Short Essay in Third Coast Daily

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Letters from China, written in water

May 31st, 2013 | By Leah Schreiber

In China’s parks and squares, old men carry buckets and long, sponge-tipped brushes to areas of smooth tile pavement. In acts of meditative practice, they move gracefully to use these large tools to trace ephemeral ideograms underfoot.
I have been in Wuhan for about two weeks, and this commonplace practice is one of the most memorable scenes I’ve witnessed. The elders clean away the dust of local construction with their precise strokes, as they write and rewrite ancient poetry in large, beautiful Chinese characters wrought of water. Like messages in the snow or sand, these thoughts are only public for a moment. Heat left over from the day evaporates the poems within minutes.


This form of temporary public art struck me as a reflection on the contradictions embedded between China’s pervasive and ancient customs and the fleeting nature of its objects and places. Cars and motorcycles weave through the streets, honking at each other and daring pedestrians. They kick up the dust of rubble and plastic piles from recent demolition (maybe last week, maybe 20 years ago– it is impossible to tell). Temporary walls block the view of entire blocks, where clusters of high rise shells climb from what had until recently been farmland. Store inventory is somewhat random so everything is a hunt, the electricity is fickle, food vendors appear in the morning but are gone just as quickly, and websites are available for a moment, then freeze. Even the language seems transient (ancient as it may be), as new vocabulary stays in my head only long enough for me to say it.
Much like my memory of this new language, the characters on the ground disappear. But the artist keeps writing, moving to a new area to make his mark until his last section fades and makes room for more. I am not sure what those fading characters said, but I remember them.