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This article by Patricia Summers was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on April 14, 1999. All rights reserved

A Good Hand for an Ancient Chinese Art

She has brought her traveling calligraphy gear: an

absorbent wool cloth, a few brushes rolled in a bamboo place mat,

liquid ink (rather than the traditional ink-stick), a bowl to hold

water, two shallow saucers, one for ink, the other for water, a few

paperweights that double as brush-rests, paper towels, rolled-up rice

paper.

She scans a small piece of paper on which she has written, in Chinese,

a few poems and sayings. Then she weighs down a large piece of rice

paper, dips her pen into the water saucer, then the ink, and, starting

at the top-right corner of the rice paper, she begins to paint the

Chinese characters for the poem she has selected, and memorized.

Standing, she holds the brush perpendicular to the paper, and she

re-dips the brush every few characters, before moving smoothly on.

She leaves what she has done entirely alone, never going over it or

touching it up. One character after another, she writes down a vertical

column, not talking and never glancing again at her scrap of paper.

Some strokes are inky, dramatic. Others have a dry-brush look. Occasional

characters include long, tapering vertical strokes. This variety,

she says later, makes for a pleasing mix, an interesting look overall.

Approaching the bottom of the sheet, she straightens up and leans

toward the top again, starting another column of characters. Still

silent. Unhesitating. Smooth.

In a short time, working from the right and moving top to bottom toward

the left, she has filled the paper with characters, whose black, curvilinear

strokes are varied, graceful, well-placed. Working down the left column,

she finishes the poem, leaves the vertical space of a couple characters,

then draws two groups of three characters, all somewhat smaller. The

first group represents the date, with its middle character for "Year

of the Hare." The second and last group of three characters tells

her name: Seow-Chu See.

She looks like a mere slip of a girl, but See — now of Princeton

Junction and originally of Penang, Malaysia — learned calligraphy

in the 1960s as a schoolgirl. She took to it, entering competitions

and winning prizes for her work. Since then, through graduate school

in Boston, travel to Tibet and other exotic places, her marriage,

and her current position as a software engineer with Merrill Lynch,

she has continued with her calligraphy, often demonstrating it to

classes and other groups.

See has exhibited her calligraphy and Chinese brush paintings in area

libraries, the Lincoln Center Cork Gallery, and the 1860 House of

the Montgomery Cultural Center. Eight of her works are being exhibited

at the Program in Women’s Studies, on the Princeton University campus,

with a reception Friday, April 16, at 4:30 p.m. (609-258-5430). During

the month of June, her work will be featured in the 1860 House Upstairs

Gallery Exhibition in Montgomery.

The middle child of a businessman and a homemaker who now live

in Singapore, See has an older brother and a younger sister there,

too. She visits her family as often as possible, using those trips

as occasions to buy art supplies that she ships back here.

See can look at a Chinese brush painting and discern the calligraphy

skills the artist brought to it. More basic yet, she can look at Chinese

calligraphy — which, to the Chinese, is the first and highest

of the fine arts — and surmise what kind of person produced it.

She agrees with one writer on the subject that "In the Far East,

the brush stroke that creates the character is seen as an outward

manifestation of the calligrapher’s own character — of his or

her moral, intellectual, and spiritual state of being."

Learning calligraphy, See says, was a long, painstaking

process that included regular homework assignments. Happily, she liked

it and became proficient. She has practiced her art for so long that

at this point, she can safely, and beautifully, bend some basic rules

in the interests of creativity and individuality. Years ago, she had

to think about each character before writing it; now, she says, it’s

preferable not to do that once she starts. Early on, she had to be

concerned about how to turn the brush or position each character within

an imaginary nine-part square. Now she does such things by instinct.

The most popular of the arts in China, calligraphy is "a national

taste, a common esthetic instinct nourished in every Chinese from

childhood up." Good paintings, songs, and poems may not be common,

but good calligraphy can be found in every period and in every part

of China. It permeates everyday Chinese life, starting with shop signs

and including engravings on bronze and stone objects, as well as buildings.

