Calligraphy and the Robin Hoods of Songxi

12th August, 2018

It’s our third day in Songxi. Last night, I never woke up until it was five in the morning. But then, I slept again for another one hour.

At exactly seven, we are in one of the rooms at Xu’s Ancestral Hall, to learn the art of writing Chinese characters using a brush and paint. The calligrapher standing on a podium in front shares the same first name with Wu Ch’eng-en, author of Journey to the West. He says he will write Journey to the East. He can author one, only that he has to teach us calligraphy first – a pride peculiar to Songxi that keeps him engaged most of the time.

We all stand behind our tables with a glass bowl that has divisions in it, a brush and a paper we pull from drawers beneath. Within its cover, the tip of the brush looks sharp. Xu advises us to rub it a bit. We will know it better when we dip it into paint. He holds it high, perpendicular to the board. He draws the first stroke and urges us to try. I dip the tip of my brush into the bowl. I put it on paper. The horizontal line I draw gets thicker and spills over to the cloth beneath.

Don’t dip it in there for too long, at least 70%.

We can’t know which is our 70%, a friend and I laugh. A Chinese friend comes nearer. He grabs the brush. His thumb and forefinger almost meet as they encircle a point on the lower part of the brush. The middle and ring fingers stick together just below the index finger, isolating the fore finger. He draws a Chinese character for a four, 四, Si in the Romanized form.

“Remember, your brush needs to stay vertical when you draw your characters.”

I refocus on Xu. We have already drawn our first character, 王,Wang. That is king. The Chinese friend said if I observed a tiger’s face, I would notice the Wang character on its forehead. He showed me a photo on his mobile and pointed to the Wang. “A tiger is a powerful animal; that is why Wang is king.”

Xu introduces another character. With two horizontal parallel strokes and a bending one running across them vertically, it is complimented by another one that meets the second horizontal stroke beneath the top most, and bends rightwards. Its transliteration is Tian, 天. It means ‘sky’, he says.

Another assistant of Xu inspects our works. He comes to me, says a few words and stands right where I am to watch.

“Make the strokes thicker,” the Chinese friend interprets. He says it requires much strength and a perfect posture. The assistant picks up my brush, bends forward, holds it tight, and rubs its tip against the paper. There lies a perfect 天 on my paper. I have to draw my own below it. I bend forward, hold the brush tight, make some quick horizontal and vertical movements with it on the paper, and voila.

Unfortunately, we do not have all day. We are asked to show our first calligraphy. Cameras roll. It’s another day of fame in Songxi village.

About an hour later, we reconvene in front of the hall, with basins for the Ming Stream Adventure. Ming Stream lies at the opposite end of the plaza outside Xu Family’s Ancestral Hall. As the organizer splits us into teams of 15, clouds start to form. The first sign of rains since we arrived two days ago. Locals have gathered to watch the game, with their phones and cameras. We are divided into three teams, each tasked with pouring water into a drum for an allocation of 5 minutes. The first group starts. We all laugh and jump and clap hands as members of the group relay two red buckets to and from the Ming Stream. It starts drizzling. Not so many seek shelter. The drizzles transcend into a downpour. Some rush for cover. Some stay. I am now watching from a distance, partially battered by the rains. Most members of the group that will come after us are holding basins on their heads, trapping rain water. They then pour the water into their own drum. My three South African friends notice.

“Those guys are cheating.”

It’s our turn. We dare the rains like the previous group. Once emptied, we throw the bucket over to a member in the line, skipping two or three others. We’ve borrowed the idea from the team before us, but we lose two buckets to the Ming Stream that is now foaming with rainwater flowing into it from drains that trap the water from various streets in the village.

It’s the last team’s turn. Again, we laugh and jostle and clap our hands. For them, once one gets the bucket, he runs with it all the way to the drum. My Chinese friend reiterates our earlier worries. We all agree. We joke about it with the organizer. She says once they are declared winners, we can gang up and sprinkle all the water from our two drums on them. Before their five minutes is over, they are done. But they still run like rabid wolves. We scream as others jump, inviting them to our drums. Some come our way, some to the first team.

Our drums are filled up too. They have become our heroes, the Robin Hoods of the game – robbing the richness of the Ming Stream to quench the thirst of our drums. It’s time to celebrate victory. The real water game starts – basins and more basins of water are sprung around. When the drums are empty, others run to the stream with buckets. They soon resign to the stream. As I leave the plaza, I hear splashes from the confluence of the Ming Stream, and screams of happiness and joy.

Beaton Galafa is a Malawian writer of poetry, fiction and nonfiction. He currently lives and writes from Jinhua, China. His work has appeared/is forthcoming in Betrayal, The Seasons, Empowerment, BNAP 2017 Anthology, Better Than Starbucks, Love Like Salt anthology, 300K Anthology, Literary Shanghai, Mistake House Magazine, Africa, UK, and Ireland: Writing Politics and Knowledge Production, Fourth & Sycamore, The Wagon Magazine, Transcending the Flame, Every Writer’s Resource, First Writer Magazine, The Bombay Review, Writing Grandmothers, Kalahari Review, The Maynard, Birds Piled Loosely, Atlas and Alice, South 85 Journal, Nthanda Review and elsewhere.

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