Physiology and Anatomy of Chinese Calligraphy

The Physiology and Anatomy of Chinese Calligraphy

Joan Stanley-Baker

Sacred Communication

Since earliest times when humanity began to socialize in tribes for survival in a changeable environment, people became deeply sensitive to the pervasive influences of seen and unseen energies around them, from celestial bodies to meteorological forces of wind, rain and thunder, to spiritual powers of animals and plants. These appeared to possess different qualities and were perceived variously around the world as deities, spirits, daemons, goblins, essences, angels, tribal progenitors or familial ancestors. Early peoples sought from them protection, and devised ways to propitiate, to please them with kinetic rites of dancing, with aural liturgy of chanting, loud blowing on conch shells, striking stone chimes and drums, and with visual offerings of powerful forms, floral arrangements, colourful and often mimetic paintings, etc. They also offered culinary celebrations in carefully prepared feasts, culminating with the libation of living blood drawn from animal or human sacrifices. With each offering of thanks and praise, there were petitions or entreaties concerning the welfare of the tribe, and the oracles would be interpreted by tribe members especially trained for the task.

The Chinese, practical to the end, or from the start, early devised writing for divine communication to ensure their appeals and queries to ancestral spirits were understood exactly, without mistake. Even more to the point, the written word guaranteed a correct “reading” of the answer. In fact, the script as developed in China embodies all three aspects of sacred offering, being a combination of aural, visual and kinetic energies. In its synthetic nature it is unique among writing systems of the world. And as vehicle for divine communication, writing has since its inception occupied a special place in the Chinese psyche.

Since the beginning it was practiced as a sacred art. Ancient mythical kings, heavenly rulers, and ancestral spirits spoke, and continue to speak to the living through calligraphy. As talisman to attract good influences, as charm to protect against evil effects, to nurture wealth and health, calligraphy in various forms continues to this day to be pasted on doors, lintels, worn on the person, carried in the purse, or burnt in trans-worldly offerings. Children are still taught never to sit or step on the written word for respect of the life force contained in the configurations.

Physiology or Dynamic Principles in Time

As hand-written compared to printed script, Chinese calligraphy communicates on yet another, unique level which is psycho-visceral. Many would call it spiritual. For in “reading” a work of calligraphy, aside from lexicographic considerations and the multiple associations engendered by the “message” itself, there is another, more vital channel of communication from artist to viewer that transcends the image or verbal message. This is where the viewer partakes in the original creative process and experiences the very act of the calligrapher’s “ink-dance” in its choreography as well as performance.

Unlike a painting where the viewer may in the mind’s eye roam in and out of the landscape, portrait, or still life at will, a work of calligraphy traditionally begins with the first stroke usually found in the top right corner, and proceeds downward in vertical fashion, with new columns forming to the left. In a knowledgeable reading, the viewer can feel the calligrapher’s every charge of the brush, and replay the wrist- or arm-movement as the brush draws across the writing surface in attenuation, twists around its tip-hairs to create a substantial dot, sinks into itself and backtracks for a more powerful forward thrust, or leaps across the empty gap to land at some strategic angle to begin the next stroke, hook, or new character. We feel the calligrapher’s wrist-weight and poise throughout. For every hesitation, and each nervous twitch of the least finger, a confident, leisurely drawing out, or animated brushing, of a stroke is left – non-correctable – as an ink trace on the writing surface and is readily translated as part of the viewer’s own visceral experience. Such intimate sensation of the artist’s minutest reflexes is like feeling the pulse, hearing the breathing, or sensing the xinyin or “heart-print” of the artist during the creative act.

What we seek in Chinese calligraphy is therefore not merely formal beauty in a composition of a series of interrelated configurations in space, but the palpable, living energy of the process of creation where we follow interconnected brush-actions as they move in time. The entire work, like a “score”, can be “heard” as music (or seen as dance) in real time. We “replay” the music (or reconstruct the choreography), replete with all the dynamic marks familiar to musicians whether legato, staccato, crescendo, diminuendo, rallentando, accelerando, sostenuto, or expression marks like allegro, cantabile, andante, maestoso, or con fuoco. Whereas dynamic marks in a music score are “instructions” to the performer, in Chinese calligraphy the performer is at the same time the creator, and we re-experience the creation and its performance afresh each time. The “dynamic marks” are viscerally felt, and can be deduced by a seasoned viewer. Thus rather than a score it may be more correct to liken a piece of Chinese calligraphy to a record or CD where the music can be played back with each viewing.

Calligraphy as a Visceral Experience

To the Chinese, calligraphy is the physical imprint of the action of inscribing one or a series of Chinese characters. The Chinese script itself has evolved over millennia without interruption and has acquired in the process a rich and complex inter layering of significance and values. This is because of its visual rather than its aural structure. In this sense we may understand the Chinese script to symbolize Chinese civilization itself. And, as inscribed by the calligrapher who transforms inspiration and energy into mass and form, calligraphy symbolizes the quintessence of that civilization.

It is the purest expression of qi or inner energy, and as such, it shares many features with the revitalizing art of Taiji’s qigong or energy calisthenics now being practiced by an ever-growing number of people around the world. For energy is universal in the literal sense of the word, coursing through particular, and controllable channels within the human anatomy, while drawing from the energy that is charging the universe. Ancient connoisseurs admired the energy-flow in calligraphy and felt recharged when “drinking in” an admired piece, in what can only be term a psycho-physiological or visceral manner, as if receiving a dose of qi-infusion from a gongfu master. And, like Taiji practitioners, calligraphers focus attention and energy inward when working for excellence, as powerful effects may be obtained only from a focussed, centred, one-pointed mind. Moreover, it must then flow unimpeded through the shoulder, arm, wrist and relaxed fingers to manipulate the Taiji-sword or the calligraphy brush – as if it were part of the mind. Any mental distraction would cause the muscles to shift, recoil or contract and disturb the transfer of energy into matter, of inspiration into form.

This essential life-process is accessible to all who cultivate inner centredness. It transcends personality notions of good and evil. The ancients were wont to say that one could glean a person’s character in his calligraphy, and point to that of the traitorous Northern Song master Cai Xiang as example of one that never reached the pinnacle of his art because of character flaws. But this is not due so much to moral failings, perhaps, as it may reflect differences in the depth of concentration, the totality of commitment and mental poise during the act of writing, (as in Taiji gongfu), and one may cite the universally admired calligraphy of Dong Qichang, who was in life less-than-admired as a man and bitterly despised as a landlord.

Anatomy: or Graphic and Historical Ingredients

Symbolic Function

The visual impact of Chinese script has always been to engender a potent sense of cognition and recognition. Reading, in its communicative function, is of course the same worldwide. But when written in Chinese, the character for each word emerges in a unique architectonic structure with its own particular combination of structural elements. Each character is a unique image with its unmistakable appearance and wholeness. The script is not primarily aural or phonetic, but a combination of pictographs and ideographs that may (or may not) be combined with elements hinting at a phonal value. It is foremost an image, and as such, of itself a visual symbol. In this sense, encountering a familiar word written in Chinese is more like that of seeing a photograph of someone we know, whereas the same word encountered in a non-Chinese, or phonetic language, is like hearing the sound of that person’s name. Here then, the impact of the Chinese script may be seen to be almost magical.

Thus images of words with auspicious meanings have become beloved ornaments in most homes. Common favourites include graphs for social desiderata like “Wealth”, “Nobility”, “Promotion”, “Longevity”; for nature’s benefaction like water (engendered by the supernatural Dragon) and air (represented by the majestic Tiger); or deified historical personages like the tempestuous but forthright martial hero Lord Guangong, or, in the celestial realm, names from the multiracial pantheon most popular among which are Buddha Amitabha Omitofuo, and the all-merciful deity Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara Guanshiyin pusa, among others. These propitious invocations, once written as characters, take on the penetrating reach of spiritual X-rays. For even more than an external “physical likeness”, they probe the essence of the specific energy invoked.

Structural Principles in Space

Visual elements of Chinese writing mutually balance each other in weight and thrust, and, as evolved into the modern printed form, all characters manage to fit within the same spatial unit, whether consisting of one, two, or thirty-six strokes, as in one, (hu)man, or stuffed nose {editor: nang- last character in the dictionary – unless you find a more complex one!} respectively. Some of the most basic words remain pictographs whose their present foursquare form had evolved from more descriptive ancient origins. “Sun” was a {hand-write these} circle (often) with a dot in the centre; “moon” a crescent with two dots inside; while “bright”, not surprisingly, was built of a combination of the two. “Water” was an {hand-written} S-shaped curve of three parallel lines with the outer ones broken, while “stream” sprang from a similar curvature, but with {ditto} three solid lines, etc..

When looking at an unknown character, the reader instantly perceives a herbal connotation from the “grass radical” (as in xiao, a herb and a proper name); a bamboo-related plant or woven object from its “bamboo radical” (as in its homophone xiao, a vertical bamboo flute); a ritual concept or object from its “ritual” or “altar” radical (as in xia, with a he element to the right, where he means joined together, and the complete character means the combined ritual offering celebrated once every three years with the entire multi-family clan gathered together). Emotional states are composed often with an “upright heart radical” {shuxinpang}, and intellectual concepts a “prone heart” {the heart radical writ in full at the bottom of the character} or “verbal” {yanzipang} radical. Social situations or interactions have usually an “upright human” radical, and animals of the canine family, thus bestial actions, feature a “canine radical”. Compared to a phonetic script, clearly, the visual charge of the Chinese script meets the reader on many more and richly varied levels.

Evolution of Medium and Form: A Symbiotic Relationship

The history of Chinese calligraphy begins with X-, V- and I-shaped lines traced with a pointed brush, in ink, along the rims of Neolithic pottery during the mid-fourth millennium BCE, but their “reading” is still being debated. Some time into the Bronze Age around the mid-second millennium BCE two script-styles appeared simultaneously even though both were ritual in function. Characters of the so-called Oracle-Bone or Divination Script were composed of thin and fairly even lines etched into brushed traces on animal bone material such as scapulae of oxen or carapaces of tortoises.{Editor, want to insert a couple of clear examples? For these and the following “scripts”? Using that character, written in that style, or selecting anything from the NIGENSHA series…}. The original brush-writing appears to have used cinnabar red, an expensive pigment reserved almost exclusively for royal, or ritual functions. But the divination had to be etched into the bone because the reverse side would be indented with evenly-spaced holes which, when subjected to intense heat over a fire, would crack in various directions, linking hole to hole, producing the ancestral “reply” as carved on the obverse side, and which should thus remain legible through the heating. Related in character-configuration but far more opulent in its undulating stroke-widths is the highly pictorial script found inscribed in intaglio (hollow form) on the inside ancient bronze vessels.

The reason for this divergence becomes clear when we examine the respective materials and implements used in their execution. Divination-bone characters are made with a sharp knife carving onto fibrous surfaces prone to splitting. They therefore tend to be “twig-writing” with fairly straight lines incised throughout. On the other hand, bronze inscriptions are the result of casting from pottery moulds, where first a rounded stylus was used to engrave character-forms onto malleable clay still in the leather-hard state. Here it is easy, and natural, for the blunt instrument to turn on itself and create richly rounded indentations in the clay. These markings were made on the observe moulds from which clay core-moulds were to be cast, core-moulds which would during the bronze-casting process be placed on the inside of the combined piece-mould arrangement, to decorate the inside of the final bronze vessel’s lid or body. Core-moulds bear the markings on the outside, in relief form, like present-day relief or “red-character” seals. Finally, through the reverse transfer process of casting, the graceful fully rounded markings emerge in intaglio (or hollow) form on the inside of the bronze vessel’s lid, or on the bottom inside the body. Proliferating in later stages, bronze inscriptions became increasingly longer texts.

As increasing numbers of words came to be used, replacing the clan insignia with historical accounts of clannish exploits, the need arose for adequate spacing of the words. Vertical columns became de rigeur, with increasing need for uniformity of character-size. Thus complex characters with their various protuberances like antlers and grasses began to “fold” or curve inward, creating a remarkable appearance unique to Chinese script. This was called the Greater Seal or dazhuan script. In time the doubled-up curves grew in length and grace, evolving their own majestic if labyrinthine beauty. Well over a millennium later toward the end of the third century BCE, with the first unification and formation of empire, the Lesser Seal script was ordained. This marks one of the earliest recorded examples of political control of the arts, where the First Emperor Qin shihuangdi ordered an empire-wide unification – and simplification of all units of measure, transportation and communication, including chariot axles and the script.

When the versatile bamboo was discovered as a convenient medium for writing, its segments were cut into strips of equal length, lined in parallel and string-bound at the two ends, forming long horizontal surfaces that could be stored in rolled-up form as scrolls. Here the scribe worked his characters within the widths of each bamboo strip, and the notion of “column” was naturally reinforced. Brushwork was limited horizontally but had ample room for creative expansion lengthwise. Indeed, we find the rich black ink graphs on bamboo and wood strips often graced with long “tails” that trail downward forming a bulge mid-stroke, and a point at the end. The scribe is thoroughly savouring the pleasure of drawing his wrist down the length of the slip exerting added weight to press down on the brush-belly causing the swell, and, as the wrist lifts off into the air, for the brush to resume its former pointed stance. Thus was born the so-called “clerical” or li script found in such plenitude on bamboo-scroll and wood-strip documents unearthed from distant corners of the empire’s once vast realm.

With the state expanding and its bureaucracy burgeoning, hapless scribes began to feel stressed by their mountainous workload. In doing their “paper-work” they began to save time by reducing the number of lift-offs of the wrist between strokes or characters, where the wrist usually rises to gain purchase for the next clean attack. This reduction of upward movement caused the brush-stroke to double back on itself, leaving loop-like ink traces of the wrist-motions originally performed mid-air. These came to be called linking strokes, as they linked consecutive strokes, also successive characters, resulting in a fairly cursive appearance. Thus was born the cursive script style, caoshu (often erroneously translated as “grass” script). In developing the cursive manner, many intermediate strokes were eliminated, radically reducing the structural elements of many characters. This became in time so hard to read that officials wrote protests “against cursive script” (fei caoshu) complaining that such scribbles had become idiosyncratic, mostly incomprehensible, and must be outlawed.

A more moderate mode, the “running” or xingshu script, emerged that retained most of the basic strokes while retaining some linking strokes to add continuity and fluidity to the flow. This trend seems to have coincided with the invention of paper around the first century CE, a splendid, fibrous and absorbent medium, unrestricted as to size or shape, being as long and as wide as the frame for the pulp-straining sieve allowed. The new “elbow-room” once more encouraged side-way expansion in stroke-formation. Although silk had long been used for writing in ink, cinnabar or black lacquer, its prodigious costs precluded extensive use. Paper, easily produced with bark, bamboo or rag pulp, quickly became a popular medium, replacing the bamboo-scroll form of bound strips. Here finally, was born the formal or regular script, the kaishu.

