The highly intricate ink flows that grace archaic clerical scripts and decorative art, the illuminated plates of medieval European manuscripts, may be aesthetically pleasing, but are essentially skillfully beautified elaborations of simplistic lettering.
East Asian ideograms on the other hand, even when reduced to their most skeletal elements, are a complex form of writing that takes years to master.
There are strict rules to follow, some of which may be baffling to Westerners. Why for example, is the order in which strokes are written strictly circumscribed? If the order in which the strokes are written down is incorrect, the kanji character is invalid as pure calligraphy, even if the results are identical to the same character written in the correct order.
The author uses the term “taction” instead of brushwork in this book, an expression he feels better captures the idea of calligraphy evolving from the interplay between historical stone carving in China and the application of ink utilizing a brush. The writer traces the origins of calligraphy to the carving of characters on to bones, shells, stone, and metal castings, to literary correspondence, script for hanging scrolls, poems, ecclesiastical works, seals and more. In Kyuyoh’s view, grasping calligraphy’s roots in carving, its legacy of “tactile reciprocity” is essential to the art.
Skill alone is not enough. As the writer puts it, “Expressive activity unaccompanied by spiritual awareness is mere play.” The statement places calligraphy firmly in the sphere of the Japanese arts, recalling garden designer Kinsaku Nakane’s adage, “one art means all arts.” The idea is very apropos of the Japanese concept of integrated forms: Flower arranging, calligraphy, landscaping and the tea ceremony all have elements of spirituality, which sets them apart from comparable Western disciplines.
We may feel confounded when, what appears to be a perfectly accomplished but otherwise unremarkable piece of writing, is described as a masterpiece. In one instance, the writer examines the work of the 18th-century Chinese calligrapher Jin Nong, finding in his Xixie’s Hut Poem, an extraordinary “vibratory shimmering of the lines.” It is often a matter, we come to learn, of looking again with recalibrated eyes.
The author sources the work of several ancient Chinese masters, such as Yan Zhenqing, Ouyang Xun and Chu Suiliang, and examples of their calligraphy are included. Of the fourth-century master, Wang Xizhi, the author writes that his work embodied an “appealing combination of natural, archaic beauty and a bracing experimentalism.” The writer does not confine himself to the classical past, however, referencing centuries of work up to the contributions of contemporary practitioners like the avant-garde master Yuichi Inoue.
Kyuyoh tells us precisely why a kanji, or even a single stroke, deserves attention. The fact that a cognoscenti of the art can discern who the author of a work is, may be a recognition skill beyond the abilities of the laymen, but the author is able to convey a very real sense of the importance of areas we may not have considered, like brush velocity, blotting, weight and scale, the Taoist notion of the harmony of opposites.
This latter concept finds a place in calligraphic theory, what Kyuyoh calls the “dialectical sublation of opposites,” quoting the often proffered advice to students: “If you would lift a stroke, hold it down. If you would write fast, think in terms of writing slowly.”
Kyuyoh is nothing if not a modernist, comparing in one instance, calligraphy to monochrome photography, with its capacity to “function not as a decolorized palette but as shadow and as light.”
The author’s enthusiasm for his subject is infectious, and what at first looks like a bruising academic study, turns out to be a book of creative exploration.
Younger Japanese, with their rapidly eroding written skills and inability to identify more complex kanji, would benefit from more exposure to the beauty and power of calligraphy.
To non-East Asians, the prospect of taking up the brush can seem daunting. Besides the initially incomprehensible ideograms themselves, there is, in common with other disciplines like the tea ceremony, the precise posture to assume, the sequencing of strokes, the correct amount of pressure put on the brush, its recoil from the paper, a host of other considerations.
Kyuyoh’s passion for the art makes us think that it might just be worth the effort.