Chinese calligraphy is pattern recognition: each word is a symbol of meaning and movement. Those who admire calligraphy enjoy the art for its content and for how it is technically executed. The changes in line weight represent a passage of time. The prose draws an imaginative space, the brushstrokes construct a graphic space, and the visible variation of line reveals the rhythm of movement over a time. The brush adds a vertical dimension to writing, and the brushstroke is a two-dimensioned trace of movement in three axes. The brushes accentuates and aestheticizes the dynamic sequences.
Since Mao’s revolution, Pinyin has been a part of Chinese education. Pinyin – Mandarin Chinese written with Roman characters – is a phonetic system that preserves the graphic character of written Chinese in the age of automation. The typist makes the pictograph by typing the appropriate symbol for a particular sound.
There are over 50,000 words in the Chinese language and a literate person uses around 3,500 everyday. Traditionally, students learned vocabulary by reciting and writing words. Memorization was inevitable, and the regular use of the words reinforced the memory of them. The keyboard however, has altered the relationship between the mind, the eye, the ear and the hand. The article“櫓벌蝎랬狼안空,” (Chinese Writing Needs Saving) in the June 15, 2008 issue of the North American-based Chinese periodical Ming Pao Daily News reported that school children in China, when asked to handwrite a word from memory, executed poorly. Their handwriting was messy; many students did not know stroke order, and some left out important strokes. The article suggested that typing circumvents the rules for recording Chinese. The current generation is forgetting a basic skill of the language itself.
Whereas Pinyin was introduced a half century ago and word processing is a popular communications tool in the last decade, handwriting, more specifically calligraphy is a skill that was developed and practiced for over two millennia.
Calligraphy is an education in itself, an art that combines rules and intuition. The art of the line uses the Four Treasures of a Scholar’s Study: the brush, the paper, the ink and the ink stone. The brush is the recording device which uses paper for preserving and exhibiting the recorded information; the ink is the medium and the ink stone helps prepare the medium.
For over 2000 years Chinese writing has been recorded with a brush. Tsuen-hsuin Tsien, the author of Written on Bamboo and Silk; the Beginning of Chinese Books and Inscriptions, observed that brushes were discovered on archeological sites dating back as far as the 1600 B.C., when oracle bones were made, but the general Meng T’ien, in the third century B.C. was credited for making the first brush. The chisel, the stylus, and the brush coexisted in history, but by the Qin Dynasty in the third century B.C., brushes became the most popular writing tool.
Paper was invented in the second century A.D. by Ts’ai Lun. This achievement, mentioned in the official history of 25-189 A.D., the Tung-kuan Han-chi, stated Ts’ai Lun’s motives for inventing paper as making a material less cumbersome than bamboo tablets and less expensive than silk. “He initiated the idea of making paper from tree bark, old rags, and fishing nets.” Paper catalyzed the propagation of written texts, and after the fourth century A.D., “Paper has been in use everywhere.”
The ink stone is a well and a mill; the calligrapher grinds an ink stick (compacted charcoal powder) while he adds water. There isn’t a prescribed formula for mixing ink. If the mixture is viscous, the brushstroke risks looking dry, and if the mixture is dilute, the brushstroke risks looking bloated. Experience is the only measure, one knows when the proportion is right by the smell of soot coming from the mixture and the oily sheen on the surface.
Mastery over the four treasures is at the basis of Chinese arts and literate culture.
The calligrapher Wang Xizhi once said, “paper represents the troops arrayed for battle; the writing brush, sword and shield; ink represents the soldier’s armour; the ink slab, a city’s wall and moat; while the writer’s ability is the chief commander.” To win in battle, the commander deploys each part tactfully, but the skill of maneuvering brushes, paper, and ink in the fight for beauty is difficult to master. Brush writing is an unnatural exercise: the arm is raised and level with the table, fingers pinch the brush shaft, and the hand is at right angles to the arm. With the brush, the calligrapher must maintain consistent surface contact while conveying a sense of rigidity in a fluid medium. Brushing a line, the hand moves in a rhythmic pattern in two kinds of movement: the broad sweep and the pause; they occur in succession. The calligrapher anchors the brushstroke with dots by initially pressing the brush down, and then pulls the brush across the page to make the line before pressing down again to make a final dot. This way of brushing a line place emphasis on controlling the “up and down” movement of the instrument while it moves across the page. A brushstroke becomes a topographic map of the force and the speed of the hand; the harder one pushes down, the more ink is deposited at that moment.
