Sunday 15th Nov
501 is a significant number – it was an old military secret code and our studio building, now named 501 Artspace, was used for military purposes in the last world war. Chongqing was the wartime capital of China, a contested city. Not only was there an uneasy alliance between the Nationalists and the Communists, who were persecuted by the Nationalists, it was also bombed by the Japanese. There is a postcard book of significant Chongqing wartime headquarters buildings available, for those people who like to point at a picture. Exactly what the wartime story of 501 Artspace might be still eludes me, like the Yangtze.
Nearby, on the University campus, is a little double row of engineering sheds with corrugated roofs. Koko and I passed close by them today on our walk. These are now also studios, collectively called Tank Loft. At the end of the avenue formed by the buildings is an old Russian T34 tank, tarnishing in the weather but with its red star repainted. It seems that there was a Russian contingent here in Chongqing producing T34 tanks - again, the story is intriguingly fuzzy. The ID number on the side of the turret is 105.
So when we visit painter Wang Jun in his 501 studio, we are in a place that has many layers of paint, real and metaphorical. Wang Jun is my main helper on the Speech is Code works – our two writings, eastern and western, seem to occupy space well together. Our problem is that his English is nearly as limited as my Mandarin, so conversation needs to take place with a bi-linguist mediating between us.
Both Wang Jun and myself us have vocabularies which we hate losing and stubbornly we dash ourselves against the language barrier. Yan Yan has given up translating for the pair of us – “You use such difficult words! Use some easy ones!” But fortunately one of Yan Yan’s students, the grave and gracious Deng Chuan has agreed to help out and so she patiently sits with us, untangling the knotted thing that our conversations become. They are long conversations about artists and the Tao Te Ching and what it is we’re trying to do and which pieces work/don’t work and why. It’s shop talk, the kind that Trehy and I chew over and is immensely tedious to bystanders. I worry for Deng Chuan’s boredom threshold.
It is with Deng Chuan and Wang Jun that I first drink formal Chinese tea. We sit around a little slatted wood rack that is a kind of draining board, boxed underneath to hold spills. On this is placed a clay teapot that might hold no more than a pint and tiny cups, the circumference of my fingers and thumb if I circle them. The pot is brown at first sight, but its colouring subtly reveals itself to contain a purple too, apparently the local clay from which it’s made is known for purple colouring. I have a little childhood déjà vu, mixing up my plasticine colours together so that they became brown, but within the brown other hues…
The cups and pot dry quickly if wetted and also are very slightly porous, which helps remove impurities from the liquid they contain. The first brew of tea is considered inferior, you are merely washing the leaves. It is with the second that the taste begins to be released. It is a bright, delicate tea, good even the first time - and yes as we continue to drink I detect a richer quality to it. Like the clayware we’re drinking from, it reveals itself gradually.
The whole process is measured, calm and meditative, completely at odds with the history of the walls around us. Deng Chuan tells me that Chinese people often use glasses for green tea (lu cha): the sight of the leaves unfurling in the hot water is considered to be a very beautiful part of tea-drinking, particularly bamboo leaf tea. The famous teahouses in Chengdu add sunlight to this effect. Teabags would spoil the visuals.