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February 6, 2018

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Traditional art show warms up, instructs local residents about the Spring Festival

WITH the Spring Festival less than two weeks away, we feel subtle changes are coming over the city. It is becoming quieter. Some shops are posting notices about scheduled suspension of business next week.

Meanwhile, an astonishing number of people are on the roads. Awaiting them are long lines, crowds, and inclement weather, but they are not deterred, and no amount of financial inducements will dissuade them from the journey. Yes, it’s about the Spring Festival, about home reunion, about duilian (Spring Festival couplets) and jiaozi (dumplings).

The Spring Festival is so quintessentially Chinese that there had been attempts early last century to have it abolished, after China had suffered repeated humiliations at Western gunboats. Having imbibed the notion that wholesale Westernization was the only way to save China, some radical reformers believed that only eradication of Chinese traditions and customs can make way for a powerful China.

Today, there is increasing consensus that such customs and traditions, rather than being onerous burden to be left behind, are instrumental in enriching our collective memory, in reconnecting us to our common cultural root, and in reiterating our national identity. The young people in big cities, in particular, are in need of being informed about the many ritualized customs that were once so central to the observance of the festival. As part of an effort to renew our collective legacy, at No 200 Yan’an Xilu, which used to be the haunt of some renowned artists in the city, there is an ongoing art show (February 3 to 11) featuring customs, artifacts, and performances relevant to the Festival: couplets, pictures, paper-cuts and art performances, which invariably convey auspicious wishes for the new year. The event is hosted by Shanghai Federation of Literary and Art Circles.

Children, in particular, could avail themselves of this opportunity to learn about the many customs and traditions by registering online for interactive training sessions in paper-cutting, painting, dough modeling, knitting, and calligraphy. Shanghai is particularly suited for such educational events for, it is often observed, the festival is more authentically spent in villages or smaller cities.

Ever since I settled down here about 20 years ago, I noticed that Spring Festival couplets have never been a salient feature during the festival here, even in the suburban area.

Recently I consulted an 89-year-old gentleman surnamed Chen, who moved from Zhenjiang, Jiangsu, to Shanghai in 1937 and took up his current residence on Fuxing Zhonglu in 1941. He replied the couplets custom fell into desuetude before he settled here 77 years ago. But he was full of fond memories about the festivals he spent as a child in Zhenjiang, mentioning about his mother making steamed buns and pastry overnight on the New Year’s Eve, about giving away to visiting beggars, who were dignified “Gods of Fortune” on the auspicious day, about paying calls to relatives, about his father writing Spring Festival couplets and the Chinese character fu (blessing) while others stood by in great solemnity, about offering sacrifices to the spirits of the ancestors, about anticipation of the arrival of lion-dancing troupes (of 2 to 3 people) near noon and, of course, about the yasuiqian (gift money to children for the New Year).

By comparison, my own childhood memory about the festival is more mundanely about firecrackers, new dress, and chiefly about good food.

Last Friday I joined a press tour of the afore-mentioned art show. We were greeted by disciples of the well-known festival painting schools of Yangliuqing in Tianjin and Taohuawu from Suzhou, Jiangsu Province. On the second floor no less than 55 select couplets (with the earliest composed in AD 723) awaited us. They had been written for the occasion by 55 calligraphers in Shanghai.

These couplets serve a practical function: They are intended to be pasted on gateposts of door panels during the Festival to convey one’s best wishes for the New Year. In my hometown in North Jiangsu, all households are expected to have the couplets in place before the big feast begins on the New Year’s Eve.

Calligraphy as high art

But they can be more than functional. At their best, these couplets, as the 55 items suggest, could be specimens of consummate art, for it is impossible to talk about Chinese art without understanding calligraphy. As Pan Shanzhu, secretary-general of the Shanghai Calligraphy Association, explained, these couplets, while invariably suggesting bliss and well wishes, could be done in the kaishu (regular script), xingshu (running hand), lishu (official script), or caoshu (cursive script). They could also be executed in highly stylized, convoluted zhuanshu, or seal character, or even in the style of primitive jiandu (characters inscribed on wooden tablets or bamboo slips). Justifiably, calligraphy has always been deemed on a par with, if not higher than, Chinese painting.

As Pan explained, the top and bottom characters in the couplets should be in alignment, but the characters in between need not to be symmetrically aligned in size, thus allowing for infinite possibilities of patterns in spatial arrangement. There is disunity in unity.

For Westerners who are used to rate printed words above handwriting, it might be hard to understand how Chinese could elevate calligraphy into a high art, as a study of the form and rhythms in the abstract. It is no exaggeration to claim that calligraphy has equipped Chinese people with basic aesthetics. Its accessibility belies its sophisticated significance.

At the show I saw a group of students were shown the calligraphic exhibits, and the guide was lavishing with praise for those who could correctly pronounce the characters on the couplets — that’s quite a feat for children today brought up on textbooks using simplified characters and dominated by texts composed in the vernacular. Another challenge lies in making out the meaning of the couplets consisting of words that were highly compact and suggestive. The ultimate challenge would be to appreciate the artistic implications of those strokes that, in their highest levels, expressed something esoteric through the carelessly beautiful and deliberately irregular scripts. A sure stroke is often more valued because it is powerfully and swiftly produced at one stroke, defying imitation and correction.

The floor also featured a supersized fu (blessing) consisting of 108 smaller fu written by 108 calligraphers in Shanghai. Other crafts on display included folk handiwork art like bamboo or wood carving, straw plaited articles, jade sculptures, etc.

As one guide explained, “These folk arts portray the daily life scene of common people. There is no such distinction between high and low arts. Only market makes that distinction. Thus the diligent pursuit of art on the part of so many artisans is worth our highest respect.”

Of course for the working multitudes, the forced respite in the festival affords us an opportunity to slow down, to look sideways or look back.

For those less artistically endowed like me, the festival means indulgence in good food, and I am sorry for many children today that have prematurely lost their ability to enjoy a good meal.

But even eating has been strictly ritualized during the festival. For instance in my hometown, jiaozi (dumplings) is the prescribed food for the lunch on the first day of the New Year.

In unquestioningly following such rules, we acknowledge our common root. We have our root in agriculture, and this defines our national character as peace-loving, strenuous, and essentially optimistic, for no matter what crop failures we have survived, we are always looking forward to the next harvest.

Our sensitivity to the seasonable changes so tinges our outlook on life that we have good reasons to celebrate whole-heartedly this fresh start.


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