Chinese Sketches – Travels in China

“The idea of the reconciling of opposites, which permeates the whole field of Chinese painting, applies also to brush strokes. The expression ‘chuan chih’, which literally means “the bent and the straight”, is sometimes used as a generic term for painting (…) From the above, it becomes evident that the artist’s choice of light or dark ink for his outlines -or any other area- has nothing to do with questions of light and shade, of chiaroscuro affects. Their use is based on an entirely different principle: that of balancing the light and the heavy, the advancing and the retreating, the acting and the reacting. The arrangement of the forms passes beyond the sphere of plastic composition into aesthetics, where we meet once again the principle of the identity or balance of opposites.” – The Way of the Brush Image: Dong Yuan (c. 934 – c. 962), classical Chinese painter.


I am a professional artist and have no intention to being overtly political in this essay. It is merely a personal (and sometimes humorous!) account of my experiences in China. To create a great painting, you must make a sketch… this is my sketch!

5-14th Feb 2013 – Chinese New Year in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong: stunning forested mountains and beaches surrounding one of the world’s financial centres.
When I landed, I was planning to go straight to mainland China. Then, I was suddenly informed that my visa would not take one day to issue (as advertised in their website) but 4 days… which became 8 due to Chinese new year’s bank holidays. I argued that it should take just a day. Their response was that their website is outdated – so the official information cannot be trusted. I told them I was going to complain. They then sent me to the appropriate office: closing exactly when I was arriving. I felt the bitter taste of Chinese political bureaucracy. As a result I was stuck in Hong Kong during the Chinese New Year (all the hotels were full!), but I still managed to have a wonderful time. I visited some old friends and along the way met new ones. I’ll always remember those wild beaches in Shek O!
The elusive and mysterious continental China… still keeping its secrets away from me!

14-16th Feb – Macao, St. Paul’s Church

Macao is mixed race. This unique blend of Chinese and Portuguese cultures is truly exotic. UNESCO states that the historical centre of Macao is a world heritage site – as it is the finest example of cultural fusion in the whole of China. Macao: the entry gate for christianity into Asia… Macao: the exit gate for esoteric Chinese traditions into Europe…

Its historical centre looks like Oporto. Gorgeous! It is true that the saying “home sweet home” relates to everyone’s nationalities… but I still affirm there aren’t many special homes like Portugal! This home, with a small room in Asia, is being destroyed by some economical powers which seem to be concerned about profit, destroying the ancient heritage and ‘renovating’ cities. Thus, filling them up with ‘brutalistic’ modern architecture. These new buildings will only look ‘nice’ for as long as its surface doesn’t age, scratch and oxidise.
Nowadays, the Portuguese language has almost been totally eradicated. Hardly anyone speaks English too. I was lucky to have been introduced to a family of Portuguese-Chinese living in Macao, where I was welcomed. Rute and her son Marco took me around, all the way from the local markets to the most exclusive casinos – where there are rooms for the super-rich where the minimal bets are the equivalent to 20.000 British pounds!

When I was by myself, I noticed something intriguing: It is an Asian habit of sending us to a random direction, when they don’t know how to reach our intended destination point. This made me waste hours searching for where I wanted to go. Finally, I felt I was in Asia! I started smiling when tricked again, when sent to another wrong place!