Brush-stiffness and Stroke-form

The Chinese brush-tip seems to have been shaped since the earliest Neolithic times to end in a point rather than lying flat along one plane. This allowed from the beginning the play of undulating widths within strokes or lines created by changes in wrist-pressure. The earliest brushes excavated so far already had tufts of hair bound tightly at the thick end, and were affixed to a rod or hollow tube by more string. The hair-tips were thin and short. The resulting strokes similarly, were short, and without too much variation in stroke-widths.

As the tips became longer, sometimes also fatter, brush-strokes began to show greater variety. When calligraphy as an art attained the pinnacle of Chinese reverence as the highest art form around the fourth century CE, brushtip furs comprised mostly of weasel hair, a relatively tough fibre with a strong bounce which the Chinese call “hard” or “stiff”. A major aspect of the expertise and astounding grace of the calligraphy ascribed at the time to the “Sage of Calligraphy” Wang Xizhi was the ability to create a softly pliant, sinuous but substantial “feel”, “touch” or bichu with such tough hairs.

In time the tips came to made of mixed hairs, including the softer hairs of goat. The mixed-fur tip allowed for easier formation of resilient strokes and graceful curves. Toward the latter part of the second millennium CE, calligraphers of the Qing dynasty took pride in the reverse ability to produce a fairly upright and firm feel with brushes made entirely of the white, soft goat hairs. There was especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries CE a major revival of interest in various ancient script styles, including Bronze Inscriptions, and a major calligraphy renascence swept across the realm.

Calligraphy Today

Artists nowadays use a mixture of brushes, from the scribe’s traditional weasel hair, to full-blown large tips of goat, rabbit hair, and an assortment of other animal hairs, all singly plucked and bound into various hair-mixtures and shapes. The four masters in the present exhibition have access to all the materials and traditions that Qing calligraphers had. And they are each heir to the richly associative visual tradition of the Chinese script. This is aside from the two-millennia history of Chinese calligraphy itself, with its many masters and script-style exponents.

But unlike the past, calligraphy today is no longer the basic vessel for communication. For the last century with the introduction of pencils, fountain pens, ball-point pens, eventually the typewriter and computer, let alone telephone and internet, verbal communication has relied virtually entirely on these, more “modern” means. Even most shop-signs, large and obtrusive in typical Chinese fashion, are mostly formed with characters off-set from a ready palette of commercial computer-generated “type-faces”.

But for New Years and ritual celebrations where spiritual needs predominate, hand-inscribed banners and scrolls once more flourish in the streets. In Japan more than in China, calligraphy as an art of hand-transmitted energy, continues to hold sway and many artists make a good living creating calligraphy as visually distinctive names for buildings, as decoration on folding screens, sliding doors, fabric hangings on shop fronts, writ-large on vases, plates, even personal attire including purses and scarves. Children continue to take calligraphy classes after school even as violin and ballet lessons have become common extra-curricular obsessions. But in Chinese society calligraphy has become more reserved, less utilitarian, elevating itself to a “fine art.” And as such, it has become even more exclusively a social commodity for cultural one-upmanship. This is in keeping with tradition, since painting, poetry and calligraphy had been “The Three Perfections” among the ancient elite, scholar-statesmen all, who themselves wielded the brush and were more than competent in turning out a good-looking manuscript. But among non-Chinese who love art for the aesthetic experience, Chinese calligraphy as it evolves more and more towards abstraction, is becoming ever more accessible.

We may well ask, then, with calligraphy a less common sight, but with literacy far greater than in the past, do we need to “understand” calligraphy to appreciate it? This is certainly no more the case than in music. The greatest idealist (literati) painter since the Qing, Wang Jiqian (C.C. Wang), and recently himself become a calligrapher extraordinaire, likes to discuss brushwork in terms of music.

Brushwork is like a voice. The painting is like the story which provides the narrative, the message. Those who don’t understand go to the Opera in order to “watch” the battles and the love scenes. But those who know, the aficionados, go with their eyes closed, to hear the singer and follow the voice. We go to “listen” to Mei Lanfang, not to “watch” acrobatics.

Clearly this form of appreciation had its origins in calligraphy, long before it was transferred to the “reading” of paintings. In calligraphy, the ancient Chinese read every nuance in the same way they enjoyed music, following the life-flow as the energy moved, now large now small, now high now low, twisting, swelling, leaping and settling. Herein lies the abstract, but palpable thrill of enjoying Chinese brush art. It has to do with the life force itself, and nothing could be more pure, and at the same time more universal, than the art of calligraphy.

For this reason one need not be conversant with the anatomy of Chinese writing or be able to decipher characters and understand the message. Rather, one need only to “listen” to the brushwork as it moves through time by following its progress in space, and reliving the artist’s creative act. It is like savouring the singing of an opera sung in a different tongue.

Let us consider the Four Masters of the Late-Twentieth Century we have here, for example. Coming from vastly different backgrounds and developing their art in contrasting environments, they have all arrived at a common point of no return in the evolution of their ancient art: they have transcended the utilitarian function of calligraphy and have given full play to its associative, pictorial and compositional potential.

In their own ways, they each explore the rich legacy of their tradition, playing on the meaning of particular words, the visual structure of particular characters, the double-meaning produced by certain imagery. This aspect is relatively new to Chinese calligraphy where tradition has focussed on evocation of certain Tang and Song masters or of more ancient script-styles like bronze inscriptions. Our four artists have China’s long cultural memory at their disposal but individually, and as a “phase” in the history of the art, they are opening up new horizons. Some explore the significance of isolated words as we see here in the works of Wang Fangyu and Tseng Yuho, or they lump the whole into one image – without sacrificing those essential qualities of excellence traditionally demanded of good brushwork, as a superlative “voice”.

On this point, on the criteria for brushwork-excellence, there has been remarkable consensus throughout the two millennia of empire. It is all the more remarkable because no one actually “explained” these criteria in verbal form as essays, poems or colophons, till the very late Qing dynasty when a Manchu artist like Tangdai discussed the problem. But when we check back on preceding times, though styles and contents change, we see that these essential criteria for excellence have remained constant. Tangdai wrote:

The principles of brushwielding (yongbi) reside in control by the heart/mind of the wrist-movements. There must be suppleness within firmness. One must be able to release and withdraw [energy in the brushstrokes] and not be ruled by the brush. Brushwork must be centered, zhongfeng. By zhongfeng I do not mean holding the brush upright. Feng is the tip of the brush: if [mostly] the tip is used [in a centered manner], then touching the [paper] surface, the resulting brushwork will be lively, rounded and mixed, yuanhun, and not dead, wooden, ban. On the other hand, using only the belly of the brush, [with the brush held aslant], the resulting brushwork will be either sharp like carving, or flat. To achieve a powerful expression merely by means of slanted brushwielding will result in [undesirable] angles and corners…

- Tangdai (pupil of Wang Yuanqi), in Huishi fawei (Suggestions on Painting) 1716.

What Tangdai points to is a sense of inner balance, and an inner reserve that does not “show off” with overt gesticulations. Rather, good strokes are drawn as it were will full breath but where little air is actually used, leaving most “in reserve”, etc. These criteria in fact are identical to those for good singing or dancing, where anything resembling “falling off-centre” does not make the audience nervous, but they can remain calm in the knowledge that everything is in the artist’s more-than-adequate control. A dramatic example of the “pure voice” quality of brushwork is C. C. Wang’s 93090817 which bursts with excitement as the brush (moving from the top right corner) begins the piece with a thumping attack of thick, black ink drawn downwards to the right where immediately -piano subito, – it softens and loops ribbon-like to the left and, whispering upward in a northeasterly diagonal like a muted violin, flips the tip back, pulling downward with more weight for the vertical. Here, taking a breath during the soft lower loop with the brush-hairs turned out, the brush dashes tempestuously left toward 7-o’clock past the original left-edge of the space, only to fly back with equal speed and urgency in a huge, scratchy oval that gathers momentum for the next attack – on the left-hand radical of the second character. The breathing, panting, and swishing animation of this work continues unabated to the end. Yet on closer look we see that all strokes are formed with deliberation, carrying each a full measure of weight and inner balance. “Good” calligraphy may look hurried or even frenzied, but in fact is always executed with inner poise and assurance. In 94052618 Wang achieves the visceral effect of the fabled Autobiography inscribed in “raving cursive” ascribed to the Tang monk Huaisu, using only a cheap felt-pointed marker pen. And in 950227 he lets flying furious swirls, forgetting even any formal evocation of Chinese writing, keeping only its primary criteria for brushwork-excellence. With bald daring, he further “colours” the loops and spaces so as to fill the entire space with “positive” significance, leaving no “leftover space”.

Like a gyroscope, excellence in brushwork resides in this inner centredness and assured balance regardless of the apparent “rpm” or axle tilt. This is what the knowing eye searches for, in exactly the same manner as the connoisseur listens to a singer, demanding that the voice be full yet reserved, rounded and not rasping, and no matter how soft a whisper for the finale, that the ending be never deplete of energy or out of “air”.

All four masters delve into the realm of creative play with structural components of the script, rearranging their inter-relationship and ratio with a boldness not previously witnessed in this tradition-bound art form. That is, they play with the history of Chinese calligraphy, evoking the ancient script-styles spawn in different media, now all on paper, using a soft pliant brush, but they also take far greater liberties with the rearrangement of parts. Tseng Yuho, like C. C. Wang, in certain pieces gives vent to sheer indulgence in “superlative singing” and runs pure melismas as it were, of the brush over the paper, without bothering to write any “words” at all.

And like C. C. Wang, Tseng Yuho has long been a consummate master of painting. From large screens to delicate frames, her work has always shimmered like jewels glowing in a poet’s garden. Yet in calligraphy her energy resounds with the power of a mountain and she proves herself a formidable master of this venerable art as well. Brought up in Peking, she had studied privately with Prince Pujin and thus learned the insider’s perspective of imperial art and taste, and the brushwork arts formed part of her earliest experience in appreciation as well as in performance. Her early calligraphy includes metres-long multi-columned scrolls with characters of enormous size, a feat difficult to sustain over any long stretch. After moving to Hawaii she saw first-hand the widely experimental modes of American art, and indirectly witnessed the birth of Abstract Expressionism. With characteristic curiosity,she lost no time in reconsidering her own choices in painting. However, from the start, she chose her own directions, creating her own innovations, not so much in order to please the critics, but to please her own emerging and broadening discernment of beauty. Her creativity gradually evolved into two remarkably separate spheres, where in calligraphy she provides as it were the yang hoariness to complement the ephemeral yin lyricism of her painting.

Wang Fangyu takes pleasure in redistributing the value and relative function of character-parts with specific reference to their respective meaning, as well as the meaning of the word as a whole. Most startling is his “design” for the two characters Baishi (white stone), where the two characters overlap and the whole resembles one large white rock, with a starkness evocative of a Mondrian. He enjoys combining two rods into one form, or separating a single character into two. In huanmeng (Illusory – or chimerical – Dream), Wang creates a labyrinth on the outside, tucking the “dream” inside the right-hand space like a startled Munch face with open mouth, screaming in muffled silence. Or he would pull a phoenix apart into its components wind (above), and bird below. Wang has long been fascinated by the 17-century royalist painter-calligrapher monk Bada shanren, as well as a knowledgeable collector and connoisseur of his works. The upward-staring and attenuated form of the bird-graph pays homage to the bristling energy of the Qing master’s eccentric works. And in his 1980 Turtle he infuses the character for this long-lived animal with hoary antiquity using tough, slow, even strokes in parallel, while jokingly evoking a Western mood by structuring the graph with an apparent one-point perspective, diminishing in size toward the right.

Wang Fangyu’s whimsical renditions are surely enjoyable in their own right, but the pleasure doubles with character-recognition since his work is alive with verbal and visual puns.

Youngest among them by nearly two generations, and a product of Taiwan culture, Grace Tung Yang-tze after a brief early spate in painting has been single-mindedly pursuing the challenges of calligraphy. In artistically conservative Taiwan, Tung is virtually the only one to “depart” from tradition, and to imbue the art with new vitality. Local critics, with little reference to the “world outside” of Taiwan, uniformly mention her “difference” and “newness”. In her work, unlike Wang Fangyu and Tseng Yuho, she avoids playing on a word’s associative image, but seeks resolutely to meet the challenges of each particular group of characters on purely formal terms, thus making of her calligraphy, like C. C. Wang’s, an abstract art like music without words, an opera without a story.

In this sense Grace Tung and C. C. Wang share the sheer delight in spirit-resonance with the ancient masters whose calligraphy was admired purely on visual terms without regard to “content”. Tung loves the play of textures created with different densities of ink, often allowing the brush hairs to splay as they move, creating the impression of wind-like speed; the play of light and dark when varying the water-content in each charge of the brush; and the abstract compositional possibilities for different groups of ancient sayings. Here, like C. C. Wang, she merely uses the “text” as a pretext for brushplay and, living in Taiwan among a mostly Chinese audience, her works have had to communicate as literature. For with her history-conscious audience and she cannot, as Tseng Yuho or C. C. Wang, indulge in the wordless delight of pure calligraphic brushplay. Nevertheless, in spite of, and through, her legible constructions and innovative character-size ratios and com-positions, the appreciation of vitality and energy is a central feature of her work.

At we peek across the threshold into the third millennium since cultural unification, we find in these four calligraphers a common voice that echoes the consciousness of our times. Threatened with planetary disasters, people the world over are beginning to bring to the surface humanity’s ancient understanding and appreciation of energy. Of energy as the source of life. All matter, all mass or form, is a physical manifestation of invisible energy. And here, in transcending verbal communication, these four masters share with us, in their distinct ways, their experience – and the universality – of this energy.

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NOTES:

Ancient masterpieces ranged in “content” from the more formal dedicatory inscriptions for particular shrines, palaces and studios, to letters mourning a death in the family, and informal personal notes accompanying a gift of mandarin oranges, or complaining of a stomach ache.

See the modern evocation of this form in Tseng Yuho’s 1996 work in which the moon with splayed legs seems to bounce the sun on its head like a playful seal balancing a ball on its nose.

Note the seething waters in lang (wave) character in Tseng Yuho’s 1992 work, and the play of interactive spirals in the right-hand radical evoking rolling turbulence.

See Tseng Yuho’s work Marsh showing many stalks of “grass” rising from shallow water.

Here we can see that the bottom element, identical in both words, produces the sound, xiao, but the “radical” on top, leads us to the meaning – here arrived at aurally rather than visually.

Here with altar and joined, clearly, both elements contribute to the meaning while neither provides the phonetic value. Purists will argue that the he element is pronounced xia when combined with a “water radical” as well. But this argues for one or the other of these mutation xia characters having followed the phonetic-shift of the other. But this argument still leaves the original sound-change unexplained.

Consider Wang Fangyu’s Si (Thinking) where the heart is stretched out comfortably at the bottom to enfold or encompass the “field” element above.

In her 1996 work Tseng Yuho gives us three examples of the seal script in the character shou (longevity).

