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Instant calligraphy - but is it just a fad or the future of the art form?

It was an incredible experience - Paul Cavanagh from Australia created his own piece of calligraphy just a couple of minutes after watching the demonstration by Chen Xiang, a Chinese calligraphy teacher.

Cavanagh had never tried Chinese calligraphy before and his first inglorious attempt was something that looked like it came from a kindergarten.

"I had seen calligraphy in exhibitions and I always wondered how they could get those wide strokes with such a small brush," Cavanagh says. "When I was asked to have a look at Chen's calligraphy I thought I would give it a try."

Traditionally good calligraphy comes from long and arduous training and practice. Many calligraphers begin working on their art when they are very young and carry on practising it throughout their entire lives.

But for Chen Xiang, this art form should be accessible to anyone, even those who cannot read or write Chinese.

"I know it might sound unbelievable," says the 36-year-old. "But the truth is that everyone can learn Chinese calligraphy in 30 hours. The result will be the same as someone who has undertaken five years of painstaking practice in the traditional Chinese calligraphy teaching system."

After 15 years of study and exercise, Chen invented an innovative Chinese calligraphy teaching method called "The Four Strengths Method." This lets the strength of the eyes, fingers, wrists and arms flow correctly to create the art.

"Traditional calligraphy teaching seems like a process of 'simplicity to complexity'," he says. "Too many people give up because it takes many years of dedicated practice. What I am trying to do is to keep the art simple and straight forward."

A native of Qingyuan, Zhejiang Province, Chen has been honored by UNESCO as a Chinese folk art master. He has been a calligraphy mentor for Chinese educational television. His works attract increasing attention from collectors at home and abroad.

To promote and popularize Chinese calligraphy, Chen recently opened a demonstration center in collaboration with Talking China. The center offers calligraphy courses and workshops.

"The unique Chinese calligraphic art should not be a fading tradition," Chen says. "Chinese people have a responsibility to help it survive in the computer age."

Chen's affinity with Chinese calligraphy began when he was in military service in the 1990s. At first he followed the traditional teaching system, but later he decided to teach himself the art.

"I find that good calligraphy begins with the ability to observe, and then to control and manipulate the brush," Chen says. "Before writing, it is necessary to spend some time staring at the characters from a copybook of calligraphy."

Chinese characters are different from foreign alphabets in their strokes, structure and shape. Various changes in intensity, density, thickness of point and line represent different emotions.

Chen says good calligraphy always emphasizes the harmony of structure, the proper balance and rhythm of characters.

"The most beautiful Chinese characters are usually written in the shape of triangles and diamonds," he says.

Cavanagh and Chen's other students are taught to position the character's shape with four dots at first, representing the top, bottom, left and right sides. They are taught to create a pleasing balance with the characters on the paper, using thick and thin lines, and heavy and light shading. His method also stresses concentration when practising calligraphy.

"It means that the mind of the calligrapher should not be disturbed by the outside," Chen explains. "His thoughts should remain pure, indifferent to fame or gain. But this is not easy to achieve in a bustling city."

Rich culture

Cavanagh says that "The Four Strengths Method" is really logical for him. This special experience has also encouraged him to explore in more depth the rich culture that China has to offer.

"I consider it not a 'short-cut' teaching method but a logical method of learning the basics of the fine art of Chinese calligraphy in a short amount of time," he adds. "Once the basics are learned then it requires a lot of practice to master it - as always 'practice makes perfect.'"

Over the past years, Chen's calligraphy teaching has been enriched through his experience as a volunteer teacher in rural areas. He taught many poor students Chinese calligraphy, which helped them build up their confidence and personality.

As well as expats who are very interested in Chinese culture, his courses have also attracted many local white-collar workers.

"Because of my tight working schedule, it was a luxury for me to learn how to create beautiful calligraphy," says Chen Yan, a 20-something public relations employee. "Using Chen's method, I can achieve satisfying results in a few hours, which is very encouraging for my future study."

From September, Chinese calligraphy will be officially added to the local primary and middle school curriculum, which is reflecting increasing public concerns about the preservation of this age-old art form.

Chen finds this a perfect time to promote his method. However, some calligraphers who stick with traditional calligraphy teaching systems have doubts.

Some people even associate it with Li Yang's "Crazy English" teaching method, which encourages students to shout phrases out loudly, quickly, repeatedly, even with hand gestures, stressing pronunciation.

The famous calligrapher and painter Liu Qi says there is no short-cut to the art. Liu's students are taught to practise at least eight hours a day and spend a lot of time reading Chinese classics on philosophy, literature and sociology to improve their aesthetic taste and general understanding.

In his opinion, calligraphy reveals one's personality. Although the long hours of practice are challenging for everybody, the art will eventually provide the students with peace and tranquility in their hearts.

Traditional essence

"Like Chinese opera and martial arts, Chinese calligraphy is one of the 'traditional essences'," Liu says. "The art has such a profound meaning and artistic conception. Chen's method can only grasp some of the basic skills of calligraphy and achieve 'a shape likeness,' but cannot reach its spirit and rich connotations."

He explains that the highly skilled Chinese calligraphy expresses the artist's ideas through the way the ink is applied to the paper. The practice is described as "the ink holds five colors" and can only be achieved by a student after more than 10 years' constant practice.

Liu's words are echoed by Qiu Zhonglin, a local white-collar worker who is enthusiastic about Chinese culture and history.

"You could never rely on a 'fast-food' way of teaching to reach and inherit the true essence of Chinese calligraphy," says Qiu. "In fact, this abstract and sublime form of art requires an imagination and freedom of creation and not just some written tips."

Chen is calm in the face of controversy about his method, saying that it needs a long time to have new things accepted by the public. "My teaching center is not motivated by profit, but a strong desire to spread Chinese culture globally," he adds. "And Chinese people also have a responsibility to improve their calligraphy."

So far Chen has helped more than 70 Chinese children from poverty-stricken areas. He says that some of the revenue from his teaching center will go to charity.


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