There are so many things in Beijing that satisfy my inner culture enthusiast, and perhaps that’s the reason why I like living in the city. For one, I like Chinese folk art (paper cutting, Chinese knots, opera masks) because of its exquisiteness. But I have yet to join classes to test how my hands fare with the tools of Chinese folk art, so that will be the focus of my upcoming Beijing Bucket List articles.
To start the series, I recently went to a Chinese art class with my colleague Olesya in the touristy Qianmen Street, just south of Tian’anmen Square. I mistook the class for a calligraphy session because of its poster; nevertheless, I thought it would be another nudge to further my enthusiasm. And it exceeded my expectations, despite the class being done entirely in Chinese (Olesya translated almost everything for me, thank you!).
We went to Rong Bao Zhai Education (荣宝斋教育), where the ambiance of the Song Silk Sachet making (Sòng juàn xiāngnáng) class was soothing and calming despite all the outside noise (hey, it’s the Qianmen area, after all!). It provides an opportunity to immerse yourself in learning and recreating Chinese folk art without leaving the city.
The main session was divided into three parts: painting on silk, (宋绢画绘制 Sòng juàn huà huìzhì), creating incense balls (手工香丸制作 shǒugōng xiāng wán zhìzuò), and sewing a silk sachet (缝制香囊 féng zhì xiāngnáng), although the class started with an artful display of incense burning on an ornate Chinese censer, using a golden stencil of the character 福 (fú, “fortune”). Putting incense powder onto the stencil in itself is a delicate and meditative task because one needs to be precise, otherwise the powder will scatter. Once the stencil is removed, the incense trail should look proportional (about a fourth of the size of a fingernail). When you light the incense up, the flame will be distributed evenly and will emit a cleaner aromatic smoke.
The tools for the incense burning art (photo 1), putting the blend of incense and aromatic herbs on a stencil (photo 2), the 福 fú incense on top of ash from other incense (photo 3), and the fully burned incense trail which looks like sugar (photo 4).
Indeed, having the sweet-smelling smoke during the activity relaxes the mind and makes you more focused. But never did I think that doing the main session itself would be such a challenge.
The first part of the class was painting on silk using a calligraphy brush. It is very hard because you need precision and manual dexterity. The delicate silk material is just like tissue paper: too much ink and it will scatter over the silk; too wobbly hands, and the brush stroke will be lopsided. The combination of the colors and water also makes it more complex. So maybe that’s the reason why incense was lit up before the class!
Not long before we finished tracing a lotus flower pattern on silk, we started mixing the incense powder with other aromatic herbs (mint or lavender), water, and honey and shaped them into small balls. The teacher explained the history of these incense balls, put into silk sachets and hung on the waist: in the Song Dynasty, ancient Chinese believed that strong incense scents would protect them from illnesses and scare off evil spirits. A change in the blend would mean the incense would smell either like a perfume or a deterrent.
We finished the session by completing the colors of the lotus flower design on silk, and sewing the pattern to look like a zongzi pouch. You need to put the dried incense balls with other materials, such as cotton or paper, to puff up the pouch, and with ornaments like Chinese knots (中国结 Zhōngguó jié).
Tracing a lotus flower pattern on silk takes precision and proper hand control of the calligraphy brush (photo 1) while blending color on the pattern requires light taps to make the ink flow (photo 2). The incense balls look like, uh, goat dung (photo 3), but the finished silk sachets are elegant (photo 4).
My silk painting looked very strange at first because the brush strokes were inconsistent and the colors unbalanced. But the end product looked better than I expected, though the scent was too strong for my liking (I picked mint and in the end, it smelled like cinnamon). Maybe I put too much incense powder? Anyway, you can bring home the fragrant sachet and use it as a decoration.
Rong Bai Zhai Education offers the same special classes in English. While the activity isn’t exactly for younger kids, it’s good for middle school children who are learning Chinese, as well as a weekend recreation for families looking for something beyond the usual tourist views in Beijing’s historic city center.
Song Silk Sachet making at Rong Bai Zhai Education
RMB 398 per person. For special classes, contact Teacher Qiao at 185 1932 9306. Qianmen Street Pedestrian Street No.125, Dongcheng District.
Photos: Olesya Sedysheva