So one day a friend of mine asked if I wanted to go and see his family village, to which of course I said yes. The village lies in the Pujiang County, between Hangzhou and Jinhua, and its name is Lizhang, but it also goes by the nickname of “The Village Of Painters And Calligraphers”, because it’s the hometown of a famous Chinese painter, Zhang Shuqian (more about him another time).
It just so happened that my friend’s godmother is married to a man from the Zhang family, himself a well-known Chinese painter – and we were supposed to stay at their house.
‘Brilliant’, I said, thinking that finally I’ll have my great encounter with The Real China. You can imagine my surprise when almost the first thing I heard after I walked in was “hello” – said in Polish. Then I was politely offered a cup of a traditional Chinese beverage called coffee, straight from the moca…
Turns out, even though Lizhang is a tiny backwater, its inhabitants are quite cosmopolitan, and none more so than the godmother (or Ganma in Chinese), who normally lives in Shanghai and teaches at a French school and is, frankly, one of the coolest people I’ve ever met, full stop.
She was the one that thwarted my expectations of the Full Chinese Immersion Experience by feeding me real French bread with butter, sour creme and honey for breakfast – I can’t say I complained – and whose openness, hospitality and vivaciousness made the house an ever-open hang-out for everyone who felt like popping in.
And they did. The constant stream of guests would start flowing around breakfast, when someone would drop by with a bag of fresh beans (we city folk would get up about 9, but for the local people it was nearly noon by then). Then someone else would come to see Teacher Zhang’s studio. Then there would be a brief break when the whole village was having lunch or napping. Then in the afternoon it would start again, with people coming to have a look at some slabs for rubbing ink, or pen stands, and then everyone would end up sitting in the room till midnight, ceremonially drinking tea, cracking sunflower seeds (that’s a whole skill in which I’m now proficient) or just watching TV.
The conversation was – unlike what you usually expect in a village – quite sophisticated, covering travel, culture, and most of all traditional art. As I said, the place is nicknamed “The Village Of Painters And Calligraphers” – the reason for this is that most of the inhabitants are one way or another involved in the arts. I don’t think I’ll ever forget a fat elderly and common-looking peasant working away on his field, whom we passed one evening during a walk. ‘Did you see that guy?’, asked my friend. ‘He’s really great at calligraphy.’ There go my prejudices.
All in all, I visited Pujiang twice and now count myself among the lucky friends of Ganma and Teacher Zhang, whom I also visited in their home in Shanghai. More than the village itself (although also interesting), I was fascinated by Ganma as a person: she’s the kind of woman who puts on Buena Vista Social Club and starts dancing in the middle of the room just because she feels like it, makes funny faces and laughs all the time, takes you to another city to a fabric market and insist on buying you half of the things you like, and most importantly, despite her age and inability to speak other languages, is one of the most open-minded and understanding people I know, and she made me feel like I was with my own family.
All in all – I’m sure you see that by now – just treat this post like a paean to that tiny Chinese lady and the home she and her husband created for themselves. I hope I live to be a bit like her!*
* Also I’ve a series of extremely late nights behind me (so late they were actually mornings) and didn’t have the strength to think this post through very well, so forgive me the chaos…