Spent an evening talking and a day doing Chinese calligraphy this weekend.
I have known for a long time that there is a link between sword play and doing calligraphy, I know of friends who have studied Zen where both calligraphy and sword practice are a part. I enjoyed the movie "Hero" immensely because of this element in the plot, and have seen, at least in books, the calligraphy of noted swordsmen.
But as with many things, it is only the actual doing of it that opens the door to understanding why.
The evening lecture started with a discussion about Asian art appreciation. From a traditional Asian standpoint, there is no distinction between art and craft - a soup bowl can be high art in the same way a painting can, and as can calligraphy.
What is of most interest in a piece, more than the content, is it's 'energy' - and before the eye rolling starts this is not some new agey fluff - what this means is that a piece painted say by a concubine, or a general, will look different because of the different lives the painters have led.
Even if the subject is exactly the same, the difference, or the 'quality' of the piece, depending on who made it, is what is most important. The ability to see these differences and understand what they mean is a huge part of Asian art appreciation.
These qualitative differences arise in calligraphy in the same way that western handwriting varies from person to person, and can even vary day to day in one person, depending on mood. Add a brush and ink to the equation instead of a ballpoint, and it is even easier to see, as every movement in the holder transfers directly to the paper in a much more dynamic fashion.
It is important to note that there is no 'perfection' or single place to aim for in this practice. In the same way that there are many beautiful yet wholly different pieces of music in the world, each individual can create a unique piece that can speak to an audience regardless of style.
Of course there is a lifetime's worth of study in the subtleties in how the brush moves on the page, how it is held, it's still points and flow, that all play in to this appreciation, and of course that takes practice, but understanding this, and every child does indeed start practicing at a young age, helps an audience understand the quality of the calligrapher.
But back to the links with sword play ....
Without going in to the details of what we practiced in the class - and one day is really only a scratch at the surface - the points that I found most interesting were to do with the relationship between freedom and control - you need space around you, and your body oriented in a way to give free range of motion front, back, side to side, and into and off the paper - much like connecting your body, arm, hand and fingers to the sword, and something at the other end of it.
You have to be precise, committed, and flexible, no vacillating, hesitating, or weak intent. You also always have to know where you are going next, but not get fixated when the ink starts doing something you didn't expect. You are creating the flow, but also going with it, trying not to get physically or mentally stuck in a corner, present and focused until the brush leaves the paper for the last time.
Also in the practice - it is not about repeating the same thing over and over again, trying to create perfection, but more of an investigation into the brush and how it works connected to you. Obsessive repetition often produces the same mistake over and over again, which shows up very clearly on a page of rote characters done too 'tight'. It is a stagnant way to practice, lacking 'qi'.
Better is freeing up the mind and playing, which also produces mistakes, but produces all kinds of different ones and so is a much more dynamic way to work and discover more.
Of course unlike dueling, the paper does not fight back ... but it is certainly a mirror to every glitch and gap you have, and as such, your opponent IS in front of you, it's just this time it's your ego.
Many thanks to Liu Ming for teaching. Ming is one of the most clear and interesting teachers of ancient Asian culture and science in the Bay Area, and as a side note to the 'Sound Effects' post - demonstrated how he uses whistling as an aid to practice the different feelings of the individual strokes when writing characters.
All in all a fascinating day.