Tag Archives: chinese


It’s Foodie Tuesday

fancy lacquered chopsticsImage via A La Mode

Chopsticks really are an icon of Asian culture.  It’s easy to see why when we stare down at our own place setting. Two tapered sticks to replace both fork and knife. Chopsticks seem to embody grace and exoticism for many in this neck of the woods.

It’s believed that chopsticks made their appearance about 5000 years ago in China, born out of necessity in the woods, two slim twigs were broken from a tree and used to remove food from a pot cooking over an open fire.  But it was when a very popular vegetarian named Confucius proclaimed that knives had no place at the dinner table, linking their use with aggression, 500 years ago that their use and place in Asian society was permanently elevated.

Chopsticks made from silverImage via Etsy.

In the days of yore chopsticks were often a marker of wealth, some fashioned out of precious metals including gold and silver or emblazoned with beautiful calligraphy or carvings. Emperors in China even used their silver chopsticks to test foods for poison, believing that the silver colour would tarnish in the presence of toxins.

Antique chopstick holdersAntique Chopstick Holders from Greentea Design.

Shape and decoration  evolved by country and today there are lots of conventions, from culture to culture, that dictate good manners and proper etiquette around the table.  And that evolution continues today with all sorts of modern design and expanded functionality.

The chopstick spoon combo

The combination spoon and chopstick

Chopsticks that dispense sauce - ingenious!

Sauce dispensing chopsticks for the perfect amount of soy sauce!

Images via Toxel

chopsticks shaped like twigs

Beautiful reimagining of the original chopsticks

Image via Anthropologie

And it’s not just modern designs that have emerged.  Fascination with chopsticks have led designers to use chopsticks as a building material.  Here are some transformations of this ubiquitous eating utensil:

Tina Baine's Chopstick Fruit BowlOver at Ready Made, Tina Baine posted this beautiful fruit bowl she fashioned out of chopsticks.  It’s striking and sculptural.  It’s also collapsable when not in use, for quick and easy storage.  Directions to make your own can be found here.

Chopsticks are used to make these Sea Urchin LightsOver at Weirdomatic I saw these Sea Urchin Lights fashioned from chopsticks by LaCor Furniture.

collapsing and expanding chopstick sofa called sofa xxxx

Image via Curbly

And finally the piece de resistance: the expanding contracting chopstick sofa-chair, called SOFA_XXXX by Yuya Ushida, made from 8000 chopsticks.  Visit Freshome for a video of this sofa’s transformation.

If you’re among the many here who haven’t quite mastered the use of chopsticks, perhaps one of these projects is for you.  Put those takeout chopsticks taking up all that room in your drawer to good use!

The Bam in Bamboo

Bamboo by Hsu Wei, Ming Dynasty. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

I talked a little bit about bamboo last week’s Foodie Tuesday post. But it would deprive us all if I were to wax poetic about bamboo shoots as a food source and miss out on the wonder and beauty of this plant’s fully grown glory, which punctuates just about every patch of green in many Asian countries, that it has defined a great part of Asian culture and design.

Bamboo Grove in Orto Botanico. Via Jeffrey Gardens.

For millennia, bamboo has been integral to the mundane, the marvelous, the mystical. It has been used in medicine and in made into utilitarian objects — basic tools, cannons, spears, kitchen implements, carts, and rafts. But it has also been made into musical instruments, dance props, and provided inspiration to countless poets and painters.

Here’s a video of a musical performance in Vietnam using bamboo instruments.

Bamboo is one of the “Four Gentlemen” (a.k.a., the Four Seasons) depicted in Asian art, along with the orchid, chrysanthemum, and plum blossom. Bamboo represents summer, and symbolizes strength, uprightness, and open-heartedness — all ideal qualities in a gentlemen.

An antique Japanese screen depicting bamboo plants. Via Midori Gallery.

Many Asian cultures incorporate bamboo in their dance. In the Philippines, there is a traditional dance called tinikling (so named after a small bird’s hopping movements) which is characterized a lively, playful, and quick-footed movements that dodge pairs of rhythmically clapping bamboo poles. It’s sort of like double-dutch, but with bamboo poles.

Tinikling Dance. Via Likha.

Bamboo has long been a familiar feature in Asian landscape and it has been  an indispensable building material for eons. And now the world is rediscovering and appreciating more fully the durability, versatility, and sustainability of this plant.


Even when the architecture becomes more modern, more sophisticated, bamboo brings the same warmth and charm that one would experience even from a simple bamboo hut.