Wang Jiqian has been long (if reluctantly) acknowledged as a leading collector-connoisseur of Chinese painting. Since he himself is the product of the Dong Qichang-Wang Yuanqi-Dai Xi- Wu Hufan tradition of Orthodox wenrenhua, I sought to cajole, if not coerce detailed and concrete explanation from him of this mystique, and to demystify this central aspect of Chinese art, one which has for decades kept Western scholars at bay. Fortunate circumstances enabled me to conduct a series of intensive interviews over seven years (1971-78) resulting in an extensive dialogue which has since appeared in Chinese translation as Huayulu (National Palace Museum Monthly of Art, nos, 13 and 15-29, 1984-5). The original English version, which should be entitled What Everyone Wants to Know About Chinese Painting but Never Dared. Ask, due to its question-answer format, has to-date failed to gain acceptance for publication.

Qi-Energy in Chinese Calligraphy

Qi-Energy in Chinese Calligraphy
©2010Joan Stanley-Baker徐小虎

This paper discusses qi as energy, its invisible deployment in various forms of martial arts, and its more visible manifestation in calligraphy.

Transformation is a universal constant whose interactive nature had been apprehended probably by the Neolithic period when divination was developed as vehicle for communication between man and cosmic forces. The ancient Chinese devised an “Oracle Bone” style script where questions were engraved as ideographs, cascading in vertical columns. From the beginning, Chinese script was right-hand based, moving in response to earthly gravity with strokes leading one to the next in configuration and it was in a steady downward movement that the “writing” of ideas flowed down in columns, differing in basic momentum from writing that moved laterally across the writing surface. The motion of drawing the hand from the column top “downward” and closer to the body, repeated anew with each column, replicates in a way basic movements in qi-deployment calisthenics daoyin 導引that in turn echo the dynamics experienced in breathing in and out as the breath expands downward and expires upward along the torso. It may have been such apprehension of external and internal movements in energy, together with transformations observed in natural phenomena that had so physically informed Chinese writing, it would seem, since its genesis.

By significant coincidence, the brush used during the Neolithic to paint on pottery, and later to inscribe divination texts prior to engraving, was constructed with a pointed tip, essentially like the brush used to this day. Here longer hairs envelop a shorter core so the outer hairs gather to form a pliant and pointed tip, releasing visual possibilities unfeasible with a hard stylus. With the pliant and pointed tip, stroke- formation gained infinite varieties, capable of changing widths, becoming angular or rounded, long or short during any movement, and being pointed or blunt at the stroke’s end. Brush movement resembles in ways the varieties in human breathing and, on a more subtle plane, echoes various processes in the inner deployment of qi-energy, most notably in singing where, like Chinese brushwork, the voice can be rounded or sharp, full or raspy, mellifluous with many curves or majestic in long slow phrases. It can be ℃ in percussive strokes, or legato in continuous unbroken lines. In short all the musical indicators can be seen in Chinese calligraphy. And in singing, as in calligraphy, it is not mere air that is deployed, but qi-energy generated in the diaphragm.
To this day many confuse this energy-qi with mere breathing. But the distinction between the two forms of qi, one external and heaven-made or qi as cloud or air that once inside the human body involves expiration huqi呼氣、and inspiration xiqi 吸氣 , takes place mainly in the lungs and windpipes.
There were gradual shifts in the configuration of the ideograph for qi, reflecting changing apprehension of its nature and function. The earliest ideograph for qi was simply three horizontal strokes referring to clouds.
炁气

By the first millennium BCE during the Western Zhou period (1066-771 BCE ), the bottom stroke bent downward at the end, forming what eventually came to be taken as an enclosure. In the Warring States Period (475 – 221 BCE), the fire element appeared inside this enclosure, possibly referring to the heat that can be generated when deploying qi as energy. And by the early Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 24CE), a new character for qi appeared that changed the ideograph for cloud above into ji 旡 meaning intestinal gas but more probably used as it may then have been, a homophone for qi, and reconfiguring the fire (huo 火) beneath into its more streamlined particle form of four dots; Thus we have qi now as a combination of ji and huo “gas + fire ” 炁 – that has continued to be used more specifically when referring to qi as man-produced energy. On the other hand, the ideograph for natural, heaven-made qi, i.e. the pulmonary and meteorological natural air continued in its simplest form气, and the most modern form, filled with the rice (mi米) element 氣, has come to mean both air and man-made qi to this day.
Of all the ancient cultures cognizant of the uses of bodily energy in consonance with the universe, those of India and China have remained essentially unbroken over the millennia and have managed to retain from deep antiquity elements of the most primal deployment of the internal forces where they have been passed on in uninterrupted transmission of practices and experiences from generation to generation. On the most subtle level this same energy is apprehended in different forms as contemplation, as meditation, as divine revelation, as enlightenment or as consciousness.
By the 3rd to 2nd centuries BCE the Chinese systematized their understanding of invisible phenomena including the coursing of energy in the body, identification of certain meridians (jingluo 經絡) along which qi “followed the flow of breath and led the flow of blood,” where breathing, qi-energy, and blood-flow functioned in this order in psycho-physiological callisthenic activities called daoyin 導引 (precursor to the more modern term xingqi行氣、or qigong氣功). But since all this pervasive qi 炁 has not yet been quantified or published as science, it remains little understood in the West and continues to be avoided as superstition by many otherwise educated Chinese as superstition. However qi is a most familiar concept in Chinese culture and thrives in anecdotes, perhaps I should introduce some here.
When at the Needham Institute in Cambridge I asked Joseph Needham (1900-1995) when he would compile the “First Book” in his monumental series Science and Civilization in China, which should be on qi-energy – source of all life, thus of science or civilization… He laughed, “I will do that as soon as you give me the measurements of this qi. Does it have weight, form, speed or direction? Give me the measurements and I’ll start on your book.”
On a different occasion at National Taiwan University, I asked our taijiquan太極拳 teacher, Master Chen Qukuan陳取寬, why martial art films never showed people doing Taijiquan. He said, “Because using taiji energy there is nothing to see. You kill your opponent with no visible movement.” I did not believe this and suggested he try his lethal force on me, without its full potency so I could survive to describe it. Then, after much hesitation, Master Chen thrust his thumb into my side at the waist twisting it once, and walked away. Feeling nothing, I laughed. But not for long. For after a few minutes my heart began to pound vehemently. The others looked on in alarm, saying my face was turning beet red; I felt perspiration beginning to ooze profusely from all my pores. That was the more obvious part. On the subtler side, I began to feel from the spot where Chen had inserted his thumb, what felt distinctly like a “physical object” the dimension of that thumb, moving slowly but powerfully, twisting inside my body. It was gradually but steadily moving upward from the starting point, pushing aside visceral organs in its path as it wound its way spiraling irresistibly, turn by turn – towards my heart! Ah! I realized, if it had been a bit faster and more intense, that thumb’s qi would have reached and punctured my cardio-ventricles! “There! I feel it, I feel it!” I shouted with glee.
On that same night in a sparring of wooden swords, the tip of Master Chen’s sword accidently lightly grazed the hand of one of the sparring pupils. It instantly caused on burn on the back of his hand, so severe that others sent him immediately if quietly to hospital. The sword tip however had no signs of burn. This is because it had functioned as conduit of Chen’s qi energy, and not its target. Master Chen later said, “Too bad I didn’t know he’d got hurt. With another use of qi I could have neutralized the burn.”
Yes, Joseph Needham! Qi does manifest as mass, weight, direction and velocity! Yes, even heat (fire)! But how to measure these? This problem challenged many faculty of the Psychology Department at Taida in those years (1980-82) when researchers were trying hard to find proper instruments to measure qi. They were working together with an enthusiastic visiting scholar from New York, Professor Li Ching-tse李清澤who came to Taiwan, like myself, to fathom the nature and feel of qi in its different manifestations, in qigong, sword-dance, calligraphy, singing, etc.
We have learned that when wielding the pointed pliant fur-tipped brush or when wielding the sword whist deploying qi, the brush and sword become extensions of the body, serving as external conduits of the wielder’s qi-energy. But precisely how this happens has not been described in modern literature, and our understanding of these phenomena, when untrained, remains unclear.

This is not so, however, in calligraphy. Chinese texts from the late first century of the modern era offer descriptions of dynamic life forces living in the cursive script (at the time inscribed in vertical columns onto bamboo and wooden slips subsequently bound with strings into scrolls). The first surviving text on the vibrancy of Chinese calligraphy praises the abbreviated cursive script with reduced stroke-counts and fine links made without lifting the brushtip between strokes. This is the Caoshushi草書勢 Dynamics of the Cursive Script by Eastern Han scribe Cui Yuan崔瑗(78~143 CE). A plea for simplification of the official writing required of public servants and scribes, Cao condemns wasting time writing out complex character-configurations of the then formal script (the clerical lishu 隸書), speaking lyrically on the life and beauty generated in cursive configurations. In part he says,
In appearance, bowing down or arching up, (the cursive script) exudes deportment and dynamics. Neither perfectly round nor regulation square, pressing toward the left and lifting at the right, it appears to tilt, like a beast raising a paw or a bird hunched up before taking flight. It is like a startled hare, just about to flee but not yet run. Some black dots resemble strung pearls, the strokes are finished but fine ink traces link them. Lofty ideals, long pent up, produce gloom and despair but once released, create strange and marvelous sights, like the fearful and tremulous shudders when approaching the deep and profound, or gazing from a very high place when facing dangers all ‘round. And the sideways dot sticks close to the body, like a praying mantis hugging a branch. When a stroke is completed and its energy withdrawn, there will remain entwining ink filaments. Some resemble toxic vapours released from mountain peaks traveling along the rifts. Some resemble a serpent crawling into its cave with its head thrust deep inside and its tail still hanging out. Gazing at them from afar, their devastating power resembles tumultuous foaming waves crashing against shore cliffs. Examined from up close, not a stroke can be moved (without destroying the essential structure and beauty). Their miraculous nature is most subtle.

Metaphors in this text all refer to vibrant, bristling life-forms, of immanent motion, of animals in recoiled momentum(shi勢)just prior to the pounce. The tensile strength of the brush stroke is experienced in its fully living three-dimensionality, much like our inner strength as when considering the serpent’s tail hanging from the cliff-hole, coming to a point but full of energy and life and readiness to strike. It is not a “brush stroke” but embodied energy with inner strength and suppleness. In short, brushwork to early scribes was imbued with dynamism and energy no different from that felt within the body coursing along the meridians and elsewhere when deploying qi in calisthenics when qi is generated in myriad forms and directions, to fulfill diverse functions. Even though surviving as the earliest text, Cao Yuan’s short document is mature and graphic in its description of the vibrant and dynamic power of calligraphy and, indeed, all subsequent writings on the Chinese script-forms are in one form or another an echo of this hymn to cursive writing.
In martial art meetings we can see the effects of qi when an attacker’s physical force is returned, and sometimes increased, by the taiji practitioner who transforms it into qi-power. The latter exerts very little movement. All we see is his seemingly immobile stance – for he has “rooted” himself, through his qi, to the ground and thus made himself immovable like a heavy tree. The Taiji practitioner takes the attacker’s powerful punch (produced by bodily, that is muscular, force) by yielding his own torso in the direction of the punch, going with the thrust and reducing its impact on his body. Filled as it is with qi his body is rooted to the earth like a mountain, at the same time, he transfers the attacker’s momentums to the other side of his body which he may then lean into the attacker, or from which he may gently throw out a soft hand onto the attacker, forcing the latter to tumble backward several steps. It is true that we cannot see the qi energy flow the way we can see the muscular punches fly out from shoulder to fist to the opposite’s body, but we can only see the effects of qi deployment, as when the attacker falls back from the immobile taiji master. In calligraphy, we may experience the brush strokes as traces of energy flowing, at different rates and angles in time, and from these brush traces we re-experience the weight of the writer’s wrist, the speed of the draw, his thrusts, pauses, extensions, hesitations and finishes the way we read skid marks on the road and re-visualize the nature and intensity of the car accident.
Calligraphy (and similarly Chinese painting) comprises traces of the brush as it moves along the (wood, silk or paper) surface. It can be viewed like skid marks, traces of movements that clearly indicate their energy (weight, intensity, direction, speed as well as pauses) during the movement of the vehicle. More than the skid marks tell us about the state of mind of the driver whilst driving his car, calligraphy reveals the state of composure and concentration of the artist during the execution of the various strokes in his characters, columns and compositions. It is for this reason that calligraphy is the most intimate, the most naked revelation of an artist’s psycho-physiological or spiritual state. This is the reason the ancient Chinese used to say that a person’s entire true character is revealed in his calligraphy.
We can see how the aging Shen Zhou (1427-1509), for example, even in his sixties, remained completely diffident when wielding the brush in writing his calligraphy, how he enjoyed drawing down the brush in long strokes to the lower left (doing pie撇strokes) or lower right (in the na捺strokes), how unwilling he was to end such strokes and lift up his brush. His genuine works in calligraphy would thus be marred by the unevenness caused by these over-extended sidelong swipes, slowly and lovingly relished. This is rather like some singers who enjoy the ringing energy that charges their whole being when singing a high note, and would linger there releasing their qi in vibrant sound, far longer than the music had indicated. Or when we enter the world of genuine calligraphy by the Yuan master Wu Zhen (1280-1354), we sink into the rich, deep stillness that draws the unctuous dark ink downward through the silk or paper as if down onto the earth. Here the brush energy is directed inward, downward in weighty, fully charged strokes that at the same time recoil from the surface, yielding to the expanding space that envelopes the whole. The pace is much slower, the wrist far more weighted, and the focus converges within, the energy is centered inward, neilian內斂.
These characteristics pertain to the individual artists, but some of them I believe reflect the general movement of their respective times, informed by the gradual but continual transformation that art historians call period style. The transformations manifesting in the structure of the tools, the paper, ink, brush and artworks, revealing the emergent spirit of each phase in cultural evolution, all respond in synch to this constant, this eternal Transformation. In this light we may re-view a famous calligraphy scroll ascribed to the Tang dynasty monk Huai Su 懷素 (725~785) , ostensibly his autobiography. But here the brushwork is glib and superficial, gliding without friction over the paper surface in speedy circular right-hand turns in an energy deployment entirely at odds with ink traces found on Tang, Song or even Yuan calligraphy and painting. For these are in comparison notably more heavy and ponderous, even as we find them on excavated pottery. Here may be an indication of a gradual transformation in calligraphy of qi wielding as reflected in the brush traces, and by studying the interrelationship we may in time uncover the methodology for dating calligraphy works.
Tracing the evolution and transformation of qi deployment as manifested in various cultural art forms through the ages like taijiquan, qigong, sword dancing, calligraphy, qin–playing or singing, has not yet become subject of wider popular research, but should prove immensely rewarding toward our deeper understanding of art as part of the cosmos in transformation.

