Last week MOSAIC at Chatswood confirmed that, after the cancellation of my calligraphy course, ten students came forward to enrol; so it’s back on again, starting tomorrow.
I’d taken the cancellation as a sign from Heaven that I should have some fun and enrolled myself in a Pottery class, booked seats to National Theatre Live screenings and the Met Operas. Now it seems I will have a busy term.
Every Chinese school student learn to write as soon as they can pick up a pencil or a brush. When I was at school, calligraphy class was a break for the teacher, who gave us work to copy then sit back to read a book or mark homework. No instructions whatever was given. Later (decades later) I paid a fortune to take calligraphy lessons from a master until she felt I could teach her beginners, especially those who didn’t speak Chinese.
After paying fees to teach beginners for some time I decided to withdraw from class and after a break, volunteered to teach members of the University of the Third Age and later MOSAIC, a multicultural centre that provide services to migrants in Australia, with my teacher’s blessing.
Since then I have developed my own system of teaching because, unlike my teacher whose main student body was Chinese who could already write, my students were mostly illiterate. I don’t want my students to think of Chinese calligraphy as ‘drawing’; it is important to me that they learn about the language and its writing system.
Unlike English with its 26 letters, and its students of calligraphy needing to form 52 letters (including capital letters), Chinese students need only learn eight strokes, though each stroke has numerous variations. As with Lego blocks, these foundation strokes have seemingly infinite permutations and as in the Oxford Dictionary where there are new words in every edition, Chinese is no different. However, students should be undaunted by the prospect as new words are simply rearrangements of the basic elements.
Calligraphy is the ‘Art of Beautiful Writing’ – so I start with the instruction of writing Chinese in the proper sequence of strokes, the development of the eye to discern beauty in the construction of characters and as for the ‘Art’, student will have to work at elevating themselves from being competent calligraphers to being Artists, but they must learn to appreciate the difference.
So after demonstrating the magic of the brush and giving them exercises to improve their control of it, I start with the horizontal stroke 橫 by teaching them how to write ‘one’, ‘two’ and ‘three’ in Chinese. I should say, the abbreviated way of writing them: 一，二 and 三 instead of 壹，貳 and 叁, the full characters that you must use to issue a cheque. The Arabic numerals, 1, 2 and 3 are of course used worldwide.
How far a student can go in the next eight weeks will depend on their level of diligence. They will learn the basic strokes to construct Chinese characters. In essence they will learn to write Chinese with a brush. Whether their work will be recognised as Art will depend on their willingness to exercise their creativity to bring forth their talent.