March 27 1983 : Chinese Character Paintings


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




Recently there was a “Chinese character painting” exhibition at the Art House Gallery. One afternoon, Mr He Weicheng sent over some pictures to my house, encouraging me to paint one. As it requires quite some inspiration to come up with a “Chinese character painting”, we sat down for a chat. Suddenly there was a thunderstorm, which I thought must have been heaven's way of keeping the guest in the house. I came to the topic of “the little moustache”. I had never liked keeping a mustache, but the year before I had fallen seriously ill and Mr. He and Elder Brother Yao had paid me a visit. As a way of remembering this sickness, I had kept a beard. It was hard to drink soup with the beard, so I later shaved it and kept a little mustache. This memory inspired me to think about the character 「鬚」 (“mustache”) and how it was formed.

The character 「鬚」 is simply an illustration of “a man with a mustache”. Let us look at the side of the character 「鬚」 and you will see that there is a character「目」 (“eyes”) in the middle of the character 「頁」. Originally written horizontally, the character 「八」 was, in ancient pictograms, originally 「人」 (“man”). The 「丆」 on top of 「目」 symbolizes 「眉毛」 (“eyebrow”), and therefore do they together not form a more complete「人」 (“man”)? 「彡」, the three strokes by the other side, represents the mustache. This character 「髟」, according to “the explanation in Shuo Wen, means 「彡猶毛也」 (“hair or fur”). The Popular Text records : Hanging hair is written as 「髟」. The explanation was also found in Pan Yue’sQiu Xing Fu” and again in Ma Rong Zhuan in the “Post-Han Book”. But  here「鬚」was written as 「鬢」.

However, there are some discrepancies as to the definition of the word 「鬢」. According to the book of “Yu Pian”, “hair” is 「髭」 and facial hair below the cheeks are written as 「鬚」. As for the character for “beard” (「鬍」) -- it was originally just 「胡」, but because it belongs to the category of 「髟」, linguists later added the「髟」 and the character became 「鬍」.

The inventor of the Chinese characters we use today is said to be Cang Jie. Cang Jie was possibly a person, but it could also have been a very intelligent tribe. At that time, in those very ancient days, each tribe would use a “rope knot tying” method to record the events that happened to them. Later, they began making drawings according to the shape of the sky, land and the human form, which are known as “pictograms”. After some time, even this was insufficient, and so it evolved into words that represented sounds and concepts. Learning Chinese is not so difficult after all. As long as you know its “radical”, you will know what category the word belongs to. For instance, in the case of the radical 「木」 (“wood”), it undoubtedly refers to something that is about “trees and wood”. If the word has the radical 「手」 (“hand”), then it has something to do with hands. Words with the radical 「足」 (“legs”) must then have something to do with legs... The examples go on and on. You can use this method to learn Shuo Wen. Shuo Wen is “linguistics”, originally known as “Xiao Xue” - not “Xiao Xue” as in “elementary school”, but that which is being taught since young during the ancient times, and with this “Xia Xue” as a basis, one gets to acquire a strong foundation in the language.

Legend has it that Cang Jie was an official under the Yellow Emperor. “Born holy, observe the hoof of birds. Create characters according to shapes, to replace record with rope”. The myth was that when words were created, “sky and rain trembled, even the ghost cried at night”. Cang Jie was described as being so exceptional in his intelligence that it was believed that he could “see with four eyes”. It wasn't that the “saints” of the ancient times had particularly strange appearances; it was just a way of emphasizing their characteristics. “Writing” evolved from pictograms to the “oracle bone script”. In fact, the oracle bone script was, in those days, a simplified form of writing. It later evolved again during the Bronze Age into Zhong Ding Wen, and this was when Chinese characters were at their most beautiful. If anyone were to attempt making a “Chinese character painting”, he or she would use the Zhong Ding Wen characters as a basis. Later on, Zhuan, Li, Cao each had its own charm, and evolved into “wild grass” in a dramatic and flamboyant change. The Japanese were doing their own research in this area. This “wild grass” was a highly amazing form of art, and the Japanese have been using them as classy decoration.  Only the characters of the East can do this. This is our legacy why our own people are not working as hard?

