Sitting in the quiet village square in China, I’m enjoying and appreciating a fresh pot of pu’er tea, something of a tradition in this part of the world. The thing with pu’er tea is that is improves the more you drink it. The first cup out of the pot is discarded, being too bitter. The second cup is pleasing but stringent, a wake-up call for the taste buds. The sixth or seventh cup is the most highly-valued, the tea having had time to soften and brew. I’m drinking slowly, counting the number of times I have refilled the pot, “1… throw away… 2… 3… 4…” and am looking forward to appreciating the sixth cup but there’s a distraction.
I’m not easily distracted from decent tea, as friends will testify. However, on the other side of the square are a row of small shops. At the far, right-hand end is a shop that gives no indication of what it is selling. The front of the shop is mostly boarded over, with just a small gap in the centre of the shop front. The thing that’s distracting me is the man who is standing behind the small gap. He’s not moving. Just standing. From this distance it’s impossible to see what he’s doing but he’s clearly looking down. Perhaps he’s just asleep. Yes, that’ll be it. In this sleepy town, the shopkeeper is having a nap, back to the job at hand, “… Cup number Five… Mmm, nice…”
OK, he’s not sleeping, I saw him move. What on earth is he doing there? What. On. Earth? I’m still studying the shop and the shopkeeper, squinting to try and make out more detail but it’s no good, the far end of the town square is too far away. I’m thinking that I should probably go and take a look, figure out what he’s doing, but this sixth cup of pu’er tea is in the pot now and if it is left to stew it will be ruined. Am I really so easily distracted? Am I really going to leave this precious cup of tea, this delicious cup of tea that I’ve been patiently waiting for, just in order to satisfy my childlike curiosity?
I get up and walk across the square.
All becomes clear. The old man is a calligrapher, employing one of China’s oldest artforms. He is hired to write signs and documents for special occasions, to commemorate birthdays and weddings. The reason he his standing so still is that he is deep in concentration, focussed entirely on creating the special characters with a careful hand. He is standing in the gap in the shop-front to make use of the available light… I can appreciate that.
He looks up, catches my eye, smiles in return. I am invited to step closer, then invited inside his small shop. Camera? Over one shoulder, as always.
The inside of the Calligrapher’s shop is neatly organised, with what I guess will be decades of accumulated material. A modest shop but filled with items of deeply personal value.
There’s a job to be finished so he is quickly back to work, watched over by an appreciative friend.
He pours the tiniest amount of ink from a bottle and dips the brush in gently. I’m amazed at the amount of characters he can create from such a small amount of ink.
He continues to work and I do the same, trying to manage the exposure with such a great deal of contrast is a challenge so I’m checking the histogram carefully for each frame. I don’t want the camera to try and compensate for the dark interior by overexposing so I’m dialling-down, minus one stop… minus one and a third… and two-thirds… eventually, I’m exposing frames two stops lower than the camera is metering for.
It is silent in the square outside and inside the shop there is peace too. A feel a sense of purpose, a sense of calm, quiet purpose. This is like meditation for me. I can’t do the cross-legged, lotus-position kind of concentration, it’s that darned monkey-mind of mine, but I can do this. This is my meditation. Here is my serenity, my centre.
There are just the two of us now, both deep in concentration, both trying to do a good job, to make the most of our skills.
The Calligrapher turns to me, almost as if he’s forgotten that I am there, smiles, crosses the room and switches the kettle to boil. He indicates that I should take a seat. There’s fresh tea to brew but now I can enjoy it with a friend. “1… throw away… 2… 3… 4… 5… 6! Heaven!