Today it rained. We woke up to the sound of the water gently swishing down the gutter outside the window and drip-dripping off of the roof. When I stepped outside of the hotel to make my way to breakfast, it seemed Beijing was still half asleep, curled into itself like a contented house cat The rain continued to drizzle down from the sky.
In the early afternoon we took the subway to the National Art Museum, grateful to have an indoor activity to do on a day such as this. We walked through an exhibit of delicate ink paintings done in a traditional style. Each showed incredible skill- deft handling of line combined with subtle washes of grey tones rendered both the sweep of great vistas and the tiny intricacies of a human face with precision. Most of the paintings were immense, and they filled the gallery with their presence, requesting respect and silence. Their fine grey gradations and the blurry edges where the wet ink had soaked into the rice paper put me in mind of the world I had woken up in that morning- a moist, monochromatic world, where all sounds were hushed by the steady drip of the water from the sky.
Yes, Beijing could be that way, I supposed. But it had surprised me when I had woken up this morning to find the vibrant city dampened and quiet. I had only spent a few days here, and yet I felt that I had a good grasp on the character of the place- colorful and bustling, filled with shouts and laughter, cooking smells, and countless rickshaws. The city of Beijing was a wrinkled, knowing smile on the face of China, reflecting its deep history and good nature. But today, a more reserved and stately Beijing was revealed. It was a new color to add to the palette I had been composing in my head, a palette of all the colors of this ancient city.
It had started in the Forbidden City, my mental palette, when I had noticed the specific yellow of all of the roof tiles. It was a mustardy yellow, verging on gold, and it stretched across the Forbidden City, crowning almost every building. My guide book had said that the yellow color had belonged to the emperor, and no one else had been allowed to decorate their buildings with it. I had thought about what power that must be, to own a color. As an artist, I must say I was a tad bit jealous.
The next day, on my way to breakfast, I stumbled across a store selling lucky cats. They came in different colors- red, pink, blue, green, yellow, and black. Each color meant something different, and although I couldn’t discern what they meant, I knew they were all auspicious. The round smiling faces of the cat figurines in so many different hues cheered me, and it was then that I truly started paying attention to the colors of the city.
The maroon curtains of the bicycle rickshaws matched almost exactly the rich maroon of the buildings at the opulent Lama Temple. Gold and bronze Buddha statues peered out from shop windows, and gold decorated the eaves of the concubine’s quarters in the Forbidden City. White marble gleamed on bridges where the railings were carved to look like clouds. The same color was more austere in a statue of the philosopher and religious leader Confucious. Bright green and blue paintings of dragons adorned wooden gates. The sky was a paler shade of blue, the trees lining the streets a more lively green.
Also green was the bodies of two crickets in cages that I heard before I saw, in a small courtyard off of a narrow hutong alley. There were orange carp in a bowl, glinting in the sunlight, and a paler orange cat who shared tea with me in a quiet teahouse. There was a black bird in front of a convenience store, its leg shackled to a leather cord that was tied to its perch. The acid pink of plastic lotus flowers in a garland contrasted with the soft blush of fresh peaches that were being sold in the very same store. Truly, this was a city made of color.
But the color that spoke the loudest here was red. A bright red like oxygenated blood. In the form of giant red silk tassels it hung in nearly every shop front window. Red lanterns hung in the trees over a shopping street, marching in straight lines above the shoppers. The same red was on cartons of Double Happiness cigarettes, and in the fresh peppers siting in a bowl in front of a Sichuan restaurant, even on the Chinese flag itself that snapped in the breeze above Tiananmen Square. Red was the color of luck, and good fortune.
I struggled to remember that fact as Zoe and I huddled under her umbrella on the short trek back from the subway station after the art museum. We were talking about how much was riding on our next year at the Academy, how simultaneously excited and terrified we were. The red lanterns in front of a restaurant had turned dark and saggy in the rain, I noticed. I felt a little like that myself.
But then I remembered a piece of graffiti I had seen on my way to breakfast that morning. It had been written in English, black spray-paint on a grey concrete wall, and was just as colorful as the morning had promised it be- in other words, completely devoid of chroma. But I remembered the message. “KEEP ON PAINTING” it had said, with an underline for emphasis. “Ok then, I will.” I thought to myself.
Keep on painting. Its all any of us can really do. But in a world as colorful as this one, those words promise adventure.
On May 25, four Academy students arrived in China to start a two-month residency in Shanghai and Beijing. James Adelman, Elliot Purse, Elizabeth Shupe and Zoe Sua-Kay (all members of the class of 2014) will share their experiences here throughout the summer.