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The Great Wall (Part I): A Confluence of the Old and the New

Updated: Aug 28, 2019

By: Gauri Barve Kale

The name ‘China’ evokes a range of emotions and imagery, much of which stems from what one sees in the news, reads in the newspapers and in books. On a recent visit to the country on an official sourcing trip, I too had obviously painted a picture in my mind of what the country would be like. To say I was overwhelmed by my experience, would be an understatement. There is so much more to China than what meets the eye! China is an intriguing and intricate patchwork of unique experiences, of the old and the new. This is where the centuries-old chronicles of imperial dynasties converge with modern-day skyscrapers and rush-hour traffic. It’s almost a modern dichotomy and yet so traditionally Chinese in culture and style!

In a 2-part series on my experiences in China, I will share stories about the things that really

stood out for me!

Bringing Modernity to Traditions

We travelled through myriad cityscapes - some big and modern and others made up of much smaller industrial or art towns. But, there was one common experience that stood out for us, across every place we visited. That was the traditional tea ritual; a large bowl filled with warm water to

store all the containers, a constantly whirring kettle of water and a light aroma of tea leaves

that was omnipresent.

The moment you enter an office or a home anywhere in China, you are served a cup of tea. If you empty it, they pour you some more. The Chinese almost take it as being inhospitable if the guest’s cup is empty. The safest way to not being served anymore tea (if you’ve had your fill), is to just leave the cup untouched or drink just a wee bit and keep it aside. While this ritual was a constant, what did change was the paraphernalia around it.

A traditional tea setup. Clockwise: The steel container with glass lid for storing cups in warm water; kettle; tongs to pick out tea leaves; red container with strainer to strain tea; ceramic container with lid: tea leaves are placed, and warm water is poured into this, tea gets brewed here; ceramic cups of different sizes. A wooden, perforated tray that helps drain the spilled water.

Type ‘Chinese Tea Ceremony’ on Google and it will throw a plethora of images with Chinese brides and ornate settings of tea being served. Cut to modern day China and this experience has been transformed for the contemporary, city dwelling, globetrotting Chinese. As a result, what you see today is a whole spectrum of interesting tools, both hi-tech and lo-tech, catering to this ritual; from hand crafted and hand painted porcelain wares to sleek, modern yet mass-manufactured pieces! It’s almost a transformation of an ancient culture, with every step of technological advancement. No step skipped, no short cuts taken, no compromise on experience! Just a transformation to the modern-day context. In busy trains and buses, we even saw people armed with thermos flasks or travel versions of the tea kits. Talk of adapting to modern times!

Travel-sized tea set with perforated draining tray.

What really caught my fancy was the way an entire industry has evolved around a seemingly simple beverage like tea. From beautifully packaged teas to thoughtfully designed tea strainers, traditional tea sets to carry-away tea cups, the bridge between tradition and modernity has been woven

well indeed.

A new-age twist to traditional tea cups. Porcelain tea cups with matching silicon lids that also act as stress busters!

Tea in many forms, from freshly brewed to bottled and packaged flavoured tea in supermarkets.

Even more interesting was the fact that this was not an isolated phenomenon. For instance, to date, Chinese children are taught to first write letters using a brush and ink. And, the story of objects that has evolved around this ecosystem is no different. The script uses a basic grid system of a square, divided into 8 triangles. Workbooks and worksheets are designed to make the activity of writing structured yet fun.

A grid page used for teaching calligraphy.

The variety of papers, inks, ink-pots, brush rests that one can find in a regular stationery store is simply mind boggling. Again, this stems from the fact that the script is still in use in modern and vernacular contexts. Road signs, billboards, shop signages and packaging at one end to local posters, notice boards, village banners on the other end of the spectrum.

Calligraphy incorporated in retail packaging design.n

Brush / chopstick rests

An entire section on calligraphy, in a book store

Banners with calligraphy, in the ancient city of Zhangzhou

Back home, while vernacular is indeed seeing a revival and becoming cool all over again, there is still a lot that we can learn from the Chinese way!

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