January 17 1982: The Chinese Character Longevity and Nourishing Life


Huang Yao had a weekly column called Moyuan Suibi in the Nanyang Siang Pao, a newspaper in Malaysia.



“What does life's journey look like? Should be like a goose landing on a snow field. By chance leaving footprints, it does not care to count as it flies to the east or west.” This is from Su Dongbo's poem. A friend once asked me, “Where has all your work gone?” The question hit me straight in the heart. Thinking back, I have been producing calligraphies and paintings since the 1930s, but I do not have in my posession a single piece of my work. Some were bought by collectors, and some were given away to people who loved them. All of my work, scattered, completely and utterly gone.

A few days ago, in order to research on matters related to calligraphy, a group of my friends found the opportunity to gather. One of my friends suggested that I consider collecting photographs from local collectors of my art and in the process record the “fateful circumstances” that had brought us together. I could then write a short passage about it, and it would be meaningful and nolstalgic to collect all these writings and photographs together. I was very touched when I heard that. When I got home I quickly looked through my photo albums, and began writing spontaneously. Regardless of the sequence of the events, whether they are old or new, long or short; no matter the rawness of my writing, I began to write casually.

Once, while I was writing “Chu Yun Shu”*, Mr Wei-Cheng He, also known as Big Beard (sorry, I have now become Small Beard myself), took out a piece of Xuan paper that measured six feet, and asked me to write something on the spot. I immediately took out my brush and wrote an elongated「壽」(longevity) character. My brush started dancing along as if with the flow of Spirit. We danced till the last stroke, forming what you now see in the painting. If you look at it, it certainly expresses the words「長壽」(Long Life). The art of calligraphy is so wonderful it is beyond words. Writing or drawing (on a large scale) is similar to exercising, although beginners and those who have not mastered the art of writing are often befuddled by it, simply because they do not see the “wonder” of it, and are therefore unable to enter “the way”. It is difficult to express this in words, so perhaps the example of the parable “Bao Ding the Cow Butcher” can better communicate my point. If you can understand its meaning, you will be able to acquire the Tao of writing, and see the “wonder” in the art of calligraphy. In these modern times, young people see “calligraphy brushes” as something that is “unscientific”. They are afraid of the brushes and much prefer to use ink pens or ball-point pens, not knowing that they have been “poisoned”, and have lost an important treasure of Chinese culture. This is a true pity. Do we not see that so many treasures of the Chinese culture have in fact been adopted and deligently practised by the Japanese? Like “ikebana” (the art of flower arrangement); “Sado” (the art of Tea); “Judo” (the martial art); “Shodo” (calligraphy)… They did not just learn it from the Chinese, but added their own careful research and made it theirs. A few years ago, they even proudly declared, “In another 30 years, the Chinese will have to learn how to write in Japan!” They even picked up “Shaolin Kungfu”. Recently a statement was released, saying that “Shaolin Kungfu is in Japan”. Surprisingly, a Chinese man appeared and performed the authentic Shaolin Kungfu, garnering respect from even the Japanese. We should never give up on ourselves, but should instead learn from the past and research the new, in order to create something unshakeable and enduring, to contribute to all the people in the world.  Let us all share and enjoy the fruits of culture, leading a life of peace and prosperity. This is the true mission of culture.

