Mountain Resort- Encounter with an Ancient Caligraphist

The Mountain Resort is in the city of Chengde, in Hebei Province, and was where the emperors of the Qing Dynasty came in the summer to avoid the Beijing heat (the resort is known to be at least 3 degrees Celsius cooler than the city of Chengde itself).  It is the world’s largest existing imperial garden, and took 89 years to complete.  It is 5.6 km2, a vast complex of palaces, administrative and ceremonial buildings (including a 70m tall stone pagoda built in 1751), gardens, lakes, pasturelands, and forests.  The palace zone, which is how we entered the Mountain Resort, was built to resemble the Forbidden City and was where the emperor would receive his guests.  From there, we entered the vast fields and forests scattered with ponds and various pagodas.  After walking around for just 10 minutes, we spotted our first deer.  We got pictures in anticipation of it running away but to everyone’s surprise it came up to us, unflinching.  We started to offer it some snacks we had with us and it ate right out of our hands!  Soon enough a whole family came out of the woods and everyone was feeding the deer.  After awhile, me and 6 other people started hiking up one of the many mountains.  We walked along a stone walkway on which buses would periodically race by, ferrying people to various peaks.  After an arduous 45 minute hike, we reached the peak, and could see over the whole of Chengde.  We walked back down to an enormous lake, encircled with beds of giant lily pads.  There was much activity along the walkways and surrounding forests; people were practicing under the different types of wushu with swords, and I encountered three different sets of brides and grooms having their pictures taken with the scenic backdrop.

Deer at the Mountain Resort

Buck

Pathways through the woods and through the mountains

House Upon a Mountain

On one of the Peaks

The Lake

Water MillWalking alongside the lake

Along the shore we walked up to this small table on which were various scrolls of calligraphy.  Behind the table sat an old man in traditional dress, looking out over the lake.  I pointed at a scroll and asked how much, to which I got not a number but some phrase which I couldn’t understand.  Luckily I was with a friend, Paige, who can speak fluent mandarin, and he translated for me: the man said that it isn’t for sale, he was just an artist.  After a few brief moments of looking over his work, I tried asking him again, what price would he sell one for.  To this, he had an extended reply which was apparently a very interesting one based on Paige’s reaction.  The man said: “I am not here to be a vendor, although, if someone wants to buy a piece, I would say it’s 100 yuan; if they don’t have 100 I would say 50 yuan.  If they don’t have 50 I would say 10 yuan, and well, if they don’t have 10 yuan I would just tell them to have it.”

We were obviously confused because we were so used to people ripping us off in every way possible, and yet this old man said I could give him whatever amount I had, or was willing to give him.  It was obvious I wanted one by the way I was scanning his portfolio, and suddenly, he crept down and rustled around in a chest he had by his feet.  He put these two wooden blocks out on the table and slowly unraveled a brand new paper scroll.  It was already backed with an ornate setting, and you could tell he made and prepared his own scrolls.  He asked me for my Chinese name, and I showed him the correct writing of it on my iPod touch (which I’m sure he was really confused as to what the device was).  After he looked at it, he nodded and went back to his table.

He grabbed one of the dozens of brushes laying around and began dipping it in this bowl of china, periodically adding ink.  Long moments passed as he stroked the brush back and forth with his right hand, lathering up the 毛笔 (calligraphy brush).  A crowd started to gather- mostly of local Chinese- and before he began there must have been 20 or so people standing around, watching.  After he had sufficiently soaked his brush, he closed his eyes, spread out his hands over the scroll, pausing for only a moment…and then methodically swayed his left hand over the scroll continuously from end to end, barely an inch above the paper.  His hand slowed to a stop, and he gently let it settle onto the scroll.  Without hesitation he brought his brush to the paper, and in one fluid motion, made the first character come to life.  Within minutes he had made four large characters in the middle of the scroll from right to left, stopping only briefly to retouch his brush with ink.  He then proceeded to make two vertical rows of characters on both the right and left sides of the scrolls, and finished his piece by pressing down, with the entire weight of his body, on his signature chop.Alongside the lake

I am not quite sure what it says, but I think the four main characters say something to the extent of “the great and honorable Mr. Wu Wei Hao” (my Chinese name).  As for the sides, I’m not quite sure although I’ll have to find out.  After he was done, the silence was broken and he seemed pretty happy.  He promptly got out this small ratty book and plopped it on the table, motioning for me to sign.  He explained how everyone, to whom he had ever given his art, had signed the book; I signed my signature next to where I was from and he wrote my traditional Chinese name next to it for me.  I decided to give him 100 yuan ($16 USD) because it was well worth the experience—I got a video of the whole thing which is pretty amazing.  He was very appreciative, and I asked to take a picture with him.  He then went on about how we can’t think about how he is Chinese, and we are American, but that we are all people.  After an exchange of smiles, thank you’s, and some other Chinese I couldn’t understand, we made our way back to meet up with the group and head back to Chengde; I was feeling pretty good about the experience and my first ever personal calligraphy scroll, and great souvenir.

Me and the Caligraphist

My Personal Scroll

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One Comment on “Mountain Resort- Encounter with an Ancient Caligraphist”

  1. Elizabeth Says:

    John,

    I am loving this story about the ancient calligrapher! And I applaud all the picture taking and movie capturing. A boy after my own heart (and love of the photograph!)
    Miss and love you…be safe.
    xoxo

    Elizabeth Wu


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