Posts Tagged ‘chinese’

china’s ‘four treasures of the study’

China possesses one of the world’s oldest scholarly traditions, dating back millenia. Symbols scratched on oracle bones found in Jiahu, a Neolithic settlement, suggest that the evolution of Chinese writing began around 6600 BCE. A trove of classical works from 770 BCE onwards enriches Chinese literature; these were appreciated and added to by the intelligentsia and, upon the invention of woodblock and moveable type printing, were widely disseminated and read by the learned for generations.

From carvings on bone and turtle plastrons for divinatory purposes, Chinese writing evolved into logosyllabic characters of ink brushed on paper serving practical (record-keeping) and artistic (literary) functions. The art of writing and calligraphy became skills cultivated among the upper and middle classes.

The tools of calligraphy were highly prized. Chinese scholars called them “the four treasures of the study” – the inkstone, inkstick, brushes, and paper. Other tools used were carved seals of stone, wood, or ivory; seal paste of cinnabar mixed with castor oil and silk strands or plant fiber; sculpted or carved paperweights; and desk pads.

Calligraphy is still taught in Chinese schools to the present day, all over the world. Filipino students work with writing sets, learning to imbue characters with emotion using deft, fluid strokes with an ink-dipped brush.

UK-based AL Merginio-Murgatroyd, a friend from school days, sent me this set. The cardboard box is covered with green silk that shines bluish in sunlight; the pattern is embroidered with violet-gray thread.

Inside, on red felt, three of the ‘four precious things of the library’. This set includes a seal and seal paste.

The seal is marble, uncarved, waiting for me to choose a special sign to have engraved upon it. The inkstick has a golden dragon upon it – it’s too beautiful to use!

Inksticks were traditionally made from soot and glue. They often have carvings or were molded into whimsical shapes like flowers. Many inkstones, especially antiques, are works of art and cherished by collectors.

To use, drag water from the inkstone’s ‘well’ on to the ‘plain’; grind the inkstick against the stone until the water in the well runs dark enough.

Seals are used like rubber stamps – dab the carved side into seal paste, and gently press it onto the surface of the paper, rocking it back and forth to ensure a good impression. Remember to keep seal paste containers covered and in the box to prevent it from drying out.

As I hold this box in my lap, I think of many things – the sheer weight of the thousands of years of Chinese culture; the literature classics written with materials like these, from the Tao Te Ching to the Confucian Analects; that practical things may also be works of beauty, and uplift to an art the labor done with them; how writing tools have evolved through time in various civilizations; and more, and more.

Most of all I think of how a friend now in a cold country far from her motherland’s tropical warmth, who taught me Math and conversed with me when I was in elementary and she in high school with license to ignore the small fry yet still kindled the fires of friendship, a friend whom I have not seen for more than two decades, keeps our connection burning with this and other tokens of remembrance.

Thank you, AL. I hope one day to see you again, and embrace you again, and show you my gratitude for your love through the years. Be blessed.

Photos by Alex Alcasid; inkstone and seal ‘how-to’ images here.

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worth a thousand words

I’ve been taking a lot more pictures lately, since we got the Nikon D60. There’s something about a kick-ass SLR camera, that, well, kicks ass once you’re squinting through the viewfinder, with trigger finger itching to pop off a shot.

Mind you, I’m nearsighted, and often all I see through the teensy window is a mass of color. I try to frame using shapes and lines and forms. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you’ll never know what you’re going to get until you upload those files into your hard drive and look at the images you captured on a 19-inch color monitor.

Then in comes Photoshop or Windows Photo Gallery for a dose of  “auto-adjust”, increased brightness/contrast, cropping, or whatever it takes to resolve the images’ minor issues to bring them to full, colorful, spectacular beauty, ready to tell their story to the viewer.

Here are some of my personal favorites (mostly taken on a recent trip to Hong Kong) and the stories behind them:

A dragon dance ritual for luck in Hong Kong, Feb 2009. From the demeanor of the store manager and other people nearby it was clearly an important ceremony; yet they allowed me to get as close as I wished to take this shot.

View of a hilly street in Hong Kong, taken from the top deck of a #973 bus on the way to Stanley Street.

View of Repulse Bay, enclave of ritzy homes and yachts.

The Stanley Street market.

Jade jewelry on display.

Lanterns like colorful bubbles.

Another view of Stanley Street.

One of my favorite images. Macro shot.

Miniature “terracotta” warriors at Stanley Street.

View at Stanley Street main. I love landscapes and macro shots.

Another favorite macro shot – a sign in Braille somewhere in the bowels of the MTR (subway) system.

The Happy Valley cemetery, as seen through a moving bus.

A traditional Chinese building on a hill in the New Territories looks more at home in its setting than does the modern tower beside it.

A cup of Chinese tea. Gazing into its depths, I tried to read my future…and couldn’t. So I drank it. *burp*

A serving of chocolate mousse at Bambu buffet, The Venetian hotel, Macau.

View of a bay and harbor in Hong Kong. Taken from the top of the revolving tower ride at Ocean Park.

Australian wool tapestry designed by artist Michael Santry. It took several weavers three months to finish.

Drain in the shape of a horseshoe at Sha Tin stable.