As for the parable of “Bao Ding the Cow Butcher” - it was originally from one of the stories in “Zhuang Zi”, titled “Yang Sheng Zhu”  (or “Nourishing the Lord of Life”). “The story tells of a cow butcher Bao Ding**, who was slaying a cow for King Hui Cheng of Wei. The speed with which his body moved and the way the knife cut through were as swift and rythmic as an ancient dance. King Hui Cheng of Wei was deeply impressed and complimented him, 'What skills you have!' Bao Ding said in reply, 'This is not a skill, it is Dao. When I started butchering, my eyes saw a cow. After three years in this business, I no longer see a cow. I see its muscles, tendons, bones, nerve network… the whole body structure. From then on, I have used my heart and spirit and I have stopped using my eyes. Once I stop using my own senses, the spirit takes over. According to nature's way, the knife hits the gaps between the tendons and the bones, and never touches the bones. A good chef changes knives once a year, because they use the knife to cut through the tendons. An amateur chef changes knives every month, because they use the knife to cut through the bones. But I have been using this knife for nineteen years, butchering thousands of cows, and its blade is still as new and sharp as before. I will sometimes face a knotted tendon that is particularly hard to butcher. At this point I will stop and observe, analyse the situation and then with one careful motion, the cow’s limb will fall onto the ground. I will rise and enjoy a moment of pride, then clean and keep my knife.' King Hui Cheng of Wei was deeply impressed and said, 'Listening to Bao Ding’s words is like learning life’s philosophy.'”  “I have used my heart and spirit and I have stopped using my eyes. Once I stop using my own senses, the spirit takes over” - this is a great point to ponder over. This story is not just about a “way of life”, but it would also help in all kinds of skills, with calligraphy being merely one of it.

Calligraphy conforms only to the “character” of the calligrapher; the brush is the “knife”, and the tip of the brush the “blade”. To write is to “dance with the blade”. As long as you allow yourself to write naturally, you will experience a most magical feeling. To achieve the state of “not using my own sense and letting the spirit take over” is not difficult at all – neither is it a secret. The important thing is you have to find calligraphy which is appropriate for your character to copy, practice it well will lead you to be a master. Mr He himself writes the character「顏」everyday, and makes use of his experience of the story of  “Bao Ding the Cow Butcher”- if everyone does this, then they will meet with definite success. (Especially since the art of calligraphy is the best form of exercise, Mr Yu You Ren once said. If you write a foot-long word for an hour everyday, you will perspire and chase away the colds. I practise everyday, and it allows me to sweat it out and keep fit. How wonderful! Here I would like to use the character「壽」to wish everyone a “long life”!)

(Written on 1 January, 1982.)



1. “Chu Yun Shu”* - the calligraphy written upside down from the bottom of the page up, invented by Huang Yao to produce 'childlike' writings to accompany his cartoons in 1934.

2. Bao Ding butchered ox**

From 养生主 - Nourishing the Lord of Life:


Bao Ding was cutting up an ox for the ruler Wen Hui. Whenever he applied his hand, leaned forward with his shoulder, planted his foot, and employed the pressure of his knee, in the audible ripping off of the skin, and slicing operation of the knife, the sounds were all in regular cadence. Movements and sounds proceeded as in the dance of 'the Mulberry Forest' and the blended notes of the King Shou.' The ruler said, 'Ah! Admirable! That your art should have become so perfect!' (Having finished his operation), the cook laid down his knife, and replied to the remark, 'What your servant loves is the method of the Dao, something in advance of any art. When I first began to cut up an ox, I saw nothing but the (entire) carcase. After three years I ceased to see it as a whole. Now I deal with it in a spirit-like manner, and do not look at it with my eyes. The use of my senses is discarded, and my spirit acts as it wills. Observing the natural lines, (my knife) slips through the great crevices and slides through the great cavities, taking advantage of the facilities thus presented. My art avoids the membranous ligatures, and much more the great bones. A good cook changes his knife every year; (it may have been injured) in cutting - an ordinary cook changes his every month - (it may have been) broken. Now my knife has been in use for nineteen years; it has cut up several thousand oxen, and yet its edge is as sharp as if it had newly come from the whetstone. There are the interstices of the joints, and the edge of the knife has no (appreciable) thickness; when that which is so thin enters where the interstice is, how easily it moves along! The blade has more than room enough. Nevertheless, whenever I come to a complicated joint, and see that there will be some difficulty, I proceed anxiously and with caution, not allowing my eyes to wander from the place, and moving my hand slowly. Then by a very slight movement of the knife, the part is quickly separated, and drops like (a clod of) earth to the ground. Then standing up with the knife in my hand, I look all round, and in a leisurely manner, with an air of satisfaction, wipe it clean, and put it in its sheath.' The ruler Wen Hui said, 'Excellent! I have heard the words of my cook, and learned from them the nourishment of (our) life.'


Possibly Related Posts