Culture Etched in Stone

The art of calligraphy does not have the heft in the west as it does in China. I always like to point out that Chinese uses pictographs and not an alphabet, and Chinese characters are unique images. Words in western languages are made from a limited bunch of letters put into different orders. So, it’s easy for a foreigner to take Chinese calligraphy for granted. It is also more than just black ink brushed or penned onto paper. There is stone seal cutting, and then there is something called “Steles.” The character for this would be  bēi 碑. 

These are large stone slabs with carved inscriptions. Typically, they commemorate people, events, and sometimes even stories of cultural or historical importance. They started showing up in Chinese culture around the Tang Dynasty. Often, you can find them at Buddhist or Taoist temples, but I have seen them at parks. I really didn’t realize how much they were important artifacts until I happened upon a small exhibition of them in Wuxi.

The Wuxi Stele Musuem 无锡碑刻陈列馆 — which also can be translated as the “Wuxi Hall of Inscriptions.” It’s down the street from Xue Fucheng’s former residence, but it’s tucked behind a middle school. The site itself used to be an historical educational building where people studied Confucianism, but that part of the building seems largely abandoned. Yes, there is a picture of Confucius here.

However, all the glass display cases are empty.

The more interesting thing are the steles themselves. There a plenty of these on display. Some are freestanding, and some are embedded into the wall. There are also actually glass display cases with artifacts in them.

While there are two signs that have English explanations, they tend to be more generally about the location and not the stone slabs and what they are trying to say. Most of the stele have plaques giving summaries, but they are in Chinese only. These, at least, I could translate with my cell phone. But, in a way, that’s not enough. The poetry nerd in me wants to actually read these things. And that means I am not learning Chinese fast enough and am quite lazy at learning the language. One day, I would love to return to this place and actually be able to translate them without using my phone or a hapless Chinese friend.

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