Session One: Introduction to Chinese Calligraphy 書法

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.

The Chinese character, yi (一) has but one horizontal stroke, yet a student must learn to execute the stroke from right to left with the variation of thickness in the stroke at a slight angle and correct placement within its square (perceived) space and relationship to other characters around it.

The Chinese character, yi (一) has but one horizontal stroke, yet a student must learn to execute the stroke from left to right with the variation of thickness in the stroke at a slight angle and correct placement within its square (perceived) space and relationship to other characters around it.

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.

About Mary Tang

An urban orchardist everyday, a volunteer regularly, a poet sometimes and a blogger since March 2015. I travel when I can. Food is a constant.
This entry was posted in Chinese Language, Diary, Memoir and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Session One: Introduction to Chinese Calligraphy 書法

  1. setohj says:

    Thank you for starting your series on Chinese calligraphy. I would like to know how you create the chart demonstrating individual strokes of a character. Is there proprietary software you use? Do you scan handwritten strokes on paper and then upload to your blog? I’m impressed with your use of digital technology as much as the Chinese lessons using traditional script.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Mary Tang says:

      I’m afraid my methods are quite low tech. Most of the time I just take a photo with my iPhone. My ‘series’ as you call it, is no more than journal entries about my classes. :) Thank you for reading and commenting.


  2. Sunshine Jansen says:

    I started learning Chinese in 1991 and my teacher (who was Taiwanese) made sure we learned to write traditional characters from Day 1 and never cheat with pinyin or any other transliteration (we did learn 注音符號). Back then I was a pretty dab hand with a pencil or pen, and could manage a fairly decent cursive script. Then college ended and life took its little turns and before long my writing was atrocious and the characters that I could write from memory dwindled (and the ease of typing on a computer with pinyin didn’t help; my Chinese friends say they’ve come to rely on that “autosuggest” too much themselves).

    Then I had the misfortune to develop a disease that affects my memory, but it motivated me to fight and continuing to learn Chinese was my chosen weapon. And one of the best things I did was take a class at the community college in Chinese calligraphy. Learning stroke order was one thing, but taking the time to form each stroke and learn them by name was something I’d never done before, and I loved shaping the 點 just perfectly instead of putting lazy little jabs on the page. I still wrack my brain to make new characters (or even old ones!) stick in my head, but I will always be as grateful to that teacher as many of your students must be to you!


    • Mary Tang says:

      Thank you, Sunshine. It’s fabulous to know that you’ve attained that level in Chinese. Yes, I believe it is helpful in keeping the brain active :) I know the limitation of the body too as the use of my right arm/hand is compromised by surgery and I am right handed. I will have to beg the indulgence of my students. You could have been talking about me when you spoke of your writing. :) I do a lot of preparation and write myself notes to stay on track in class.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. taphian says:

    Hi Mary, do you have a new blog? Did you know that calligraphy is a Greek word? It means good writing. I once made a course for Chinese calligraphy here and must admit it is very, very difficult, but very beautiful, too. Kind regards Mitza

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m pleased, for the students at least, that this is back on. Good luck with them

    Liked by 1 person

  5. mattb325 says:

    I love the intricacy of the characters – and the way the brush strokes must be so precise. Is it possible to discern the ‘handwriting’ of the artist in true calligraphy, or does the precision make this less obvious?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Mary Tang says:

      Not at all; unlike calligraphy in English, Chinese calligraphers of the highest calibre value variations above all. That’s where the art comes in. However, for my students who are beginners, I encourage them to be precise to train their eye/hand co-ordination. It’s a matter of walking before you can run but even at the earliest level individuals will show their own characters through their work. That’s why they can identify people through their writing just like fingerprinting can.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Wow, this is fascinating, I didn’t know the level of detail required! Congrats on the resurrection of the course too (reminds me of when I had an antique shop, something could sit there for two months and the minute a ‘sold’ sticker went on it, everyone wanted it! Human nature is funny :) )

    Liked by 2 people

    • Mary Tang says:

      Ha ha you’re so right about human nature; how weird are we :) I’m not sure if I want your congratulations or commiserations :) You and I are not the kind of people who ever have spare time but we somehow find time when we need to, don’t we? Still, something’s got to give.

      Liked by 2 people

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