How beautiful is Japanese Calligraphy?

January 26, 2017

The Calligraphy Lesson, Kitagawa Utamaro (Japan, 1753-1806)



I love a mystery don't you? I thought you might like an update on the Japanese calligraphy note book I showed you in the last post. There have been developments!


But first, a little about the practice.


Calligraphy in Japan, known as shodo 書道, has great cultural importance.  It came originally from China or Korea in about 600, and over the centuries the Japanese made it their own. It’s not only a means of communication; it’s abstract art. It’s a form of meditation. It's good for self-discipline, peaceful concentration, and stress reduction. It helps eliminate impatience from the irritated mind (I need it!), encourages attention to detail and improves powers of observation. Perhaps most importantly it cultivates an appreciation of beauty, and is a means of creating it.  



The basic tools are called the Four Treasures: a gorgeous fat brush like those above, an ink stick, the ink stone where the ink stick is rubbed and mixed with water, and the paper or hanshi, a type of washi often made from a species of the mulberry tree. The word "washi" comes from wa 'Japanese' and shi 'paper'.  So it's like any hobby.  There are zillions of ways to spend a bucketload on peripheral 'stuff'. Like water droppers, felt desk pads, paper weights, personal seals. I'm already dreaming of buying an old ink stone in Japan....)


There are three main types of Japanese calligraphy: kaisho or correct script which is much like our printing with each letter distinct, gyousho or semi-cursive script which is more flowing and is what most educated Japanese would use to take notes, and sousho or 'wild' cursive script, where free flowing form is more important than legibility. It's more in the art realm. My booklet is sousho


Now back to it.



I’ve had it for many years. I bought it originally because I loved everything about it. The antique shop owner thought it was Japanese cursive script, but wasn’t sure, and had no idea what the writing said. I didn’t really care. It had a mysterious beauty.



The rectangular sheets were folded in the middle, then folded again and tied together with a piece of string. So each page is a doubled sheet. The string is a fine roll of the paper itself.



Pages and pages of black writing inside, foreign to me but with great meaning to whoever wrote it.  Whether Japanese or Chinese, it was so far from home.  Someone had once valued it so much that it had been stored for a long time, or had forgotten it was there, and it had now been discarded and shipped to Australia. I loved the mystery of it. And I wanted to give it the respect and pride of place I thought it was due.


The comment by Michelle on my last post saying it's called grass writing is the icing on the cake. I am disregarding Wikipedia's opinion that grass is a mistranslation of the Chinese character 草 (cǎo) which means rough or wild. I fancy the idea of the script looking like grass waving in the wind....



It sits inscrutably in a perspex box on my coffee table with other treasures: an art nouveau evening bag, a child’s pair of hand-stitched suede gloves, a guinea fowl feather, Katharine Morling ceramic spectacles.



I was reminded of it while I was reading a book about Japan a couple of weeks ago. Lost Japan is a translation of a book written in 1993 in Japanese by an American Alex Kerr, a Rhodes scholar who studied at Oxford and now lives between Japan and Bangkok. It celebrates age and beauty and mourns the loss of old Japan in the face of recent environmental and cultural vandalism. His greatest love is calligraphy and his favourite leisure activity is having a friend or friends over to drink wine and paint calligraphy with him. Sounds like fun.


The general idea is not without precedent - Zhang Xu was a famous Chinese calligrapher during the Tang dynasty who was famous for practising his calligraphy while drunk, using his own hair.  


work of Crazy Zhang Xu Wikimedia commons.


It's said he could never reproduce these masterpieces when sober. 


Alex also recounts in the book how as a penniless student he restored with love a 200 year old Japanese house in a remote forgotten valley, on the smell of an oily rag with the help of friends, using traditional techniques where he could. It's a charming read.



This is another book by Alex, an e-book I bought on Amazon.  I really enjoyed them both. He also sells original calligraphy art works in beautiful colour washes from his website  


Alex' talk of calligraphy sent me back to look at the notebook again. I took a photo of it and emailed it to him. I hardly dared expect an answer, but it came quite promptly. He thought that the photos of the notepad appeared to be calligraphy practice papers from roughly the 1880s or maybe 1900. So old! I could imagine a student sitting for hours perhaps by lamplight, practising. I was just thrilled. 


Other google searching had turned up a calligrapher called Ponte Ryuurui who migrated from Poland to Japan in 2001. He originally studied international law at home and at Cambridge and is now a calligrapher, ink painter, scholar, photographer, Chinese character etymology researcher, writer and poet. He has exhibited calligraphy works at the National Art Centre in Tokyo and has won prizes in Japanese national calligraphy contests.



He is currently writing a book on calligraphy, sells calligraphy prints and originals like the dragon above, and his website contains extensive information on the subject. click here


 At the same time I sent the photos to Ryuu (first time I called him Ponte.  Ryuu will do he said. Oops, Ponte must be his last name).  His response was enthusiastic even though he told me I'd taken the photo with the writing the wrong way up. !! Japanese books are written (in our western terminology) from back to front and on each page in vertical columns, from right to left.


Quote: 'it is in cursive script and it is good, meaning whoever wrote this was seriously good. That's beautiful calligraphy. If this is not a copy of a classic and just free handwriting, like a letter or so, this is a superb piece of work and yes, definitely Japanese. Age - no idea could be pre-war, could be 100 years old or more. One thing is sure that writing is amazing.' 


I answered and his next response was 'Yeah I don't care what period anything is from, instead I respond to energy flow through the line, the power of brush strokes and how the brush tip was used. Whoever wrote this was a Master or even Grand Master calligrapher. As I said it is cursive script, with Japanese kana elements. I can tell you one thing I can see strong influence of Wang Xizhi (possibly also Mi Fu) works in this, but hardly surprising since Xizhi is the most celebrated calligrapher of all times. It was written with very responsive brush, with very hard shoulders and prominent hairs of life, possibly weasel hair brush, maybe even mouse whiskers. I sense no hesitation in this writing so yeah, just soothing to look at.'


Mouse whiskers!!! Hard shoulders! The possibility that it could even be a letter. Squeal. I had been wondering about the translation of the text. Perhaps starting the quite expensive process of having it translated by Ryuu or his teacher. But when I read that, I decided I didn't want to know what the words mean. What could a translation add?  It may even detract. They could stay a mystery. I wrote and said so.  


Ryuu responded: 'My teacher told me once, the moment you do not care any more about what is written, but you can hear ink whispering to your soul, is when the real studies begin :-).'


Perhaps my studies have begun.


Until next time, buddies, 


  ps. if you're on a mobile or an ipad or tablet, the comments section is at the bottom of this page - would love to hear from you!





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