Gather round as I tell you why I think Chinese is the most beautiful language in the world (In my opinion).
I fell in love with the stories of the language; the lines and shapes born of dreams from an 8, 000 year-old culture. Take a man and lean him against a tree, and he’s “resting” (休). Take a solid line and break it with a sword and now it’s “separated” (分). Place the old on top of the young and you have the basis for “Filial Piety” (孝). But pictoral representations were easy. Once you start getting literary, things become bewilderingly complex.
In the Tang dynasty a poet allegedly was riding his horses while contemplating the last few lines of the poem. In it, he wrote of a man so consumed with passionate love for the young woman that he swept himself off to her house and… Did he “push” her door open with vigor unable to contain his enthusiasm, or did he “knock” at the door respectfully for he knew that he would shortly ask for the woman’s hand in marriage? The story goes that he kept wrestling between the two words – Push, knock, push, knock, push… And lost in his thought he ran his horses into an official procession of ministers who demanded to know what had caused the gaff.
“Push, knock – I couldn’t decide which word to use so I was lost in thought. My apologies.” Since then, “Push, knock” (推敲) is a colloquial way to describe being deeply lost in contemplation. Tell me that’s not cool.
I began to assimilate the written language as best as I could in high school. It was faltering at first, and there were endless rules about the “correct” way to draw a stroke – not just a character, not even just the radical, but a single stroke.
From the moment you placed the ink swollen bristles of a calligraphy brush on the paper the clock is ticking. Leave it there indecisively and the ink will begin to pool and destroy the elegant and disciplined way one should begin a stroke. Move to quickly and you’re likely to trespass into forbidden quadrants of the square not only destroying the grace of the character, but also the meaning of the word itself. One misplaced line and you’ve got a different word.
To be immaculate in your form, each stroke should be done exactly, retracing only as allowed by standards, and with careful and deliberate steps to ensure the ink is distributed uniformly. If your brush is overly wet, your stroke will fatten, bleed, and become diluted. If too dry you’ll run out of ink mid-stroke and you’ll have to (GASP) finish the stroke with a second visit (or more).
Compare this image of perfection to my “cute” attempt with the calligraphy brush in setting out the characters 克服逆境 (Kefu Nijing). It would be a painful simplification to say the phrase means “Overcoming One’s Circumstances”, but it’s about the closest English. Take my word for it though – it’s full background is badass.
Yet my strokes don’t look badass. They look timid, hesitant, and clumsy. The ink is unevenly coated along the paths of each stroke, frequently with several tips to betray the trial and error method with which I painted it.
I chose the characters as an inspirational note to give me courage through the hard times; a way to channel my attempts to take control over the multitude of balls I juggled in my life. But with amateurish splotches and a flawed, overly large signature placard, I concluded that I was not exerting control – Not at all. Painting this piece helped to become aware of my hesitance with the art; that which kept me from overcoming my circumstances.
Today I prefer to write Chinese in ink – not paint, draw. I grab my trusty fat and deliciously smooth writing Sharpie and make my hand lunge across the page. Similar to painting with ink, I’ve got one go to get it right. But unlike with a paintbrush, I have no chance of subtlety. Putting a pen in my hand and making my brain do something with it is a forcing the faith in myself that I do actually know how to draw these words; that I do actually know the curves and arcs to draw; that the only thing truly holding me back is doubt.
That’s what I learned from painting the phrase “Overcoming One’s Obstacles.”
As I was starting out my newest sketch book I wanted something universally agreeable to put on page one since I’d be looking at it so much. I settled on drawing “Life.” With the seriousness of one contemplating a tattoo for my face, I plotted the grid lines in pencil to mark the space I’d fill with characters. I chewed my lips and hunched inches from the paper the whole time.
It had always bugged me that the word 生活 (Shenghuo), or “Life”, was two words. There were many approximations of the English word that emphasize vitality, energy, or “chi”, but none that could encompass the way we use shenghuo conversationally.
Life was messy, chaotic, beautiful, a blessing, a curse, and everything in-between. But you couldn’t use a single word to encompass all of that. So, I made this.
With irregularly perpendicular strokes with my chisel point Sharpie, I pushed my arm along paths I could only pray would come out bold and straight.
What emerged was the vertical alignment of the two characters as one with faltering, delightfully imperfect lines. Here we have freshness and vitality (生) resting upon and ruling the course of fate (命). It was a crooked path, but it was mine to walk.
In creating this piece, I realized that indeed life is like this.
With my momentum I plowed onward to page two and filled the page with swirling thoughts, idioms, and slogans that expressed the bold sentiment of moving onward without hesitation; without looking back; without regret.
