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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
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
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
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?
Does the character seem able to stand on its own and support its topmost
strokes without toppling?
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
of calligraphy still suggest the artistic discipline that underlies
it — the years of practicing?
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.
you to wish you could read Chinese? That’s a true sign of quality.
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
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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