A small exhibition

Inside the Zhan garden in Nanjing, I came across a little exhibition of arts and crafts. All I could tell was that it was not in a contemporary style. The labels on the exhibits were written in calligraphic Chinese, which I find very hard to read. If you are able to read the poster in the gallery below, I would be very glad to have your help in learning more about what I saw.

I’m always fascinated by the Chinese imagery of horses. The rest of the world divides horses into two types of symbols: those of speed (think race horses), the other of plodding power (think of a draft horse). The Chinese view of horses is that of nearly untamed power; it is an achievement to tame it. I looked carefully at all the horses on display. Chinese calligraphic art makes it way into the design of plates. I love the acute observation and wonderful execution of the pictures of flowers and birds that you can see.

Museum of calligraphy

When I spotted a tiny Museum of Calligraphy near the Bund in Shanghai, I wasn’t sure what it would turn out to be. Our flight had been delayed, and by the time we checked into our hotel most things were closing. This was only a couple of blocks from our hotel, and in a street full of book stores and art equipment. There would be other interesting things to look at if this was no good, I thought. The Family had also grown very interested in calligraphy ever since our encounters with painters in Guangzhou. So we walked down to the self-styled museum. It was a room above a tiny shop of calligraphy brushes and inkstones, small but interestingly put together (see the featured photo).

First things first: what are brushes made of? We couldn’t read the Chinese explanations, but the pictorial guide was helpful. When I was young I’d used delicate squirrel hair brushes for fine details, and stiff hog’s hair brushes for larger areas. Mink, vegetable fiber, human hair, bear fur seemed very exotic to me. I looked at the picture of a goat illustrating the parts which yielded fiber for brushes, and wondered about the special characteristics of the brushes.

A large number of displays on the walls answered these questions. They showed the kind of work that each type of brush is used for. We walked around looking at the panels: again quite simple to follow, even though we didn’t read any Chinese. This was the part of the museum that I really enjoyed. They threw light on an aspect of calligraphy which I’d not paid attention to. The next time I go through a museum looking at the collection of painting and calligraphy, I’ll be more alert to the changes of brushes in the painting.

The part of the display which I did not understand at all was the one about ink sticks and ink stones. I understand that you put a little water in an ink stone, and grind the ink stick into it. How does the kind of ink stone you use affect your technique? This was probably the place where knowledge of Chinese would have helped me to understand the display. In any case, of the four treasures (paper, brush, ink stone and ink stick) I now understood more about one. A successful half an hour, I thought.

The Smooth Pagoda

It took us a little effort to find the address of the Guang Ta (meaning smooth pagoda). Not unsurprisingly, it can be found on Guangta Road. It is a quiet neighbourhood, and when we got to the 36 meters high structure, it was unmistakable. A man sitting and watching me take photos called out from inside a shop “It is more than a thousand years old.” I was surprised that he spoke English, and turned to thank him. The earliest version of the tower is supposed to have been built on this spot in the 7th century CE, so it was about 1300 years old. Tradition has it that it was Abu Waqas, one of the companions of the prophet, who arrived in Guangzhou and had this minaret and the associated mosque built in 627 CE. There is some controversy about this claim, although the date of founding of the mosque is unchallenged. I could imagine the confusion that a tall structure like this must have created locally, leading to it being called a smooth pagoda. In any case, it has long been regarded as a landmark in Guangzhou. This is likely to be of fairly recent vintage.

The Huaisheng Mosque has burned down and been reconstructed many times, but its date of founding would make it one of the oldest mosques anywhere in the world. Having seen the Grand Mosque of Xi’an some years ago, we were prepared for the very Chinese layout, with a succession of courtyards leading eventually to the prayer hall at the northern end, which you see in the photo above. The large paved courtyard in front of it is meant to hold people who do not fit into the main hall. We peered through the doors of the hall. The layout is what you expect in a mosque: a minbar (pulpit) at the western end next to the main mihrab (prayer niche). In front of this is a large open hall which would, during prayers, hold the ranks of the people who come here to pray.

The calligraphy above the minbar captivated me. I don’t read Arabic, but I could figure out that the leftmost group contains the characters for Allah. The calligraphy is recognizably Arabic, but the look is influenced by Chinese writing. It is interesting in the same way as the architecture of mosques in China. The basic purpose of the mosque is retained in the minaret, the prayer hall, and the courtyard. However, the architectural sensibility within which these elements are placed are very different from the design which has spread with the Arab diaspora. The 13th century churning of the world in the wake of the Mongol invasions must have brought the two traditions into contact, but did not destroy them. The thought that the world is large enough for these two styles to coexist makes me happy.

I turned around to see that another group of visitors had arrived and were busy taking photos of each other. They were speaking some dialect of Chinese, but had distinctively different features. I suppose they were visitors from one of the western provinces. As you can see in the photo, the woman is wearing a headscarf and the men have caps; this is a strong indication that they are muslims. You can also see a low fence around the courtyard. This is said to have been built during the Tang dynasty, although the modern version is made of concrete.

As we left we saw that above the exit was a juxtaposition of two different traditions of calligraphy. The Arabic has the pride of the place, but below it, embedded into the stone, is an incription in Chinese. The Chinese calligraphic tradition asks us to admire the fluidity of the strokes. The Arabic tradition emphasized the decorative quality of the entirety of the inscription. It is interesting to see them together.

