Painting, instant coffee and social blogging in China.

I first went to China in 1977 on a tour with a group of overseas Chinese. We were some of the first tourists to be allowed into China after the Gang of Four were arrested in 1976.

In 1984 I went back to live and stayed until 1986.

I was studying Chinese painting in Nanjing, then in Hangzhou at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Art. There was very little to buy except for food items. Heating was rationed, even though it was snowing outside, and so was the hot water for showers.

But there was always a plentiful supply of art materials – paper, brushes, inkstones and inksticks.

This was my first night in China, in a Sichuan restaurant in Nanjing. You can see from the hovering waiters that foreigners were a novelty. The dishes were washed in a bucket of dirty water and the table was greasy and had the remains of the previous customers' meal. We asked the waitress if she could wipe the table. She sullenly agreed and brought over a filthy grey cloth. 'See,' she said with a sneer. 'The more I wipe the dirtier it gets!' She wasn't joking.
Outside the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Art in Hangzhou.
In the foreign students' canteen. Students came from Germany, Switzerland and Japan. Our common language was Chinese. I was the only one studying Chinese painting. The others were studying printmaking, chop carving and calligraphy.
I was lucky to study with the local students who were all brilliantly talented. The Zhejiang Academy of Fine Art was considered the best place to learn traditional Chinese painting in the whole of China. This photo was taken with our teachers. In the background is West Lake.
On a field trip into the Wuyi Mountains in Fujian Province. Watching our teacher painting.
Taken with the Abbot of a Taoist Monastery in the Wuyi Mountains where we ate a delicious, but simple vegetarian meal.

In the 80’s there was nothing to buy. We couldn’t even get instant coffee, so each month we would take the train to Shanghai, to the famous Peace Hotel to purchase a supply which was kept in a glass cabinet at reception.

As foreigners, we were always closely watched, and had to be careful what we said in public. My friends, who were local students, had to be particularly on their guard.

No local Chinese were allowed into the big hotels unless they had special permission to meet relatives. There were guards on the gates and big fences surrounding the property.

How different it is today!

Who could have imagined…

Twenty five years on, this TED talk, given by the brilliant Yang Lan, otherwise known as the Oprah of China, demonstrates what China is like today and the attitudes of young people. There may be no Twitter, but social blogging is alive and well and playing an important part.

8 thoughts on “Painting, instant coffee and social blogging in China.

    1. Hi Steph,

      An inkstick is ink that is hardened into a stick. When the artist begins to paint he or she firstly grinds the inkstick with water on an inkstone.
      A chop is like a stamp. If you look at a chinese painting, beneath the writing there is always a red stamp or chop. This is the stamp of the artist.

  1. Gay this is so interesting – your blog and also Yang Lan is really so smart and I enjoyed her talk very much thanks for that- mum

  2. I will be moving to Hangzhou in December to teach English and am looking for a reliable way of communicating with my family at home in the US. Do you have any recommendations on blogging sites in China?

    1. Hi Shannon, I’m sorry but I’m afraid I can’t help you. When I lived in China, there was no such thing as blogging and websites or even personal computers.
      Perhaps your contact at the school could help you out.
      Hangzhou is a beautiful city. I’m sure you will enjoy your time there.

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