The text survives in the biography of 4th century official Wei Heng衛恒(220~291), which can be found in juan 44 of the History of Tsin or Jinshu《晉書》in the Official Histories. The original text reads: : 書契之興,始自頡皇;寫彼鳥跡,以定文章。爰暨末葉,典籍彌繁。時之多僻,政之多權。官事荒蕪,其墨翰;惟多佐隸,舊字是刪。草書之法,蓋又簡略;應時諭指,用於卒迫。兼功並用,愛日省力;純儉之變,豈必古式。觀其法象,俯仰有儀;方不中矩,圓不副規。抑左揚右,望之若欹。獸跂鳥跱,志在飛移;狡兔暴駭,將奔未馳。或點,狀似連珠,絕而不離。畜怒怫鬱,放逸生奇。或淩邃惴栗,若據高臨危。旁點邪附,似螳螂而抱枝。絕筆收勢,餘綖糾結。若山峰施毒,看隙緣巇;騰蛇赴穴,頭沒尾垂。是故遠而望之,漼焉若注岸奔涯;就而察之,一畫不可移。幾微要妙,臨衛恒事從宜。略舉大較,仿佛若斯。

何謂書畫斷代?

何謂書畫斷代?

徐小虎

 

中國書畫創造、模仿以及偽造,至今已有近兩千年的歷史。至少從「書聖」王羲之(321-379)的時代就已有人偽做其書作。歷代的文獻都談到贗品的嚴重問題,但是至今仍未能找出一個比較客觀而廣受認同的方法論來解決這個華人文化遺產中的痼疾或「癌症」。

紐約大都會博物館在1999年曾經舉辦過一場轟動一時的國際研討會,邀集全世界的中國書畫研究名家,針對《傳董源溪岸圖》的真偽進行論辯。結果雖仍無定論,但是已引起世人對中國書畫研究的注意,甚至懷疑「中國書畫史」是否夠格被視為一個學門。

中國大陸的學者近二、三十年來積極地進行各種書畫鑑定工作,也有相當數量的成果報告出版;甚至公開講授「鑑定課程」,以極高的報名費招收學員,其中不乏收藏家、藝品商和外國學生;授課內容包括各種鑑定細節,如文獻、各代紙絹的特徵、印章的刀法與其真假、題跋內容、創作者落款的筆法和年代等等。這樣的教法其實只是把中國自古以來的傳統鑑定方法以比較有系統的方式公開,其目的也僅為辨別真偽而已,它對書畫史本身並無明顯貢獻。但是,我們必須知道,即使最縝密的傳統鑑定法也都一直無法突破贗品遠多於真跡的困境。這個悲劇到底是如何地形成的呢?在探討這個問題之前,讓我們先來看看華人在書畫蒐藏方面的典型「症狀」:

1. 收藏家一旦有錢就想要買書畫作品以「附庸風雅」。

2. 書畫收藏在傳統的富有人家是社會地會的一種表徵,因此具有社會性競爭 的意涵,每人都想盡辦法想要買到別人買不到的大師名作。 

3. 在蒐購過程如有機會選擇美雅而無名、或者未必美但有名的作品,他們通常會以名氣為主要考量。

4. 因應市場需要的書畫商努力搜購並為之促銷的,通常不是美雅高級的藝 術原作(即使小書畫家或無名氏),而是具有大師落款的作品。

5. 因此,自古以來贗品市場的熱絡一向遠高於真跡市場。

6.一旦贗品製造成為有利可圖的事業時,造假技術也日益高昇;大師的生平、文集、詩作、印章及題跋等,對鑑定家或收藏家來說,如同對造假工作坊一般,也都變成了與大師書畫原作風格一樣重要的參考資料和因素。

當敬重的前輩們在進行書畫鑑定之後,他們告訴你的往往只是「這不是真的」這一句話而已。或者,在兩、三件極為相同的作品中,他們會用銳利的眼光以及豐富的經驗來檢驗和比較,然後告訴你,「這張是原本,那張是模本」。但是在許多情況下,那件所謂的某大師的「原本」有可能與他活躍時的時代風格有著數百年的距離,更遑論其個人風格。這又是為什麼呢?因為華人進行鑑定工作時,不考慮西洋藝術史學所研發出來的最重要的研究工具:「時代風格」(period style)分析法。

在台南藝術學院的藝術史課程,不像一間珠寶店,陳列著一系列的「大師名作」並同時敘述該大師的生平小傳,如同博物館講解人員、被動性地介紹館內陳列品一般。對藝術史的問題探討來說,最重要且唯一要分析的元素就是作品本身。我們研究的是作品在時空的雙軌上,其內在的基本元素(即結構structure與型態morphology)如何演變。此內在元素的演變史,就是藝術史學的關鍵,也是比較踏實的藝術歷史,可成為斷代研究上最為客觀而最可靠的工具。

但是,目前國內外的學者專家大部分都還徘徊於考慮「真假之別」,卻對「假書畫」本身的製造時代與歷代假書畫的演變尚未有太大的興趣。很多都還緊貼著在書畫史中之「里程碑」大師的個人上,而不注意書畫藝術本身在該大師之前後風格連續的演變史。因此,到了二十世紀末,還是只能無力地堅持「此作品為五代大師董源所畫」,或「不對!那是二十世紀著名的仿造大師張大千先生畫的!」 他們幾乎不曾思考該書畫作品(不管傳說或落款)可能出自什麼時代。這是因為時代風格(包括整體的結構分析及母題的型態分析)這種研究方法與無成見的客觀態度在中國書畫史學當中仍未盡成熟,但是它是絕對不能缺乏的關鍵研究工具。

我們如果沒有培養出斷代的能力,就無法有把握地判斷出一件作品的創造或製造的時代,更遑論是否出於某大師之手!這也就是為什麼多半學者至今還必須先看作品旁邊的解說,或仔細讀其上落款的名字,而跟著說「那是某人作於某年某月的作品。」這樣不是從頭就已經落入陷阱了嗎?總之,沒有斷代的能力就不能知道書畫作品風格在歷史的長河中,一代一代演變的過程;這也是為什麼中國書畫史在國際藝術史學界中,還是一門那麼落後、那麼可笑又可悲的「學門」。

 

 

採用一個比較有用的書畫斷代方法

要想知道某個時代的風格特徵,就必須先蒐集許多該時代的真跡並一一檢視箇中內涵。遺憾的是在公、私收藏的「傳世品」中都沒有可靠的證據說明它們原來的創作時代,也就是說,「傳世品」絕大多數是有疑問的。因此,我們在檢驗某大師的作品時,最好能把它放在和它同時代的出土墓葬的壁畫旁邊來比較,或者參考從敦煌壁畫有記年的相關資料來作仔細的比較與結構、型態分析。這種以真跡來說明時代風格,又運用時代風格的特徵來檢驗傳世品的研究方法就是我們採用的,但也是蠻複雜且有難以預料的內在因素的一種活的工具,此即潘諾夫斯基Panofsky所謂被視為「惡性循環」(vicious circle)的測驗方法,其實是一個蠻有邏輯的呢!這就是說,一旦某一代的「時代風格」被很清楚地認識了,我們就能判斷該時代中的某大師名下的某件作品是否符合其時代風格,即是否能納入其真跡小組內。可是,每個時代的風格特徵都是需要從極多真跡的特徵裡慢慢distill「蒸餾」提煉出來的。換句話說,真跡與時代風格是兩個互相增加、互相應證的「未知數」,從我們目前學術水準與成就來看,如果能專心在斷代、鑑定這方面專心努力的話,我們還要蠻長的時間才能達到一個如同西洋繪畫史學門一般的清晰度。 

我們發現在檢驗某一位大師的書畫作品時所採用的方法,每次都得依個案而作調整,可能需借重某一部分或再加上其他新的考量。目前每個案子的過程都有其不同。譬如,尋找元代大畫家吳鎮(1280-1354)的真跡和找出沈周(1427-1509)的原作,這兩個研究的性質與過程就有極大的差異。冒著吳鎮名字的造假人中最有影響力的一位(即收藏於上海與華府的兩幅《漁夫圖卷》、美國著名的《風竹圖》的藝術家「甲手 ,Hand A),他的活躍時代大約比吳氏至少晚了150年,相當於明代正德、嘉靖年間。而最被現代學術界稱讚的、收藏於台北的《墨竹譜》則為一件典型新創的、與大師的原作風格、人格無關的清朝「造假工作坊」所製作的一種劣質、缺乏藝術價值的「累積品」(accretion)。更荒謬的,它是由卷本和冊頁合併起來的。那時的造假工匠早已經不認識吳鎮的真面貌,而是學習那位風流而具有新創和想象力的明人「甲手」的作品,因該贗品在明朝一出爐便立即發生「真跡作用」(functional authenticity)。也因此,在尋找吳仲圭名下的真跡時,具有元朝繪畫的結構、型態與風格的作品佔極少數,而大多數則反映了明代中期到清朝中旬的現象。整體而言,若與認定吳鎮真跡與找出沈周的原作這兩項研究相較,找出吳仲圭原跡是比較容易做到的研究。

相對的,在檢驗沈周的作品時,我們發現有相當多的贗品都來自同時的明朝前半期。有些繪畫或書法作品甚至於比沈氏自己的要更好、更美、更整齊和乾淨!此舉則牽涉到另一層次的研究困難度:要在同時代、使用同樣的紙、筆、墨、色彩的繪畫作品中找出只出於沈周之手的原作,不但要熟練地運用我們對沈氏活躍時期中的時代風格(結構和型態)特徵的認知,也必須強化對沈石田氏本人的性格、情緒、用字等的熟悉。如此我們發現了活躍於沈周同時的贗品、甚至於比沈周繪畫、書寫得更精彩(更「專業」)的贗品,但是它們都缺乏沈氏個人的獨有特徵,意即都不符合沈氏在用筆、力道、重量和速度方面的特徵。這些因素都牽涉到沈石田的「心印」:他的心靈和他對生命的基本態度。從這項研究我們發現,不同於懸盪約150年的吳鎮的情況,沈周這位名人的書畫贗品在他活躍的時代就已經大量地產生了。

此時,也就是說我們達到能夠對作品本身的研究告一段落的時候,才開始第一次打開書籍來參考文獻,也就能從中發現對我們的瞭解、或疑問有所印證的文獻:沈石田在世時,冒其名而賣畫者的確甚多。我們把文獻這項工具視為充滿了陷阱潛能的研究工具,它是我們必須對作品本身進行過相當完整的檢驗之後才能開始面對的。書畫史之未能如同西洋繪畫史一般進步的原因,極大因素就是文字(包括名字、落款、印章、傳說及收藏目錄等)對我們所造成的成見、先見和偏見。一旦自己已經在作品上有了把握,文字和文獻就能正面地來答覆那些真正關鍵而且是由書畫作品本身所引起的疑問。這與首先讓文獻提供我們某種概念或信任的「學習」傳統是大不相同的。

如果能找到某大師的真跡原作,那真是一件值得慶祝的大喜事。但是,我們見到的某大師名下的大部份作品通常都是後人模仿或新創的「累積品」(accretions)。因此書畫史研究者的責任,不但是找出大師的真跡、接著列出其獨自的特徵,而且也包括在找出真跡的過程中應順便完成的龐大工作,即把那些後加的、極大多數的「贗品」及「累積品」,仔細地歸納入其各個不同的製造時代。

在這種研究過程中,我們發現贗品因為是來自不同的時代,所以能幫助我們分別出一個朝代中的若干(因其他大師真跡或墓葬壁畫的演變而形成的)段落。它們彼此不同的特點與性質:在結構、型態,甚至於在用筆,長達三百年的明朝或清朝,都能在風格演變上反應出不同的特徵。換句話說,要找出某大師的真跡,我們必須對其時代特徵有所瞭解;而一旦找出了真跡,我們又能因此對該時代的特徵再給予相當多的補充或修正。因此,懂得時代風格的結構與型態分析能為我們在初步認定真跡的過程中有極大的幫助。但是,一旦蒐集了一組符合該時代風格、結構特徵的某大師落款的作品後,第二步就是從那組作品中檢查到底有沒有該大師本人的原作。

這又是更進一步的研究過程了。在此時,我們在符合時代風格的作品中找出構圖最自然、筆墨最佳的作品,暫時定之為「大師原作」,而再加以更仔細的分析,看這些暫訂為原跡的作品中彼此有沒有同樣的、獨特的─足以讓我們歸為大師之個人習慣的─構圖、用筆及筆觸等各種特徵。一旦在這些小組內的作品中發現了從年輕到衰老,這些小組內的作品都具有彼此同樣的個人特徵,而其他作品(即小組以外的同代作品)卻都沒有,我們就知道大師的真跡終於找到了幾件。有了大師的真跡,我們就應該馬上從頭再來檢驗剛才所運用的時代風格的條件:我們當時對其時代風格曾有過誤解嗎?哪些誤解可以於此改正?在目前能報告的是,的確,我們對時代風格的瞭解,幾乎對每一代的預測都不對,都有驚人的「時差」。也就是說,我們對每一代的風格的心理準備或預測都太「摩登」了。因此,每當某大師的真跡水落石出時,我們總是發現,該大師原來是「那麼地保守!」這就指出了我們目前對各大師的認知都來自極大多數後人所造的贗品和累積品,導致學者能把吳鎮唯一存世的墨竹真跡《竹石圖》(1347)視為「一件例外的作品」。

 

譬如說,一旦找著了明朝十五世紀中旬以來和十六世紀早期沈周所作的書畫真跡,再找出其弟子唐寅(1470-1523)與文徵明(1470-1559)在十六世紀早、中期的真跡之後,我們就能夠很肯定地說:「所謂的典型元朝空間與地平面一致的延伸這個特色,一旦進入明朝洪武之恐怖環境,雖然繪畫中有突出的壓迫感(包括前後景距離似乎突然有所萎縮),但在明朝早期一直到沈周之歿(1509),仍然多少還有在地平面上往後一致地延伸之狀況。」回顧沈周的真跡,看起來都相當「保守」、都多少保留著一種(與其贗品相比時)引人注目的「元朝繪畫氣氛」。

談到這裡,我們就有必要調整前人對明代初年時代風格的瞭解:明朝繪畫一直到十六世紀初還充滿著許多元代繪畫的空間結構的因素,而非如大多數學者所想像的那麼「前進」、那麼地沒有空間或水份、那麼地「前景蓋著中景,中景蓋著後景」,以兩三層垂直面往後疊的狀況。就此明白,那種的確缺乏透視的「典型明朝」的結構,整個十五世紀都還是看不見的,而是在十六世紀中晚期才開始出現。但是沈周在一生的繪畫裡所表達的的結構型態及風格都是與元朝繪畫風格息息相近的。

 

拿整個時代來作一個「沒有大師的藝術史」

當我們面對某一個有極多真跡原作的時代時,如果清朝康熙、雍正及乾隆時代的朝廷用具、服裝、陶瓷漆器以及版畫、書畫卷軸冊都能從北京來台展出時,我們就能以諸多可靠的作品來作一個籠統的時代結構、型態風格的歸納。在這種情形之下,一旦某個時代的特徵能被辨識出來,我們就能夠把該時代製造出的各種贗品認識出來。以同樣的方法我們運用乾隆時代的作品所呈現的風格特徵,也找出若干所謂隋、唐、宋、元、明的大師的贗品多張,也因此發現了乾隆皇帝對漢人「文人畫」傳統的熱愛與無知,又因此而受騙的情形。此種研究方法的結果不僅收穫豐富而且非常有用。歡迎讀者參加筆者個人網站中所載的研究與討論。

 

 

圖檔:

1真跡 吳 鎮(1280-1354)真跡《竹石圖》(1347)台北故宮博物院藏

2贗品 HAND A(活躍約1500-1550) 《風竹圖》(1350)美國華府Freer Gallery收藏

3 累積品  HANDs X, Y, and A-1 (活躍約1700s)《墨竹譜》(1350)台北故宮博物院藏

 

 

The Physiology and Anatomy of Chinese Calligraphy

The Physiology and Anatomy of Chinese Calligraphy

Joan Stanley-Baker MLitt DPhil

Tainan National College of the Arts, Taiwan

Sacred Communication

Since earliest times when humanity began to socialize in tribes for survival in a changeable environment, people became deeply sensitive to the pervasive influences of seen and unseen energies around them, from celestial bodies to meteorological forces of wind, rain and thunder, to spiritual powers of animals and plants. These appeared to possess different qualities and were perceived variously around the world as deities, spirits, daemons, goblins, essences, angels, tribal progenitors or familial ancestors. Early peoples sought from them protection, and devised ways to propitiate, to please them with kinetic rites of dancing, with aural liturgy of chanting, loud blowing on conch shells, striking stone chimes and drums, and with visual offerings of powerful forms, floral arrangements, colourful and often mimetic paintings, etc. They also offered culinary celebrations in carefully prepared feasts, culminating with the libation of living blood drawn from animal or human sacrifices. With each offering of thanks and praise, there were petitions or entreaties concerning the welfare of the tribe, and the oracles would be interpreted by tribe members especially trained for the task.

