Long ago, when I lived in the Bay Area, I went to a comedy club in San Francisco and heard Sheng Wang, a Taiwanese-American stand-up comic, deliver these lines:
“I wanna be like white dudes. I wanna date Asian girls. I wanna get Chinese characters tattooed on my back.”
Well. That may be a sacrilegious way to start this entry, but I remembered it, so I thought I’d share. (I thought it was pretty funny back then…I still think it’s pretty funny now. So shoot me.)
Today I attended a wonderful artist’s talk with master calligrapher Haji Noor Deen. The talk was co-sponsored by the UC San Diego: 21st Century China Program, the Department of Literature, and the Chinese Studies Program. It featured explanations and demonstrations of Noor Deen’s work and the sini calligraphy which he practices.
You are probably wondering: “Calligraphy? Then why in the world start the post with a Sheng Wang quote, as funny as he is?” Let me explain.
Noor Deen, who is versed in both Arabic and Chinese calligraphic traditions, explained to us the various techniques and styles of sini calligraphy, which is an art form that was developed by the Hui Chinese Muslims back in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The sini calligraphic style resonates with both beauty and piety, as it expresses the calligrapher’s devotion to Allah through the written word.
You can see many of Noor Deen’s works at his online gallery, but what I want to write about is not his calligraphic works that left me almost speechless-I think I had an idiot grin on my face from delight through the whole talk-but rather the walls that people can erect among themselves by not understanding others’ languages and cultures.
Noor Deen spoke in both Chinese and Arabic, and although I could only really understand half of what was being said in Chinese (and a half of that only through Noor Deen’s gestures), it felt odd for me to know that there were very few people in the room who could understand the Arabic that was written in calligraphy-and perhaps even fewer who understood both Chinese and Arabic. That isn’t necessarily a problem, of course. But, although we had two translators, there was consistently a disconnect among what we were hearing (Noor Deen’s Chinese, the translators’ English), what we were seeing (the calligraphy’s Arabic), and what we understood to be sini calligraphy-a language most of us didn’t know, written in a form that most of us couldn’t understand.
I’d be the first to admit that I know nearly zero Arabic-and even less about sini or Arabic calligraphy. But I try to be careful about what I consider art (to be purchased and hung on walls), in relation to what I think is “beautiful” or “artistic,” because those valuations often trivialize, objectify, and fetishize what, for many people, is a part of daily life and religious practice. It’s the creepy feeling I get when I see people who don’t know Chinese have tattoos of Chinese characters on their bodies-if you don’t know what it means, why get it inked onto your flesh?
Maybe I’m a linguistic or cultural snob-but it made me nervous to see so many of Noor Deen’s beautiful calligraphy scrolls hanging on the wall, to be enjoyed and purchased by the connoisseur who could now boast having seen a demonstration by the master calligrapher. And as much as I found his works breathtaking, I had to ask myself: If I didn’t understand what each of the pieces meant, if I could only half understand Noor Deen’s explanations of his calligraphic practice in Chinese, was I just being a fetishizing Orientalist that thought that tattooing