April 3 1983: Discussing Chinese Character Paintings Again

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

 

再談文字畫

 

Awhile ago I had written an article about “Chinese character paintings” and had focused on the word 「鬚」 (“mustache”). At the same time, on that very day, I had completed another “Chinese character painting” for Mr Wei-Cheng He, using the characters 「大家」 (“everyone”).

Chinese character painting is something that is extremely interesting. Everyone can do it, as long as they learn enough about the oracle bone script and Zhong Ding Wen, while constantly referencing “pictograths” while they are at it. They can then naturally make very outstanding and beautiful paintings.

Mr He had started an “Everyone Shopping Mall” with his friends, but I couldn't have included the words “Shopping Mall” in the painting, and so I simply took the characters 「大家」 (“everyone”) to be the basis of my painting. The word 「大」 (“big”) originally meant 「一個人」 (“one person”), but it later “evolved” into something with eyes and hair. 「手」 (“hand”) is a very energized word and has something of a primitive flavor. I had a very good time admiring this with Mr He. The “hat” atop the character 「家」 (“home”) was either a hut that the aborigines used to live in or the leather tents the Africans and the Americans used to use. The lower part of the character 「家」 was originally 「豕」, which meant “pig”. Some people didn't like it, and so it was later altered to using three lambs, suiting the Chinese phrase 「三羊(陽)開泰」 (sanyang kaitai or “a surge of good luck”).

“Chinese characters paintings” are in fact pictographs, and yet they are easier to create than the usual painting. As long as you can figure out the structure of the character, you may then choose a style and do some beautifying – in this way, every “character” can be vivid and lively, giving viewers an entirely fresh feeling.

Words came after sounds and quipu. They are entirely “realistic” and lively, with a different meaning behind the formation of each and every word.

Characters were originally pictograms collected from each tribe by Cangjie, and later improvised to become a primitive form of writing. It wasn't until the Yin Shang dynasty that the oracle bone script emerged. Characters of the oracle bone script were a primitive form of the simplified characters we have today. Each word very obviously expresses a natural phenomenon, as well as depicting beasts, birds, fishes and insects, as well as the activities of human beings, all expressed in a vibrant manner. In prehistoric times these could be seen on rocks. During the middle ages, they were often seen on bamboos. When it got to later times, the characters were seen on paper. If one is interested, one can go and explore the oracle bone script or the Zhong Ding Wen, but you will have to explore every single word. For instance, the character 「手」 (hand) was simplified from “five fingers” to three, became「?」.  The character for foot「足」simplified form 「? 」to 「?」, 「眼」or the eye was simplified from「?」to be 「目」, 「鼻」or nose to be 「?」,「畀」is for the sound,  there are  too many to mention.

If you know the structure of the oracle bone script , you will begin to understand the evolution of “images”. Copy down every word, paste it in a notepad, and look at it in the morning and at night for more than a few times, and you will be able to understand the structure of each word. Friends who enjoy these drawing can connect themselves with this precious cultural heritage left behind by our ancestors, and at the same time they can get to the root of calligraphy. The Japanese know the importance of “cultural wealth” and have been working hard to develop it, so why do we give up on it?

Besides using the oracle bone script and Zhong Ding Wen (with some added modification) for our “Chinese character paintings”, we can also make use of the “cursive script”, and can further explore the “highly cursive script” (way of writing to write these oracle bone and Zhong Ding wen scripts.). The magical and vibrant way with which each character evolved is filled with wonderful mysteries. Japan had carefully explored the “cursive script” and developed it into the “wildly cursive script”, bringing it to another high level.

Chinese calligraphy was brought to Japan during the Edo period. At first the works were collected by the Konoe family, and later during the early years of the Meiji period they were passed on to the Royal family. Circa AD 961, the words 「賀監」 (“He Jian”) were found in the works, which referred to He Zhi Zhang, an intellectual during the prime of the Tang Dynasty. He once wrote a book on the “cursive script”, particularly on the skills required for the practice of the “cursive script” and “semi-cursive script”, but it is very difficult to find a copy of the book these days. It was said that he was as well-known as Zhang Xu, so the above speculations could be correct.

I might as well add, the Japanese calligrapher and collector Takashima Kaian had in his possession a roll of “Li Bai Poetry Collection” written entirely in “cursive script” by Ling Ling, whose work showed great inventiveness, especially in his “right diagonal strokes” and “hook strokes”. Those who are learning the cursive script can check this book out. Ling Ling was a Turk from the Yuan Dynasty, and what the Mongols called a “Semu”. He was said to be far more talented than the Hans, especially in his exceptional knowledge of calligraphy. It can therefore be seen that the Hans were not the only people exclusively good at calligraphy; if the Turks could have such high achievements in it, so could people from any other race. We can therefore see that it's possible for Chinese characters to spread throughout the world. If you can master the “regular script”, you can then easily learn the “cursive, clerical and highly cursive scripts”. If we can beautify calligraphy, we can certainly attract people from all around the world to appreciate it, and its beauty can derive from writing the Chinese characters as pictograph. In Japan today, the “highly cursive script” is displayed on large buildings as huge murals. Why don't we see the Chinese promoting the same thing? It seems like we don't have the ability to appreciate its beauty. Thankfully many Chinese people are beginning to put in more effort, and it's good that museums and the Malaysian Chinese Cultural Society have put up calligraphy of New Year Lucky Greetings and these days there are “calligraphy competitions”.

Ling Ling's technique derived from Zhong Taibo and Wang Youjun. This is evident of the fact that, should anyone want to enter the door of calligraphy, they should do it by following the right path. Ling Ling's swift “right diagonal strokes”, “hook strokes” and “tick strokes” are as sharp as a knife. His brush certainly feels like a “knife”, a testament to the extraordinary strength of his strokes.

There was also a Chen Xianzhang who was a thinker in circa AD 1500. He had the beliefs of a hermit and wrote many Zen-like texts. His minimalistic and sparce words were very interesting. He was from Guangdong and was certainly a genius, proving that it's never about the geography or the race. This is the amazing thing about culture, where there is no distinction between how smart or stupid you are. As long as you “practise what you learn”, you will eventually accomplish something.

These two words “Da Jia” (“everyone”) is merely a beginning. Friends who are interested can reference what I just casually wrote above and you too can paint something “miraculous”. “Everything is up to you”. “You can beat the Heavens”. Let's work hard together!

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