Whenever I sign my name or hear that my friends are creating calligraphic artworks or learning Chinese painting, I am reminded of when I practised calligraphy. Long ago, every week at school we had to practise our calligraphy with a ballpoint pen on a page of foolscap. Being lazy, I simply put a copybook of small regular script under my foolscap to do the job. Over time, my hand gradually bore some resemblance to the script in that copybook. When I studied Chinese Literature in high school, one of the pleasures was to write out the poems in longhand. The satisfaction was incomparable, unlike typing on a laptop, because every character was also a picture, and writing Chinese character is drawing in an ancient sense.
I began taking actual calligraphy lessons while I was learning drawing with an old master in a studio that was nearly as old as he. I saw a few children sitting around a table, carving seals of their names and writing with ink brushes. They were having such fun that I later decided to join the group. I was advised to start with imitating characters with copyscripts in semi-cursive script and writing Wang Xizhi’s “Preface to the Poems Collected from the Orchid Pavilion.”
Imitation is not an easy task. One learns the craft of the artist in an attempt to imitate. For a novice Chinese calligrapher, there is always the risk that, if she hesitates or does not concentrate enough, the ink disperses beyond the strokes of the brush. During the process of writing, the need to concentrate gives the calligrapher a sense of peace and tranquility. Probably for this reason I miss the craft much.
Part of the fun came from the writing tools. I was given an inkstone, inkbrushes of different sizes, rice paper, an ink pen for practising on the go, and a pot of ink. My pleasure was practising on a copybook cleverly designed for writing with water. Such ingenious invention considers and overcomes the laziness of modern people, for whom even pouring ink and washing inkstone and inkbrushes can be bothersome. Once the tip of the brush touches the page, the paper absorbs the water, which is transformed into an ink-like slate. In such a way, one practises the words without setting the writing stage.
There is something pleasing about a finished piece of calligraphy. In a sense, it is collaboration between oneself and the calligrapher, writer, or poet, and by writing the prose or verse one entertains oneself by transforming their art into a semi-painting.
Jessica Siu-yin Yeung is an MPhil student in the Department of English. Her principal research interests are in British women modernists, Virginia Woolf, comparative literary studies and life-writing studies. [Click here to read all entries by Jessica.]