It was late on a chilly March afternoon as I wandered through a small plaza near Houhai Lake in Beijing. The air was struggling to stay above freezing and I shivered in my spring jacket. Looking down, I noticed some Chinese characters drawn in water on the plaza’s grey paving stones. Whoever drew them was long gone; the cool air had kept them from evaporating.
I’d heard about water calligraphy before, but this was the first time I had seen it for myself. It’s a form of art that draws beauty from the ephemeral: like spoken words, these characters vanish into the air, their meaning lost to time and memory. It also says something about the futility of control. No matter how much you master your technique, no matter how well you squeeze these words into the form you want them to take, you are left with the same empty patch of stone you started with.
I’ve never heard of anyone doing water calligraphy in Hong Kong. For some reason, people here are much more inhibited in the way they use public space. Go to an open space in any given Chinese city and you’ll see a far greater range of activities than in a comparable place in Hong Kong. Go to Shenzhen’s Civic Square on a nice Sunday afternoon, for instance, and you’ll find people driving electric race cars, playing instruments, flying kites, riding bikes, doing water calligraphy, singing and dancing. There’s irony in the fact that people behave far more exuberantly in an authoritarian state than in an ostensibly free city.
That said, I did come across something in Hong Kong that reminded me of water calligraphy. In Man Ming Lane, just behind Exit C of the Yau Ma Tei MTR station, someone used white chalk to write a lengthy screed on the redbrick sidewalk. I saw it late one night and, since I live only 15 minutes away by foot, I returned the next day to photograph it. But most of the chalk had already been worn off and it was impossible to read most of what had been written.