The Chinese, practical to the end, or from the start, early devised writing for divine communication to ensure their appeals and queries to ancestral spirits were understood exactly, without mistake. Even more to the point, the written word guaranteed a correct “reading” of the answer. In fact, the script as developed in China embodies all three aspects of sacred offering, being a combination of aural, visual and kinetic energies. In its synthetic nature it is unique among writing systems of the world. And as vehicle for divine communication, writing has since its inception occupied a special place in the Chinese psyche.

Since the beginning it was practiced as a sacred art. Ancient mythical kings, heavenly rulers, and ancestral spirits spoke, and continue to speak to the living through calligraphy. As talisman to attract good influences, as charm to protect against evil effects, to nurture wealth and health, calligraphy in various forms continues to this day to be pasted on doors, lintels, worn on the person, carried in the purse, or burnt in trans-worldly offerings. Children are still taught never to sit or step on the written word for respect of the life force contained in the configurations.

Physiology or Dynamic Principles in Time

As hand-written compared to printed script, Chinese calligraphy communicates on yet another, unique level which is psycho-visceral. Many would call it spiritual. For in “reading” a work of calligraphy, aside from lexicographic considerations and the multiple associations engendered by the “message” itself, there is another, more vital channel of communication from artist to viewer that transcends the image or verbal message. This is where the viewer partakes in the original creative process and experiences the very act of the calligrapher’s “ink-dance” in its choreography as well as performance.

Unlike a painting where the viewer may in the mind’s eye roam in and out of the landscape, portrait, or still life at will, a work of calligraphy traditionally begins with the first stroke usually found in the top right corner, and proceeds downward in vertical fashion, with new columns forming to the left. In a knowledgeable reading, the viewer can feel the calligrapher’s every charge of the brush, and replay the wrist- or arm-movement as the brush draws across the writing surface in attenuation, twists around its tip-hairs to create a substantial dot, sinks into itself and backtracks for a more powerful forward thrust, or leaps across the empty gap to land at some strategic angle to begin the next stroke, hook, or new character. We feel the calligrapher’s wrist-weight and poise throughout. For every hesitation, and each nervous twitch of the least finger, a confident, leisurely drawing out, or animated brushing, of a stroke is left – non-correctable – as an ink trace on the writing surface and is readily translated as part of the viewer’s own visceral experience. Such intimate sensation of the artist’s minutest reflexes is like feeling the pulse, hearing the breathing, or sensing the xinyin or “heart-print” of the artist during the creative act.

What we seek in Chinese calligraphy is therefore not merely formal beauty in a composition of a series of interrelated configurations in space, but the palpable, living energy of the process of creation where we follow interconnected brush-actions as they move in time. The entire work, like a “score”, can be “heard” as music (or seen as dance) in real time. We “replay” the music (or reconstruct the choreography), replete with all the dynamic marks familiar to musicians whether legato, staccato, crescendo, diminuendo, rallentando, accelerando, sostenuto, or expression marks like allegro, cantabile, andante, maestoso, or con fuoco. Whereas dynamic marks in a music score are “instructions” to the performer, in Chinese calligraphy the performer is at the same time the creator, and we re-experience the creation and its performance afresh each time. The “dynamic marks” are viscerally felt, and can be deduced by a seasoned viewer. Thus rather than a score it may be more correct to liken a piece of Chinese calligraphy to a record or CD where the music can be played back with each viewing.

Calligraphy as a Visceral Experience

To the Chinese, calligraphy is the physical imprint of the action of inscribing one or a series of Chinese characters. The Chinese script itself has evolved over millennia without interruption and has acquired in the process a rich and complex inter layering of significance and values. This is because of its visual rather than its aural structure. In this sense we may understand the Chinese script to symbolize Chinese civilization itself. And, as inscribed by the calligrapher who transforms inspiration and energy into mass and form, calligraphy symbolizes the quintessence of that civilization.

It is the purest expression of qi or inner energy, and as such, it shares many features with the revitalizing art of Taiji’s qigong or energy calisthenics now being practiced by an ever-growing number of people around the world. For energy is universal in the literal sense of the word, coursing through particular, and controllable channels within the human anatomy, while drawing from the energy that is charging the universe. Ancient connoisseurs admired the energy-flow in calligraphy and felt recharged when “drinking in” an admired piece, in what can only be term a psycho-physiological or visceral manner, as if receiving a dose of qi-infusion from a gongfu master. And, like Taiji practitioners, calligraphers focus attention and energy inward when working for excellence, as powerful effects may be obtained only from a focussed, centred, one-pointed mind. Moreover, it must then flow unimpeded through the shoulder, arm, wrist and relaxed fingers to manipulate the Taiji-sword or the calligraphy brush – as if it were part of the mind. Any mental distraction would cause the muscles to shift, recoil or contract and disturb the transfer of energy into matter, of inspiration into form.

This essential life-process is accessible to all who cultivate inner centredness. It transcends personality notions of good and evil. The ancients were wont to say that one could glean a person’s character in his calligraphy, and point to that of the traitorous Northern Song master Cai Xiang as example of one that never reached the pinnacle of his art because of character flaws. But this is not due so much to moral failings, perhaps, as it may reflect differences in the depth of concentration, the totality of commitment and mental poise during the act of writing, (as in Taiji gongfu), and one may cite the universally admired calligraphy of Dong Qichang, who was in life less-than-admired as a man and bitterly despised as a landlord.

Anatomy: or Graphic and Historical Ingredients

Symbolic Function

The visual impact of Chinese script has always been to engender a potent sense of cognition and recognition. Reading, in its communicative function, is of course the same worldwide. But when written in Chinese, the character for each word emerges in a unique architectonic structure with its own particular combination of structural elements. Each character is a unique image with its unmistakable appearance and wholeness. The script is not primarily aural or phonetic, but a combination of pictographs and ideographs that may (or may not) be combined with elements hinting at a phonal value. It is foremost an image, and as such, of itself a visual symbol. In this sense, encountering a familiar word written in Chinese is more like that of seeing a photograph of someone we know, whereas the same word encountered in a non-Chinese, or phonetic language, is like hearing the sound of that person’s name. Here then, the impact of the Chinese script may be seen to be almost magical.

Thus images of words with auspicious meanings have become beloved ornaments in most homes. Common favourites include graphs for social desiderata like Ω “Wealth”, Ω “Nobility”, Ω “Promotion”, Ω “Longevity”; for nature’s benefaction like water (engendered by the supernatural Ω Dragon) and air (represented by the majestic Ω Tiger); or deified historical personages like the tempestuous but forthright martial hero Ω Lord Guangong, or, in the celestial realm, names from the multiracial pantheon most popular among which are Buddha Amitabha Ω Omitofuo, and the all-merciful deity Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara Ω Guanshiyin pusa, among others. These propitious invocations, once written as characters, take on the penetrating reach of spiritual X-rays. For even more than an external “physical likeness”, they probe the essence of the specific energy invoked.

Structural Principles in Space

Visual elements of Chinese writing mutually balance each other in weight and thrust, and, as evolved into the modern printed form, all characters manage to fit within the same spatial unit, whether consisting of one, two, or thirty-six strokes, as in Ω one, Ω (hu)man, or Ω stuffed nose {editor: nang- last character in the dictionary – unless you find a more complex one!} respectively. Some of the most basic words remain pictographs whose their present foursquare form had evolved from more descriptive ancient origins. “Sun” was a Ω {hand-write these} circle (often) with a dot in the centre; “moon” a Ω crescent with two dots inside; while “bright”, not surprisingly, was built of a Ωcombination of the two. “Water” was an Ω {hand-written} S-shaped curve of three parallel lines with the outer ones broken, while “stream” sprang from a similar curvature, but with Ω {ditto} three solid lines, etc..

When looking at an unknown character, the reader instantly perceives a herbal connotation from the Ω “grass radical” (as in xiao Ω a herb and a proper name); a bamboo-related plant or woven object from its Ω “bamboo radical” (as in its homophone xiao Ω a vertical bamboo flute); a ritual concept or object from its Ω “ritual” or “altar” radical (as in xia Ω with a heΩ element to the right, where he means joined together, and the complete character means the combined ritual offering celebrated once every three years with the entire multi-family clan gathered together). Emotional states are composed often with an “upright heart radical” {shuxinpang}, and intellectual concepts a “prone heart” {the heart radical writ in full at the bottom of the character} or “verbal” {yanzipang} radical. Social situations or interactions have usually an “upright human” radical, and animals of the canine family, thus bestial actions, feature a “canine radical”. Compared to a phonetic script, clearly, the visual charge of the Chinese script meets the reader on many more and richly varied levels.

Evolution of Medium and Form: A Symbiotic Relationship

The history of Chinese calligraphy begins with X-, V- and I-shaped lines traced with a pointed brush, in ink, along the rims of Neolithic pottery during the mid-fourth millennium BCE, but their “reading” is still being debated. Some time into the Bronze Age around the mid-second millennium BCE two script-styles appeared simultaneously even though both were ritual in function. Characters of the so-called Oracle-Bone or Divination Script were composed of thin and fairly even lines etched into brushed traces on animal bone material such as scapulae of oxen or carapaces of tortoises.{Editor, ΩΩwant to insert a couple of clear examples? For these and the following “scripts”? Using that character, written in that style, or selecting anything from the NIGENSHA series…}. The original brush-writing appears to have used cinnabar red, an expensive pigment reserved almost exclusively for royal, or ritual functions. But the divination had to be etched into the bone because the reverse side would be indented with evenly-spaced holes which, when subjected to intense heat over a fire, would crack in various directions, linking hole to hole, producing the ancestral “reply” as carved on the obverse side, and which should thus remain legible through the heating. Related in character-configuration but far more opulent in its undulating stroke-widths is the highly pictorial script found inscribed in intaglio (hollow form) on the inside ancient bronze vessels.

The reason for this divergence becomes clear when we examine the respective materials and implements used in their execution. Divination-bone characters are made with a sharp knife carving onto fibrous surfaces prone to splitting. They therefore tend to be “twig-writing” with fairly straight lines incised throughout. On the other hand, bronze inscriptions are the result of casting from pottery moulds, where first a rounded stylus was used to engrave character-forms onto malleable clay still in the leather-hard state. Here it is easy, and natural, for the blunt instrument to turn on itself and create richly rounded indentations in the clay. These markings were made on the observe moulds from which clay core-moulds were to be cast, core-moulds which would during the bronze-casting process be placed on the inside of the combined piece-mould arrangement, to decorate the inside of the final bronze vessel’s lid or body. Core-moulds bear the markings on the outside, in relief form, like present-day relief or “red-character” seals. Finally, through the reverse transfer process of casting, the graceful fully rounded markings emerge in intaglio (or hollow) form on the inside of the bronze vessel’s lid, or on the bottom inside the body. Proliferating in later stages, bronze inscriptions became increasingly longer texts.

As increasing numbers of words came to be used, replacing the clan insignia with historical accounts of clannish exploits, the need arose for adequate spacing of the words. Vertical columns became de rigeur, with increasing need for uniformity of character-size. Thus complex characters with their various protuberances like antlers and grasses began to “fold” or curve inward, creating a remarkable appearance unique to Chinese script. This was called the Greater Seal or Ω dazhuan script. In time the doubled-up curves grew in length and grace, evolving their own majestic if labyrinthine beauty. Well over a millennium later toward the end of the third century BCE, with the first unification and formation of empire, the Ω Lesser Seal script was ordained. This marks one of the earliest recorded examples of political control of the arts, where the First Emperor Qin shihuangdi ordered an empire-wide unification – and simplification of all units of measure, transportation and communication, including chariot axles and the script.

When the versatile bamboo was discovered as a convenient medium for writing, its segments were cut into strips of equal length, lined in parallel and string-bound at the two ends, forming long horizontal surfaces that could be stored in rolled-up form as scrolls. Here the scribe worked his characters within the widths of each bamboo strip, and the notion of “column” was naturally reinforced. Brushwork was limited horizontally but had ample room for creative expansion lengthwise. Indeed, we find the rich black ink graphs on bamboo and wood strips often graced with long “tails” that trail downward forming a bulge mid-stroke, and a point at the end. The scribe is thoroughly savouring the pleasure of drawing his wrist down the length of the slip exerting added weight to press down on the brush-belly causing the swell, and, as the wrist lifts off into the air, for the brush to resume its former pointed stance. Thus was born the so-called “clerical” or Ωli script found in such plenitude on bamboo-scroll and wood-strip documents unearthed from distant corners of the empire’s once vast realm.

With the state expanding and its bureaucracy burgeoning, hapless scribes began to feel stressed by their mountainous workload. In doing their “paper-work” they began to save time by reducing the number of lift-offs of the wrist between strokes or characters, where the wrist usually rises to gain purchase for the next clean attack. This reduction of upward movement caused the brush-stroke to double back on itself, leaving loop-like ink traces of the wrist-motions originally performed mid-air. These came to be called linking strokes, as they linked consecutive strokes, also successive characters, resulting in a fairly cursive appearance. Thus was born the cursive script style, Ωcaoshu (often erroneously translated as “grass” script). In developing the cursive manner, many intermediate strokes were eliminated, radically reducing the structural elements of many characters. This became in time so hard to read that officials wrote protests “against cursive script” (fei caoshu) complaining that such scribbles had become idiosyncratic, mostly incomprehensible, and must be outlawed.

