A Real Calligrapher

I've been going to Noriko Maeda sensei's home every Tuesday night as part of my research. The class is a gathering of sociologists, physicists, engineers and architects of all ages and nationalities. We sit at a long table, each person equip with an ink stone, ink stick, paper and paper weight and for an hour or so we write, talk about food, and occasionally mention calligraphy. Maeda sense is a tremendous talent, her sense of humour and wisdom immediately puts everyone at ease. She made calligraphy fun. 

Check out more of her work here


A list of terms used in the thesis

Calligraphy,书法 Shu Fa
Shu: book, document, style, write
Fa: method, law, magic, the Way
There is a specific ‘fa’ for every style of calligraphy

Stroke Order
The predetermined pattern of stroke placement for a Chinese character

Meaning in language

Units of meaning, usually a reductive character form

A diagram of living things and objects
e.g. Fu (Broom) is a diagram of the ceremonial broom that splash wine over the altar

Semantic Combination
A new word as a result of pictograph combinations
e.g. Gui (Return) is a combination of the ceremonial broom and the meat offering prior to the troops’ departure

A character symbolizing the idea of a thing without indicating the sequence of sounds in its name
e.g. A position or direction such as Shang (Up) or Xia, (Down)

Phonetic Borrowing
Apply the sound of one character to another without the consideration for meaning.
e.g. Wo (First person “I”) is a borrowed homophonous of Wo,(A Saw)

Semantic Phonetic
A character that relies on one component to indicate sound and the other component to indicate meaning
e.g. Yi (Ant) is a combination of the phonetic yi (righteousness) and the semantic radical for insect

Extended Meaning:
Characters with different configuration and pronunciation but a shared logic because of a common semantic unit
e.g. Fu (Broom), Sao (Clean), Jin (Soak)

Chinese Character:
A configuration of forms that stands as both a symbol of meaning and sound, and incorporates all parts of speech

Significant Form:
“Incorporates elements of both imagery (generalized simulation), and expressiveness (of emotions).” (Li, 38)

The Laws of Form (as defined by Li Zehou)

Calligraphic Styles
Hsiao Chuan or Xiao Zhuan
Small Seal Script, 221-201 B.C.

Li Shu
Clerical Script, 221-201 B.C.

Chen Shu or Zhen Shu, Kai Shu
Standard Script, Block Script 70 A.D.

Tsing Shu or Xing Shu
Running Script, 220 A.D.

Tsao Shu or Cao Shu
Cursive Script, 45-33 A.D.

Calligraphic Strokes
Ts’e or Dian
A spot or a motion similar to slant

Lo or Heng
A horizontal stroke or a motion similar to bridle

Nu or Shu
A vertical Stroke or a motion similar to strive

Yo or Gou
A hook or a motion similar to spring

Tse or Ti
A diagonal stroke that starts from the bottom left to upper right or a motion similar to whip

Cho or Pie
A short diagonal stroke that starts from the upper right to bottom left or a motion similar to peck

Lueh or Pie,
A long diagonal stroke that starts from upper right to bottom left, or a motion similar to skim

Chih or Na
A long diagonal stroke that starts from upper left to bottom right, or a motion similar to tear

Sentence Structure
Agent Act Object

Agent is a thing poised for action
Act is what passes between
Object possess latent action

In grammar, are verbs that take a direct subject or object. The meaning of transitive verb is incomplete without the object.

In grammar, are verbs that describe states and do not take a subject.

“The use of material images to suggest immaterial relations.” (Fenollosa, p26)

Position and potential

The meaning as position derives from the character as an ideogram, “which is believed to represent a hand holding something, a symbol of power to which the diacritic radical for force (li) was later added. Xu Shen thinks what is held in the hand is a clod of earth, which symbolize something put in position or a “positioning.” (Jullien, p267)

The meaning as potential comes from phonetic borrowing, “in terms of its spatial connotation, corresponds to the word shi, which its temporal associations in the sense of “opportunity” or “chance.”(Jullien, p267)

A configuration or arrangement

Opportunity that arise out of the tension created between elements within the configuration


The only definitive advice I’ve ever gotten was “practice, practice, practice.” Until I can write without recalling the word in my mind or having to think of how I should do it, I remain a student of the craft.

Calligraphy is a tedious, repetitive craft that uses wet, unforgiving materials. While the premise is basic, the rules simple, juggling aesthetic and kinetic factors in the moment between strokes is not. Control of timing separates the master from the novice. The rhythmic structure of each style relates directly with form. The gesture of the archaic style is different from a contemporary style. A stroke is stark bare, a hand gesture for all to see. There are no easy tricks or shortcuts that masks a calligrapher’s inexperience. In this thesis, my calligraphy was carefully selected; for every successful case there were pages and pages of failures and mediocre results. Whereas the historical examples were successful, every stroke, every word and every sentence rendered beautifully on the first try. A true master is a painter and a poet. Calligraphy after all is a communications art and utility greatly influenced its development. In Feudal times, literary talent and a beautiful hand could transform a man’s life and elevate his social status. Every notable poet and painter was also an excellent calligrapher. A masterpiece makes space, traverses time and distance by suggestion on multiple levels: the tangible, the ephemeral, the poetic and the literal. Style choices speaks for the occasion of the writing. Each piece is unique, affected by the author’s physical and mental condition at the moment of creation. Prose shape imaginative space, brush strokes and color blocks construct graphic space, the hand, the brush and the paper interact inscribing a physical space. All these combined, collapses time, motion and space.

Calligraphy is a matrix of stroke types assembled in a predetermined order. The brush moves in three coordinates: x, y and z-axes. Calligraphy is also a harmonious combination of serial patterns and personal touches. Contradiction is calligraphy’s definitive characteristic, simultaneously rigid and fluid. ‘Change’ is a transfer of states and brush technique shifts from one gesture to another. There are rhythmic variations within a calligraphic line. Two types of movement: the broad sweep and the pause exists simultaneously, causing friction between momentum and inertia. The distance between pauses represents time and the various stroke widths indicate speed. This reciprocity of opposite conditions is best defined as ‘shi,’ a term used in numerous strategic manuals. ‘Shi’ represents a dynamic logic, where a position is defined by the most advantageous outcome.

In this present age, brush writing is obsolete. Most people prefer using a pen or a keyboard. In China however, a skill set that includes calligraphy immediately boast one’s public image. Mao Zedong saved brush writing over other traditional arts during the Cultural Revolution. A single word by an established artist is a pricey commodity and historical relics are worth many times more. Calligraphy equals value. When hard work and good fortune intersect, magic happens, but these are rare occurrences. Thus, a few written words turn men into sages, and transform obscure places into extraordinary finds. Brush calligraphy is also popular in Japan and Korea. As a culturally distinctive craft, brush art is also attracting new audience in the West. A renewed interest in calligraphy by a Western audience outside of the intellectual circle keeps the tradition alive.

To me, Chinese is still a foreign language. But calligraphy feels like an old friend. I’m not sure what exactly keeps me practicing, maybe it’s the pursuit of my “Lan Ting” moment, or the community of people associated with the craft, or maybe, it is simply that I find comfort in working without the pressure of ever finishing.

Thesis April '09: Full Text + Final Layout

Landscape format, 145 pages double sided


o1: A Landscape Continuously Unfolding
full text: part 1, part 2

02: Lessons from Old Masters

03: Dynamics