Secret Art on Table Tennis Balls and Calabash
If you had a table tennis ball or a small calabash to hand, what would you do with them? You’d probably bounce the ball against the wall or float the calabash in a pool – but would you try painting with them? As the above picture demonstrates, it’s a breathtaking sight. These delicate and awesome artworks are produced by a Chinese folk artist, Zhang Guangping (张广平) pen-name as “汉风草堂” (Humble Cottage in Han Style). I would like to share the secret of this exquisite, yet generally unknown art form.
The art of painting on calabash is called pyrography, or pokerwork. It is the decorating of wood or other materials with burn marks via the controlled application of a heated object, such as a poker. Said to date from prehistoric times, pokerwork has been practised by many cultures, including the Ancient Egyptians and some African tribes. It has been a part of Chinese culture since the time of the Han dynasty, when it was known as “fire needle embroidery”. In Chinese art history, pokerwork was a rare and precious art form, combining techniques of traditional Chinese painting such as brushing, dotting and line drawing, and features of western painting like sketching and use of perspective.
Though not as popular or well-known as in ancient times, pyrography continues to be practised in China today, in provinces like Jiangsu and Zhejiang. Zhang Guangping, based in the city of Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, has practiced pyrography on calabash for more than thirty years, selling his works mainly in a local cultural market. Zhang is considered among the top three pyrographers in the region.
When it comes to decorating tiny table tennis balls in this fashion, however, Zhang is perhaps the most accomplished and unique. The idea came to him when he was disposing of the broken balls after a practice table tennis match. Zhang thought it a waste to throw away all those broken balls; so, he tried drawing in the half-ball. This alternative use of broken balls not only recycles them, but also has given rise to a new art form. When I saw these delicate works at Zhang’s studio, I was really impressed by one of them in which a whole garden with cabins is depicted vividly in the tiny half-ball.
Zhang has learnt and practiced painting since his youth; in particularespecially, he was influenced by the painting of a horse by Xu Beihong (徐悲鸿), a quite well-known Chinese painter from the Minguo era (1911-1949) and an expert horse-painter. Yet Zhang has developed his own style of sketching horses. The artist also runs calligraphy training courses with more than 100 students now, due to his excellent skill in Chinese calligraphy. Actually, the first time I met Zhang Guangping was during a table tennis match in which he was coaching for one of the teams. His proficiency in painting, calligraphy, pokerwork and table tennis makes the adjective “versatile” something of an understatement.
As a history of material culture, all these ‘micro’ artworks shown in the pictures mirror a ‘micro’ history of the hidden art on tiny balls and calabash as well as the stories of the unnoticed artist. In historiography, individual recollections and material culture have become increasingly important. They have been central to ‘microhistory’, a methodology which bears some resemblance to ‘history from below’, as well as the German Alltagsgeschichte (everyday history). In essence, microhistory is the study of minority voices using small-scale, qualitative analyses; this is done in view of understanding the day-to-day experiences and choices of people (Magnusson 2006). This secret art is not only a development from an ancient technique, but a modern re-interpretation of the world we are living in now. Just as William Blake wrote of, “[seeing] a world in a grain of sand // And a heaven in a wild flower”, so we are offered a glimpse of a whole world in these tiny balls.