I have always been fascinated by Chinese brush calligraphy. I don’t understand anything of what the characters mean, but I find the brush strokes in ink on paper profoundly beautiful in their starkness and simplicity. And my appreciation grew when I learned how passionate and disciplined calligraphers are about their craft, practicing it incessantly so that it permeates all aspects of their life.
The clip above from the movie “Hero” — one of my favorite films ever –starring Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, and Zang Ziyi. While it employs a whole lot of creative license, it reflects the dedication and intensity that these word artists have towards their work.
I decided to dip my toes into this gorgeous world and try my hand at Chinese brush calligraphy. Since I don’t know anybody who’s into this, I looked around YouTube for some virtual teachers who can help me out with some demos. And I found this one by a young woman which taught me the very basics.
I used to have the impression that making those marks would be amazingly quick, like Bruce Lee’s moves. I have some friends who know Chinese, and they write pretty quickly — with their ball-point pens. I realize that it’s different with a brush. The girl in the video is so serene and so graceful when she does her thing — it’s so beautiful to watch! Every stroke is slow and deliberate; it’s almost like she’s meditating. She takes her time, caressing the paper with her brush as she marks it with her meaningful strokes, all the while maintaining great posture. I got so inspired!
I took out some brushes, and the traditional ink block and ink stone that I received as a gift some 10 or so years ago, which I ironically have used for myriad purposes except Chinese brush calligraphy. But before I could begin, I had to find a character to write, one that would be meaningful to me.
When I was learning my ABC’s the first word I learned to spell and write was my name. Why not find a Chinese name for myself? I found this awesome feature in www.mandarintools.com that helped me with this. And it gave me a Chinese name that had sounds similar to those in my own name — Mai Ning Tian.
Chinese names usually have three words: the family name comes first, and is followed by the two words that make up the given name. In my name, Mai means force, strength, and capability; Ning stands for calm, peaceful, and serene; and Tian is for day, sky, or heaven. I love it!
There are also disciplines to be followed when writing the different strokes that make up a Chinese character. Generally it goes from top before bottom, left before right, for everything in between, there’s a certain order. It all seemed rather complicated, but I really wanted to do it right, I found a site that I could refer to that has animations that show how strokes in my name go. Here’s how to write Ning.
So off I went with my ink and brush. I put a little water in the ink stone and rubbed with the ink block until the charcoal black pigments infused the water. Then I carefully loaded my brush and slid its bristles onto paper. It was indeed as relaxing as I thought it would be! It was all about being in the moment, and not sweating the flubs. How apt that I was learning to write a word that meant peace! Want to see my attempts?
I practiced on scrap paper for some time, and after a while I decided to write on nice paper. I got one of the small sheets that resulted from my foray into papermaking, and put my brush to it. The ink bled and feathered into the fibers in my paper (a learning experience about paper types). The overall effect is light-years away from perfect, but it’s my name, and I made it, so I’m blue tacking it on my wall. Haha!
All images in this post by Nathalie Mariano, unless otherwise indicated.