16th Feb:
Mrs. Peng blinded when still a baby. She was the daughter of wife #2 (who abandoned her) of a very rich Cantonese man, that had 7 wives. Wife #1 was a very kind woman and decided to adopt her. Then, 3 year old Peng recovered her vision, cured by an Indian doctor. She became the only child of wife #1. As such, she was trained on how to run the house as the main heir. She learnt how to grow a business. Later on, the communist revolution takes everything away from her, except one thing: the knowledge of making every project a reality. Many Chinese Buddhists perceive disable people as having bad karma, paying for their bad deeds in previous lives. I believe this shows a discrimination against disabled people. In China, there are many people whom have been amputated, for not affording expensive treatments in hospital. Peng feeds 80 beggars a day. She’s 85 years old, but keeps cooking and distributing the food by herself. Some Buddhist temples have tried to demotivate her, as her charity exposes their lack of support for the poor. Peng keeps going on for already 8 years… and, finally, some temples started to feed the poor… only twice a month, but better than nothing! My dear friend Filomena Camacho wrote Peng’s biography. Please read it as soon as it gets published. It was an honour to be welcomed by Peng in the city of Guangzhou. Afterwards, she took me to the train station, together with her collaborator – the always silent Wei, too shy to look at me! When I wanted to invite them for a drink, Wei refused as she said drinks are too expensive in cafes… She’s the daughter of blind parents. Wei only earns 1500 renminbi/month (the equivalent to £155), from which 600 are for the rent. But although penniless and unable to cross language barriers, she offered me food that she bought from a local shop. She also gave me a coin, so I wouldn’t forget her… Generosity, it seems, often comes from the very poor… I went inside the night train, as I meditated on this, towards magical Guilin.

16-17th Feb: The stunning landscapes of Guilin, with mountains just like Chinese paintings.

I decided to take night trains and buses. Both are considered a bit dodgy, yet I always came across a very decent transport system. China isn’t that poor anymore, unlike its past. I guess things have improved considerably in the last few years. My bed was in a dorm for four, but there was nobody else in there. I was the only European in that train, that went to the bar. The waiters started to dine. Without saying a word – as they don’t speak English – they offered me their food, with a shy smile. I realised that I couldn’t read their body language – as it is very different from a westerner’s. I could quickly sense when they were embarrassed or afraid, but still didn’t know whether there were any feelings of attraction… but action speaks louder than words or appearances, and very generous actions have been expressed towards me.

The Chinese I’ve met in the south of China seem happy with an active sense of humour – almost like Latin Americans – they also get easily touched revealing a melancholic poetical sensitivity. Modern China is very different from the past and has unfortunately lost much of its zen traditions: these recent generations have yet to learn to love nature on its purest form. As such, they seem to prefer a manicured park to a wild forest, a city full of shops to the beautiful countryside, what I perceive as “plastic modernity” to a respect for tradition.

I was shocked with the lack of heritage – as unique historical buildings have been demolished to create concrete towers that look the same allover the world. Because of the ‘Cultural revolution’, China is a country with the lowest Unesco world heritage sites per area, which reveals how badly their past has been treated.

At dawn the train arrived to Guilin… I took the bus to Yangshuo. Nothing had prepared me for what I was going to witness: the hills raised from the ground, tall and very slim. I had seen pictures before, but had no idea that there were hundreds of them! The mist, either thick or thin, caused them to appear and disappear. One could imagine dragons hiding under those clouds. It is no wonder, those mountains had been the subject for thousands of Chinese paintings. And those freezing, gelid mists turned the landscape into an almost monochromatic palette: I finally felt all around me – both in my body and in my soul – the spectacular back, white and delicate greys of classical Chinese art.

18-19th Feb: Longsheng’s expressionist rice field landscapes.

I decided to join a bus tour, to visit the faraway rice fields of Longsheng. The bus would depart at dawn, at 7am. I waited and waited… despairing! It was almost 7am and no bus! Because of language barriers there was no way of checking if I was at the arranged place. It was freezing cold and I started to shiver. Then, exactly at 7am sharp, the bus arrives – already loaded with Chinese tourists. Only three foreigners: an American guy, a French lady and myself. We departed to Longsheng, via Guilin. Most people snoozed. Around 8:30am the guide cracked some hysterical jokes that made all the Chinese laugh. There was joyful noise everywhere.

We went through stunning landscapes. Longsheng seemed to be very similar to the Douro valley (Portugal), but a peculiar ethnicity inhabits these rice terraces: The women of Longsheng only cut their hair once in their lifetime, when reaching 18 years of age – the sign they’re ready to marry. Some of these women have over 2m long hair. I heard them sing with vibrant nasal voices that remind me of Bulgarian folk songs. Very beautiful. Of course, they always tried to sell us things, strongly grabbing our arms as they laughed.