A more moderate mode, the “running” or xingshu script, emerged that retained most of the basic strokes while retaining some linking strokes to add continuity and fluidity to the flow. This trend seems to have coincided with the invention of paper around the first century CE, a splendid, fibrous and absorbent medium, unrestricted as to size or shape, being as long and as wide as the frame for the pulp-straining sieve allowed. The new “elbow-room” once more encouraged side-way expansion in stroke-formation. Although silk had long been used for writing in ink, cinnabar or black lacquer, its prodigious costs precluded extensive use. Paper, easily produced with bark, bamboo or rag pulp, quickly became a popular medium, replacing the bamboo-scroll form of bound strips. Here finally, was born the formal or regular script, the Ωkaishu.

Brush-stiffness and Stroke-form

The Chinese brush-tip seems to have been shaped since the earliest Neolithic times to end in a point rather than lying flat along one plane. This allowed from the beginning the play of undulating widths within strokes or lines created by changes in wrist-pressure. The earliest brushes excavated so far already had tufts of hair bound tightly at the thick end, and were affixed to a rod or hollow tube by more string. The hair-tips were thin and short. The resulting strokes similarly, were short, and without too much variation in stroke-widths.

As the tips became longer, sometimes also fatter, brush-strokes began to show greater variety. When calligraphy as an art attained the pinnacle of Chinese reverence as the highest art form around the fourth century CE, brushtip furs comprised mostly of weasel hair, a relatively tough fibre with a strong bounce which the Chinese call “hard” or “stiff”. A major aspect of the expertise and astounding grace of the calligraphy ascribed at the time to the “Sage of Calligraphy” Wang Xizhi was the ability to create a softly pliant, sinuous but substantial “feel”, “touch” or bichu with such tough hairs.

In time the tips came to made of mixed hairs, including the softer hairs of goat. The mixed-fur tip allowed for easier formation of resilient strokes and graceful curves. Toward the latter part of the second millennium CE, calligraphers of the Qing dynasty took pride in the reverse ability to produce a fairly upright and firm feel with brushes made entirely of the white, soft goat hairs. There was especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries CE a major revival of interest in various ancient script styles, including Bronze Inscriptions, and a major calligraphy renascence swept across the realm.

Calligraphy Today

Artists nowadays use a mixture of brushes, from the scribe’s traditional weasel hair, to full-blown large tips of goat, rabbit hair, and an assortment of other animal hairs, all singly plucked and bound into various hair-mixtures and shapes. The four masters in the present exhibition have access to all the materials and traditions that Qing calligraphers had. And they are each heir to the richly associative visual tradition of the Chinese script. This is aside from the two-millennia history of Chinese calligraphy itself, with its many masters and script-style exponents.

But unlike the past, calligraphy today is no longer the basic vessel for communication. For the last century with the introduction of pencils, fountain pens, ball-point pens, eventually the typewriter and computer, let alone telephone and internet, verbal communication has relied virtually entirely on these, more “modern” means. Even most shop-signs, large and obtrusive in typical Chinese fashion, are mostly formed with characters off-set from a ready palette of commercial computer-generated “type-faces”.

But for New Years and ritual celebrations where spiritual needs predominate, hand-inscribed banners and scrolls once more flourish in the streets. In Japan more than in China, calligraphy as an art of hand-transmitted energy, continues to hold sway and many artists make a good living creating calligraphy as visually distinctive names for buildings, as decoration on folding screens, sliding doors, fabric hangings on shop fronts, writ-large on vases, plates, even personal attire including purses and scarves. Children continue to take calligraphy classes after school even as violin and ballet lessons have become common extra-curricular obsessions. But in Chinese society calligraphy has become more reserved, less utilitarian, elevating itself to a “fine art.” And as such, it has become even more exclusively a social commodity for cultural one-upmanship. This is in keeping with tradition, since painting, poetry and calligraphy had been “The Three Perfections” among the ancient elite, scholar-statesmen all, who themselves wielded the brush and were more than competent in turning out a good-looking manuscript. But among non-Chinese who love art for the aesthetic experience, Chinese calligraphy as it evolves more and more towards abstraction, is becoming ever more accessible.

We may well ask, then, with calligraphy a less common sight, but with literacy far greater than in the past, do we need to “understand” calligraphy to appreciate it? This is certainly no more the case than in music. The greatest idealist (literati) painter since the Qing, Wang Jiqian (C.C. Wang), and recently himself become a calligrapher extraordinaire, likes to discuss brushwork in terms of music.

Brushwork is like a voice. The painting is like the story which provides the narrative, the message. Those who don’t understand go to the Opera in order to “watch” the battles and the love scenes. But those who know, the aficionados, go with their eyes closed, to hear the singer and follow the voice. We go to “listen” to Mei Lanfang, not to “watch” acrobatics.

Clearly this form of appreciation had its origins in calligraphy, long before it was transferred to the “reading” of paintings. In calligraphy, the ancient Chinese read every nuance in the same way they enjoyed music, following the life-flow as the energy moved, now large now small, now high now low, twisting, swelling, leaping and settling. Herein lies the abstract, but palpable thrill of enjoying Chinese brush art. It has to do with the life force itself, and nothing could be more pure, and at the same time more universal, than the art of calligraphy.

For this reason one need not be conversant with the anatomy of Chinese writing or be able to decipher characters and understand the message. Rather, one need only to “listen” to the brushwork as it moves through time by following its progress in space, and reliving the artist’s creative act. It is like savouring the singing of an opera sung in a different tongue.

Let us consider the Four Masters of the Late-Twentieth Century we have here, for example. Coming from vastly different backgrounds and developing their art in contrasting environments, they have all arrived at a common point of no return in the evolution of their ancient art: they have transcended the utilitarian function of calligraphy and have given full play to its associative, pictorial and compositional potential.

In their own ways, they each explore the rich legacy of their tradition, playing on the meaning of particular words, the visual structure of particular characters, the double-meaning produced by certain imagery. This aspect is relatively new to Chinese calligraphy where tradition has focussed on evocation of certain Tang and Song masters or of more ancient script-styles like bronze inscriptions. Our four artists have China’s long cultural memory at their disposal but individually, and as a “phase” in the history of the art, they are opening up new horizons. Some explore the significance of isolated words as we see here in the works of Wang Fangyu and Tseng Yuho, or they lump the whole into one image – without sacrificing those essential qualities of excellence traditionally demanded of good brushwork, as a superlative “voice”.

On this point, on the criteria for brushwork-excellence, there has been remarkable consensus throughout the two millennia of empire. It is all the more remarkable because no one actually “explained” these criteria in verbal form as essays, poems or colophons, till the very late Qing dynasty when a Manchu artist like Tangdai discussed the problem. But when we check back on preceding times, though styles and contents change, we see that these essential criteria for excellence have remained constant. Tangdai wrote:

The principles of brushwielding (yongbi) reside in control by the heart/mind of the wrist-movements. There must be suppleness within firmness. One must be able to release and withdraw [energy in the brushstrokes] and not be ruled by the brush. Brushwork must be centered, zhongfeng. By zhongfeng I do not mean holding the brush upright. Feng is the tip of the brush: if [mostly] the tip is used [in a centered manner], then touching the [paper] surface, the resulting brushwork will be lively, rounded and mixed, yuanhun, and not dead, wooden, ban. On the other hand, using only the belly of the brush, [with the brush held aslant], the resulting brushwork will be either sharp like carving, or flat. To achieve a powerful expression merely by means of slanted brushwielding will result in [undesirable] angles and corners…

- Tangdai (pupil of Wang Yuanqi), in Huishi fawei (Suggestions on Painting) 1716.

What Tangdai points to is a sense of inner balance, and an inner reserve that does not “show off” with overt gesticulations. Rather, good strokes are drawn as it were will full breath but where little air is actually used, leaving most “in reserve”, etc. These criteria in fact are identical to those for good singing or dancing, where anything resembling “falling off-centre” does not make the audience nervous, but they can remain calm in the knowledge that everything is in the artist’s more-than-adequate control. A dramatic example of the “pure voice” quality of brushwork is C. C. Wang’s 93090817 which bursts with excitement as the brush (moving from the top right corner) begins the piece with a thumping attack of thick, black ink drawn downwards to the right where immediately -piano subito, – it softens and loops ribbon-like to the left and, whispering upward in a northeasterly diagonal like a muted violin, flips the tip back, pulling downward with more weight for the vertical. Here, taking a breath during the soft lower loop with the brush-hairs turned out, the brush dashes tempestuously left toward 7-o’clock past the original left-edge of the space, only to fly back with equal speed and urgency in a huge, scratchy oval that gathers momentum for the next attack – on the left-hand radical of the second character. The breathing, panting, and swishing animation of this work continues unabated to the end. Yet on closer look we see that all strokes are formed with deliberation, carrying each a full measure of weight and inner balance. “Good” calligraphy may look hurried or even frenzied, but in fact is always executed with inner poise and assurance. In 94052618 Wang achieves the visceral effect of the fabled Autobiography inscribed in “raving cursive” ascribed to the Tang monk Huaisu, using only a cheap felt-pointed marker pen. And in 950227 he lets flying furious swirls, forgetting even any formal evocation of Chinese writing, keeping only its primary criteria for brushwork-excellence. With bald daring, he further “colours” the loops and spaces so as to fill the entire space with “positive” significance, leaving no “leftover space”.

Like a gyroscope, excellence in brushwork resides in this inner centredness and assured balance regardless of the apparent “rpm” or axle tilt. This is what the knowing eye searches for, in exactly the same manner as the connoisseur listens to a singer, demanding that the voice be full yet reserved, rounded and not rasping, and no matter how soft a whisper for the finale, that the ending be never deplete of energy or out of “air”.

All four masters delve into the realm of creative play with structural components of the script, rearranging their inter-relationship and ratio with a boldness not previously witnessed in this tradition-bound art form. That is, they play with the history of Chinese calligraphy, evoking the ancient script-styles spawn in different media, now all on paper, using a soft pliant brush, but they also take far greater liberties with the rearrangement of parts. Tseng Yuho, like C. C. Wang, in certain pieces gives vent to sheer indulgence in “superlative singing” and runs pure melismas as it were, of the brush over the paper, without bothering to write any “words” at all.

And like C. C. Wang, Tseng Yuho has long been a consummate master of painting. From large screens to delicate frames, her work has always shimmered like jewels glowing in a poet’s garden. Yet in calligraphy her energy resounds with the power of a mountain and she proves herself a formidable master of this venerable art as well. Brought up in Peking, she had studied privately with Prince Pujin and thus learned the insider’s perspective of imperial art and taste, and the brushwork arts formed part of her earliest experience in appreciation as well as in performance. Her early calligraphy includes metres-long multi-columned scrolls with characters of enormous size, a feat difficult to sustain over any long stretch. After moving to Hawaii she saw first-hand the widely experimental modes of American art, and indirectly witnessed the birth of Abstract Expressionism. With characteristic curiosity,she lost no time in reconsidering her own choices in painting. However, from the start, she chose her own directions, creating her own innovations, not so much in order to please the critics, but to please her own emerging and broadening discernment of beauty. Her creativity gradually eveolved into two remarkably separate spheres, where in calligraphy she provides as it were the yang hoariness to complement the ephemeral yin lyricism of her painting.

Wang Fangyu takes pleasure in redistributing the value and relative function of character-parts with specific reference to their respective meaning, as well as the meaning of the word as a whole. Most startling is his “design” for the two characters Baishi (white stone), where the two characters overlap and the whole resembles one large white rock, with a starkness evocative of a Mondrian. He enjoys combining two rods into one form, or separating a single character into two. In huanmeng (Illusory – or chimerical – Dream), Wang creates a labyrinth on the outside, tucking the “dream” inside the right-hand space like a startled Munch face with open mouth, screaming in muffled silence. Or he would pull a phoenix apart into its components wind (above), and bird below. Wang has long been fascinated by the 17-century royalist painter-calligrapher monk Bada shanren, as well as a knowledgeable collector and connoisseur of his works. The upward-staring and attenuated form of the bird-graph pays homage to the bristling energy of the Qing master’s eccentric works. And in his 1980 Turtle he infuses the character for this long-lived animal with hoary antiquity using tough, slow, even strokes in parallel, while jokingly evoking a Western mood by structuring the graph with an apparent one-point perspective, diminishing in size toward the right.

Wang Fangyu’s whimsical renditions are surely enjoyable in their own right, but the pleasure doubles with character-recognition since his work is alive with verbal and visual puns.

Youngest among them by nearly two generations, and a product of Taiwan culture, Grace Tung Yang-tze after a brief early spate in painting has been single-mindedly pursuing the challenges of calligraphy. In artistically conservative Taiwan, Tung is virtually the only one to “depart” from tradition, and to imbue the art with new vitality. Local critics, with little reference to the “world outside” of Taiwan, uniformly mention her “difference” and “newness”. In her work, unlike Wang Fangyu and Tseng Yuho, she avoids playing on a word’s associative image, but seeks resolutely to meet the challenges of each particular group of characters on purely formal terms, thus making of her calligraphy, like C. C. Wang’s, an abstract art like music without words, an opera without a story.

In this sense Grace Tung and C. C. Wang share the sheer delight in spirit-resonance with the ancient masters whose calligraphy was admired purely on visual terms without regard to “content”. Tung loves the play of textures created with different densities of ink, often allowing the brush hairs to splay as they move, creating the impression of wind-like speed; the play of light and dark when varying the water-content in each charge of the brush; and the abstract compositional possibilities for different groups of ancient sayings. Here, like C. C. Wang, she merely uses the “text” as a pretext for brushplay and, living in Taiwan among a mostly Chinese audience, her works have had to communicate as literature. For with her history-conscious audience and she cannot, as Tseng Yuho or C. C. Wang, indulge in the wordless delight of pure calligraphic brushplay. Nevertheless, in spite of, and through, her legible constructions and innovative character-size ratios and com-positions, the appreciation of vitality and energy is a central feature of her work.

At we peek across the threshold into the third millennium since cultural unification, we find in these four calligraphers a common voice that echoes the consciousness of our times. Threatened with planetary disasters, people the world over are beginning to bring to the surface humanity’s ancient understanding and appreciation of energy. Of energy as the source of life. All matter, all mass or form, is a physical manifestation of invisible energy. And here, in transcending verbal communication, these four masters share with us, in their distinct ways, their experience – and the universality – of this energy.

