Question from a Student (“Why Should I Learn to Read and Write Chinese?”)

Once, when I was tutoring Chinese to a 14 year old student, he asked me a question, which I had to think about.  

First, he said, “Learning Chinese is difficult.”  

I asked why he felt this way.  He said, “Well, I can understand learning to speak, but all the reading and writing is done by memory, so it’s hard.”  I nodded.

Then he asked me, “Really, when will I ever practically use Chinese to read or write in my life?”  

This boy was the son of a doctor and a businessman.  He focused on practical things, and he was very smart and driven.  

I thought, yes, his question makes a lot of sense.  He probably will not be writing letters in Chinese or reading Chinese books and papers unless he goes to live in China, falls in love with a Chinese girl or enters a field where he use his reading and writing. 

Then the answer came to me, and I said, “It is good to learn another language because it teaches your brain to think and see differently.”  

He thought about this, and we continued with our lesson.


Letter to My Father

February 5, 2013  (translated from Chinese) 

Dear Dad,

I practiced calligraphy today and found the brush old and wouldn’t much listen.  I wanted a stroke to be pointed but couldn’t make it pointed.  I wanted it thin but couldn’t make it thin.  I wanted it thick but couldn’t make it thick.  

I said, no matter, I will continue to practice.  I discover that when I practice calligraphy, I feel entirely lost in it and don’t think too much about things.  

At times, however, in my heart, I talk to you.  I say, Dad, thank you.  In life, you left a good deal of wisdom to your loved ones.  Only after I have grown up have I slowly come to understand and appreciate this.  So today I often think about the words you said to me.  

My characters now have a little strength.  I am also beginning to feel a bit more free.  

It’s too bad that I don’t understand what I am writing!*  Maybe I should go back to Taiwan to learn Chinese again.  It is not easy to come by if a person can feel happy and natural in doing something.  I know that if I go back to work at the bank, I will not feel my life is fulfilled.  For the short term, it is ok.  Next week, a bank has asked me back for another interview.

I really wish that you would spend more time in the U.S.  Older sister has said this to me also.  Where she lives, it is comfortable with good places to walk.  There are lots of birds and small animals.  The weather does not get too cold.  

I used a camera to take a picture of my calligraphy today and have pasted it here for you.


*The characters here are copied from the zi tie of Yan Zhen Qing (顏真卿) and are written in 古文 [gǔwén] which is the language used in classical texts.  The written form of the modern spoken Chinese language (白话文 [báihuàwén]) did not come into existence until the early 20th century.



Why I Practice Chinese Calligraphy

Chinese character safeI sit down and arrange a few things before me – paper, ink, inkstone, brush and zi tie, which literally means “word obedience” or “word submission” but can be translated into “word copybook.” (The zi tie is a printed copy of an original work of calligraphy, usually done by a master. This copybook serves as the model for calligraphers.) I pour a bit of ink into the well of the inkstone. 

I then take the brush, which is made of wolf hair or goat hair, dip it into the ink which I have poured into the well of the stone and gently wipe it across the surface of the stone to get rid of any excess ink. I gather myself. Before the attack, I relax, concentrate, breathe.

My goal is is to copy the characters I see on the zi tie as best as I can. I use one zi tie religiously, which was recommended to me by my father. He said, if you can learn to copy these characters well, then you can write any calligraphy well. “Write” is not quite the right word, I think. Perhaps “draw” is more appropriate. You are, after all, using a brush to draw each stroke of each character.

At any rate, I realize that with every stroke of the brush, I am making an attack. I need to concentrate in order for the brush to obey my will and do what I want it to do. Once you make a stroke, you cannot modify it or take it back. You have only one chance. When the stroke appears on paper, it is what it is.

The first thing I’m aware of when I’m writing calligraphy is whether my stroke is balanced or not. Every character in Chinese requires balance. In fact, a single unbalanced stroke can make an entire character look unstable, as if it would fall easily if you were to push it gently with your hand. Each character should stand upright so that it has poise.

The second thing I’m aware of is knowing that certain strokes aren’t as good as I’d like or even complete failures, but I can’t paint over them. I can’t change them, so I keep going. Even if I’m disappointed, I finish the rest of the character as dutifully as I can, and I try to keep in mind that each new stroke is another chance at doing well. When this happens, I realize that practicing Chinese calligraphy is a metaphor. Accept what happened, move on and try again.

I keep dipping the brush in the ink and wiping the excess ink away on the stone and copying the characters until I have a full page of characters in front of me. That’s when I realize something else. For the whole time that I was practicing this art, I forgot everything else – all my worries, my troubles, unfinished chores or what I needed to do later. I was completely absorbed in a simple act of copying characters.

The written Chinese language is so poetic. When I write in general, I feel alive. But when I write Chinese, I feel it even more keenly because when you write in Chinese, you need to pay attention to how you construct every word. If you miss a dot or a line is too long or too short, it can change the character into a completely different one. Writing Chinese requires you to remain aware and stay balanced. Chinese characters are pictorial in origin. It is the only major modern language which remains so and has no alphabet. Therefore, each character is known by memory.  

However, many characters actually make sense in their separate parts. For example, if you place the character for “woman” under the radical for “roof,” you arrive at the word that means “safe,” i.e. a woman under a roof is “safe.” Now, if you were to write this character, and you put the roof too high above the woman or the roof is crooked, it might not look or feel “safe.” You need to write the strokes so that they look and feel like they go together. In other words, you achieve a sense of harmony. 

When I practice calligraphy, something magical happens. I don’t know how to explain it exactly. But it is a sense of peace and of being alive that infuses me and travels through my brush. If you practice every day, you start to notice something else about your characters. They start to gain strength. Not just balance, but real strength. Now that you are better at taming your brush, you can channel your energy so that the soft tip of hair becomes like a sword and can carve sharp lines into the paper. It is said that a great master can literally carve characters with his brush into a wood table. I think this is an exaggeration, but it also contains some truth. Calligraphy is, in fact, a type of kung fu. It uses the same principles. Energy is channeled in the same way so that with practice and concentration, you can achieve balance, flexibility, focus, awareness, a sense of harmony and strength through simple actions.

But more importantly, writing calligraphy helps me realize that what’s important is now. It is this stroke before me that I want to make and am making. You can’t think of your last stroke with pride or disappointment if you want to do well because you have to concentrate on this single moment. So focus. In the end, for the half hour or hour that I sat down to produce a sheet of copied characters, I feel calm. I feel like I disposed of a lot of garbage in my head.  

I remember something my father said when I first tried writing Chinese calligraphy when I was young. I said the character for “one” which has only one stroke, looked easy to write. He replied somewhat mockingly, “It’s the easiest that is the hardest.” I think I understand now what he meant. Your characters express what is going on with your body, your imagination, your character and the discipline you have gained. It is entirely visible to the world in that one, single stroke. You can’t balance it out with another stroke or dot. It is naked in the moment in time that you created it. It takes courage to write the character “one.” I’m still working on it. 

Chinese brush inkstone           Chinese calligraph