Origami-inspired bamboo huts. Image via Inhabitat.

Mason Lane Farm. Via Design Boom.

House by Tonji University Team

Bamboo House at the 2010 Solar Decathlon. Image via Design Boom.

Bamboo House detail. Via Design Boom.

Bamboo schoolhouse in Bali, Indonesia. via Green School.


Bamboo is said to be ideal for kitchen use because of it doesn’t breed germs. There is still some debate as to whether it retains its antibacterial properties after it has been processed, but they make such lovely and durable utensils.

Bamboo Cutting Board

Chopping board made of bamboo. Via Chef's Catalog

Bamboo Steamer

Steamer set by JIA. Image via Design Milk

Bamboo Fabric

Bamboo could be the new cotton. It’s soft, highly absorbent, hypoallergenic, and earth-friendly. Some time ago I had the chance to hold and feel in my hands a towel made from bamboo fibers, and oh myyyyy… I have never felt anything so soft and decadent. It was delicious! It’s a tad pricey, but it felt sooo good!

Bamboo Towels. Via Bamboo KI.

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Brush With Serenity 2

Chinese brushes, ink block, and ink stone

Last week, I shared about the calm and serene state one can enter into while holding a Chinese brush, and doing calligraphy (see the post here). This week we’ll have more of that, only this time we use the brush to make pictures. They’re not really paintings, but drawings done in brush and ink.

There’s something about using these materials that gives the drawings an Asian flair. Or maybe it’s all in my head. But what’s real to me is a certain clarity in the picture that emerges, despite the economy of stroke that does not give a lot of detail, just general suggestions of shapes and forms. This completeness amid stark simplicity makes me feel quiet and peaceful, not just while doing it, but also while looking at the finished product.

I found a couple of how-to videos on YouTube by this nice lady Nan Rae. The first one below is on making a Chinese orchid, and is quite simple. The second one is on how to paint/draw a plum branch.

I decided to try the Chinese orchid. That light-heavy-light-heavy pressure in a single stroke takes some practice. Nan Rae makes her strokes from right to left in the video, and when I tried to do the same, the results were seriously sad-looking. When I tried making those leafy blades by starting on the left, it felt more natural, and looked more pleasing. So that’s what I did.

versions of Chinese orchid

I wanted to try doing some animals, and so I looked to some of my old issues of National Geographic as reference. I found that if I used light paper, I could but it on top of the picture and sort of see through it, and just trace some of the elements. Since I don’t have Nan Rae coaching me through this, I just went about it intuitively. I tried to use simple, broken strokes, that just hint at the subject. I don’t think I have it down pat yet, but it’s a start.

National Geographic back issues

Bird studies in Chinese brush and ink

Bird drawn in Chinese ink

What I learned from this whole experience is that it doesn’t have to be perfect, and that I have to be forgiving of my fumbles, and learn to embrace them, as they hold my uniqueness. What I’d really like to do someday is to be able to draw from life with this kind of mindset. I tend to be very much in my head still, and very critical and impatient with myself sometimes (i.e. most of the time). I have to remind myself often to just live in the moment with my subject and enjoy the seeing as much as the drawing. I’m reading this book about drawing as meditation, Frederick Franck’s “Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing”, and I’m finding it very helpful.

"Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing" by Frederick Franck

All photos in this post by Nathalie Mariano.

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Brush With Serenity

I have always been fascinated by Chinese brush calligraphy. I don’t understand anything of what the characters mean, but I find the brush strokes in ink on paper profoundly beautiful in their starkness and simplicity. And my appreciation grew when I learned how passionate and disciplined calligraphers are about their craft, practicing it incessantly so that it permeates all aspects of their life.

The clip above from the movie “Hero” — one of my favorite films ever –starring Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, and Zang Ziyi. While it employs a whole lot of creative license, it reflects the dedication and intensity that these word artists have towards their work.

Antique calligraphy brushes from Greentea Design's showroom

I decided to dip my toes into this gorgeous world and try my hand at Chinese brush calligraphy. Since I don’t know anybody who’s into this, I looked around YouTube for some virtual teachers who can help me out with some demos. And I found this one by a young woman which taught me the very basics.

I used to have the impression that making those marks would be amazingly quick, like Bruce Lee’s moves. I have some friends who know Chinese, and they write pretty quickly — with their ball-point pens. I realize that it’s different with a brush. The girl in the video is so serene and so graceful when she does her thing — it’s so beautiful to watch! Every stroke is slow and deliberate; it’s almost like she’s meditating. She takes her time, caressing the paper with her brush as she marks it with her meaningful strokes, all the while maintaining great posture. I got so inspired!

