A letter from the great Kyoto painter Maruyama Ôkyo to Oku Dôei. Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.
The Wahon Literacies workshop at UCLA/UCSB a few weeks ago, to my surprise, did not spend any time on learning or practicing how to read calligraphy. But, we did spend some time thinking about the aesthetic appreciation of it. I actually took a whole graduate seminar devoted to the subject of Chinese calligraphy some years ago, and I must admit I still really struggle with how to appreciate it, aesthetically. But, what Prof. Ogawa Yasuhiko had to say shifted my thinking about this – it really put me over a threshold, towards thinking about this differently.
We are often told, particularly in Art History courses, art museums, and similar venues, that one does not need to be able to read the calligraphy, at all, and can still appreciate the formal qualities of a piece, overall. That is to say, we can look at a work of calligraphy – i.e. a rectangular space of black ink against a white background – and judge overall its balance of dark and light, its use of negative space, and so forth, as if it were an abstract work of modernist art. Okay, yes, true. One can do that.
But, the cry comes out, there is so much to be gained by reading the text! How can you claim to understand or appreciate a piece without reading the text that’s right there in front of you? It could be a poem about winter, or spring, about food, about birth or life or death, or it can be a joke about someone’s dick. Or, it could be something really mundane, like a letter or even a shopping list, treasured and preserved and hung up as an artwork simply because of its calligraphic quality – or the fame of the author – and not for its content. I would agree with this too: reading the actual content of what is written can make a huge difference towards understanding, and thus appreciating, a piece.
But, we did a hands-on activity with Prof. Ogawa that made me realize how to appreciate calligraphy in a new and different way, which strangely never did occur to me before – that reading it is not only about the actual content, but also about appreciating a work of calligraphy not as a formal aesthetic whole, but rather one character at a time, in order. Ogawa had us use tracing paper and regular pencils to trace over famous works of calligraphy, thus moving through the text one character at a time. Even with only minimal experience with calligraphy, atrocious skill at the real thing, and a near-total inability to read the text for meaning, tracing over the characters gave me a real sense of the flow of the thing. Did it flow quickly and smoothly from one character to the next? Did it stop and break after each stroke of a kanji, in sharp energetic movements, or in slow, deliberate ones? Did the characters run long and thin, or wide, and how did these alternate? Did the column of characters run straight down, or did it veer off to the right?
Some of this is, I suppose, what I’ve been told about calligraphy all along, in terms of trying to get a sense for the shape of the characters, their balance, the horizontality or verticality of them, the thinness or thickness of line. But I don’t think anyone ever before suggested examining the work one character at a time, from the beginning to the end, or tracing over it, either physically or in one’s mind. And this makes all the difference. If I remember to do so, I definitely think that the next time I teach Japanese (art) history I would love to have the students actually trace the calligraphy, like this, with pencil and tracing paper. Hopefully, maybe, this will give them a different insight into the art of it. I know I certainly got intrigued – I’m hopeless with a brush, and in large part because I’m left-handed and calligraphy, like all traditional arts, has to be done with the right. But, as I traced these characters with the pencil, and felt the energy and flow of it, even I became allured, tempted, to want to pick up calligraphy, and learn to play and explore in this world of quick & flowing, or slow & deliberate, or sharp and energetic, brushwork.
This could also be a great activity for learning how to think about kuzushiji and how to read them. I wish we had done tracing during the Cambridge program. I wonder if that would have helped. The key thing, though, to remember (this is basically a note to myself right here), is that especially if doing this kind of activity with students completely new to it, is to encourage them to think about reproducing the process, and not the product, of how it was actually written. When tracing a character, don’t do an outline of its shape and then fill it in, and don’t come at it from just any angle, any direction, to try to draw it. Start from the top, and the left, try to lift up your pencil as little as possible, and try to think about how a calligrapher with a brush would flow through the characters, darting or looping back to get to the next part, sometimes without leaving a mark, but most of the time still following along a line – not removing the brush entirely, and bringing it back to the page elsewhere.
I think this calligraphy activity, as well as activities like making our own yotsume-toji (sewn-bound) books, could be a great tool for Japanese history and culture classes, to get students interested and excited in traditional culture and history. We are fortunate in Japanese Studies that we have many students who are genuinely interested in the subject to begin with. Students who are primarily there for the anime & manga, for stories of cool/badass samurai and ninja often are open to at least some degree of interest in Kabuki, Ukiyo-e, geisha, and so forth. Our upper-division history course on “The Samurai” here at UCSB always fills up quick. But, even so, if my own personal journey can be taken as any indication of others’ attitudes, I think it really helps to have some thing, whether it’s activities, or whether it’s just certain readings, certain lectures, whatever, something that really grabs students, that really makes your class memorable out of their whole college career. I don’t know about students these days, who come in with so much drive, and so much pressure, to do college in the most efficient and career-effective manner possible, but at least for me, it was rather up in the air what I was going to major in, and my entire academic/career path since then was very heavily influenced by simply having the professors I did, including a medieval history professor who was widely regarded one of the most fun, must-hear, lecturers in the whole university, a Japanese language teacher who was strict but incredibly caring and nurturing, and a Japanese history professor who assigned Alex Kerr’s Lost Japan, which, for all its flaws, provided the kind of romantic view of Japan that clinched my decision to study abroad, and the rest was history. So, I take these activities as tools which might, hopefully, allow me to inspire my own future students similarly, to think that my class stood out, made an impression, and that Japanese history & culture might be something to pursue further.