When the Chinese man placed a long sheet of white paper onto the wooden table, I couldn’t help but notice that the paper was dog-eared and stained. The paper looked old; my first thought was that he was recycling the paper.
During our recent visit to China, we were asked if we would like to have a calligraphy lesson. Yes, please!
So we found ourselves in the middle of a hutong (a cluster of homes in winding, narrow alleys) at a round kitchen table, surrounded by would-be calligraphers. Our teacher sits within us and paints the Chinese characters onto the paper – his strokes are quick: some end with flourishes, and other strokes end with whispers of ink. I am in heaven.
There are many things that give me joy, and watching an artist create is clearly at the top of my list. (I think that when we create, it is really the best of us. That thought gives me joy.) Our calligrapher’s hand is upright as the interpreter explains that one holds the brush perpendicular to the paper. Fully upright! The exact opposite of how a Westerner would hold a brush or pen. His five fingers are grasping the brush as he dips the brush into the ink bowl.
He starts at the top and brushes downwards. He moves from the left side to the right side. Oh, wait. He moves down the centre of the paper and draws a line, but now he surrounds it with two flourishes – one on the left and the other on the right side of the downward stroke. When he draws two boxes – one inside the other, he completes the inside box before he makes the final stroke of the outside box. (Will he give us instructions when we leave? A how-to book? Guidelines? A YouTube site that we can visit?)
The strong black strokes and trailing feathery lines on the white paper contrast greatly, and I know immediately that I am going home to learn this ancient art. I find it beautiful and exquisite.
I’d already bought calligraphy brushes in a beautiful box and now realize that the intended recipient of the souvenir was never going to see them. I knew that I would keep them for my own personal use.
Before I went to China, I had looked on YouTube for videos of calligraphy painting and was rewarded with a prolific number of sites exhibiting the beautifully skilled artists. I also knew that Westerners call the white paper, rice paper, which is not what the artists use. The paper they write on is called Shuan (Xuan) paper. It is rather expensive, so beginners do not usually use it. (My hunch is that our own teacher is using cheaper paper.)
Our interpreter, our own Chinese guide, told us that the calligrapher calls his tools, The Four National Treasures: ink, ink stone, paper and brush.
Wherever we visited one of the many ancient sites in China, my sister and I were always looking for works of calligraphy. Often tables were set up among the vendors and artists were working. Sometimes scrolls were used and the writer would dab at the paint to ensure it doesn’t smear; the painted scrolls were then flung over string hung from tree to tree, or wooden dowels used as a drying rack. We spent many of our few, precious minutes allowed for shopping, just watching the artists.
We noticed that the artists differed in their techniques and I learned when I returned home, that there are five different styles: Seal (Zuan), Clerical (Li), Running (Tsao), Walking (Hsin), and Standard (Kai). I also learned that beginners usually employ the Kai Shu style or Li Shu style.
I read that the success of a piece or the value of a work of a calligrapher is measured by the strength of the stroke or the power within the stroke. In other words, how the calligrapher holds the brush and makes the stroke (where the pressure on the paper is made, or when the brush is lifted) expresses the uniqueness of each piece. And, those strokes and the power within the stroke or the subtlety of the stroke is what differentiates the masters from the others.
Our own Chinese teacher ignores most of our questions, as he is intent on painting each of us a personal keepsake, or gift.
I ask our Chinese guide if I may receive a piece of paper with the word Longevity inscribed on it as I know immediately that I am going to give my gift to my friend who has cancer when I return to Canada.
When the artist drew the characters onto the piece of paper, I can see that he is pleased to be asked to write that particular word: longevity.
The Chinese are very superstitious, and therefore, many of the Chinese calligraphy works that we have seen translate into prosperity, love, fortune, abundance, long life and health. Not taking any chances, the Chinese surround themselves with tokens that symbolize the good life, the healthy life; hence, works of calligraphy are revered by all.
The broad strokes symbolize different words… short and long sweeps of ink, short flourishes, long flourishes, boxes, dabs, dabs with smears…each denotes part of an object or a thought. Some of the strokes make sense to me – three strokes denotes the number three. (One stroke means the number one; two strokes – two.) One word looks like a pictogram that looks familiar – a tree. Then, he draws two trees, side by side. The one tree does denote the word tree. But the pictogram of two trees actually denotes forest. (Hey, I wrongly assume, isn’t the Chinese language difficult to learn? This is easy.)
Then he draws so many strokes within other strokes, that I am confused and cannot distinguish the end from the beginning. I shake my head. I’ll stick to learning and drawing one, two, three. (Because the number four is not four strokes.)
Finally our calligrapher hands over to me a torn, dog-eared piece of paper and I am grinning from ear to ear when I realize that the beautiful black strokes spell Longevity because I believe everything (especially old, dog-eared pieces of paper) have an energy and I am certain my keepsake is pulsating with the energy of all of us squeezed into that small room: the excitement and appreciation of our group, the ancient history of the art, the knowledge and experience (and gifts) of the artist, himself; the superstition of the Chinese people, along with their well-wishes, and their pride and honour in teaching us something about their country – all these positive energies are stirred together with curiosity, openness, and hope. Each of these energies is powerful when alone; mixed together – super powerful.
All of this accompanied me home when I rolled up my paper and tucked it into my suitcase.
In Canada, my friend accepted my gift in the spirit in which it was given – she overlooked the stains on the paper and only saw the intent of the inscription. And the intent of the artist. And my intent.
Giving and receiving. Both are gifts. And they exist everywhere.