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Beyond the WallBy Liu Jun (China Daily)
  A craftsman carves on stone while making an ink slab. Quanjing photos

The Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympics revealed the Middle Kingdom on a fascinating scroll that displayed some of the most iconic Chinese elements: beautiful blue-white porcelain, the writing brush, xuan paper and ink slab. But perhaps most attractive of all were the Olympic medals inlaid with jade.

As more people grow tired of package tours and long for an unforgettable rendezvous with local people in their everyday life, it may be a good idea to follow the trail of these "Chinese elements" to discover a China seldom seen in tourist brochures.

Best of heaven and earth

An appreciation of jade is very basic to Chinese culture. The oldest jade artifacts discovered so far are earrings, daggers and axes found in Xinglongwa of Chifeng, Inner Mongolia autonomous region.

Dating back 8,000 years to the mid-Neolithic Age, the 100 plus jade pieces found eight years ago are seen as the beginning of the jade culture in China and the whole world.

Chinese people see jade as the crystallization of the best of both heaven and earth. Ancient shamans once used various jade instruments to communicate with the deities. Feudal rulers also had jade seals and other ornaments made to symbolize their supreme power. A good example of this is the Jade Emperor, supreme deity in Taoism.

Hotan at the foot of the Kunlun Mountains in southern Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region is traditionally seen as the production site of the highest-grade jade in China.

A few kilometers outside the city of Hotan, the Yulong Kashi River (also known as White Jade River) has been carrying a huge amount of pebbles down the snowy mountains for thousands of years.

The jade diggers, many of whom are local people, gather near the Yulong Kashi Bridge. Over the years, they have left many pits several meters deep along the riverbed. Tourists can also climb down to try their luck.

An expert can walk on the pebbles bare-footed, and feel a real piece of jade out of the pile. Another ingenious way is to throw pebbles and sand into the air, and experts can see any gleaming jade in this rainfall of stones.

Locals believe jade is formed when stones absorb the moonlight. So they trawl the riverbed on a moonlit night, hoping to catch some luminous jade.

Another place to experience the jade culture is Tengchong in southern Yunnan province. Better known for geothermal springs and the Lisu minority, the small city has actually grown into the biggest processing and trade center of jadeite in Southeast Asia.

While you can find some craftsmen processing jadeite at the huge jadeite market, to get a taste of the local culture, visit the Hehua (Lotus Flower) Township near the city.

Du Maosheng, chairman of the Tengchong Jewelry and Jade Association, says that the Yusan and Hehuachi villages are both known for their processing of jadeite.

At the Lotus Flower Jadeite Center, several old craftsmen still polish the raw pieces with grinding stones. But it usually takes two days for a rock to be cut, carved and polished into a refined piece.

A scholar's tools

Brush, ink, paper and ink slab were seen as the "four treasures" of a scholar, in ancient times.

Huzhou in northern Zhejiang province is home to Hubi, the most famous brush. At Shanlian town, one can drop into any family studio to see the complicated procedure of making a fine brush.

Calligraphy beginners can spend less than 10 yuan ($1.40) to get a langhao (a brush made with the tail hair of the yellow weasel). They may find the more expensive yanghao brushes made with sheep or goat hair very difficult to handle, though only these can produce more refined paintings and calligraphy.

With a good brush in hand, one can head to Anhui province for the paper and ink.

A famous saying among Chinese collectors goes that xuan paper can last for 1,000 years. Xuanzhi is so named as the best type comes from Jingxian county in Anhui province, which once belonged to Xuanzhou prefecture.

The secret of making xuan paper was revealed to the public only recently and with it, Jingxian has become a must-see place, located only a two-hour drive from the picturesque Mount Huangshan.

The county has 200 paper studios. A small workshop employing five people can turn out 1,000 pieces of paper everyday. The masters all have their own secrets of making paper, and it takes years of practice to make two pieces of paper of exactly the same thickness and strength.

Not far away, Shexian county has the country's best ink, which is shaped like a piece of stone and usually inscribed with words or paintings of landscapes and figures. The production of ink stone began here some 1,000 years ago and one can pick up a small packet containing brush, ink, paper and ink slab for friends.

However, to get the best ink slab, one has to travel to Zhaoqing in Guangdong province, which is known for Duanyan, the most coveted ink slab in ancient China. At Baishi (White Stone) village, every family has piles of rocks that can be turned into ink slabs of different sizes, shapes and decorations.

Among connoisseurs, perfectly round and square ink slabs are seen as more valuable than irregular ones. It is very rare to find any real antique ink slabs, except for those on display at the Duanyan Museum.

Local artisans love to carve the landmark Dinghushan mountain onto their ink slabs. Famed as an "oxygen bar", Dinghushan is a wonderful getaway from urban life. One can also find mansions, pagodas, temples and other historic sites in Zhaoqing.

Fit for royalty

In the past, there were many places that produced porcelain fit for royalty. But there is no place to beat Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province, which has remained the "capital of porcelain" for centuries since the first potters began building kilns here some 1,700 years ago.

Walking down the street in Jingdezhen, one cannot but notice the traffic lights posts, which are covered in blue-white porcelain with images from ancient paintings.

At the International Porcelain Art Center, a group of buildings in the elegant Ming Dynasty style, tourists can walk into studios of famous porcelain masters and see the birth of dazzling works.

Half a century ago, artists in Jingdezhen created a series of products that won the praise of Chairman Mao Zedong. These works, featuring red flowers on a snow-white background, were thus named Mao Ci. Today, innovative masters blend diversified artistic styles into their works.

When choosing antique porcelain, it is important to bear in mind that techniques in faking antiques are very advanced. Spending a big sum on something dubious is not a good idea.

(China Daily 10/06/2008 page10)

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