The guide announced that a traditional wedding would take place – so we would witness the ceremony. But I was unaware that the groom would be me… As I was chosen by the group to be the mock groom, I had to quickly nominate the most beautiful girl. They untied their hair… the shiniest and healthiest looking hair I’ve ever seen!

The girls were all beautiful: the women from this part of the country are incredible. After choosing my favourite, I had to step on her right foot, displaying my interest. Then all the women were quickly covered under shawls and I had to guess who was the special one: after failing over and over again (I couldn’t remember who she was) they brought me the bride – but I suspect it was another woman! Afterwards we exchanged gifts and all the villagers pinched our bums, which apparently means affection. Such great fun!
Then we departed to another field, by bus. My bride didn’t want to come with us… I was unable to memorise her name and didn’t even keep her contact number… such a bad husband!

I decided to stay on that second rice field for the night, befriending three Chinese tourists: silent gentleman Li Feng, happy and noisy ‘Spring Day Bamboo’ and her boyfriend Christian, gorgeous coquette ‘Swallow’. We did beautiful hikes together among water terraced mountains, rice fields, steam and mist.

19-20th Feb: Stunning Yangshuo.

Qin Xien Xue is a 20 year old medical student. He learnt most of his beautifully pronounced English by himself and now teaches his university colleagues for free. He’s spending 20 days in Yongzhou as it is his best chance of developing his language skills: “Lots of tourists come here so I can practice with them and make new friends from allover the world.” – he says, with a proud smile. He belongs to the new future generation of Chinese intellectuals that is reconnecting with their heritage, in all its manifestations. “Someday I’ll live in here” – pointing to a spot with privileged views over those stunning mountains. He’s also impressed by those hills and complained that most of the local inhabitants don’t ever bother to hike them. We rented bikes (just a pound sterling a day) and went all the way along the river. The water was serene and bamboo rafts still make their journeys, like they did thousands of years ago – leaving a faint trail of streaky lines behind them. There are tiny fluffy dots of splashing colours flying over the river – butterflies! Animals graze the fields, motionless… Xien Xue seemed surprised when I explained to him that educated Europeans love handmade, unique items – and tend to loath industrially produced ‘plastic’ looking artifacts – perhaps because we have lived a long time under the industrial revolution. As such, we love crumbling little Chinese houses more than the newly refurbished IKEA type (all veneered with modern machine made white tiled facades) – that the Chinese seem to be so fond of. “Look, this is your house, you must be a very rich European millionaire!” – he said laughing, pointing to a ‘gorgeous’ crumbling old animal hut. That moment onwards, we became friends. Every night he would study English for at least an hour, all by himself. This persistent behaviour is taking China quite far, perhaps growing more its GDP in a year than most European countries in a decade! I clearly remember the Cantonese immigrants working 14h/day in Portugal on minimal wages, tenaciously sending money back home, showing a selflessness that was something to admire. The China I saw feels rich. The cars on the street tend to be expensive, trains are efficient, people wear brand new clothes and the country looks clean. But the poor are still very poor, with perhaps 100 million people living on the verge of the poverty line. Xien Xue was heartbroken when we said goodbye – and so was I – he never had a Portuguese friend, let alone an artist… as his Chinese friends are all into business.
That night I flew from glacial Guilin to tropical Hainan.