Food and art fair

The Family had already explored the route our evening’s stroll was to take, so the walk was more purposeful than usual. We gawked at life on the streets of Guangzhou as we walked up Di Shi Fu road to a pedestrian section of the Kangwang South Road. A fair was in progress. I love these little fairs whether they are the Christmas markets of Germany, the weekly farmer’s markets of rural India or a different flavour of fair in China.

My eyes caught on my favourite Chinese sweets, versions of the Indian chikki or tilkut (tilgur). Nuts or sesame seeds are bound together with sugar or molasses. Wonderfully high calorie snacks. When I first found them in Japan, I was astonished. Then I found them in Korea and China. I suppose they independently invented, although it does not seem unlikely that Buddhist monks would carry these as sustenance as they trudged across Asia. In any case, this seems to be too humble and readily made to be carried as trade goods.

I tore myself away to get caught at the stall of dried fruits. This is something done well all over Asia, from the west to the east. Having seen the incredible variety in a food market in Xi’an a few years ago, my guess is that it came to China from west Asia over the silk route, and then from China it spread to the rest of Asia. I’m guessing, but one reason this might be true is that the only dried fruits in India are those that came directly from trade with Arabia. China and India had very little contact in the last thousand years. Even today, if you see dried pineapples, jackfruit, or Kiwi in India, it is likely to have come from Malayasia or Thailand.

Food was the main purpose of the fair, of course. But the peculiarly Chinese touch was that there was a large area where an art auction was in progress. I’d noticed in Guangzhou how invested people were in art: it was not uncommon for people to be seen doing painting or calligraphy, and it was not uncommon for others to stop and watch. Here in the middle of the fair I saw people were buying paintings and works of calligraphy at the auction; those are the red plastic covered tubes in the hands of people.

The Family and I stood there and watched the auction for a while. We are ignorant of the niceties of calligraphy, but the quick brushwork and washes of the paintings were techniques I’d learnt as a child. The mastery of these methods was very evident in the work being shown. Chinese contemporary art is very avant garde, but it seems to be rooted deeply in traditional techniques. The auction proceeded rapidly, much too rapidly for us to follow. We enjoyed the paintings as they were displayed one by one, and then walked back into the thicket of food stalls.

The grand mosque of Xi’an

A city which has been a capital for centuries tends to accrete interesting monuments. This is true of Rome, Kyoto, and Paris. A city which has been an imperial capital for long also has cross-cultural monuments. Delhi is the pre-eminent among these, but Xi’an, at one end of the Silk Route, is also very interesting. Among these, the most interesting has to be the Grand Mosque of Xi’an.

It stands in a warren of streets behind the Drum Tower of Xi’an, its location indicated by a small road sign in English which you can easily miss. If you follow the sign you enter a bazaar full of tourist tat. Walk past them, and after some time you are near the East Gate of the mosque.


The mosque was first built during the T’ang dynasty (around 750 AD) and is strongly influenced by Chinese culture and aesthetics. This makes it different from anything I have seen before. The first difference was that we had to pay to enter. I have never had to pay an entry fee to a mosque, so I guess this counts as a Chinese cultural influence. You enter a courtyard and have to cross two more before you come to the last courtyard with westward facing prayer hall. The buildings all have the tiled roofs with upturned corners of traditional Chinese architecture. There are miniature pagodas and gardens. In most mosques elsewhere in the world you find decorative motifs with flowers and vines only. This has dragons, and turtles at the base of columns.

Perhaps the most disconcerting visual aspect of the mosque is not in the dragons or the tiled roofs, but in the images of plants and leaves. In India, and in most of the rest of the world, decorative figures in Islamic architecture capture symmetries. For example, one marvels at the interleaving of octagonal and hexagonal symmetries of vines and leaves in the friezes of Fatehpur Sikri. In the grand mosque the trees and vines that are depicted follow the asymmetric aesthetic norms of China (see the photo above).

The calligraphy is a mixture of Chinese and Arabic. In the first couple of courtyards I had to search to find the Arabic script. The arches and steles were full of elegant Chinese calligraphy. Only from the third courtyard does one start to see the Arabic script more often. The prayer hall (pictured below) has lovely Arabic calligraphy. To my untrained eye, it seems that there is an attempt here to bind the Chinese calligraphic style within the Arabic.


At first sight the prayer hall seemed like it could belong to any mosque anywhere in the world, but then I saw in places where there would be verses from the Quran there was Chinese calligraphy. Clearly the Quran has been transcribed into Chinese, another cultural innovation which has not recurred in Islam.

The Silk Route shuttled goods, technology and ideas across the known world of its time. I wonder whether it brought Arabs and their Islam to settle in the imperial capital of China, or whether the Chinese converted to Islam elsewhere and brought back the customs of a foreign religion. The architecture of the mosque, and the food habits of the region, a lack of pork and the prevalence of halal meat, could be used to argue for either. However, the range of sweets available in Xi’an seems to indicate an Arabic tradition. Perhaps the persistence of Arabic also points in the same direction. It needs experts to pin this down. I am happy to marvel at the syncretic end product.