Yesterday evening I went to the opening of an exhibition––"The Beauty of Chinese Characters"–– at the City Hall in Gatineau, the Maison du Citoyen (a very multicultural place, worth a visit).
Admittedly I couldn't read the characters on display, but learned something nonetheless, in particular that every calligrapher has a distinct style, more obvious than the distinctions between people's handwriting in a western context. Modern Chinese calligraphy, i.e. the real thing rather than the printed or electronic form, is a rapidly evolving art form. "After the 3rd session of the 11th party congress," as the informative posters around the hall put it, "the calligraphic art has witnessed a leaps-and-bounds development [...] papers and magazines [about it] have sprung up like bamboo shoots after a spring rain." Various schools of calligraphy exist in modern China, such as the "broad-art-ark of twin oars" (??) and the "eight eccentric personnages of Yangzhou." Calligraphy has always been a highly individual artform: Yang Weizhen of the 14th century, for instance, is said to have created "a pattern of his own as if a person of tousled hair and indecently dressed."
There's more to calligraphy than meets the eye.
The Canada China Friendship Society hosted a talk on the subject which I stayed to hear, although it was given in Mandarin Chinese and the interpreter pronounced it "killography" throughout. She must have been under considerable stress, with the Chinese professor speaking very fast and impulsively. A real enthusiast and expert, he wanted to tell us everything about the origins of modern calligraphy and had hardly got beyond the 11th century before we ran out of time. Because the interpreter was paraphrasing his long sentences rather than translating word for word, I missed a lot, but took notes on the gist.
Not only is this an art form but also a way of life––many different styles can be observed, but they have a common philosophy that is to do with the Yin and Yang, the hard and soft, and the quest for harmony. There are basic rules and specific applications that express the artist's emotions or personality. The way of writing itself has meaning.
Different brushes can be used, from the hair of different animals. Some modern calligraphers now work with their fingers or with pens, but the mainstream still use a traditional brush. In the Cultural Revolution with its big posters, it looked as though the calligraphers were getting a lot of practice, but they weren't following the proper rules. This wasn't art; it was merely communication. If the philosophy (the spirit) is not properly understood, art goes in the wrong direction.
When children learn to write at the age of 6 or 7, they copy the strokes of the characters, learning from the Masters. Once a sentence has been written in Chinese, one cannot correct one's mistakes. The strokes are "not just lines". The characters cannot be a reflection of nature, but are not entirely abstract either. Modern calligraphers change their structure and use different colours to reflect the subject. If they resort to "random strokes," this is not real calligraphy, in the lecturer's opinion, and should not be promoted internationally.
5000 years ago the first characters were carved onto stone by means of a metal tool, a record of daily life in ancient times. Because of the medium those characters were longer and thinner than today's, and 3-dimensional. It took years before calligraphy achieved its "smoothness." Writing had to be done slowly, like Tai Chi, rather than other martial arts. The second generation of characters were squarer in appearance and the finished result looked like a painting, "all the characters working together."
The most renowned of Chinese calligraphers belonged to the 3rd generation, when the speed of writing had accelerated and it had an easier flow. The lines were now connected because the artists did not hold their brushes tightly. They often worked on silk, the authorities adding signature stamps. In the following periods, from the Tang Dynasty onwards, there was a reaction to this flowing style and each character became distinct and of more or less the same size. There was less freedom of style but the writing was easier to decipher.