Would You Like Ruins With That Civilization? (Part Six of Minnesota Couch Warmer’s Guide to China)

Which best represents a civilization to you?  Architectural ruins or preserved calligraphy?


Photo by Erin Silversmith, GNU Free Documentation License



Calligraphy of Chinese Poem by Mo Ruzheng

(public domain)

My home is in the Midwest of the United States, where buildings more than 150 years old are relatively rare and are considered really, really ancient. When I travelled to Europe, I realized how funny it was to think of 150 years as being old.   I learned in Europe that honoring the past means to live surrounded by ancient edifices.

Therefore, I assumed that China, which is truly an ancient civilization, must be overrun with magnificent old structures.   Reading Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones changed my mind. Hessler, who spent several years living China, noticed that although the Chinese take enormous pride in their history, there are in fact very few really old buildings. The Chinese tended to build out of wood, brick, and tile—elements that were not designed to endure for centuries. Hessler also points out that, historically the Chinese did not pay a great deal of attention to their architecture. He finds that an odd lapse, as do I. But, Hessler, goes on to point out, that is because we, as Westerners, are taught since childhood that “the past was embodied in ancient buildings—pyramids, palaces, coliseums, cathedrals” (185). Antiquity, we are taught, is found in old buildings.

It’s true that I do think of ancient cultures as being embodied in architecture—so much so that it really disappointed me to read what Hessler said about the paucity of old buildings.   I can just see myself having a temper tantrum in the middle of Beijing, crying out, “Where are all the old buildings? I WANT some old buildings!!!”

I will try to control myself.

On the other hand, Peter Hessler observes that while the Chinese may be indifferent to old buildings, they ARE very interested in calligraphy. They will spend hours every day practicing their strokes and take great pride their accomplishments in writing Chinese. Hessler says that they were shocked at his own sloppy handwriting in English and could not believe that an educated man like himself could not write well—in the sense of creating beautiful letters.

When I travelled to the Persian Gulf, I noticed that the Arabs also took great pride in their calligraphy, displaying it on the walls, in museums, etc. To be honest, I found this obsession with calligraphy a bit of a yawner, and wanted to see some REAL art. Now I’m starting to realize how blinkered my views have been and how thoroughly they have been molded by a Western world-view.

What do you think? What do you think best captures the traditions of a culture?

Author: DebraB

I am a Professor of English at Concordia University-St. Paul. I have a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My research interests include American literature, contemporary literature, Middle Eastern literature, African literature and feminist theory.

3 thoughts on “Would You Like Ruins With That Civilization? (Part Six of Minnesota Couch Warmer’s Guide to China)”

  1. I.M. Pei shares your struggle. PBS presented a documentary in March, 2014, (see links below), following Pei as he returns to Suzhou, China, his family’s community for generations in order to build a museum capturing the essence of that community–an indoor and outdoor area. He struggles with memories of childhood, and family members now deceased while his architectural skills impose his modernity. The ‘neighborhood’ of “wood, brick, and tile”, as Hessler says, was only preserved somewhat because of Pei and it was now crumbling. However, China funded a museum that fuses both the old neighborhood and Pei’s memories with the art of his architecture. Pei felt obligated to rebuild this area to the satisfaction of the old families who had to move due to the museum construction. Pei, throughout the film that records a 20-30 year project funded by China, must bear witness both to his past and to his unique modernity. Ultimately he and his staff cut the ribbon that opens the museum representing all that was and is known to him. It was a struggle of his heart and his passion. Can civilization exempt the individual?

    After contemplating this blog, and recalling ancient places I have visited, loving their architecture and pieces of calligraphy, today I would say what captures the traditions of a culture is how people have interacted with each other, over the time their great structures stood, and how art and writing recorded this interaction. During ancient times, writing systems were thought to be created by gods. Later they were said to be ways to communicate with gods–cuneiform, calligraphy, illumination, wood block, typeface. “Writing provides a way of extending human memory by imprinting information into media…” Art also communicates this history, as do buildings, sodhouses, tents, huts, and caves.

    In Casablanca, the street signs bear both French script and Arabic calligraphy. The Moroccans decided to return the street names to their Arabic roots after the French left in the 1950’s. I have photos of these street signs in the neighborhood where I lived, taken only a few days before I flew home following ten months of walking those streets, not thinking twice about the civilizations they guided. On the other hand, I thought constantly of the white art deco bildings that give Casablanca its name, and the time period they represent. The four Imperial Cities are also known by their color–Rabat is blue for the sea and sky, Fes is green for its spiritual history, Marrakesh is red for its earthen buildings, and Meknes is yellow for its bright colors.

    To answer your questions, “What do you think? What do you think best captures the traditions of a culture?” it’s not black and white.

    I blogged on your blog again. See how you inspire and motivate me!

    http://www.ancientscripts.com/ws.html [See Timeline also at this site.]

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