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Essay: Reflections on the evolution of pen and paper
Mingwei
7/28/2003



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I have always felt that pens and paper are quite wonderful, and they have always been important to me. In elementary school, when I went to buy school supplies, I would carefully choose pencils with various pictures on them and then sharpen them by hand with a knife at home. I made pencil caps out of paper and put them on the tip of my pencils. Then I lined them all up in my pencil box to prepare for my classes the next day. During the summer and winter school holidays, my mom would give me calligraphy homework to do. Every day I would go through the same process of taking out my ink slab, adding some water, and preparing the ink by grinding the ink stone with an ink stick until the ink was thick enough. Then I dipped the white tip of the brush-pen into the ink and shaped the tip. I held the brush-pen and moved it onto the paper. Then I would move my arm, with my elbow suspended, and start to write the beautiful Chinese characters one by one. Every day in high school and college, I would take my fountain pen apart, fill it with blue ink and write down what was in my heart. During many quiet nights, I opened the drawer and flipped through my diary page by page. The color of the characters faded away over years, but they reminded me of all those old days. Countless pens, stacks of papers and piles of diaries recorded my growth, happiness and grief.
When did the computer enter into my life, and into the human world? Quickly and unknowingly, the computer became an indispensable part of life. Typing, surfing the net, sending electronic mail, taking care of financial and business matters, making phone calls, faxing, shopping, even chatting with friends anywhere in the world—we can no longer do these things without a computer. Computers have changed society, and they have also changed us. Even I, the type of person who always favored classical things, started to type my thesis and articles on computers, rather than use a pen and paper. The computer market is changing every day. The processing speed of the computer chip is getting faster and faster. The capacity of hard disks is increasing while their bulk is decreasing. The technology is advancing so quickly that even computer designers and developers do not know what will happen tomorrow. A man without computer knowledge has no future. The dean of our computer science department said, “Investing in computers is like throwing money into a black hole. No matter how good a computer you buy, it becomes outdated in a few months. Development is too fast.” Looking at his helpless expression, I felt that man was at his wit’s end confronted by computers. Is this right?

My husband, because of his job, buys a lot of software for his design work. I often watch on the side. Sometimes, when he is busy installing and testing the software, I read the explanations and look at the pictures on the CD boxes, and become scared by what I see. Once, I saw a man’s face on one of the software boxes. The face was indifferent, with a glowing blue light coming from one of his eyes. It was hard to tell if that was a photo of a real person or a computer-generated image. Since computer technology today is so advanced, there would be no problem creating such a vivid human face. I put the box in a cabinet and tried not to look at that cold face. On another box, there was something I couldn’t figure out. It was like a pile of metal pieces glowing with white light. At first glance, it looked like a shining cold, lifeless and colorless robot.

Once I bought a printer and decided to install the software myself. I inserted the CD in the CD ROM drive. The software started running and the screen turned dark. When I was waiting for the “Welcome” message, suddenly an oval-shaped head showed up. It spun around a couple of times, and then the installation pictures popped up. I almost screamed, “Is that an alien?” Why is everything related to computers so weird?

When I wanted to buy Chinese software, I had to go to a well-known computer store in the city. As the store directory instructed, I took the elevator to the top level. When I got there, I saw a gray monster with ghostly eyes and beast-like horrible teeth, the same size as a man—standing at the gate. It made customers uncomfortable even before they entered the store. I did not understand why the manager would use such an advertisement. I entered the store and came to realize what it was about. It was an advertisement for computer games. Monsters’ faces hung from the ceiling where the software games were. They were characters from the games. In the shadows of those ghosts, parents were choosing those games with their kids. Watching them, I felt concerned. They should have been buying some beautiful gifts for their children. Why would they allow those innocent children to play with monsters all day long? For those game designers, there are so many gentle and lovely figures in world literature to use. I did not understand where their ideas came from.

Depressed, I passed by rows of silver computers, white and black cords, and kids enjoying their battles with virtual monsters. Finally, I reached the section where character input software was sold. All the Chinese platforms and software programs were there. I went through them one by one. Suddenly, I saw a dark yellow foldable Chinese fan on a box of software. It was the well-known Chinese software program CStar. The program was housed in a red box, on which was printed a yellow folded fan. It was pretty and distinctive. After asking version information, I was told that I had to use a newer version of CStar for my computer. While I was still looking at the picture of the fan, the sales associate brought me the newer version of CStar. On its box was printed Qingming Shanghe Tu (a famous Chinese landscape painting) and several lines of ancient Chinese characters. I took it happily and said, “This is what I want.” As I looked at the tender shades of color and the harmonious design combination, my depression lifted. I wanted to tell everyone in that store, “Create beauty and enjoy beauty!”

Before I start to write every day, I start up my computer and run CStar. A dark red ancient book shows up, with an ancient ink slab, and a brush-pen soaked with ink on the side. These images remind me of the beauty of pens in the past, which overwhelms me. The experience of buying the software made me feel the beauty of ancient Chinese culture. After thousands of years of evolution, today’s Chinese characters are still closely connected to the past. The characters of the Chinese language have amazed so many linguists. Is there more wonder behind them just waiting for us? Probably that hidden power is what drives my depression away. With joy and harmony, I type on the keyboard. I am using the Chinese language to describe life and experience the depth of the characters.

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