The Art of Chinese Calligraphy

El Maestro Ming en su taller.

Master Ming in his Atelier

Xi’An, China, December 2012

It wasn’t easy to find it. His workshop was hidden among several fast food restaurants and hardware stores within the so called Muslim quarter in the city of Xi’An, China. Outside his shop there was a signboard with, of course, Chinese ideograms and a picture of a brush, black ink and a red seal. I then realized that his workshop was that of a calligrapher. I entered with a lot of discretion. I did not know how to approach him. Annika followed my silent steps without saying a word. The place was well illuminated by the natural light. All the place smelled like fresh ink. The walls where filled with his work, some calligraphy work, some paintings with brush and ink. Although black and white were the dominant colors, the red ink in his work gave it the outstanding punch to the result. Annika and I whispered everything we said, for some strange reason we felt that if we talked with the normal voice we would upset the peace in the room.

Since we entered China we noticed how the practice of Chinese Calligraphy is very present in the everyday life of it’s people. Calligraphy in China is known as shufa which literary means, the method or law of writing, is considered both an art and a discipline by it’s people. The discipline of calligraphy deals with the rules of the order in which the strokes are drawn. The art has to do with the ability to portray in the strokes the spirit of the calligrapher and his intention when writing. This ability is developed by the artist after years of mastering the technique and acquiring a style of his own. Although it is considered an art form, there are certain parameters in which the quality of the calligraphy is measured. The list includes: legibility of the characters traced, the order in which they strokes are made, the characters must be concise, the way the weight and the form of the strokes are aligned with the rhythm of the phrase and finally that they are esthetically pleasing.


El Maestro en Accion

Master Ming in Action

After a couple of minute of feeling lost within his workshop the artist. Xi Ming approached us in a friendly manner. Dressed with a brown sweatshirt, a black vest and black pants, he invited us to take a seat in his comfort corner. His wife brought us black tea in traditional Chinese cups of olive green color. So there we were the four of us sitting face to face. I tried to communicate with them with signs and face expressions. I wanted to tell him that we were cyclist and that we were very interested in this art form for our blog. I made a sign towards my camera and I tried to tell him by signaling his work, if I had permission to take some pics. He understood my request so he stood up from his seat and started to show me his work. I figured that this was like having his approval so I started shooting.

In his workshop there stood a very big table that housed an assorted types of brushes of different thickness and animal fur. The table was stained with black and red ink, I could not identify another color. I could also identify his working tools and materials other than the brushes. There was a big roll of paper under the table, red ink and black ink vessels and his seal an artist trademark. He also had a stone which he uses to hold the paper in place while he is making the strokes on it.

La sutileza de sus trazos

Without a sign of warning he gave instructions to his wife and a friend of him that had just entered the shop to help him in his work table.

Annika and I have had the chance to see calligraphers at work, specially in parks. In this case the discipline of calligraphy is used as a way to relax and meditate in public spaces. They use big brushes made of sponge and draw their strokes with water on the dry cement of the passages. Mr. Lee a tourist guide and friend of us, explained that this people find in calligraphy a good way to exercise the mind and maintain it healthy, for most of them are in advanced age. Normally this type of calligraphers write excerpts from Chinese books, poems, or proverbs. The result although it is ephemeral, grants the public space with a feel of harmony and peace. It is very appealing to the sight, specially when they give life to something so lifeless as a piece of street pavement. As the art form, the finished strokes in the street manage to convey the spirit of the message even for those like us who have no idea what it means.

Caligrafia en el piso con agua y pincel gigante

Calligraphy in cement with water and a sponge brush

Although we had seen calligraphers on the streets, we had never seen the live action art form in a workshop. Xi Ming cut a long piece of paper with his hands using a giant like ruler. He placed it on top of his table and asked his friend to hold it firmly against the surface of it. Then he wet his brush with a vast amount of black ink and he started his magic. He grabbed his brush with strength, you could see how hard he was grabbing by the tension in his fingers. On the other hand the brush moved with an impressive precision, the ink went exactly where he wanted it to go. This type of ability can only be mastered with years of practice. Every time he finished an ideogram he said something in Chinese with a firm voice that probably indicated his friend to move the paper to clear space for new one. He repeated this process until he had finished two phrases in two different papers. I was impressed with his style, he made it look so easy. His stroked where clean and swift, you could notice where he had accelerated and slowed down his strokes leaving beautifully drawn thick and thin lines.

Same qualities that have been taught to calligraphers in one of the oldest art forms in China. This discipline and art form date back 4,000 years of existence. There are evidences of written ideograms in animal bones as far back as 3,600 years ago. As an art form it matured and flourished in the Tang Dynasty in the year 800 B.C. leaving a invaluable heritage to the Chinese people.

El Sello del Maestro

The Seal of the Master

When he finished writing he took out his personal seal and with red ink he stamped his finished work. He then waited for the ink to dry and wrapped both of the papers in newspaper. He then approached us and gave them to us as a gift. My lower jaw fell to the floor like a cartoon animation. By serendipity his niece happened to be around and spoke some English. She then translated what he wrote:

Like water may you reach your destiny.

He knew that paths are never straight, the sensibility of the artist. In the end I saw his art with different eyes, with ought really knowing him I could sense that Xi Ming was as free and fulfilled as his art work. Thank you Xi Ming.

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