By Mona Malacane
The extent of many Americans’ experience with Chinese calligraphy is usually just a token tattoo of the Chinese symbol for Love or Strength (or Pig, if you don’t translate correctly). But Jingjing (Crystal) Han is an experienced calligraphist and shared with me some of its history and her experience learning this craft.
Chinese calligraphy is the art of writing Chinese characters. It is similar to writing English calligraphy in that there are different fonts and ways to design words. With Chinese calligraphy, however, the different styles of writing correspond to different dynasties. For example, the “Running Hand” style emerged during the Han dynasty.
Jingjing started learning calligraphy when she was nine years old after seeing a work written by one of her classmates. Because she lived in the countryside, she had to travel one hour by herself into the city to learn from a teacher who specialized in calligraphy. (Her father knew how to write calligraphy but was unable to teach her because he wrote in a style different than her favorite – Running Hand.) It was a major time commitment for a nine year old, as she had to attend class on the weekends instead of hanging out with friends. Needless to say, it was not a common hobby for others her age … It is also somewhat uncommon for young adults to be able to write Chinese calligraphy. She estimated about 2 or 3 university students in a class of 60 can write calligraphy.
Like the handwriting paper we use in America when first learning how to print, beginner’s calligraphy paper has boundary lines to help guide their untutored hands. Other required tools include a special brush, ink, an ink pad (or blanket, as Jingjing described it to me), one’s personal stamp to sign one’s work, and special paper. Jingjing explained that the technique for writing calligraphy is quite different from writing both English and Chinese because one must hold the brush a certain way (it took me four tries to get it right) and the stroke motion comes primarily from moving your wrist, as opposed to keeping the wrist stiff. The end result is quite beautiful.
For the first few years of her apprenticeship, she learned and wrote basic Chinese script. “It is very basic and it is very clear for you to recognize the characters.” She learned mostly by copying the writings (poems, essays, or even diary entries) of famous artists and writers. When she first began, she told me it would take her hours to copy a few simple characters correctly. Now, depending on the length of what she is writing, it takes her an hour to copy a poem – about 2-3 minutes per character – including the preparation time. Can you imagine taking 3 minutes to write the word “mountain??”
Jingjing progressed to learning other advanced styles but prefers to write using the “Running Hand” style. “It shows more freedom, shows your personality. [Other styles] are kind of conservative,” she tells me. You can see in the pictures below that the difference between styles is quite apparent. The Running Hand is the semi-cursive character, and is a style somewhat in between the cursive and standard scripts.
When I asked her if she ever sold any of her pieces as artwork, she laughed and humbly explained that she didn’t believe her work was good enough to be sold. I couldn’t quite understand why she thought this because she also told me that she won a university-wide competition at her undergraduate university, Central China University, where her winning piece is displayed.
Jingjing hasn’t written in about two years because school has taken up much of her time. She also explained that because there are quite a few tools required, they are difficult for her with her each time she moves. I am trying to convince her to pick it back up and write some pieces to hang in the grad lab…