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
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?