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.
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!
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
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.
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.
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!