by BEATRICE S. PAEZ
In Chinese calligraphy, the strokes make all the difference – it’s not enough to scrawl what is meant, but rather the calligrapher must wholeheartedly mean what is said.
“One character can be written in many different ways – the writing gives it the skeleton but the calligrapher gives it the flesh,” says calligrapher and philosopher Sui-Yung Tung of cultural association New Acropolis Toronto.
Calligraphers give life to the character through the energy they put into the written word, and what’s produced can be quite revealing of the artist’s inner state, adds Tung.
To the trained eye, you can get a sense of how the person was feeling. “Is it full of energy? Is it full of strength and courage? When you practice, you can see that,” she says.
Traditional China attributed high value to the written word, and the literate occupied high-ranking positions in society. It was once considered to be a more superior art form than painting, perhaps because the earliest-known calligraphy works were inscriptions on oracles bones from the Shang dynasty (ca. 1600-ca.1100 B.C.E.). Kings were said to rely on oracle bones made from animal bones in rituals, and some academics have made the case that this association elevated the stature of the practice and calligraphers.
Still today, the discipline is valued for the wisdom and patience it demands of its practitioners. Tung, who grew up in Hong Kong, recalls her days in elementary school where the art was drilled into her at young age; it was more of a rote task then but years later, after migrating to Canada, she rediscovered it while studying philosophy.
“I restarted it 10 years ago and the more I see the wisdom contained in the practice,” she says.
Chinese words brim with symbolism, with each word given its own distinct symbol. Building a vocabulary is a skill in itself – a rote practice that involves writing words over and over until absorbed.
But beyond the repetition involved in knowing the words, in that moment of meditation and surrender, calligraphers can create meaning and art.
For the meditative process that it entails, calligraphy has been used as a tool for stress management. At New Acropolis in Toronto, Tung teaches beginners and advanced learners alike how to treat the practice as a time for reflection. The non-profit association offers events and courses on “self-transformation” and “promotes civic responsibility,” according to its website.
“The practice [of calligraphy] allows us to have moments of reflection to notice what kind of state we’re in. [Sometimes] we don’t realize we’re tense, distracted … that we feel like we’re being pulled from different directions,” she says.
It’s an art of inner mastery, or the ability to maintain composure and serenity even when distractions and problems abound, she says. And as a philosophical art it teaches us “not to be overwhelmed by fear, by emotion, by demands.”
The work that is produced is almost like a “mirror of your mental state,” revealing whether one feels agitated or calm.
Students are taught to be mindful of their breathing and posture, and to clear their head of everyday concerns. The moment people pick up their brush, they’re expected to enter that headspace of clarity and concentration, says Tung.
Their only purpose is to meditate on the character and its symbolic meaning. In leading the class, Tung may choose to have the class focus on words like “calmness” or “love.”
One image or word, she says, can represent a whole concept that can be interpreted beyond its literal meaning.
Many are led to her because of a fascination they have with the beauty of calligraphy, and Tung says they end up discovering a whole new world. “[The imagery] gives us a bigger sense of imagination.”
She gives the example of this piece pictured, with the first characters having two components read together: one means to know and the other is the sun. In this sense, “to know” means to know the principles of the universe.
The other characters, she says, embody a similar message, this time using the image of a hand holding branches and a broom sweeping the heart, telling us “wisdom is not just to know – the heart has to be pure for us to know.”
Sources: Metropolitan Museum and Asia Society