書法中的气

此文探討的是「氣」的能量說,探討在各種武術形式中無法以肉眼觀察到的氣的運用,以及在書法中能較清楚看到的氣的顯示。

「轉換」是種普遍存在的定律,其互動式的本質可能在新石器時代就被人類察覺了,當時人們使用占卜做為人類與宇宙力量之間的溝通工具。古代中國人發明了「卜骨」形式的文字,他們將問題以此種表意文字一行行地刻在獸骨上。從一開始,中國文字就是以右手書寫為基礎,其運行相應於地心引力,自然地讓筆劃由一筆帶向另一筆,而且是以一種穩定向下的運動,讓「寫」的意念在字裡行間流洩而下,其基本的動量與橫式書寫不同。此種書寫的動作讓手由一行字的頂端「向下」而與身體更靠近,在寫每一行時,此種動作都重新做一次。而在氣的導引中,將基本動作反覆施行後,能與呼吸中體驗到的動能產生感應;在吸氣與吐氣之間,我們能感覺到氣息沿著軀幹向下擴張與向上吐盡。也許就是這種對能量於體外與體內運動的感知,以及在自然現象中所觀察到的「轉換」性質,一開始就賦予了中國書法如此物理性的特徵。

非常巧合的是,在新石器時代用來在陶器上畫畫的筆,與稍後在刻字前先把占卜文書寫下來所用的筆,其結構都有一個筆尖,基本上很類似一直使用到現在的毛筆。它們以較長的毛包覆著一個較短的筆心,因此外圍這些較長的毛能聚在一起形成一個柔順又尖的筆峰,讓其有可能表現出硬尖筆所無法做到的視覺效果。有了這種柔軟而尖的筆鋒,形成的筆觸便擁有了無窮的變化,在每個動作中都可粗可細、可方可圓、可長可短,在每筆的尾端也可尖可鈍。毛筆運動中的各種變化與人的呼吸頗為類似,而在一個更微妙的層面上,它與氣在內在運使中的各種過程互相呼應。最明顯的例子就在唱歌上,聲音可圓潤可尖厲,可飽滿可粗扁,能甜美地帶著許多起伏,也能在悠緩的曲調中表現出莊嚴;它可以是抖動筆觸中的斷唱,或是持續不斷線條裡的連續滑音。簡而言之,在音樂中的所有指示符號都能在中國書法中看到。而就像在書法中一樣,唱歌運用到的不只是空氣,還有從橫膈膜裡產生出來的「氣」—能量。

直到今日,仍有許多人將「氣」與普通的呼吸混為一談,但這兩種形式的氣之間確實存在著差異,一種是外在的與天生的,或像雲一樣的氣;另一種是空氣,一旦進入了人體,就伴隨著主要在肺與氣管進行的呼氣與吸氣。

氣的表意文字在型態上經歷了逐漸的轉變,反映了人們對其本質與功能的認知變化。氣最早的表意文字只是簡單的三橫,指的是「雲」。

炁 气 氣
到了西元前十世紀的西周(西元前1066-771),此字底下的一橫開始在末端往下彎,最終形成了一個近於環形的空間。在戰國時期(西元前475 – 221),「火」出現在這個環形空間內,可能指的是將氣當成能量來使用時能產生「熱」。而到了西漢初年(西元前206-西元24),一個新的氣字出現了,把上方代表雲的表意符號換成了「旡」。「旡」原指腸內之脹氣,但此處更可能是因為在當時它與「氣」的發音相同而被採用;此外,底下的「火」亦改用其更具有流線感的四個點之形式。因此,現在我們有了一種將「旡」與「火」(或「瓦斯」與「火」)組合而成的氣-「炁」,它持續地被使用著,特別是用來指由人所產生的能量之氣。另一方面,表示自然的、天生之氣的表意文字,亦即肺部中呼吸的與大氣中的自然空氣,仍持續維持著最簡單的形式-「气」;而其在底下填入一「米」字的最現代形式,直到今日仍同時代表著空氣與人造之氣的意思。

在所有知道使用這種與宇宙協調一致的身體能量的古代文化中,印度與中國文化在千年來基本上仍能保持不中斷,並已設法要維持這些內在力量最原始運作法中的深層古代元素,而這些力量在不間斷的實踐與體驗中一代接一代的傳遞了下來。而在最微妙的層次上,即使是以不同的形式,例如在凝視、默想、神啟、啟蒙或是自覺中,都能查覺到這種相同的能量。

到了西元前三至二世紀,中國人將他們對能量在體內運行等不可見現象的了解進行了系統性的整理,確認了「隨著呼吸而流動並引領著血液流動」的氣所經過的某些經絡,而依此一順序進行吐納與血流來調息身心的健身術則被稱為「導引」(為後來的「行氣」、「氣功」之前身)。但由於所有這種普遍存在的「炁」始終未能像科學一樣被量化或出版發表,西方世界對它的了解仍然極為有限,而相當多的中國知識分子也繼續視之為迷信而排斥它。然而在中國文化中,「氣」仍是人們最熟悉的一種概念,並在各種軼事傳說中不斷出現,或許我該在此略做敘述。

我在劍橋Needham學院的時候,曾要求Joseph Needham,當他要為他那套不朽的叢書-《中國的科學與文明》編輯「第一書」時,這本書應該是有關「氣」的,因為它是所有生命的源頭,因此也是科學或文明的源頭……。Needham笑了,他說:「只要妳給我這個『氣』的測量結果,我馬上就照妳說的做。但這個東西有重量、形狀、速度或方向嗎?量出來,我就開始編妳的書。」

在另一個台灣大學的場合裡,我問我們的太極拳老師陳取寬大師,為什麼在功夫片裡從沒看到有人使出太極拳呢?他說:「因為太極勁的使用是無影無蹤的,你可以在看不見有任何動作下就致對手於死地。」我認為他在吹牛,所以要他不妨在我身上試試他的殺人勁,但不要使出十成功力,好讓我可以活著把它描述出來。在躊躇良久之後,終於,陳大師伸出他的姆指點在我的腰側,並扭轉了一次,然後就走到一邊。什麼事也沒有!我不禁笑了出來,但笑得不久,因為幾分鐘之後,我的心臟開始激烈狂跳,其他旁觀的人也發現不對勁,說我的臉漲得血紅,而我自己也感覺到所有的毛孔都開始狂冒著汗。這是比較明顯的部分,而更微妙的地方是,我開始感覺到被陳大師拇指戳過的那個點,彷彿變成一個姆指頭大小的獨立「個體」,緩慢但有力地移動著,旋進了我的身體,它從開始的那點起逐漸但穩定的往上移動,將行進路徑上的內臟推到一邊,似乎以無法抵擋的螺旋之力傷害了行經之處,而且一圈接著一圈,朝我的心臟前進!啊!我了解了!如果它的速度再快一點,力量再強一點,這股拇指上的氣可能已經攻到了我的心臟,並刺入我的心室了。「就在那裡!我感覺到了!我感覺到了!」我開心的大叫。

而在當天晚上的另一場木劍對打中,陳大師的劍尖不小心輕輕掠過了一個鬥劍學生的手,他的手背立刻感覺到有如火炙,嚴重到其他人只好馬上悄悄地把他送到醫院。當然,那把劍的尖端並沒有任何火燒過的痕跡,因為它只是被陳大師做為氣的導體,而不是目標。陳大師後來說:「太糟糕了!我不曉得他竟然受傷了!因為如果利用氣的另一種作用,我可以把這種炙痛感中和掉呢!」

是的!Joseph Needham!氣真的可以像體積、重量、方向和速度一樣展示出來!是的!就算是熱(火)也一樣。但要如何去測量它們呢?這個問題在那些年(1980-82)裡挑戰著台大心理系的許多教職員們,因為研究者們都非常努力地想要找到測量「氣」的適當儀器。他們與一位從紐約來的熱心訪問學者李清澤一同工作,李教授和我一樣,來台灣是為了探究氣在其各種不同的顯示中-例如在氣功、舞劍、書法、歌唱等之內所呈現出的本質和感覺。

我們已經了解到,當以氣來揮動一支有柔軟筆鋒的毛筆或一把劍時,筆和劍就變成了身體的延伸,作用就有如揮舞者的氣的外部導體。但在當代的文獻中,對這到底是如何發生的,還未有所描述;而如果我們未經過訓練的話,對這些現象的了解也仍然是不清楚的。

不過,在書法中並非如此。從西元一世紀晚期開始的中國文獻提供了有關存在於草書中的動態生命力之描述(在當時,字是以直行刻在竹片或木片上,然後再以繩串成卷)。在現存最早談論書法動態感的文章中,作者稱讚草書減少了筆劃的數量,以及游絲的運用讓筆尖不必在筆劃之間提起。此文為東漢崔瑗(西元78-143)所作之《草書勢》,當時的公職人員與抄寫員提出了簡化官方書寫文字的請求,崔瑗就對浪費時間來寫隸書(當時的正式文字)這種結構複雜的字體加以譴責,並以感性的方式道出了由草書結構中所產生出來的生命與美麗。他在文中的一部分是這麼說的:

「書契之興,始自頡皇;寫彼鳥跡,以定文章。爰暨末葉、典籍彌繁;時之多僻,政之多權。官事荒蕪,勦其墨翰;惟多佐隸,舊字是刪。草書之法,蓋又簡略;應時諭指,用於卒迫。兼功並用,愛日省力;純儉之變,豈必古式。觀其法象,俯仰有儀;方不中矩,圓不中規。抑左揚右,望之若欹。獸跂鳥跱,志在飛移;狡兔暴駭,將奔未馳。或□□點□,狀似連珠;絕而不離。畜怒怫鬱,放逸後奇。或淩邃惴栗,若據高臨危,旁點邪附,似螳螂而抱枝。絕筆收勢,餘綖糾結;若山蜂施毒,看隙緣巇;騰蛇赴穴,頭沒尾垂。是故遠而望之,漼焉若注岸奔涯;就而察之,一畫不可移。幾微要妙,臨時從宜。略舉大較,仿佛若斯。」[1]

文中的所有隱喻提到的都是動物動作欲發前的振動、毛髮豎立等生命形態,或即將撲擊前的軀體回縮之勢。筆劃能以其充滿生命的三度空間感讓人感受到它的張力,非常類似當我們想像著大蛇的尾巴從峭壁岩洞中垂下,雖垂至了一點,但充滿了能量與生命並準備攻擊時,內在感受到的迫力,它不只是個「筆劃」,而是帶著內在強度與柔軟度的具體化能量。簡而言之,對早期的書寫者來說,筆墨中灌注了動勢與能量,就像當體內產生了各種形態與方向的氣來滿足各種功能時,若施以導引之術,則我們亦能感受到氣沿著經脈運行時所具有的動勢與能量。雖然崔瑗的短文是現存最早的一篇,但其關於書法振動與動勢之描述成熟而生動,而事實上,後來談論中國書體的所有文章都或多或少是這篇草書頌的餘響。

在探討武術的會議中,當攻擊者的身體之力被太極拳術家轉換成氣,然後被送回、甚至被放大送回時,我們可以看到氣的效果。太極拳術家的動作非常小,我們所能看到的只是他似乎不動的姿勢-因為他藉由氣把自己「定」在地面上,而使自己有如大樹般無法移動。他順著攻擊者拳擊方向的退讓,消解了威力十足的拳勢(其力量的產生來自於身體,也就是肌肉)帶給自己身體的打擊。由於灌注了氣,因此他的身體不動如山,在同時,他將攻擊者的動量轉移到自己身體的另一側,因為從此處可能可以再將其轉回攻擊者身上,或好整以暇地在攻擊者身上印上一記棉掌,迫使後者向後跌出好幾步。的確,我們沒辦法看到氣的流動,像看到肌肉推動的擊打由肩膀飛向拳頭、再飛向對方身體那樣,我們只能在攻擊者於凝立不動的太極大師面前向後摔出時,看到氣運使的效果。在書法中,我們也許能體驗到毛筆的筆劃有如能量流動的軌跡,在時間中呈現出不同的速率與角度,並且從毛筆運行的這些軌跡中重新體驗到書寫者手腕的重量、運筆的速度、他的猛刺、暫止、展延、遲疑與完成,就像我們解讀著路面上留下來的滑行痕跡時,彷彿能重新看到車禍發生的過程與嚴重度。

書法(以及性質相近的中國繪畫)是由毛筆在木材、絲絹或紙張表面留下的筆跡所組成,它可以看成像是車子在運動時的滑行痕跡、軌跡,能清楚地指示出它們在車子運動期間的能量(重量、強度、方向、速度以及休止)。比滑行痕跡能告訴我們駕駛者在開車時的心理狀態更多的是,書法能揭露出藝術家在書寫一字、一行、一篇中的各個筆劃時的定靜與專注狀態。由於這個原因,書法可說是一位藝術家身、心或精神狀態最私密、最赤裸裸的展示,因此也使古人有「字如其人」之說。

例如,我們可以看一下年老的沈周(1427-1509),即使到了六十歲,在運筆寫他的書法時,還是像以前一樣的完全與眾不同,他是如何地享受在長長撇筆或捺筆中將筆往下畫向左下或右下方的過程,又是如何不情願地結束這些筆劃而提起筆來。他的書法真蹟也因為有這些經過慢慢的、可愛的調味後而過度拉長並偏向兩邊的筆劃,造成了參差不齊,而給人美中不足之感。這相當類似某些歌手非常享受那種拉高音時所體驗到宏大能量灌注全身的感覺,而因此會逗留在那邊,用振動的歌聲釋放出他們的氣,遠比樂譜指示的更長得多。或者,當進入到元代大師吳鎮(1280-1354)書法真蹟的世界中時,我們會沉入到一種濃厚而深沉的安靜中,這種安靜帶著滑潤漆黑的墨水向下滲透到絲絹或紙張中,彷彿滲進了地裡。筆的力量在這裡是以沉重、充滿能量的筆觸指向內部,指向下方,在同一時間又從紙面上彈回,退讓給環抱著整體的擴張空間;其步調更緩慢得多,手腕更沉重得多的,焦點被收斂於其中,能量被向內集中,也就是高度的「內斂」。

這些特徵是屬於個別藝術家的,但我相信其中有某些反映了他們所處時代的普遍態度,是經由逐漸但持續的轉變而形成的,即藝術史家們所謂的時代風格。這些轉變顯露在工具、紙張、筆、墨和作品的結構中,揭示出文化演變中在每一個面向上的突變精神,也都在精神上與此種恆常永久的轉化相呼應。我們可依此觀點來檢視一件很有名的書法作品-傳唐代僧人懷素(725-785)所作的《自敘帖》,然而此處見到的筆墨顯得浮而滑,似乎毫無摩擦力地以一個個順時針方向的快速圓圈滑過紙面,對能量的運用完全與唐、宋,甚至元代書、畫作品上的墨跡不符,相較之下,後者明顯更重,更沉,甚至在出土陶器上的墨跡亦是如此。上述結果可能為我們指出了一個方向,即書法裡對氣的運使有一種逐漸的轉變反映在筆跡之中,而藉著研究相互間的關係,我們可以很快找到鑑定書法作品年代的方法。

追蹤各種歷經了歲月的文化、藝術形式中對氣的運用所經過的演變與轉換,例如太極拳、氣功、劍舞、書法、彈琴或歌唱等,雖然還未成為比較廣泛、普遍的研究主題,但這肯定會對我們更深入去了解做為轉換中宇宙一部份的藝術有巨大的幫助。

[1]此文存於四世紀官員魏恒(220-291)的傳記中,見《晉書》,44章。

Qi-Energy in Chinese Calligraphy

Qi-Energy in Chinese Calligraphy

©2010 Joan Stanley-Baker 徐小虎

This paper discusses qi as energy, its invisible deployment in various forms of martial arts, and its more visible manifestation in calligraphy.

