China, Minus The Airfare

By Theola Labbé-DeBose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Olympics have changed since the Greeks first gathered in Olympia. For one thing, today's athletes wear clothes, something the competitors in the ancient Games saw little need for. And unlike the earliest Games, which were open only to Greeks, the modern Olympics are a global event with participants and spectators the world over.

With China hosting the Summer Games, which open Friday, the world's elite athletes (and those who can afford to make the trip to watch them) will find themselves immersed in Chinese culture, language and experiences.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S.A., we ordinary mortals without the means or a bona fide reason to be in China will be watching our televisions and computer screens (live streaming video is another stark departure from ancient times) with a twinge of envy. Or perhaps full-on playa hating.

If you can't get to China for the Olympics but desperately want to share in the cultural experience, what to do? You might try to scheme the appropriate visas, snatch up an overpriced ticket and pray that you can find an affordable hotel room in Beijing. The saner option is to soak up as many Chinese experiences in the Washington region as you can muster in the next few weeks, a sort of personal homage to the historic Games. Plus, you won't lose your sanity trying to manage the logistics.

For an array of Chinese cultural experiences in the area, from food to film to fine arts, read on.

Letter-Perfect Calligraphy

It's about lunchtime on a recent weekday, and Tony Chau holds a small black brush in his right hand, gripping it between his thumb and forefinger before setting it down, the black ink spreading across a white page as his hand moves in a swirling motion. This is no Rorschach test that Chau is creating. It's a display of artistry as he draws Chinese characters. Chau teaches a calligraphy class at the Chinatown Community Cultural Center in Washington.

He explains through a translator that he's more than 60 years old and studied calligraphy at National Taiwan University as an art major. His student on this day is a volunteer at the center who had lived in China as a Peace Corps member. "It looks easy, but it's not," Tom Breslin says. "You have to calm down and focus on it."

For good reason: There are more than 56,000 Chinese characters and five calligraphy styles. If you want to master them, better get started.

Chinatown calligraphy class: Wednesdays at 1 p.m., Sundays at 11 a.m. Chinatown Community Cultural Center, 616 H St. NW, Suite 201. 202-628-1688. $8.

Rockville calligraphy classes: Sessions that run for about 2 1/2 weeks are sponsored by the Chinese Culture and Community Service Center in Gaithersburg. Saturdays, 3-5 p.m. Tilden Middle School, 11211 Old Georgetown Rd., Room 151A, Rockville. 301-897-5408 or 240-631-1200. $60.

Monks and Mountains

As one of the world's oldest surviving civilizations, China has a storied history. For evidence, check out two exhibitions at the National Geographic Museum. One focuses on Zheng He, a mariner who traveled throughout Southeast Asia during the Ming Dynasty in the 1400s, sometimes leading a fleet of hundreds of ships. The items on display include silk brocade and porcelain on loan from the National Museum of China. A ship model and accompanying video show how the Chinese built their early vessels.

On another side of the museum, images of Chinese monks signal the start of a second exhibit. Photographer Justin Guariglia spent more than a year gaining the trust of Chinese Buddhist monks studying kung fu in the 1,500-year-old Shaolin Temple. The black-and-white and color photos capture monks young and old in various poses of a form of kung fu called "vehicle of Zen."

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