The Power of the Brush
writing as an art form
“Today we will be learning how to write heng (horizontal line) and shu (vertical line) today,” said Zhou Laoshi, the IAP Chinese Calligraphy teacher. “By the end of the class, you should be able to write 二 (two), 工 (labor), and 王 (king). ”
I couldn’t wait any longer. My hands simply wanted to pick up the brush and start practicing calligraphy right away. But before I could do that, I needed to pay careful attention to my teacher’s demonstration.
He dabbed his pen in black ink, let the extra ink from the brush trickle down the side of the bowl, and then began. “I will start with heng. Make sure your pen isn’t crooked on one side. When the tip lands on the page, the brush should make a pointy end. Then, press gently. Afterward, write the stroke at a slight angle and lift the brush a bit toward the end. Finally, rotate the brush a little to finish it off nicely.”
Seeing my teacher effortlessly write heng multiple times made calligraphy look so straightforward. Surely I could pick it up in a day or two, right? The two strokes were simply straight lines. But I was wrong. Each heng I wrote was imperfect, either lacking the right angle or having a botched start or end. My attempts with shu weren’t much better.
An hour later, I still didn’t feel ready to turn in my work. My white scratch paper was now littered with many black lines. Frustration started to build inside of me. I wondered how I was going to write nice Chinese New Year couplets to hang on my door if I couldn’t even write the most basic strokes in calligraphy.
It wasn’t until a week into the class that I started to develop some intuition on the nuances of each stroke, whether it was feeling the change in the pace of my brush’s movement or the amount of pressure I applied to the paper. My strokes were still far from perfect, but I was beginning to understand what the teacher meant in terms of certain aspects of calligraphy.
As I practiced the strokes, I entered this magical state of flow. While practicing the same strokes over and over again may sound tedious, I soon lost track of time. Two hours of practice felt like thirty minutes. Calligraphy is an art that demands great detail and precision. It forced me to slow down, which was something that I wasn’t used to doing. All of my concentration was directed to calligraphy, focusing on the tiny aspects of each character, from the curve of the gou (hook) to the rounded finish of a dian (dot).
To some extent, calligraphy felt like a form of meditation. Before lifting my brush, I first did a body scan. Make sure both feet are planted on the ground. Hold the brush vertically. Take deep breaths. In the process, my mind became calm and quiet, a feeling so different from the hecticness during the school semester. There were no distracting thoughts to divert my attention towards worrying about the future or ruminating about the past. Instead, I focused on the characters.
Calligraphy not only helped me achieve intense concentration, but also helped me cultivate self-compassion. As someone who often experiences imposter syndrome, self-compassion is a skill that I have always struggled with. I often forget that the reason I am “behind” while others around me are way ahead in areas like coding or math isn’t that I simply can’t learn these topics, but rather because they started practicing these skills as early as middle or high school. In the calligraphy class, however, everyone was new to the art. I was in the same boat as everyone else.
Some made progress quickly, while others took an extra day or two. Despite differences in pace, I wasn’t that harsh on myself for not seeing tangible improvement on some days. I mean, how was I expected to write the strokes well right away? Maybe I needed to repeat the process a few more times to make all the ideas click together. To put it simply, calligraphy is a skill that requires patience and time.
As I practiced more Chinese characters of various strokes, I began to see them from a different perspective. Before taking the class, I never quite noticed how each character has some inherent beauty to it, such as the three distinct dians in 心 (heart). As a kid, I simply viewed characters as a way to communicate ideas in Chinese, just like how letters in the Latin alphabet make up words in Western languages. I was aware of Chinese calligraphy, but never put much thought into the subject. It wasn’t until I took this class that I began to appreciate how fascinating it is for the same character to be written in so many different ways, from the standard semi-cursive to running style. Calligraphy wasn’t a rigid art form, but rather a dynamic one.
Besides learning about Chinese calligraphy from an artistic point of view, I also got to learn about Chinese calligraphy’s rich history and culture. Having a refresher on Chinese idioms and sayings not only helped me feel reconnected to my culture but also made me feel more at peace with myself. This comparison may be a stretch, but the month-long course felt like I was embarking on a spiritual journey to know myself better.
Learning about Chinese calligraphy’s growth and development over two thousand years of history made me feel like I was discovering something about me that I had never known before, as if a part of me that had been hibernating was beginning to wake up. It is a wonderful feeling that I experience whenever I learn something interesting and new about China or Chinese language and culture, from reading Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie and Other Short Stories to learning about Chinese foreign policy in my HASS class. It is through learning about my heritage that I feel like I am gaining self-knowledge and awareness.
When the class came to an end, I was sad. IAP felt so perfect. There was so much that I wanted to learn more about. A week later, spring semester classes would begin and that meant going back to college life filled with never-ending deadlines and difficult assignments. Despite this, I reassured myself that I could continue practicing calligraphy at least once a week. I couldn’t bear the idea of forgetting this skill and returning all I had learned back to Zhou Laoshi, a teacher who was so passionate and kind. I didn’t want calligraphy to end up rusty, just like how I can’t play piano as well as I used to and how I forgot how to draw sketches.
Likewise, I didn’t want to forget the Chinese characters I learned growing up because I refuse to forget my cultural heritage and language. Nowadays, so many Chinese speakers, including me, mainly type characters on phones or computers using Hanyu Pinyin (a Romanized form of Chinese). As a result, we sometimes struggle to remember how to write characters, even familiar ones. Considering the ubiquity of technology, character amnesia is becoming more prevalent in Chinese society. I have already forgotten how to write so many characters and don’t want to forget even more.
Practicing calligraphy often has not been easy for me, but I am still glad that I have been practicing at least once a week. After a long week of work, practicing calligraphy on a weekend night feels therapeutic. I lay out all the materials, choose a proverb or idiom, and then practice the word at least a couple of times. Calligraphy allows me to enter another world detached from the incessant noise and distractions of electronic devices and the internet. Based on my experience, engaging in “relaxing” activities like entering a New York Times rabbit hole or browsing the internet never feels as satisfying or enjoyable compared to other leisure activities like calligraphy.
Pursuing Chinese calligraphy as a new hobby further reinforces the idea of how important it is for us to pursue a creative hobby that exercises another part of our mind, whether it is playing an instrument or drawing. In more general terms, it is essential that we take on leisure activities because they help us enter a state of flow. I have to admit, always using the analytical and academic mind can become mentally draining and tiring.
Coupled with the class, practicing Chinese calligraphy helped me come to the gradual realization of why I had been experiencing a constant ache for something to fill an empty part of myself and make me feel human again. Listening to my favorite classical composers like Debussy was pleasant, but I still felt this gnawing hunger. At the beginning of IAP, I experienced a strange feeling of missing my friend as I had the desire to play the piano with him. In retrospect, this feeling wasn’t because I had a romantic crush on him, but rather because I missed playing the piano and he reminded me of a love for classical music. It wasn’t until I went back to practicing the piano more often during IAP along with practicing calligraphy that these feelings gradually faded away and I didn’t feel so empty anymore.
While my story about music sounds like a digression, the main point is that I realized how important the arts are in my life. I still enjoy listening to music and watching performances, but I realized how essential it is for me to produce something by playing music or making art because it makes me feel more human. And that’s the power of a brush, some black ink, and paper, items I can bring with me no matter where I go.