During my week in Xi’an, I went back several times to calligraphy alley.
It is actually a main alley with a few small side streets, ending in the Stele Forrest Beilin Museum, housing some of the earliest examples of Chinese writing.
But it is the alley with its stores filled with brushes of all sizes, kilometers of rice paper rolled up or folded, the smell of ink and the seriousness of the buyers that attracted me most. I was one of them, checking each bush for its softness and feel between my fingers. I unrolled paper and opened exercise notebooks, taking all my time while choosing a few items.
I returned to the same store a few times, making friends with the owner, love for calligraphy being our common language. She spoke no English, and I speak no Chinese. My nine year old son was equally fascinated, and the lady kindly let him try out several brushes before he settled for one.
As I walked, I could only imagine what it must have been a thousand years ago, as Xi’an was the start of the silk road and an important center of learning. A town more than 6’500 years old, it became the political and cultural center of China in the XIth c. BC and continued to be so for almost 900 years, of which 300 where under the highly sophisticated Tang Dynasty.
I imagined old Tao masters and Confucian students walking down the street looking for the perfect brush, smelling ink stones and appreciating their blackness, while exchanging arguments on whether wisdom is acquired through living or learning.
Having been an important Buddhist center as well, I also pictured monks in loose robes and small umbrellas, gently feeling the thin rice paper, and choosing the best one to copy the Sutras Xuan Zang had brought from his odyssey across India in the VIIth c., now housed in the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi’an.
I felt most humble when I was there. This was not the site of some major battle or conquest, as so many historical places tend to be, but one of knowledge and beauty. I think anyone would have felt the same.
Thank you for reading.
Photos I took in Xi’an and at the Stele Forest Beilin Museum – June 2018.