The tools: Chinese brushes, ink stone, ink block

I took out some brushes, and the traditional ink block and ink stone that I received as a gift some 10 or so years ago, which I ironically have used for myriad purposes except Chinese brush calligraphy. But before I could begin, I had to find a character to write, one that would be meaningful to me.

When I was learning my ABC’s the first word I learned to spell and write was my name. Why not find a Chinese name for myself? I found this awesome feature in www.mandarintools.com that helped me with this. And it gave me a Chinese name that had sounds similar to those in my own name — Mai Ning Tian.

Chinese characters

Image by Arch Chinese

Chinese names usually have three words: the family name comes first, and is followed by the two words that make up the given name. In my name, Mai means force, strength, and capability; Ning stands for calm, peaceful, and serene; and Tian is for day, sky, or heaven. I love it!

There are also disciplines to be followed when writing the different strokes that make up a Chinese character. Generally it goes from top before bottom, left before right, for everything in between, there’s a certain order. It all seemed rather complicated, but I really wanted to do it right, I found a site that I could refer to that has animations that show how strokes in my name go. Here’s how to write Ning.

Holding a Chinese brush

So off I went with my ink and brush. I put a little water in the ink stone and rubbed with the ink block until the charcoal black pigments infused the water. Then I carefully loaded my brush and slid its bristles onto paper. It was indeed as relaxing as I thought it would be! It was all about being in the moment, and not sweating the flubs. How apt that I was learning to write a word that meant peace! Want to see my attempts?

Practicing writing Chinese characters

I practiced on scrap paper for some time, and after a while I decided to write on nice paper. I got one of the small sheets that resulted from my foray into papermaking, and put my brush to it. The ink bled and feathered into the fibers in my paper (a learning experience about paper types). The overall effect is light-years away from perfect, but it’s my name, and I made it, so I’m blue tacking it on my wall. Haha!

The Chinese character "Ning" -- peace

All images in this post by Nathalie Mariano, unless otherwise indicated.

Posted in Culture | Tagged , , , , ,

The Dragon Year

Image courtesy Reuters

2012 is underway, and in a couple of weeks it will be the Lunar new year. For some cultures that follow the Chinese Zodiac, or their own version of it, this year is an auspicious one because it belongs to one of the most highly regarded signs — the dragon.

The Chinese zodiac is regarded by other Asian cultures apart from the Chinese, most of which have strong influences and ties to China. Countries such as Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines all celebrate their own versions of the lunar new year.

Japanese new year’s cards. Image from the Japan Post.

Lunar new year is always a colorful celebration wherever you go, and is traditionally celebrated with several festivities that last about a week or so. In many Asian countries, it is almost as significant as the Gregorian new year, with the first day or first few days granted as  public holidays. Festivities during Lunar new year include festivals and street markets, exchanging red envelopes filled with money (for prosperity), and eating the traditional rice cake. Apart from the usual colorful events that take place, one thing I also enjoy is the lovely visual feast that embodies the culture and traditions of the holiday.

Chinese new year cakes for sale in the Philippines. Image from Maynila Daily Photo.

In the chinese zodiac, the dragon is considered to be one of the most powerful signs, perhaps because of its mythical nature. Many also believe that this year, 2012 is particularly lucky because besides it being the dragon’s year it is also a leap year! It only follows then that there have already been preparations around the world for grand celebrations of this year.

Although this paper sculpture was made last year for the celebration of the year of the Rabbit, i thought it was a fresh, contemporary take on the idea of chinese paper-cut dragons. Definitely a craft project to keep in mind for future new years!

Image from Modern Woman

In Singapore, the chef of the Fairmont Hotel’s Szechuan court prepared a “Golden Dragon” dish in celebration of the dragon year – composed of swordfish, abalone, lobster, and salmon, drizzled with a special sauce and sprinkled with gold dust. Definitely a  prosperous dish for a hopefully prosperous new year!

Image from superadrianme

Perhaps unsuprisingly the most impressive preparations for the dragon year are taking place in Beijing. On the 9th of January, workers tested a dragon made of 3, 000 lanterns in Yongdingmen Square Park to make sure the impressive installation lights up for the celebrations that will start on February 23.

Image from Hungeree.

To me, dragons have somehow always had an impressive aura to them, and are the perfect symbol for prosperity and positive energy. Hopefully 2012 will have plenty of favorable events for everyone! Happy New Year!