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.

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