Last week, I suggested that if you’re really serious about mastering kanji, you should add brush calligraphy to your study regimen.
Assuming I’ve won you over at this point, the next step would be to procure a complete set of implements, including a medium-size 筆 (fude, writing brush), made from animal hair; a 硯 (suzuri, inkstone), 半紙 (hanshi, writing paper); and 墨 (sumi, Indian ink). In traditional calligraphy, water is poured onto the inkstone and ink is produced by rubbing a rectangular stick of solid ink. These days most people find it more convenient to buy liquid ink and pour it onto the inkstone as needed.
In addition to the above, you should have a cloth to place under the paper to keep it from slipping and to absorb any ink that might seep through onto the writing table. You will also need a receptacle for water to wash residual ink from the brushes after use. Expect a full ensemble to set you back at least ¥3,500.
A less expensive but still effective approach would be “water calligraphy,” using water to practice on specially treated reusable paper. The results appear the same as ink writing, but after the water evaporates the paper becomes blank and can be reused, making it an eco-friendly way to get started.
A boxed beginner’s set called Mizu de Oshūji Setto sold by Nara-based Kuretake Co. contains everything you’ll need to get started. For just ¥1,890, you get five sheets of reusable paper, a brush, a small plastic “inkstone” to hold the water, and an eight-page booklet of instructions (in simple Japanese).
Unlike pencils or pens, a calligraphy brush is held perpendicular to the writing surface. You dip the brush into the ink (or water) and then press against the inkstone to remove any excess.
Kanji are organized according to 214 classifiers, or “radicals,” components signifying water, tree, earth, fire, etc. These classifiers are listed in ascending order according to the number of “strokes,” referred to as 点 (ten) or 画 (kaku), literally points and strokes. A character composed of four strokes, for example, is called 四画の字 (yon kaku no ji, four-stroke character).
The order of the strokes follows specific rules, beginning at the top or left and ending at the bottom, and usually, but not necessarily, on the right. Each variety of stroke — be it a dot, a horizontal line, a line curving downward to the left, an upward hook at the bottom of a straight vertical line, etc. — has a specific name, but you won’t need to know them at this stage.
As you write, you move the brush not only across the paper’s surface, but also up and down to vary the pressure on the tip. A character like 大 (dai or ōkii) for example ends with a thick stoke called 啄 (taku) or 右はらい (migi-harai), made by first pushing down more firmly on the brush while moving to the right.
The thing to keep in mind is that all kanji, regardless of their number of strokes, must be of uniform height and width. A character of three strokes like 土 (tsuchi or do, earth) and one of, say 21 strokes like 鶴 (tsuru, crane), should occupy roughly the same dimensions. Until you get the hang of it, it may be helpful to crease the calligraphy paper into quarters or eighths.
So now you’re ready to start. But what to write? Your mailing address? A poem? The name of the prime minister? You might want to practice with the eight-stroke character 永 (ei, permanence), which from antiquity was adopted as the prototypical model for calligraphers, because its composition was believed to incorporate all the essential elements for refining one’s technique.
Gain a mastery of the 永字八法 (eijihappō, or eight principles of ei), it is said, and you’ll be on your way to becoming an accomplished brushman.
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