It was March 1999. A very cold day in Beijing. I was with Fr. Tomas Langarica, SVD, on a tour in the capital. In the morning, we had gone to Mass at the South Cathedral, and later walked around the famous Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. We had lunch at a well-known restaurant for its local delicacy, Peking duck. It was a very pleasant day. Since it was cold, we decided to mingle with the people in a local market downtown.
We were probably the only two foreigners in that place, moving freely in a friendly atmosphere among hundreds of people around us. We later noticed that a girl, about 20 years old, was following us. She approached us and asked if she could practice some English with us. She said she was a university art student, and that she had a small studio nearby where some of her paintings were displayed. I told her that she could walk and talk with us, but we were not interested in going to an art studio.
After a few minutes, my companion went on his way and we agreed to meet after an hour. I said good-bye to the young woman and went to an internet-cafe to check my mail. I remember that the connection was quite slow and it took me almost a whole hour to finish my work. When I was ready to leave the place, I noticed that the young woman was behind me again, which I did not like. I told her that our English practice was over. She insisted that at least I could take a look at her studio. After meeting my companion at the designated place, upon the girl’s insistence to visit her studio and to continue on our way back to the hotel, we agreed to go with her just a couple of minutes away. Once again, I told her that we were not going to buy anything. I remember, at that point, that what I needed was a logo. As we walked, I explained that we had just started a new company and needed a logo for that company. She said she could try to design one. The problem started when I tried to explain what the new company was about: Pastoral Bible Foundation. It would be impossible to tell what went through her mind during those few minutes as I tried to explain the meaning of those “strange” words to her. She probably had never been in personal contact with a Christian before, or maybe she had never heard the word “Bible” before!
We arrived at the studio. A square room, not too big, with art work hanging on the four walls. At that moment, she could not be more polite and friendly. The paintings on the walls were indeed very beautiful. And she began to work. Slowly we could see different strokes on the paper. She shyly glanced at us to see our reaction to the work she was doing. After a long and painful hour, she gave up, not satisfied with her creation. But she said, “My professor is not too far away. I will call him up.” I tried to stop her. We were already feeling uncomfortable with all the efforts she had done and did not want to cause any problems for her or her mentor. But she insisted and away she went, leaving us alone in the studio. Soon after, she came back in the company of a very dignified-looking man. It was the professor. Our embarrassment became even greater than before. Again, I apologized and told him that we did not intend in any way to disturb him. He was polite and resolute, saying, “understand. There is no problem at all. Allow me to try to do something for you.” He asked me to explain in detail the logo that I needed. I said, “Something attractive and unique, where we could see the initials ‘PBF’ and also with some meaning in Chinese.”
The professor started to skillfully handle the brush. It was definitely better than those of his student. At times, it seemed that he was almost there, satisfied with his creation. But he also stopped and apologized, saying that it was very difficult to create a logo within a few minutes, just as the university had courses only for that. But he did not want to give up. We told him that it was all right with us, that it was already late and the experience of being with them for a couple of hours was enough for us to appreciate the gentleness, skills and dedication of the professor and his art student.
He insisted. He wanted us to come back the following day. When we mentioned that we were leaving China early morning on the following day, he asked for the name of our hotel… “I will work tonight, and tomorrow before you go to the airport, I will be there.” Once again, I said it was not necessary, but he would not take “no” for an answer. I realized that this man was serious and wanted to try, and that I should also ask for the cost. When I asked about the price, he said: “If you like what I do, then you give me what you think is fair; if you don’t like it, you don’t need to pay for anything.”
I was confused, hesitant, happy, apprehensive, surprised, and with a feeling of guilt for asking something that was almost impossible. I also took pity on the student who was there, silent. I also remembered that I had not bought any gift for the community, so before leaving the studio I looked again at the artworks on display. Finally, I selected a set of four drawings, beautifully drawn, full of colors and details, depicting a well-known Chinese folk tale. When I asked for the price, she immediately mentioned an amount. It was not expensive at all. I gladly paid for the four art pieces. And the young lady left.
The professor, then, told me, “You selected very well. The four paintings that you chose were the best among her works. Actually, she had to redo that several times and the ones that you selected were the paintings that enabled her to finish university and graduate.” I felt embarrassed… “But I paid her very little,” I said. The professor said, “No. You were asked to pay a price and you did just that.” We left the professor at his work in the studio and we went happily back to the hotel, wondering what would happen the following morning, and pondering over the many experiences of the day, especially during the last couple of hours.
Early morning the next day and before checking out of the hotel, the professor was waiting for us in the lobby. He showed us the result of a whole night’s work.
He explained to us that he tried to integrate everything we told him: “The two characters are very ancient Chinese characters and very seldom used in modern times—he started saying—very few Chinese would know the meaning. If we take the characters separately, the first one means ‘ear’ and the second one means ’a thousand’….”
“So a thousand hear… not bad at all,” I thought.
Then he continued, “In Chinese, you cannot separate the two characters, the first one always goes with the other character. So if we read the two characters together, we get a completely different meaning. In this case, it means ‘a pathway in an immense rice field.’”
“That is even more meaningful,” I thought.
“But those two characters also have a hidden meaning—he further said and continued—In ancient times, when somebody died in the village, the relatives would take the remains to be buried at the foot of the mountain, and had to pass through this narrow pathway. So in time these characters also came to mean ‘the way to the beyond.’
I told the teacher, “We are Christians, and we can also see the symbol of our faith, the cross of the Resurrection. We also see the P, B and F. A perfect logo! Exactly what we wanted.”
At that point, I had to ask him for the price, “Professor, I like the logo very much… How much do I owe you?” It was at that time that he looked intently at me and said: “Last night, before you left our studio you bought some art work from my student. What you did not know was that she needed exactly that amount of money to get her diploma from the university and start working. So, to me, you owe me nothing!”
Alberto Rossa CMF