In my search I found the idiom – 过河拆桥 (Guohe chaiqiao). The words literally translate to, “Crossing the River and Destroying the Bridge.” It sounded so perfect I didn’t even bother fully reading the idiom’s explanation (as I would later regret).
I explored the words and played with different types of placement and eventually decided to overlay them two characters at a time giving a “1, 2, punch” to the reader.” To my astonishment I found the characters lended themselves perfectly to doing so. The word for “cross” (过) enveloped “river” (河) crossing exactly once in the top right corner. Together it made a new word that expressed the experience of crossing rivers, of moving past our barriers as if the combination had been planned. The second overlay wasn’t nearly so neat (拆桥), but it crossed in regular and undeniably beautiful ways that told a story – the radical at the left, “hand,” slapped the tree and broke the bridge asunder into a pile of debris.
I searched the original source of the idiom, but though there was a reference to a Tang Dynasty story, there was no English translation. I worked with the video explanation (to the extent of my language skills) and an explanation I found online in Chinese. I decided to quote the entire passage credited with coining the idiom. But as I did it, I started to find confusing and concerning interpretations of the phrase.
The full phrase, “你休得顺水推船，偏不许我过河拆桥,” translates to something like “You don’t enter the stream with the current, that doesn’t mean I should destroy the bridge after crossing the river. It took some digging and a number of conversations with my fiancée before I could finally grasp the full context of the phrase.
A Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) Minister once faced a difficult decision. While serving in the capital of Zhejiang province, he sought a way to fight the corruption inherent in the Exam Systems, tests which had for more than 700 years (since Tang and Sui Dynasty) scaffolded the path towards official posts. Many disputed the decision insisting on the importance of tradition, and he opened a public forum on the question.
Some argued that the move to abolish the testing system would make people resentful by removing the one path to pursuing a successful career. The minister countered by arguing the test perpetuated the system which peopled the government with corrupt individuals.
Arguments continued unabated until one priest who staunchly opposed the test’s abolition weighed in by insisting – in politics the minister was like one who crosses the river then destroys the bridge that got him there. The criticism was a scathing one. The minister had benefited from the exam system himself in ways many others stood to. But instead of building upon the institution, he sought to sever his connection and respect for the past by “throwing the baby out with the bath water” (so to speak).
The phrase then wasn’t a bold declaration to continue onward and never look back. It was a stinging indictment of those did so. Suddenly my calligraphy wasn’t celebrating my independence but scolding my lack of humility for where I’ve come from and what has made me. The irony wasn’t lost on me that my urge to self-express blinded me, and by studying the words of actual experts on the language I was enlightened.
Despite the final meaning being the exact opposite of what I had set out to create on paper, I completed the piece you see here. After I had, my fiancée informed me that there is still one mistake in the piece. Instead of “休,” I wrote “体.” I’d originally mistook the word in the phrase to mean “body” instead of “stop/cease/don’t/or rest” (from earlier). Thus, I read the phrase as, “You go and take the easy way out, but that doesn’t mean I should or shouldn’t do this thing.” The correct word negates the phrase reversing its meaning to say, “Though you may refuse to go with the current, that doesn’t permit me to turn my back on what brings me here.”
This mistake was one of the main factors contributing to my false impression of the phrase in the first place. However, I decided to keep the “incorrect” word there because that single extra stroke, like the piece itself, reminds me where I came from.
When I first began the piece I had the voice of an impetuous youth in my ear insisting that we have to move forward molding the world as we see fit. I ended the piece with the voice of a chiding teacher asking if I’d become the person I am all on my own.
I wanted a one, two punch and I got one square in the nose – reminding me to be gracious, be humble, and to remember where I’ve come from as I ponder how best to move forward.
Language is full of imagery, but it needs to be properly unlocked to reveal its full complexity. This is true of all languages, and certainly Chinese isn’t the only pictographic written language. However, there is infinite subtlety woven into the way meaning is layered onto a word, phrase, or passage. It’s a system founded on the most upright visions of discipline, and passed on the same way oral languages have always survived – through story-telling.
It’s a mean and stubborn language that refuses your attempts to harness it. Yet in the art of Chinese calligraphy, I’ve found the battle for control and the battle to transmit meaning married and epitomized. My words may be flawed, my strokes faltering and crooked. But in setting pen to paper my meaning and story are laid bare for all (including me) to see. Moreover, through discipline, focus, and reflection, language becomes art of the most genuine sort. In it, we glimpse the essence of that which we describe, and are remade ourselves with every stroke.
To browse through more of my calligraphy works, check out my "Spoken Word & Art" page.