By Prof. Ishaan Srivastava
The heavens are round, the earth is square
In November 2019, I was invited to deliver a series of lectures at the Beijing Vocational Institute of Agriculture (BVCA). Having never visited China before, but being an amateur historian of some enthusiasm, I was enthralled by the Chinese way of life; the opportunity to observe it up close had me on tenterhooks. I had a month before I departed for Beijing, and so I devoted every free minute to brushing up on my Chinese language and history.
I arrived at the Beijing Capital International Airport at the end of the first week of December, after an exhausting 14-hour flight. Immediately, I was struck by the sheer scale of civil architecture. Vast, open spaces, broad walkways and expansive foyers patterned the airport. Light rail transit (LRT) connected the different terminals, not unlike those in Toronto’s Pearson Airport. Unlike the LRT in Toronto though, those in Beijing never left the airport complex, operating entirely within a vast network of terminals.
I had the perception that being the most populous country in the world, China would be relatively dense, a fact that would be thrown into sharper relief owing to my own proclivity to untenanted agoras. However, my experience couldn’t be more dissimilar to my anticipations. Everywhere I went in China, I never once felt crowded. Not for a lack of populace, there were always quite a few people around, but civil architecture in China is such that there are vast swaths of areas in which the crowd could diffuse, giving the effect of relative solitude.
As I made my way to the hotel in the heart of Beijing, I observed the orderliness of the city and its traffic. One can only rely on hearsay so far. The next day, I met Joy, a colleague from BVCA and my liaison throughout my stay. I was shown my accommodations and given a tour of the college.
BVCA instantly reminded of my own alma mater, albeit much quieter, and nestled in the foothills north of Beijing. I was given my schedule, and two student volunteers were assigned to my aid. BVCA very kindly arranged for me to travel and see some of the neighbouring sights, including the Forbidden Palace, the Summer Palace and, of course, the Great Wall.
I travelled to China to deliver lectures from a course in Seneca’s Accounting diploma program, Systems Studies II. On my very first day of classes, I was introduced to my students, a small batch of 14, handpicked for my lectures. I was also introduced to Li Xia Lin, a long-time faculty of BVCA who would be my assistant and translator. Since my return, I often get asked about my students at BVCA. Did I find them more diligent, more studious, more driven than my students at Seneca? I’m happy to say that I did not. Students everywhere are the same: equally perturbed at the prospect of an exam and equally excited to win prizes in a pop quiz. I have found that students tend to respond well when the content being taught to them appears to be of immediate value. Once they realize this, their own curiosity drives their learning. As teachers, it is our task to evoke this curiosity. China was no exception.
Their curiosity, however, was not limited to class content. Living in China, their exposure to the rest of the world is rather limited, and they asked about Canada and life therein with wide-eyed enthusiasm. Some of them had friends who attended Seneca, a couple in my own classes. This was a fact they could not withhold a moment longer than my initial monologue introducing myself, and its reveal proved an effective icebreaker.
As a part of my tenure at BVCA, I had the opportunity to engage in certain extra-curricular activities. At the conclusion of my first week, I delivered a seminar to the collected crowd of BVCA faculty, admin and staff. As we discussed the similarities and differences between China and Canada in terms of education, the financial industry and the technological revolution, a very spirited debate followed, which somehow led to an inquisition into my own fascination with Chinese culture. When it was revealed that I take a marked interest in Chinese history, I was barraged with questions about my understanding of history, philosophy and the arts. I regaled my excitement about visiting the famous sights listed above, and to revel in their natural beauty and historic significance. I also let slip that I was fascinated by Chinese calligraphy and would relish an opportunity to learn it. A few days later, I was informed that a class had been arranged for me to learn the basics of Chinese calligraphy.
My teacher, Wang Yubo, was a third-year student himself. Having studied calligraphy since the age of eight, he had now at 19 achieved expertise in the art, at least in my novice eyes. He showed immense fortitude and restraint as he watched me struggle over and over to perfect the most basic step in calligraphy: painting a straight line. I became acutely aware that he was far more patient with me and allowed me far more leeway than I did myself. I know that sentiment. I have often seen my students struggle to make sense of a concept and, as a result, frustrate themselves. Where I would be perfectly happy to explain a concept until it clicks, they demand nothing less than immediate comprehension of themselves. With the roles reversed, I understood exactly how they felt. Nonetheless, we pushed on and, after multiple sessions, I had achieved some basic proficiency.
On our final day, Yubo offered to paint me a full-sized poster that I could take with me, a copy of a previous work of his that was on display in the college. He also asked me to try to replicate his work. While I was still labouring on the first letter, he had already completed his. Upon my completion, we compared our works. Like a great teacher, he complimented my work, focusing on what I got right. Like the pessimist student, I could only focus on the mistakes. I had learned some basic Mandarin and knew how to say “good,” “better” and “best” (hǎo, gèng hǎo and fēicháng hǎo). I also knew how to say “bad:” huài. With a grimace on my face, I pointed to my painting and uttered “huài.” He contested this critical opinion strongly, pointed and said “hǎo.” I pointed to his painting on the table and said “gèng hǎo,” at which he laughed a little. Then, I pointed at his painting on display, and said “fēicháng hǎo,” at which he shook his head. I had expected a bigger smile still, and so was stymied at his response. I inquired why he disagreed. It was clearly the best work, with perfect strokes and not a splat of stray ink in sight. His response to my question was simple in appearance, but profound to its core. “There is no best, only better.”
You might be wondering what the title of this discourse, “The Heavens are Round, the Earth is Square,” has to do with anything. The answer lies in the Ancient Chinese Cosmological model that viewed the earth as a square place, enveloped in a sphere of the heavens. This idea has affected almost every aspect of Chinese design, from architecture to calligraphy. In Chinese calligraphy, a stroke is supposed to begin from a circle, but end in a square, denoting the transfer of knowledge from the heavens to the Earth. Could there be a deeper philosophical meaning to this idea? Perhaps so. Yubo would know. I was too busy being critical of the surface to see any deeper.