Possession of a "good hand" has traditionally been regarded

as a prerequisite to professional and social success, and examples

of fine calligraphy are saved and often displayed.

Chinese characters can show an attractive variety in the shapes of

their strokes, and each stroke can move from narrow to wide. And while

Western words are symbols for sounds and intended to be pronounced,

Chinese characters are stylized "ideograms," or pictures of

ideas, developed from an originally small number of "pictograms"

— straightforward pictures of things. Essentially unchanged over

time, they work both for daily life and as an artistic medium. Calligraphy

is a basic element in every other branch of art — painting, which

employs the same medium and technique; pottery and sculpture, in which

line, not mass, is the distinctive quality; architecture, whose harmony

and form are derived from calligraphy; and seal-engraving.

Tools and materials used for calligraphy are essentially the same

as for Chinese brush painting: the brush, brush-stand, ink, ink-stone.

Brushes are made of animal hair — from softest rabbit to sheep’s

wool — and ink is made from burnt pine wood or lamp-black mixed

with a gum material and molded into sticks. With a little water, the

calligrapher grinds an ink-stick on an ink-stone, meditating about

the work to be done, visualizing strokes or structure of the characters,

as well as their arrangement, on the paper. Comparatively coarse and

porous rice paper, effective with the ink and resilient to rolling

and folding, is used.

The Sumerian culture of 5000 B.C. is credited with the first pictographic

writing. China’s earliest inscriptions found on animal bones and tortoise

shell date from about 3100 B.C. China’s written characters evolved

into the comparatively fixed system in place by the time of the Han

dynasty, and there has been no radical change in the nearly 2,000

years since. The written languages of both Korea and Japan are derived

from Chinese.

In the many styles and uses that evolved, Chinese calligraphy

is always pleasing to the eye. Strokes may have widely varying thickness

and depth of color, thanks to the flexibility allowed by a brush,

the artist’s changing pressure on it, and the amount and strength

of ink used. Individual strokes should convey strength, or "bone."

Brush handling with a suspended wrist is key; each stroke is made

quickly, and may not be corrected. ("The moving finger writes;

and, having writ, moves on.")

Face-to-face with calligraphy you don’t understand — whether two

pieces by Seow-Chu See, or the 55 historic examples on view until

June in the sweeping survey at the Princeton University Art Museum

(U.S. 1 March 24) — what do you do? A Westerner who does not read

Chinese might look at calligraphy, and appreciate it, by considering

several questions:

Is the overall layout/composition pleasing to the eye? Are the

characters effectively spaced, left to right, and in vertical columns?

Has the artist made good use of "flying white," or both positive

and negative space?

Is the structure of individual characters grounded, yet asymmetrical?

Does the character seem able to stand on its own and support its topmost

strokes without toppling?

What do you think of the individual strokes and the overall

brushwork? Does the piece of calligraphy seem to have been done "in

one long exhalation"? Is it energetic, dynamic, rhythmic, fluid?

Do you feel it might reflect, or continue, the body movement of the

artist?

With all its freedom, asymmetry, and energy, does the piece

of calligraphy still suggest the artistic discipline that underlies

it — the years of practicing?

Does the calligraphy also suggest its physical, gestural, bases?

It may be no more readable than a Jackson Pollock painting, but in

both instances, you should be able to feel the action of its creation.

Overall, do the appearance and energy of the calligraphy prompt

you to wish you could read Chinese? That’s a true sign of quality.

The conversation about calligraphy — its fine points, its

offshoots — has wound down, and two freshly-inked sheets illustrate

the calligrapher’s art. Seow-Chu See rolls up the rice paper, now

dry enough to transport, and packs the rest of her equipment into

a box, then muffles it with the wool cloth for the walk to her car

— moving from an ancient, yet still current, world back into the

here and now. The calligraphy demonstration has ended.

— Pat Summers

Open House, Art Museum, Princeton University, 609-258-3788.

An open house and Chinese calligraphy demonstration in conjunction

with the show, "The Embodied Image: Chinese Calligraphy from the

John B. Elliott Collection." Also gallery talks, exhibition tours,

and music. Free. Sunday, April 18, 1 to 5 p.m.


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