20-24th Feb

I woke up halfway through my flight from Guilin to Sanya and saw a blurry shaken version of my sleepy face on the screen of an iPad. My flight companion – obviously embarrassed at having been caught photographing me – asked if we could take a picture together. “Yes, with pleasure”, I said. Her name is Wei, approximately 28 years old, works in an office. She said that I was the first European she met: “That’s my single sister. Isn’t she beautiful?”
The plane landed in Hainan island. Dozens of people glancing – as I was notoriously the only Caucasian in that airport – friendly glances, usually followed up by big smiles and waving of hands saying hello/goodbye – as they’d escape, each time I tried to speak with them. It was 10pm and beautifully hot! In tropical Hainan I saw more ‘creative’ lifestyles than in mainland China – from driving in the wrong side of the road, random taxi quotations ranging from 50 to 300 yen for that same trip to the hostel. The next day I had a grasp of the landscape. Hainan seems like the best of Greece merged with a tropical flora. The cities are again uncharacteristic and impersonal due to the lack of architectonic landmarks, but those mountains really spoke to me. All sorts of delicious fruits grow in there – and you can buy them so cheaply and eat them by the sea. My memories of Hainan will always be linked with the fragrance of the mangosteen fruit. Never had I eaten anything comparable with it. The coastline is quite expressionistic, full of geological turns and twists surrounded by soft white sand.That night, I found a much more interesting part of town: the only bit of the old fishermen village that resisted aggressive redevelopment. These fishermen are called DangJiaRen, ´the Gypsies of the sea´. So many people eating outdoors in improvised restaurants. Delicious food for less than a pound. It would be perfect if it weren’t for the language barriers: in Hainan I felt more isolated than anywhere else I’ve ever been to before. A fact that surprised me, was that the only nudist beach in the whole of China sits next to the main promenade, by the entrance of the army premises. Hundreds of mums with trolleys and children walking right next to naked men. Nobody seemed to be bothered. Maybe the overcrowding taught the Chinese to block each other out and mind their own business… another example to confirm my suspicion: all cultures that I’ve seen – even the so called repressive ones – have types of freedom that I haven’t found in Europe.

24-25th Feb

I only met one tourist that could speak enough English to befriend, a Chinese lawyer that wanted to be kept anonymous – so let’s call this person Paris, the name chosen by this individual. He tried to push the legal system towards democracy – so he got fired and cannot find another job. “Chinese people say they don’t care about politics. But politics are everywhere in this country and control our lives.” The air was warm, the day was sunny, the country didn’t feel poor, so those words didn’t immediately sink in my thoughts. After taking me for a great meal in the local market, Paris and I went for a stroll along the riverside, as dusk slowly enveloped the island. In my opinion, Chinese cities look at their best as it gets darker. All the myriad of neon reflections moved and blurred on the surface of the water- as well as my own mirrored image. It felt like the water was taking my image downstream, bit by bit: I was losing identity, I couldn’t feel “me’ anymore after travelling in China: I became a smudged memory of myself on the rippling water, not even that… just a feeling, an intuition that my image used to exist. Somewhere in the distance, an old man sat by the river with his radio on. I heard haunting Chinese instruments that I was unable to name, followed by a sound that made me shiver: a female singer was rendering in shrill cries, a ravishing Chinese opera from Hainan. The sounds were of an unearthly type of beauty, awakening emotions that I hadn’t felt before. “These traditional regional operas were forbidden during the Cultural Revolution. The only ones sponsored by the government were the plays saying good things about the communist party and using western instruments.” – Paris told me. The singer went on and on, telling her story: a narrative in a language I couldn’t speak, but I understood her and shared some of her pain. The blurred image of the city lights on the water was as abstract to me as those sounds – yet they both describe my feelings more factually than the words of my own language. And also modern China temporarily lost its own image – like myself. That took me to the book ‘1984’, by Orwell: by eliminating the past, a government eliminates all evidence that things might have declined. By destroying all their ancient beauty and heritage, the Chinese cannot easily see how corporate ugliness now, prevails. As such – as the country got richer – they believe that life is getting better and better, that society has evolved – as Marx stated – and that this current political system is indispensable and the pinnacle of a path towards progression… perhaps not noticing a spiritual and aesthetic servile decline towards the west. To me, it seemed dangerously like Big Brother. But the haunting beauty of the Hainan opera singer’s voice had challenged time and spread above the water, with its almost disconnected metallic harshness, thus corroding all my beliefs on human nature and identity. Bit by bit, note by note – a painful process mellowed by music’s universal appeal, the resilience of traditions even when censored and the warmth of that evening breeze.