To complicate matters, the lines of a Chinese word are added in a circuitous fashion. The “structure” of a character form depends on the stroke order of that word, the order that prescribes a way of moving. Stroke order prevents continuous motion in one direction. With this disruption of movement, the hand returns to a vertical position at the start of each new stroke. The brush distributes ink evenly from the vertical position, and from this point it is easy for the hand to pivot in any direction.
Calligraphy is ruled by the tools, the materials, the styles, the brush-hand positions, the basic techniques, the stroke types and the stroke order, but the most brilliant pieces have been done by individuals on the edge of control, with minds oscillating between consciousness and delirium. Their well-trained hands still moved precisely, but guided by emotions rather than reason. In short, brush technique is not the subject, it is the vessel that helps channel everything else into a visual format.
There are no shortcuts to mask a calligrapher’s inexperience. One cannot plan spontaneity. Juggling aesthetic and kinetic factors in the moment of writing takes a lifetime to master. A calligrapher is at the mercy of time. By all accounts, Chinese writing and calligraphy should be extinct.
Every notable poet and painter was an excellent calligrapher.
What does a future hold for a practice that is the antithesis of speed and consistency?
Historically, good calligraphers were civil servants. Until the twentieth century, the Chinese imperial system was controlled of a class of ruling civil servants and the Civil Service was the most respected profession. Mandarin is the official Chinese dialect, and it was once known as Guanyu, or the language of officials. The Oxford English Dictionary defines Mandarin as “a form of Chinese language formerly used by officials and educated people,” and as, “an official in any senior grades of the former imperial Chinese civil service.” A Mandarin was a high official who entered public service by passing a series of exams, the Jinshi exams. The candidates were tested on their knowledge of the Five Confucian Classics, the Four Books, and the Six Scholastic Arts, and the Jinshi exams were open to anyone. Successful candidates usually came from the upper class, those who had the means to hire tutors. Although only a handful of people from obscure backgrounds ever rose to this position, it was literacy, not social class, that represented the ticket to social mobility. In the examination room, armed with a brush, everyone was equal. The Mandarin title was a reward for the candidate’s scholastic efforts, and there was a presumption that those who prevailed would be intelligent, moral magistrates.
The tradition endures culturally, if not in practice. A literate person has wenhua: “text transformed.” Text is a vehicle for individual transformation. Writing imparts knowledge; the mind acquires the intelligence to discipline the body. Training in calligraphy asks that the student to check his pride and assume his teacher’s hand, tracing, copying his master’s calligraphy, and over time, learning how the image corresponds to the motion of the hand. Calligraphy requires a clear head, a steady hand, and a calm heart; practice (perhaps by definition, tedious) is indeed tedious and frustrating; many students abandon the craft. Historically, the rewards for prevailing were a title of distinction and a better life. Presently, the reasons for continuing are not as clear, although every Chinese official knows how to write at least one slogan or phrase with a brush. It is a popular Chinese belief that learning calligraphy cultivates diligence, humility and patience, and that the written form is a true indicator of character.
In stories of calligraphy, personality is said to be mirrored in the letterform Yanti, a variation on the Standard style (Chen Shu) was invented by Yan Zhengqing. Yan Zhengqing was a loyal civil servant of the Tang Dynasty. His brushstrokes are weighted, his words are uniform in size and arranged in a perfect grid. Yanti is unwavering and stable, which perfectly complemented Yan’s personality.
