Opinion / From the Readers

One thousand ways to write longevity

By Hannah Lund ( Updated: 2016-07-12 10:53


One thousand ways to write longevity

Ms. Shi is carving on the bamboo chip in Shanxi. [Photo by Hannah Lund ] 

Down a corridor in Wang’s Family Courtyard, a woman leans over a thin tablet of bamboo. She uses a small knife to whittle bamboo skin into characters, one stroke at a time. I ask if she is writing a poem or an essay.

“I’m writing a novel,” she says.

Ms. Shi (as I later learned) has been practicing the ancient craft of bamboo carving for over thirty years. Her carvings include elaborate etchings of canal scenes and willow trees. A pile of bamboo shavings rises on her table with her every stroke, one out of millions that she’s carved recreating classics.

Her location in the Wang Family Courtyard was for my, a tourist’s, benefit. Yet her thirty years spent preserving an ancient craft could not have been for profit alone. She sought the sheer satisfaction of making someone pause and admire her work. In the course of her diligence, she has carved a staggering amount of ancient characters, along with the stories that went along with them.

One can only imagine how many people have stopped to admire them.

Throughout our trip in Shanxi, I was struck by a similar feeling just as when I watched Ms. Shi carve her characters. The first time I felt it was when we saw a wall ringing with rows of ancient Chinese characters at the Qiao Family Courtyard. Like Ms. Shi’s scrolls, I thought they spelled out a novel or a long ancient poem. Instead, they are all the same character: 寿 (shou) which means “longevity”. According to our guide, there are 1,000 ways to write “longevity”.

Like Ms. Shi’s patient carving knife, that wall of characters is a perfect description for Shanxi, a province home to more than 36 million people. Historically, it has long been considered “The Cradle of Chinese Civilization” because of its prosperous location by the Yellow River, and its successful Ming and Qing Dynasty merchants. Though such history is already much older than my own country, America, such historical sites are still around today, including the Wang Family Courtyard, Yungang grottoes and more. Even Zhangbi Ancient Fortress, which was built in the Sixteen Kingdoms period (about 1600 years ago) still stands as a place for tourists to visit and explore.

The character of Shanxi appears in many different lights.

However, when I think of the thousand ways to write longevity in Shanxi, these historical sites merely scratch the surface. Shanxi’s versions of longevity appear most in people like Ms. Shi, who keep ancient culture alive by recreating ways to present all that those 寿 characters stand for.

Such as with a man living outside of Qikou, an ancient hub along the Yellow River. Unassuming, and leading a simple life in Xiwan Village, he represents a complex line of history, of which he, too, is a part. His name is Chen Guang Yu.

Unlike Ms. Shi, Chen Guang Yu’s continuation of Shanxi culture is not through a trade. He is 14th in a line of Chen’s spanning back to Chen Shi Fan in the late 17th Century. The Chen’s began as street vendors at Qikou port nearby today’s Xiwan village, expanding their business as the generations lived on. Perhaps in this spirit, many of his descendents have moved to big cities for work.

But Chen Guang Yu remains.

His old home, now in the process of becoming a tourist destination, is where he stays, reliving stories about Xiwan Village. He talks about ancestors and how they contributed to local affairs. I and other travelers learned about how his home accords with Feng Shui Theory. His home itself is in an older style, with a k’ang bed. Yet he hands out crisp business cards and carries a cell phone in his pocket. Much like his decendents and their journeys out of the village, his is an old voice gaining volume in new venues.

Shanxi is where such old voices reverberate and find a place in the modern world. It’s indeed a complex province with a range of artifacts and sites to see. However, when it comes to the thousand ways to write longevity, like that wall in the Qiao Family Courtyard, it’s really quite simple.

With each new face and story, Shanxi writes another character. And so, another way to write longevity, one stroke at a time.

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