Transformation is a universal constant whose interactive nature had been apprehended probably by the Neolithic period when divination was developed as vehicle for communication between man and cosmic forces. The ancient Chinese devised an “Oracle Bone” style script where questions were engraved as ideographs, cascading in vertical columns. From the beginning, Chinese script was right-hand based, moving in response to earthly gravity with strokes leading one to the next in configuration and it was in a steady downward movement that the “writing” of ideas flowed down in columns, differing in basic momentum from writing that moved laterally across the writing surface. The motion of drawing the hand from the column top “downward” and closer to the body, repeated anew with each column, replicates in a way basic movements in qi-deployment calisthenics daoyin 導引that in turn echo the dynamics experienced in breathing in and out as the breath expands downward and expires upward along the torso. It may have been such apprehension of external and internal movements in energy, together with transformations observed in natural phenomena that had so physically informed Chinese writing, it would seem, since its genesis.

By significant coincidence, the brush used during the Neolithic to paint on pottery, and later to inscribe divination texts prior to engraving, was constructed with a pointed tip, essentially like the brush used to this day. Here longer hairs envelop a shorter core so the outer hairs gather to form a pliant and pointed tip, releasing visual possibilities unfeasible with a hard stylus. With the pliant and pointed tip, stroke- formation gained infinite varieties, capable of changing widths, becoming angular or rounded, long or short during any movement, and being pointed or blunt at the stroke’s end. Brush movement resembles in ways the varieties in human breathing and, on a more subtle plane, echoes various processes in the inner deployment of qi-energy, most notably in singing where, like Chinese brushwork, the voice can be rounded or sharp, full or raspy, mellifluous with many curves or majestic in long slow phrases. It can be ℃ in percussive strokes, or legato in continuous unbroken lines. In short all the musical indicators can be seen in Chinese calligraphy. And in singing, as in calligraphy, it is not mere air that is deployed, but qi-energy generated in the diaphragm.
To this day many confuse this energy-qi with mere breathing. But the distinction between the two forms of qi, one external and heaven-made or qi as cloud or air that once inside the human body involves expiration huqi呼氣、and inspiration xiqi 吸氣 , takes place mainly in the lungs and windpipes.
There were gradual shifts in the configuration of the ideograph for qi, reflecting changing apprehension of its nature and function. The earliest ideograph for qi was simply three horizontal strokes referring to clouds.
炁气

By the first millennium BCE during the Western Zhou period (1066-771 BCE ), the bottom stroke bent downward at the end, forming what eventually came to be taken as an enclosure. In the Warring States Period (475 – 221 BCE), the fire element appeared inside this enclosure, possibly referring to the heat that can be generated when deploying qi as energy. And by the early Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 24CE), a new character for qi appeared that changed the ideograph for cloud above into ji 旡 meaning intestinal gas but more probably used as it may then have been, a homophone for qi, and reconfiguring the fire (huo 火) beneath into its more streamlined particle form of four dots; Thus we have qi now as a combination of ji and huo “gas + fire ” 炁 – that has continued to be used more specifically when referring to qi as man-produced energy. On the other hand, the ideograph for natural, heaven-made qi, i.e. the pulmonary and meteorological natural air continued in its simplest form气, and the most modern form, filled with the rice (mi米) element 氣, has come to mean both air and man-made qi to this day.
Of all the ancient cultures cognizant of the uses of bodily energy in consonance with the universe, those of India and China have remained essentially unbroken over the millennia and have managed to retain from deep antiquity elements of the most primal deployment of the internal forces where they have been passed on in uninterrupted transmission of practices and experiences from generation to generation. On the most subtle level this same energy is apprehended in different forms as contemplation, as meditation, as divine revelation, as enlightenment or as consciousness.
By the 3rd to 2nd centuries BCE the Chinese systematized their understanding of invisible phenomena including the coursing of energy in the body, identification of certain meridians (jingluo 經絡) along which qi “followed the flow of breath and led the flow of blood,” where breathing, qi-energy, and blood-flow functioned in this order in psycho-physiological callisthenic activities called daoyin 導引 (precursor to the more modern term xingqi行氣、or qigong氣功). But since all this pervasive qi 炁 has not yet been quantified or published as science, it remains little understood in the West and continues to be avoided as superstition by many otherwise educated Chinese as superstition. However qi is a most familiar concept in Chinese culture and thrives in anecdotes, perhaps I should introduce some here.
When at the Needham Institute in Cambridge I asked Joseph Needham (1900-1995) when he would compile the “First Book” in his monumental series Science and Civilization in China, which should be on qi-energy – source of all life, thus of science or civilization… He laughed, “I will do that as soon as you give me the measurements of this qi. Does it have weight, form, speed or direction? Give me the measurements and I’ll start on your book.”
On a different occasion at National Taiwan University, I asked our taijiquan太極拳 teacher, Master Chen Qukuan陳取寬, why martial art films never showed people doing Taijiquan. He said, “Because using taiji energy there is nothing to see. You kill your opponent with no visible movement.” I did not believe this and suggested he try his lethal force on me, without its full potency so I could survive to describe it. Then, after much hesitation, Master Chen thrust his thumb into my side at the waist twisting it once, and walked away. Feeling nothing, I laughed. But not for long. For after a few minutes my heart began to pound vehemently. The others looked on in alarm, saying my face was turning beet red; I felt perspiration beginning to ooze profusely from all my pores. That was the more obvious part. On the subtler side, I began to feel from the spot where Chen had inserted his thumb, what felt distinctly like a “physical object” the dimension of that thumb, moving slowly but powerfully, twisting inside my body. It was gradually but steadily moving upward from the starting point, pushing aside visceral organs in its path as it wound its way spiraling irresistibly, turn by turn – towards my heart! Ah! I realized, if it had been a bit faster and more intense, that thumb’s qi would have reached and punctured my cardio-ventricles! “There! I feel it, I feel it!” I shouted with glee.
On that same night in a sparring of wooden swords, the tip of Master Chen’s sword accidently lightly grazed the hand of one of the sparring pupils. It instantly caused on burn on the back of his hand, so severe that others sent him immediately if quietly to hospital. The sword tip however had no signs of burn. This is because it had functioned as conduit of Chen’s qi energy, and not its target. Master Chen later said, “Too bad I didn’t know he’d got hurt. With another use of qi I could have neutralized the burn.”
Yes, Joseph Needham! Qi does manifest as mass, weight, direction and velocity! Yes, even heat (fire)! But how to measure these? This problem challenged many faculty of the Psychology Department at Taida in those years (1980-82) when researchers were trying hard to find proper instruments to measure qi. They were working together with an enthusiastic visiting scholar from New York, Professor Li Ching-tse李清澤who came to Taiwan, like myself, to fathom the nature and feel of qi in its different manifestations, in qigong, sword-dance, calligraphy, singing, etc.
We have learned that when wielding the pointed pliant fur-tipped brush or when wielding the sword whist deploying qi, the brush and sword become extensions of the body, serving as external conduits of the wielder’s qi-energy. But precisely how this happens has not been described in modern literature, and our understanding of these phenomena, when untrained, remains unclear.

This is not so, however, in calligraphy. Chinese texts from the late first century of the modern era offer descriptions of dynamic life forces living in the cursive script (at the time inscribed in vertical columns onto bamboo and wooden slips subsequently bound with strings into scrolls). The first surviving text on the vibrancy of Chinese calligraphy praises the abbreviated cursive script with reduced stroke-counts and fine links made without lifting the brushtip between strokes. This is the Caoshushi草書勢 Dynamics of the Cursive Script by Eastern Han scribe Cui Yuan崔瑗(78~143 CE). A plea for simplification of the official writing required of public servants and scribes, Cao condemns wasting time writing out complex character-configurations of the then formal script (the clerical lishu 隸書), speaking lyrically on the life and beauty generated in cursive configurations. In part he says,
In appearance, bowing down or arching up, (the cursive script) exudes deportment and dynamics. Neither perfectly round nor regulation square, pressing toward the left and lifting at the right, it appears to tilt, like a beast raising a paw or a bird hunched up before taking flight. It is like a startled hare, just about to flee but not yet run. Some black dots resemble strung pearls, the strokes are finished but fine ink traces link them. Lofty ideals, long pent up, produce gloom and despair but once released, create strange and marvelous sights, like the fearful and tremulous shudders when approaching the deep and profound, or gazing from a very high place when facing dangers all ‘round. And the sideways dot sticks close to the body, like a praying mantis hugging a branch. When a stroke is completed and its energy withdrawn, there will remain entwining ink filaments. Some resemble toxic vapours released from mountain peaks traveling along the rifts. Some resemble a serpent crawling into its cave with its head thrust deep inside and its tail still hanging out. Gazing at them from afar, their devastating power resembles tumultuous foaming waves crashing against shore cliffs. Examined from up close, not a stroke can be moved (without destroying the essential structure and beauty). Their miraculous nature is most subtle.

Metaphors in this text all refer to vibrant, bristling life-forms, of immanent motion, of animals in recoiled momentum(shi勢)just prior to the pounce. The tensile strength of the brush stroke is experienced in its fully living three-dimensionality, much like our inner strength as when considering the serpent’s tail hanging from the cliff-hole, coming to a point but full of energy and life and readiness to strike. It is not a “brush stroke” but embodied energy with inner strength and suppleness. In short, brushwork to early scribes was imbued with dynamism and energy no different from that felt within the body coursing along the meridians and elsewhere when deploying qi in calisthenics when qi is generated in myriad forms and directions, to fulfill diverse functions. Even though surviving as the earliest text, Cao Yuan’s short document is mature and graphic in its description of the vibrant and dynamic power of calligraphy and, indeed, all subsequent writings on the Chinese script-forms are in one form or another an echo of this hymn to cursive writing.
In martial art meetings we can see the effects of qi when an attacker’s physical force is returned, and sometimes increased, by the taiji practitioner who transforms it into qi-power. The latter exerts very little movement. All we see is his seemingly immobile stance – for he has “rooted” himself, through his qi, to the ground and thus made himself immovable like a heavy tree. The Taiji practitioner takes the attacker’s powerful punch (produced by bodily, that is muscular, force) by yielding his own torso in the direction of the punch, going with the thrust and reducing its impact on his body. Filled as it is with qi his body is rooted to the earth like a mountain, at the same time, he transfers the attacker’s momentums to the other side of his body which he may then lean into the attacker, or from which he may gently throw out a soft hand onto the attacker, forcing the latter to tumble backward several steps. It is true that we cannot see the qi energy flow the way we can see the muscular punches fly out from shoulder to fist to the opposite’s body, but we can only see the effects of qi deployment, as when the attacker falls back from the immobile taiji master. In calligraphy, we may experience the brush strokes as traces of energy flowing, at different rates and angles in time, and from these brush traces we re-experience the weight of the writer’s wrist, the speed of the draw, his thrusts, pauses, extensions, hesitations and finishes the way we read skid marks on the road and re-visualize the nature and intensity of the car accident.
Calligraphy (and similarly Chinese painting) comprises traces of the brush as it moves along the (wood, silk or paper) surface. It can be viewed like skid marks, traces of movements that clearly indicate their energy (weight, intensity, direction, speed as well as pauses) during the movement of the vehicle. More than the skid marks tell us about the state of mind of the driver whilst driving his car, calligraphy reveals the state of composure and concentration of the artist during the execution of the various strokes in his characters, columns and compositions. It is for this reason that calligraphy is the most intimate, the most naked revelation of an artist’s psycho-physiological or spiritual state. This is the reason the ancient Chinese used to say that a person’s entire true character is revealed in his calligraphy.
We can see how the aging Shen Zhou (1427-1509), for example, even in his sixties, remained completely diffident when wielding the brush in writing his calligraphy, how he enjoyed drawing down the brush in long strokes to the lower left (doing pie撇strokes) or lower right (in the na捺strokes), how unwilling he was to end such strokes and lift up his brush. His genuine works in calligraphy would thus be marred by the unevenness caused by these over-extended sidelong swipes, slowly and lovingly relished. This is rather like some singers who enjoy the ringing energy that charges their whole being when singing a high note, and would linger there releasing their qi in vibrant sound, far longer than the music had indicated. Or when we enter the world of genuine calligraphy by the Yuan master Wu Zhen (1280-1354), we sink into the rich, deep stillness that draws the unctuous dark ink downward through the silk or paper as if down onto the earth. Here the brush energy is directed inward, downward in weighty, fully charged strokes that at the same time recoil from the surface, yielding to the expanding space that envelopes the whole. The pace is much slower, the wrist far more weighted, and the focus converges within, the energy is centered inward, neilian內斂.
These characteristics pertain to the individual artists, but some of them I believe reflect the general movement of their respective times, informed by the gradual but continual transformation that art historians call period style. The transformations manifesting in the structure of the tools, the paper, ink, brush and artworks, revealing the emergent spirit of each phase in cultural evolution, all respond in synch to this constant, this eternal Transformation. In this light we may re-view a famous calligraphy scroll ascribed to the Tang dynasty monk Huai Su 懷素 (725~785) , ostensibly his autobiography. But here the brushwork is glib and superficial, gliding without friction over the paper surface in speedy circular right-hand turns in an energy deployment entirely at odds with ink traces found on Tang, Song or even Yuan calligraphy and painting. For these are in comparison notably more heavy and ponderous, even as we find them on excavated pottery. Here may be an indication of a gradual transformation in calligraphy of qi wielding as reflected in the brush traces, and by studying the interrelationship we may in time uncover the methodology for dating calligraphy works.
Tracing the evolution and transformation of qi deployment as manifested in various cultural art forms through the ages like taijiquan, qigong, sword dancing, calligraphy, qin–playing or singing, has not yet become subject of wider popular research, but should prove immensely rewarding toward our deeper understanding of art as part of the cosmos in transformation.

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The text survives in the biography of 4th century official Wei Heng衛恒(220~291), which can be found in juan 44 of the History of Tsin or Jinshu《晉書》in the Official Histories. The original text reads: : 書契之興,始自頡皇;寫彼鳥跡,以定文章。爰暨末葉,典籍彌繁。時之多僻,政之多權。官事荒蕪,其墨翰;惟多佐隸,舊字是刪。草書之法,蓋又簡略;應時諭指,用於卒迫。兼功並用,愛日省力;純儉之變,豈必古式。觀其法象,俯仰有儀;方不中矩,圓不副規。抑左揚右,望之若欹。獸跂鳥跱,志在飛移;狡兔暴駭,將奔未馳。或點,狀似連珠,絕而不離。畜怒怫鬱,放逸生奇。或淩邃惴栗,若據高臨危。旁點邪附,似螳螂而抱枝。絕筆收勢,餘綖糾結。若山峰施毒,看隙緣巇;騰蛇赴穴,頭沒尾垂。是故遠而望之,漼焉若注岸奔涯;就而察之,一畫不可移。幾微要妙,臨衛恒事從宜。略舉大較,仿佛若斯。