Three students in my Chinese Calligraphy class surprised me last week with their first draft of the poem; John, our novice was amongst the three. That the two most experienced calligraphers were most unhappy with their progress and failed to do so is, in a way as surprising but on reflection, reasonable.
Pride and therefore high expectation is the culprit. It’s better to accept the best that one can put forward and improve thereafter. At least one would have a baseline to work from. I would have to give them a nudge if they do not turn up with their drafts soon. Having a first draft is the first step towards producing a polished piece.
Not only do they need to work on their twenty characters, they must also practice their signature and whatever else they wish to add to the piece whether it be a dedication, the title of the poem, the name of the poet, a signature, time, date and place (all optional). Student may also consider using a seal. All this must be considered as part of the artwork and placed in the appropriate space as part of the design of the piece.
Speaking of signature, it is customary for artists to take an ‘other’ name when signing their piece, if they do not wish to use their birth name, or school name, or known name. Chinese scholars often have two, three or four names. When my Japanese student asked me to suggest a artist’s name for her, I came up with 小拙 Xiaozhuo. Xiao 小 means ‘little or small’ and zhuo拙 means ‘clumsy’ or ‘awkward’. zhuo is also used to claim ownership in a humble manner. As in zhuo zuo 拙作，my clumsy work.
In case you think me cruel in suggesting the name for my student, let me tell you that better artists have called themselves worse – 大笨，for example, i.e. Big Dummy. It’s the Chinese way of remaining humble. Excessive humility, maybe, but that is our way.