On a spring afternoon in Beijing, Lee Xue Li hazards a guess about how wizards, during the Shang Dynasty that ruled China, looked up at the heavens to ask if their queen would be relieved of her toothache. They used oracle bones and turtle shells, she explains, making holes in the shell, burning it slightly from below and reading the cracks that appeared. Heaven’s words were then carefully written down.
Xue Li — or Shirly, as she calls herself in English — narrates this at the Classic Code Cafe, in Hougulouyuan Hutong, near Beijing’s Bell and Drum Towers. At the cafe, she hands out sheets of paper inscribed with traditional Chinese characters. Lee explains how different characters evolved over millennia, changing under different dynasties to ease bureaucratic work, and into what foreigners today call the “square language” — each character fitting neatly into a square. Since the 1950s, Mainland China has promoted simplified Chinese characters in an effort to boost literacy.
To each customer who gets a sheet, Lee promises that an honest effort to write out the characters five times will see a 10 per cent discount on the bill, depends on whether they are a foreigner, a mainland Chinese or Taiwanese. To The Indian Express, she hands a simple version for foreigners with “zhongwen” written in Chinese – “zhong” meaning “centre or middle” and “wen” meaning “writing”.
“I came up with this idea for fun,” says the 58-year-old, who majored in Chinese literature, “Everything on the menu here is homemade or handmade, and it takes a while to serve my guests. So I thought I will give them something fun to do in the meantime and they will forget how long they have to wait for the order,” she laughs.
Lee, a Taiwanese who has lived in Beijing for over 15 years, feels young people are losing touch with writing traditional characters. “When you live by yourself, you have to know how to cook, not where to buy food from,” she says, commenting on young people’s dependence on the technology.
The opportunity to move to Beijing came via an advertising firm. “One of the advertising firms here had a creative director from Taiwan, and at the time, Taiwanese people served as a bridge between people of mainland China and western bosses or managers,” she says.
In 2009, after reading a bad translation of Warren Buffet’s biography, Lee and two of her colleagues launched an online bookshop on the Chinese website Taobao and later set up a physical cafe and bookstore in an attempt to offer books with better translations. “All the books were from Taiwan with characters in traditional Taiwanese. Not simplified. We carefully picked out translations, designs, writers and sold expensive books that are worth collecting and keeping for life,” she says.
Over the years, as mainland China and Taiwan’s relations soured and improved across the Taiwan Strait, Lee and her partners moved the cafe — which also offers language courses — three times before settling at its present location. “… I am asked what my opinion is about mainland China and Taiwan’s relations. I don’t have a strong opinion, but I sometimes think the next generation will have the wisdom to end the problems.”