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China: a history in ink

The National Library in Beijing is currently staging an exhibition of less well-known Chinese calligraphy and writing styles. It features the original written languages of many of the country’s diverse ethnic groups, and it tells the story of their history and origination.

This writing is Chinese. But it’s not Mandarin.

These experts are showing how to write ancient characters in the languages of China’s many ethnic groups: languages that have mostly disappeared from daily life.

Demonstrations include the languages of the Shui people, the Naxi people, Tibetan and Mongolian.

This is called Nv Shu, or women’s script. It was traditionally used only by women in Hunan and Guangxi provinces.

“The writing and character style simulates the actions of women making embroidery,” said He Jinghua, Nv Shu script expert.

It’s not just the rich diversity of writing. Writing tools have always varied, from place to place.

The Yi people used pens made from feathers, bamboo, hemp, and even pine tree leaves.

“Put some ink inside and stuff the cotton into the pen. Then, with one dip into the ink, one can write 13 characters,” said Lu Lahuo, Yi script expert.

Famous brands of brushes, ink stones and paper are all on display.

And there’s a giant crossword puzzle, waiting to be filled in with 4800 words, already a candidate for the Guinness Book of World Records.

Videos and lectures tell the history of the skills and tools involved in the evolution of China’s written languages.

The exhibition runs until February the 1st.