Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The state of Chinese bookbinding: hopeful

Even from just five years ago -- my last visit -- Beijing is unrecognizable. Everywhere construction cranes pierce the horizon as contractors try to beat the Olympics moratorium that begins Jan. 1. Then the dusting of the city begins; maybe they'll figure out a way to vacuum the air, too.

One of the best parts of the visit, along with the hike to remote ramparts of the Great Wall, jiaozi dumpling feasts, and marathon walks around the city, was visiting with my bookbinding teacher, Zhang Ping, and his wife, Bai Li Ming.

Eleven years ago I was lucky to become Zhang Ping's apprentice at the National Library of China, soaking up all I could from the master craftsman. He had that rare combination of technical skill, patience, and creativity -- and even though, at the beginning, we had little language in common, we had a blast. He taught me five of China's oldest bindings, starting with the scroll, the first form of book on paper.

At the time I marveled that no one else seemed to be learning from him. Sure, he had his department of about five employees, but because he was so busy teaching me, they spent most of their days reading the paper, drinking tea, and napping with their heads on the worktables. It took me a while to figure out that it was because of me that they were so idle. No one seemed bothered by it, least of all their boss (and my teacher) Zhang Ping. The only thing that at first did seem to bother them was how much I wanted to do.

Fast-forward to two weeks ago, and Zhang Ping and Bai Li Ming invite my husband and I to a 4 p.m. meeting. Instead of the expected restaurant, we went to Party World, a fountain-and-marble palace that I'm sure Zhang Ping has never set foot in before, and never will again. It must have been a recommendation from a friend for a place that would be sure to impress some out-of-town visitors.

Once we figured out the karaoke machine and drinks were ordered all around (including an entire six-pack for my dear husband), we were able to relax and chat, best as my little dictionary, rusty Mandarin, and phrasebook would allow. That's how I learned that Zhang Ping had 36 students assigned to him from all over China!

He worried at the load, and the course preparation, and his wife pointed out the few gray hairs now sprouting from his temples -- so that Zhang Ping, who always looked young, now only looks about 20 years less than he really is.

So yay for China, and its realization, finally, of its national treasure.