Saddlecloth and helmet at Sha Tin.

A groom leads a horse into the John Size stables at Sha Tin.

As a graduate student of communication, anything to do with signs and symbols (semiology) interests me.

I love this shot of jockeys, their owners, and trainers huddled together before a race at Sha Tin.

Jockeys wait for their mounts.

One of my favorite shots – I love how the jockey’s leg is parallel to the horse’s back. This is one of France’s leading riders, Cristophe Soumillon, getting aboard Steel Nerves.

Soumillon’s face is set, strained, serious.

In contrast, Hong Kong’s leading rider, Douglas Whyte, always had a half-smile on his face.

Hong Kong Jockey Club race judges bank to see the action better. I love this!

A judge makes notes as horses cross the finish line. I like how the shot incorporates part of the indoors with a view of the outdoors.

Another nicely-composed shot of a scene at Sha Tin.

The huge video screen in the infield at Sha Tin shows the jockey in the lead looking over his shoulder. It’s a metashot – a shot of a shot.

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starbucks stores i have met

As a Starbucks fan, I “collect” stores wherever I go. This one’s at the corner of Nathan Road, in Hong Kong.

There was a branch inside The Venetian hotel in Macau.

At New Town Mall in the New Territories, Hong Kong, I took a picture of the Starbucks signage as I spotted it from afar. I went inside and had a Raspberry Mocha (skim, no whip) while waiting for friends to finish looking around the mall.

I didn’t take a shot of the interior because Starbucks stores look the same inside wherever you go – Hong Kong, Manila, Dubai, New York, Pasadena. They all have the brown tables and tan, chocolate, or olive sofas, the warm orange lights over the bar, the same smell of roasted coffee, the same subdued chatter.

The consistency is boring, but it is also comforting. I know that wherever in the world I go, hearing a cacophony of languages I don’t understand, brushing past tall men in robes or fashionable women in knee-high boots, once I enter a Starbucks it’s like coming home. It’s something familiar, something I understand. Being in a different city, you can go adrift, cast loose from the moorings of your own place and culture.

Starbucks, transcending culture, having created its own, is a pocket of home wherever it is.

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favorite chinese things

A recent trip to Hong Kong yielded some interesting finds from the markets. Much were tourist-y gimcrack doodads, but since I was, after all, a tourist, I flung myself into the role with enthusiasm and poked around for items to take back.

I fell in love with a personalized seal and a watch.

On our first day of our trip, we headed to the Stanley Market for souvenirs to take home as pasalubong (lit., “to welcome”). It is part of Filipino culture to take home gifts to family and friends.

After looking at countless tee shirts, silk bags,  and other things, a seal engraving shop caught my eye. Run by a family – the mother, who sp0ke English, was the sales person while the father, son, and grandfather did the custom engraving, drawing, and other services – the shop offered countless blank seals to choose from.

I’d always wanted my own seal, ever since my Mandarin teacher at the Ateneo, Prof. Songbee Dy, gave me a Chinese name – “Ai Fei Fei”.

“Ai” is from the “A” in Alcasid, and “Fei” means “luxuriant and beautiful”, from the “fer” in “Jennifer”. Prof. Dy had thought about the name over a weekend, putting much effort in coming up with something special. After all, it was like she was naming me all over again.

I told the seal lady and she wrote the characters down for me, asking me if they were the right ones. We were taught to speak a little Chinese, not read it, so I wasn’t sure. I gave her the meaning; she nodded and asked me to choose a seal.

Since my zodiac animal in Chinese astrology is a Sheep, that’s what I chose, along with a red box. I was told to return in twenty minutes.

When I came back for my seal, it was beautifully engraved. My Anglo name “Jenny” was added at the bottom, rendering it invalid for use as an “official” seal. Still, it is special as a souvenir of this trip.

The box is of red brocade and fastened with a plastic splinter. Formerly, deer horn was used.

Closeup of the seal, with my Chinese name engraved in the ancient seal script.

The interior of the box is lined in red silk, with hollows for the seal and the covered dish of seal paste.

Playing with the seal.

The seal is marble, while the seal paste dish is porcelain.

The underside of the seal and the dish of seal paste. Seal paste is made of pulverized red cinnabar mixed with castor oil and silk strands to bind everything together.

At the Night Market at Jordan, one subway stop away from where our hotel was in Tsim Sha Tsui, I got this watch.

I don’t usually wear watches. But I couldn’t resist this old fashioned clockwork one, which features Chairman Mao constantly waving his arm up and down.

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hong kong color

Hong Kong in winter, right after the Lunar New Year but still during the celebration, was a a feast of color and texture.

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Flowers along Canton Road.

More color comes from other things – seals at a stall at the Stanley Street Market, for instance.

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The seals (yin) are usually of marble or other stones, or plastic. They will be carved with a person’s personal name for use on official documents (chop), using an ancient script form. Seals may also be engraved with corporate names and studio names. For the tourist market, seals are carved with the person’s name in Anglo and Chinese and are not for official use.

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The seals come with Chinese zodiac animal finials while some are plain cylinders. Those are only for Chinese names; Anglo names would not fit.

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Metal exercise balls for the hands.

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