To learn the art of beautiful writing: first, learn to write. That is, presuming one can already read. Therein lies the difficulty I face each week. Half of my class consists of literate Chinese and the other half of my students speak, read and write in various other languages.
We are preparing for an exhibition one month away. I have asked the students to present two pieces of artwork each: the first of their own choosing in A3, Ou Style with the theme of “Spring”. The second must be a line from the set project, a Tang Dynasty poem.
Last week I asked the students to let the class know of the characters they’d chosen and they came up with some surprising proposals. One plucked two characters from the poem that made no sense on their own, and one asked if she could write eight characters when each line of the poem consists of seven characters.
This reminds me of some amusing sightings of Chinese characters being misused: Chinese calligraphy hung sideways or upside down in expensive decorators magazines, tattoos that proclaim the wearers as idiots (as well as being illiterate) but the most amusing was of a woman who walks the streets of China with the word 雞 on her T-shirt.
This image went viral on the internet in China some years ago: a big blond-coloured hair woman strutting about with her chest stuck out and emblazoned with a word that no doubt she believes says that she was born in the Year of the Rooster. In fact the word had the connotation of ‘hooker/prostitute’ in Chinese. Of all the animal signs in China the only one I would wear on my T shirt would be 龍 so if you were not born in the year of the Dragon, think.
Chinese words／characters have evolved over thousands of years; you can almost say they are organic beings. They are alive, they change and they continue to transform. In fact the Chinese characters for calligraphy is 書法 shūfǎ － 書shū meaning ‘to write’ and though 法fǎ is commonly translated as ‘method’, I prefer to think of 法fǎ as ‘transformation’. The art of magic in Chinese is fǎshù 法術。
The calligraphy strokes such as héng 橫, shù 豎 piě 撇 nà 捺 are like your a, b, c, d but they go their own ways. Unlike the English alphabets in a set script that rise and fall at the same exact angle, rounds the same curves and never change their shapes, all Chinese strokes have infinite variations. We celebrate diversity rather than conformity or uniformity.
Like the toad who looks at the sky from the bottom of the well, one may assume that such is the size of the universe. The study of Chinese Calligraphy may change that view, even if you do it at the bottom of the well.
Thinking of fǎ 法 as ‘the way’ would help the student understand that there is not one fixed method to Chinese Calligraphy, just as most words carries more than one meaning. There is the discipline of learning the ‘how to write’, i.e. the use of tools and the way of making shapes but then one must understand ‘the way’ – fǎ法：the character that belongs to the radical (word family) of water, represented here as the three ‘dots’ at the left of the character, and the qù 去 on the right side of 法 means ‘to go’. The way of the water transforms its shape, be it a drop, a stream, a torrent or still.
Calligraphy is the art of beautiful writing, not merely pretty strokes. Writing speaks – beware of what it says.
Tomorrow we will see what the students bring.
(to be continued)