Slender Gold was a style of calligraphy invented during the Song Dynasty by the Emperor Huizong. The emperor’s handwriting was light, whimsical, and delicate. Huizong was famous for investing in the arts and neglecting his army. Huizong abdicated the throne and brought on the fall of the Song Dynasty. Handwriting analysis may reveal certain truths but more importantly, the stories describe Chinese values. The examples warn against self-indulgence and they support a balanced education; calligraphy teaches various lessons on balance. At every stage of a calligraphy lesson, from preparing the materials to executing the product, the student is cultivating his awareness of the edge. But, whether the ink is too thick or a vertical stroke is crooked, he learns the skills (materially and visually) that will restore balance.
According to professor Lothar Ledderose of the University of Heidelberg, a written language needs to meet two requirements: first, the script reflects speech, and then, second, it is easy to learn, read and write. Ledderose believes that Chinese script meets his terms because it is a repeatable modular system. For him, the written form is a hierarchy of “elements,” “modules” and “units.” The element is a brushstroke, the module is a semantic component, and the unit is a single character. Ninety percent of Chinese words are combinations of semantic modules and many words share the same component, often called a radical. With enough vocabulary, one can guess at the meaning and sound of an unfamiliar word based on the pattern of symbolic combination.
The appearance of Chinese script has changed significantly. The language has been standardized many times. The most recent debate is whether Simplified Script is really easier to learn. Simplified Script (a program that began in the 1950s when the government hoped to promote literacy by making Chinese writing less complicated) is taught and used today in mainland China. Strokes were subtracted from words, and many letter forms were reconstituted based on phonetic similarity. In The New York Times Room for Debate Blog on May 2, 2009, Eileen Cheng-yin Chow and Hsuan Meng both believed that the decision was a political statement; school children in Hong Kong and Taiwan, where the program is not enforced, boast some of the highest literacy levels in the world, and experience no difficulty in learning the Traditional Script. Chow, an associate professor of Chinese literary and cultural studies at Harvard University, argues that Simplified Script purges the language of variation, subtlety and wit, and Meng, a columnist for the World Journal Weekly feels that it is difficult to fully understand historical texts without knowing traditional writing. On the other hand, as the language evolves, the Simplified form is considered by Chow as one natural outcome. Building a case for Simplified Script, Professor Eugene Wang at Harvard University observed that, “The running- and cursive -hand in traditional Chinese calligraphy is a radically simplified form.” And in one important way at least – stroke order – the form is less significant than the practice.
In many respects stroke order is the active link between the old and new letter forms. The memory of a word is as much about how one writes it as it is about how the word is recognized. All Chinese writing follow stroke order. They are also the rules that keep a calligrapher’s timing. The Cursive script was present when Hsiao Chuan was the official script. The Simplified script is largely based on the cursive hand. The route of movement for the hand remains constant, regardless of the style. Of all the visual components that were lost, the space inscribed by movement is, in most cases, preserved.
Brush writing’s endurance is a testament to its efficiency. Calligraphy’s distinctive reputation may, in the end, save the craft. Mao Zedong, during the Cultural Revolution, protected calligraphy above the other traditional arts. The title of official newspaper for the Communist Party - The People’s Daily, was written by Mao in cursive hand.
Calligraphers today are still highly regarded, not simply because the skill takes a long time to cultivate, but because the art is timeless. Writing that is two thousand years old still looks and feels current. Brush writing is an integral part of Chinese iconography, and as a culturally distinct art, calligraphy is attracting new audiences in the West. This western interest renews the tradition.
In calligraphy, I found a two-dimensioned art that communicates depth without perspective, but I was most pleased as I discovered the time of calligraphy. While the drawn word – the character – is two dimensioned, the word itself describes four. Not only is there a figure and a ground, a body and a void, but there is also an account of force, of speed, and of the passage of time. The moving hand inscribes a physical space, as it draws the brush through three axes. The written Chinese character remains a code inscribed in motion.
With many reforms, the Chinese language is still a graphic system. The tools have changed and the people have adapted new techniques for recording this graphic form. The keyboard and computer software are again changing the way Chinese people are recording their language. Although calligraphy is not essential for education, handwriting is absolutely necessary. One truly knows Chinese when he can recognize the word, use it in context, and write it by hand. The word is truly committed to memory when the body and the mind both remember it.