Elaine participated in the 2011 Chinese Summer program.

Having previously visited China before my NSLI-Y trip in the summer of 2011, I thought I knew most of what China was about. However, during our rotating extracurricular lessons in class, I was blown away by one of our guest teachers. He was a calligrapher and artist, using the traditional inkstones, water, and brushes to make beautiful characters and true-to-life ink drawings. His work looked like the writing seen in books and TV shows, with the neat perfection and characteristic look of seeming naturally simple and straightforward. As soon as we were allowed to try, however, it became apparent how much hard work it took.

We were given papers with proportioned squares to practice writing in, as well as calligraphy materials. From preparing the ink without making a mess to holding the brush correctly (vertically, not like a pen!), everything felt terribly awkward and unnatural. Even more than the typical stroke order learned in class, writing in ink involved consideration of the little nuances in each stroke – the downward press at the start of a line, or how exactly the brush could be lifted off the page. In addition, how much ink was loaded in the brush at a given time (and the progressive dilution of the color) had to be taken into account. As we repeatedly tried to write some simple words, our calligraphy teacher wrote flawless characters one after another on the projector.

Our teacher later returned to teach us traditional Chinese art using the same brushes. He composed animals and plants, turning unrecognizable drops and lines into sleek bamboo plants and flowers with only a few additions. By carefully diluting and mixing the ink, he was able to make washes of faint shading and dark demarcations come together with a single brush and color. China deeply values its traditional arts, and the skills of our teacher were a clear example of the extent to which some pursue them. Amidst the rush of a large Chinese city, a simple but demanding art was one of the most impressive experiences of my trip.