National Geographic Society
1145 17th St. NW, Washington DC
Workshop on Calligraphy
July 8, 2012, 1 to 3 pm
The workshop opened with a discussion and projected slides that explained the differences between Western Hemisphere and Eastern Hemisphere calligraphy and writing. The way language itself is represented by these different geographic areas reflects their approaches to writing down the concepts or things expressed.
The Western Hemisphere relies on alphabets that are combined in various ways to express words that represent concepts or objects. The Eastern Hemisphere, at least in China, Japan, Korea and other areas where Chinese culture influenced social evolution, relies on characters or symbols to represent concepts and things, often these characters are based on pictographs. For example, the character for “mountain” looks like E turned on its spine, with the three upward spikes representing mountain peaks.
Chinese characters are called Kangi and came to Japan in the 3rd century C.E. In Japan, these characters have been simplified visually and organized structurally to match the phonetic letters or combinations used in Japanese spoken language. This occurred in about the 8th century C.E. and the Japanese call their characters Kana.
The function of calligraphy is also different in the two hemispheres. In the West, the emphasis is on hand-lettering for inscriptions, decorative scrolls and ceremonial documents or occasions. In the East the design of the word and the spirit of the word or character are considered more important when it is expressed in writing.
Training differs too: In the West, penmanship is on the decline. In the East, school children practice writing characters all through their primary education and scholars practice calligraphy as a zen mental relaxation exercise.
The principal styles of calligraphy in the East are: tensho, the seal script used for official purposes; the reisho script for clerical work; the kaisho for regular use; the gyosho which is semi-cursive; and the sosho which is cursive. There is also a running style which is a very fast cursive script. The cursive calligraphy is nearly unreadable and mostly serves as artistic decoration or design on paper.
The Tools used in Eastern calligraphy are called the “Four Treasures” and are: natural hair brushes set in bamboo “stems”, mulberry paper, ink stick and ink stone. Mulberry paper is quite thin and until a certain level of skill is developed, students should use newsprint to practice writing ink calligraphy. Ink sticks are made from soot remaining from burned wood or coal. The ink stone is a shaped stone on which ink and water are mixed for the calligrapher’s use.
Our workshop assignment is to practice the characters that express the Seven Virtues of the Samuri: Loyalty, Honor, Honesty, Respect, Benevolence, Courage, and Rectitude. We will also practice the character for Forever which includes all the various brush directions and line weights that a calligrapher needs to learn. The workshop leader explains the development and brush strokes for each of these characters.
While Eastern Hemisphere calligraphy is usually written from top to bottom, right to left, accommodations have been made for novice calligraphers from the Western tradition and we may write our characters left to right.
Seated at long tables covered with plastic, we each receive a little ink in a plastic dish, a natural hair brush in a bamboo “stick” and several sheets of newsprint paper and a mulberry paper with grid markings to help us properly align the character brush strokes. We also receive a very helpful model of the characters that represent the Seven Virtues of the Samuri with the strokes marked in numerical order for correct duplication.
We watched Ms. Lok demonstrate the proper way to hold a brush and approach the paper. She demonstrated writing each of the eight characters we would be practicing.
Then, for the next 45 minutes, the room was silent while adults and children, parents and their kids, and several single adults practiced writing Kana and learned the character virtues of a Samuri. The writing was achieved by paying attention to the meaning built into the brush strokes that become characters representing the virtues.
As part of my year-long Mandarin language training program in 2007-2008, I had to write Chinese characters every day, but we were using pens or pencils for this activity on gridded paper, which is very different from freehand brush calligraphy. While I have studied Italic calligraphy and am familiar with brush work from my art training and practice, I had not approached Eastern calligraphy before. Therefore, I was a near-novice, just like everyone else in the class. It was gratifying to see that nearly everyone managed to approach the calligraphy and focus on the spirit of the characters while also following the guidelines shown for the order of the brush strokes.
The workshop leader Ms. Lok, and her assistant (her son), walked around and helped anyone who needed specific guidance. The workshop offered special insight into the language and visual representation of Japanese and its mother language, Chinese. The workshop was interesting, completely engaging and an appropriate length for adults or children. The children in the audience were attentive and well behaved. A workshop aimed just at children might have less background and more practice. Some of the adults assisted each other and Ms. Lok spent time with each participant demonstrating the finer points of brush control. An excellent experience by all parameters.