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Guest post: Chinese calligraphy—Shu fa

Our editor on Drawing Words & Writing Pictures is the multi-talented Mark Siegel. He’s the creator of Sailor Twain, and often posts interesting observations on art and craft. A few months back he posted a couple of times on the art of Chinese calligraphy, and as Matt and I were recently thinking about sumi ink and brushes, it occurred to us to ask Mark to merge the two posts and repost here.

“Shu Fa” or The Way of the Brush, which is what we call Chinese calligraphy and painting (the two are inseparable), goes far, far back in time, and it really is a lifelong apprenticeship. Two of my favorite artists are Bada Shanren and Shi Tao.I don’t think in this lifetime I can be any more than a loving dilettante in the vast, vast ocean of Chinese Calligraphy, but here’s a little from having dipped my toes in it…

Chinese calligraphy and painting are inseparable from the unseen worlds of Ch’i or energy or as Yoda would call it, the Force.

The posture of the calligrapher, often standing up, but sometimes seated too, is designed for the force to travel up the calligrapher’s spine, down his right arm, and down the brush. Feet are wide apart and flat on the ground. The spine is erect.

The calligrapher holds the brush itself with a strong tension in the wrist—hand pulled back.

Then there is the life of the line itself. With years of practice and mastery of characters and brush, one develops all kinds of deep and subtle sensitivities. It can take several years of practice to make a straight line alone.

Within each stroke, there is the movement of force. For instance, a straight line doesn’t just ‘die’ at the end abruptly. If the stroke goes to the right, the stroke begins towards the left, first; then goes right, then finishes off going left again, inside itself—the idea being that even in this straight line, the Ch’i is still flowing, in movement.

It’s astonishing when you start feeling some of these things. Or when you meet a master who looks at someone’s line without having met them and says “This is someone with grand ambitions but who is very shy in public. They are slightly overweight and may have thyroid problems.” And it’s accurate.

This is one of the most fascinating things I’ve come across in Chinese painting, this notion that what matters, even more than the skill of an artist, is the quality of being in them, at the time they do their work. It’s just a different focus than the Western mind tends to bring to appreciating art. Why is it some works are warming, or endearing, regardless of subject matter? While others make you want to take a shower. There’s more to all this, of course.

Here are four Chinese characters that I asked a calligraphy teacher (Chris Tang, at the China Institute in NY) to write out so I could copy them some years ago. They are in three different calligraphic styles. In the middle column, the beautiful running style calligraphy. These are four deep concepts, or rather four essences of art, in Shu Fa thinking. Definitions below are from my brother Alexis.

These are really four separate meditations for anyone working in any medium. There’s more to say about each of these separately, on other occasions…

氣 (qì) : BREATH. This contains the character for rice (米, mǐ) surrounded by air (气, also qì). It’s air, or breath, that carries nourishment (rice is so essential to Chinese culture that the verb “to eat” is literally “eat rice” – with rice in its cooked form of 饭, fàn) – hence the extended meaning of life-force or spirit.

理 (lǐ) : REASON. Reason, logic, management. It’s the character for jade (玉, yù), a metaphor for all things precious and valuable, associated with the phonetic element 里, composed of a field (田) above earth or soil (土). It’s reasoning or management skills that allow you to transform a raw material (soil or other) into a field that then produces something valuable.

意 (yì): IDEA. This means thought or idea. The components of the character give the meaning of establishing something related to the sun in your heart.

神(shén) : SPIRIT. A god or supernatural being. It’s the radical for spirit, 示 (shì), combined with the phonetic 申, which means “to extend.” So it’s a spirit that extends beyond the confines of a human body

Interesting, isn’t it? Imagine having an art appreciation that relates to these four things, rather than, say, “I like it, or I don’t like it.”

I love this stuff.

——Mark Siegel

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