, beginning at noontime and lasting for an hour and a half.
I took the subway to Liangmaqiao station, located near the East Third Ring Road, and attempted to walk to the center based on a map that I printed off the website. I passed a restaurant where the workers were outside playing tug of war in their uniforms, chef hats and all. I thought about asking to join. Instead, I walked on, continually glancing at my map. Since the CCC is relatively hidden on a side street, I walked past twice without noticing. I approached a few passersby, and motioned to the map and address written in Chinese. They had no idea. Why should they know where an expat organization is located? Eventually, I saw the Polish woman pass me on her bike and figured that she must be on her way to my destination.
When I entered the CCC, I walked into an office with four or five employees working at their desks. A woman greeted me and I asked her about the landscape painting class. I hadn’t made a reservation. “That’s okay. We always set up a few extra spaces.” I was relieved. She led me to a classroom on the second floor.
While painting, we listen to soothing Chinese flutes. I make long spontaneous strokes contrasting with controlled dots of foliage, trying to keep the teacher’s technique in mind. As we wait for layers to dry, we practice writing the title of the painting in calligraphy on small scraps of rice paper. Although I graduated from art school with a concentration in painting, this is my first time painting in a traditional Chinese style and my second or third time writing calligraphy. (My painting skills far outweigh the calligraphy, although both leave much to be desired.)
The class is nearing the end, and we have a mini critique, bringing back that bittersweet nostalgia from art school where we would tear our classmates’ work (and souls) apart. This critique is much kinder and informal, as the teacher compliments each of us on our strong points. “Sarah, you have a good sense of composition, and Ana, your lines are beautiful.” She mentions that although we are painting the same subject matter, our personalities shine through in different ways. Despite the mere practice of copying, as is common with this style of painting, I enjoyed experimenting with the ink in new ways.
As we say goodbye, I roll up my painting and stash it securely in my bag, hesitant to show my botched calligraphy to the Chinese family I’m staying with. Feeling refreshed and inspired, I wish for more time to learn about China’s rich history and traditions at the CCC. Beijing, I’ll be back.
Visit the China Culture Center:
Address: Kent Centre A 101, Anjialou, No. 29, Liangmaqiao Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing, China, 100125
-Text and photography by Sarah Shaw @ www.mappingwords.com. All rights reserved.