The Chinese Take Their Calligraphy Very Seriously

Herein lies the basics of A) actual knowledge vs. B) crap you pick up while only glancing at travel sites.

In communicating our plans prior to arrival and looking for tour ideas, I had sent our guide, David, a terse message, “Would like to see Hutong and have a cultural experience.” Looking back – and knowing what I now know, the absurdity of the message is staggering. In a way, I’m basically saying, “Hey, we’d like to see a group of houses and do stuff.” My hometown peeps would totally understand if I were a tour guide and given the same instructions by foreign visitors, I would take them to a trailer park and then give them a lesson how to ride a rodeo bull.


Narrow alley in a hutong

Hutongs are a grouping (neighborhood) of traditional siheyuan – houses in a common block with an outer wall and an inner courtyard. Hutongs are characterized by narrow streets or alleys and are commonly associated with northern Chinese cities, most prominently Beijing. Many neighborhoods were formed by joining one siheyuan to another to form a hutong and then joining one hutong to another. The word hutong is also used to refer to such neighborhoods.


Siheyuan dates back as early as the Western Zhou period and has a history of over 2,000 years. They exhibit outstanding and fundamental characteristics of Chinese architecture and serve as a cultural symbol of Beijing and a window into its old ways of life.


Gate to a siheyuan



Steps to a siheyuan gate. The more steps the more esteemed the family residing there.

Modern Beijing’s population boom has made housing one of city’s biggest challenges. Siheyuan today are typically used as housing complexes, hosting multiple families, with courtyards being developed to provide extra living space. The living conditions in many siheyuan are quite poor, with very few having private toilets. In the 1990s, systematic demolition of old urban buildings took place in Beijing under rapid economic development. Many siheyuan are being torn down to address the problem of overcrowding, and have been replaced by modern apartment blocks.



Each hutong has a name. Some have had only one name since their creation, while others have had several throughout their history.




Museum in a hutong dedicated to the traditional Chinese drink, baijiu (it’s similar to vodka).


Many hutongs were named after their location, or a local landmark or business, such as: City gates, such as Inner Xizhimen Hutong, indicating this hutong is located in the “Xizhimen Nei”, or “Xizhimen Within”, neighborhood, which is on the city side of Xizhimen Gate, a gate on the city wall.


Hutong equivalent to Home Depot. Storefront for building materials.

Markets and businesses, such as Yangshi Hutong (Yangshi literally means sheep market), or Yizi Hutong (a local term for soap is yizi)


Temples, such as Guanyinsi Hutong (Guanyinsi is the Kuan-yin Temple)

Local features, such as Liushu Hutong (Liushu means willow), which was originally named “Liushujing Hutong”, literally “Willow Tree Well Hutong”, after a local well.


Cars parked in the narrow streets usually cover their wheels to protect from dogs urinating on them

Some hutongs were named after people, such as Mengduan Hutong (named after Meng Duan, a mayor of Beijing in the Ming Dynasty whose residence was in this hutong).


Others were given an auspicious name, with words with generic positive attributes, such as Xiqing Hutong (Xiqing means happy)

Since the mid-20th century, a large number of Beijing hutongs were demolished to make way for new roads and buildings. More recently, however, many hutongs have been designated as protected, in an attempt to preserve this aspect of Chinese cultural history. Hutongs were first established in the Yuan dynasty (1206–1341) and then expanded in the Ming (1368–1628) and Qing (1644–1908) dynasties.


Another gate. Banners can indicate important events like wedding announcements or funerals.

Today, as in the past, hutongs are home to celebrities, business owners, and officials.



Taxi driver sleeping in his cab




Courtyard to siheyuan we visited

One of the things we didn’t quite understand was how much calligraphy was cherished. As Westerners, we’re used to seeing fancy writing – even seeing writing as an art form, but not to the level that is respected within China. It is considered a hugely popular traditional art and many calligraphers are well-known celebrities.




Our instructor explaining the significance of each tool

We were fortunate to have arraigned a family calligraphy lesson by a renowned artist whose extended family of brothers and sisters resided in a siheyuan within the hutong we were visiting. Our guide explained the significance of this particular siheyuan, how the number of steps (five) to the main gate gave credence to the importance of the family, and how this particular siheyuan had been within the same family for several hundred years.


We first started by sitting around a small coffee table while our teacher prepared. His sister told us stories for their family and showed black and white pictures from when they were children.


We then sat at a larger table (like a dining table) and Mr. Zhang came out with a quick introduction. He showed us several traditional tools – fine rice paper, ink stones, brushes and, through translation, explained the relative histories and significance of each.

On to practice.

Each of us was given practice papers in which to mimic our instructor’s strokes. Every few minutes he would peer at our papers, offer encouragement and make slight adjustments. I dearly wanted to impress him and worked hard at my lines. He did praise my work a few times, but I sincerely think it was because I was the patriarch of the group and wanted me to save face. Bailey was later encouraged to continue her studies.


Mr. Zhang showing us his abilities

At the end of the lesson, Mr. Zhang offered to draw some souvenirs. I was grateful, because I wanted this to happen, but wasn’t sure how to ask for fear of seeming disrespectful of his time and talents. I mean, if you had met Andy Warhol, would you ask him to quickly draw a soup can? Regardless, he did so and they’re wonderful additions to our house and made great gifts.


I’m glad we took the lesson seriously and our nervous laughter at being unable to make semi-coherent symbols didn’t seem disrespectful. But still, yet, we didn’t quite understand the deep respect that calligraphy draws from the Chinese people.

Later that night, we had David arrange for us to see a Chinese acrobatic performance. When the show started, an announcer came out and kicked things off…pretty normal. But rather than a quick set of words, he talked for several minutes. Not understanding anything, we waited. And waited. And then after seemingly 10 minutes of the announcer talking with very little response from the audience (say, if he was a comedian to warm up the crowd), four female assistants came out, carrying two long, blank banners. A table was set up and the banners laid out on top of it. Then a man was announced to the crowd and there was some applause. A few more minutes of talking, the announcer seemed to be asking for volunteers, with several people rushing up to the stage, all gathered around the table. Several other people were being allowed to go backstage. It was all very confusing.


Calligraphy demonstration at a show


Later, when we re-told the story to David, he told us that the man on the stage was a well-known calligrapher and the people brought up (and those into the back) were allowed to meet him and get a personalized phrase sent home with them.

What struck us was that it seemed to be so out of place by our standards. To think of an equivalent experience is difficult. The show was seemingly a very different set of audience interest (think of the kinds of acrobatics you see at a circus or Cirque de Soleil show) and yet a fair number of people were very excited to be up on stage and take pictures of the artist doing his work (he wrote on the two banners).

Luckily, we didn’t show any disrespect to either Mr. Zhang nor our guide, only due to our naivety.




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