Apparently, old ceramic pieces were found in Spain, the red symbols drawn all over them were said to be the earliest pictograms from the West. In 3000BC, the Sumerians also had their own form of pictogram. Pictograms also existed in ancient Egypt. Even Myanmar, Nepal and a tribe in Northern Thailand had their own pictograms, which were virtually drawings. It would not be hard for someone with the interest to find these treasures. Picasso, Miro and Klee had worked so hard to find them, but we, the people from the East, had never bothered. Isn’t this a pity?

“Painting of Chinese characters” are not difficult. We should start from the nature around us, like the sun, moon, stars, rain, thunder, electricity, mountains, water, grass, wood… Everyone of these is a vivid picture waiting to be interpreted. If you don't understand, you can start with referencing Shuo Wen. After all, it’s always a good thing to visit a bookstore. Take a further step and start drawing animals, like birds… as you draw them, you can add colors to them, and that should be a lot of fun. I spent more than tten years digesting and working in this area. If we do not work hard, the future of Chinese characters would degenerate and one day come to an end!

The history of communication between human beings had four stages: 1) first it was the use of gestures, just as how a dumb and deaf person or a baby would; 2) the evolution into language; 3) further evolution into Quipu; 4) and finally, “writing”. Even until today, certain aboriginal ethnic groups still live in the jungles of the Philippines, and the record of this we can find in certain books  in the bookstore.

It was mentioned in Xi Ci from “Chou I” that “in the ancient times, they ruled the world with Quipu, and sages replaced it with books.” As you can see, “sages” refer to wise people. If you are wise and contribute to society, one day you too can be respectfully referred to as a “sage”.

Other than Quipu, there were the “wood notches”, which, according to the Tibetans during the Tang Dynasty, were better than Quipu. This was recorded in the “New book of Tang”. Those without a writing system of their own would employ the use of Quipu and “wood notches”. I have been to Miao Qu in Gui Zhou myself. Miao people were using Quipu up till the Qing Dynasty. It was written in a book by Ru-Yu Yan, titled “Culture of Miao at the Borders”, “The early citizens did not know how to write words, and as it was passed down from father to son, they would use animals “rat, ox, tiger,horse to record the years.” I collected one of these “rat, ox, tiger, horse”  picture words myself, but like a bookmark hidden in a book, I have been unable to find it.

From the “Book of Sui”, we know that Japan was still using “Quipu” during the Sui Dynasty. It wasn't until the Tang Dynasty that they started adopting Chinese culture and creating the “Hiragana” and “Katagana” characters – this was also when they began to have writing. Japan managed to achieve their status of today through a desire to learn and a dedication to pure hard work, transforming itself from a defeated country into a strong nation. This is an undeniable glory that we cannot take away from them. They have been able to build skyscrapers and factories  to attract foreign money. Therefore, the combination of “culture” and “technology” can result in “money”. As Japan understands how to manage its “cultural wealth”, we truly need to learn from them. Malaysia has geographical advantage, being in the middle of the East and the West, so if they can achieve “harmony” within the country, when the “right time” comes, they will become a strong nation in the international arena. 

Therefore, “writing” arises before the eight trigrams. According to I Ching :「When in early antiquity Bao Xi ruled the world, he looked upward and contemplated the images in heaven; he looked downward and contemplated the forms on earth. He contemplated the patterns on the fur of animals and on the feathers of birds, as well as their adaptation to their habitats. He observed in close ups and from afar. He invented the eight trigrams in order to enter into connection with the divine light's actualizing-dao and to classify the nature of the myriad beings. 」As a creator of “Chinese character paintings”, you should be familiar with Bao Xi's “culture”. Never think that “ancient characters” are useless, for it is often necessary to “look to the past in order to learn something new”. If you don't learn about the past, how can you understand the “new”? Therefore, the new and trendy aren't always about overthrowing the past. People who want to innovate should always start from “revisiting the past”, and this will definitely lead to great achievements.


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