a character is a universe

today, i met chang hongcai, a calligrapher. teacher chang’s studio is located in liuxiandong (留仙㓊),an artist colony of sorts. the liuxian village head has rented out (at cheap cheap prices) an entire six story factory to a group of artists, who use the building as studio space. importantly, these artists are not struggling emergents, but established artists whose work is shown throughout china and the world. teacher chang, for example, is a highly respected calligrapher whose work hangs in some of china’s top museums.

we talked about many things – tea, the book of changes, and taichi – but all topics departed from and returned to calligraphy as the essential philosophy of china. according to teacher chang, how one holds the brush, each brush stroke, the actual meaning of the character, all this together forms a universe. he used the character “one (一)” to develop his point:

to write a proper yi one holds the brush with the entire body, arms loosely held as in taiji, one’s qi flowing. the brush stroke itself (and it is one fluid motion) actually follows the contours of the symbol for yinyang, stretching beyond the limits of a line and returning into infinity as the brush circles, pauses, and then quickly flicks back into itself. according to teacher change, the process of writing is itself chinese philosophy; calligraphy cannot be rushed, but must be cultivated, like breathing.

teacher chang also spoke of 势 (shi) or immanent tendency of a stroke. his explanation of 永字八法 (the 8 methods in the character yong) focused on how each stroke was in fact in motion. a heng, for example, was pulled like a bow and a gou was kicked back, strongly and decisively. a stroke that just ended because the brush was lifted, was a stroke that had been cut off, was empty. fullness came from the motion of the stroke, which had its own rhythm and spirit. in fact, when teacher chang helped me see a character, he emphasized the moving brush such that it seems possible to understand shi as traces of the calligrapher’s spirit; her body, her hand, her knowledge, her state of mind, her understanding of the world – all this comes together in the stretch and flick of ink on paper.

practicing calligraphy helps us center the mind and cultivate a good attitude because the idea that “a character is a universe” reminds us that we constantly (re)create the world. indeed, that is all we ever do.

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