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Master stroke: Teaching Chinese calligraphy in public schools

IN China, one's handwriting or calligraphy is said to reveal one's essence and personality. It was always thus, and today it is still widely believed that one's handwriting reveals one's character.

Calligraphy is said to contain the essence of Chinese culture, so it's much more than penmanship.

The ability to write proper characters, however, is declining in the general population, as is the art of calligraphy.

Consequently, these days it's difficult to read one's personality from his or her hand. Handwriting skills are declining, while computer skills are in high demand.

Nowadays, for example, a highly educated person with an excellent job and good character may have dreadful calligraphy. (In the past, bad calligraphy often indicated flawed character).

Good calligraphy takes lots of time and arduous practice - masters say it takes a lifetime - but time and patience are in short supply in this rapidly evolving society.

Computers also make good handwriting virtually unnecessary. You can even choose different fonts to express different moods and styles.

White-collar professional Lindsay Liu, in her 30s, says she sometimes forgets characters, so she types the pinyin into her computer and gets the Chinese word.

Most public schools don't teach calligraphy the way they used to, though some still do (even some kindergartens), and many offer after-school practice.

Because of concerns for the loss of calligraphy and culture, the Shanghai Education Commission is mandating at least one half-hour of formal calligraphy every week in primary and middle schools beginning in September. That's the minimum.

"This will be really helpful," says Rebecca Wu, who has a 12-year-old son. "The characters my son writes are terribly ugly."

"I first fell in love with calligraphy because of the beautiful and fluent Chinese characters written by my husband," recalls Wu. "I admired his calligraphy, through which I could tell that this man would be responsible and romantic. Sounds incredible? But actually, he is. Then you can imagine my disappointment with my son's calligraphy."

At one time, maybe 30 years ago, people with good calligraphy had a much better chance of getting hired (especially when resumes were hand written). It indicated a level of education and possible refinement.

Every company needed someone with good handwriting. In the days when jobs were assigned, they got "good" jobs. People with good calligraphy could make a freelance living writing reports, essays and resumes.

Since you supposedly can tell a lot by someone's "hand," a woman would definitely examine her boyfriend's handwriting before getting serious. Like Wu, she would look for signs of stability, generosity and responsibility. Some men asked friends with good handwriting to write on their behalf to their girlfriends.

The way one writes is as important as what one writes. Intensity, width of stroke, fluidity, the character of points, the density of ink, and use of space - all convey meaning.

Good calligraphy is so rare these days that some ambitious parents enroll their children in special, grueling classes so they can add calligraphy to other extracurricular activities like playing the violin, studying Olympic math, martial arts and so on - skills that will impress college admission committees.

The fast pace of life today, easy digital communication, and values that do not emphasize personal cultivation leave little time or space for calligraphy. There's little incentive, little passion.

"Chinese calligraphy is doomed to fade away," says Xu Ke, an IT professional in his 30s. "We have to accept the fact, as part of the society's overall improvement. For me, it has been such a long time since I wrote on paper."

Yao Yi'en, a senior editor at Yao Wen Jiao Zi, a magazine known for picking up grammar mistakes in media, shares that view.

Not so fun

"Calligraphy is the essence of Chinese culture, and the loss of calligraphy almost amounts to the loss of tradition, a tragedy for Chinese people," Yao laments.

"It's sad that today many parents and students are not aware of this. In their eyes, practicing piano or learning Olympic mathematics are more important than writing good calligraphy," says the 80-year-old.

For children just picking up a brush, calligraphy seems like fun.

"It's really interesting at first," says nine-year-old Xu Wenwen. "But it's not so fun to repeat the same strokes again and again."

Only artists and intellectuals write with a brush on rice paper these days, yet good calligraphy is widely recognized as the basis for writing with a pen, ballpoint pen or pencil.

"Frankly speaking, I don't like the idea of teaching calligraphy," says Jay Zhou, a 40-something white-collar worker who has a 10-year-old daughter.

"What does good calligraphy stand for? Culture and tradition? Nonsense! A person who can write good calligraphy doesn't necessarily have a profound grasp of Chinese culture. That learning should involve many things, including reading, listening and writing," Zhou adds.

China's current examination-oriented education system, in effect, discourages calligraphy, since good calligraphy generally won't guarantee a student get into university.

Zhou observes rather cynically, "I'm sure there are children's calligraphy competitions and the winners will get extra points for high school or university admission."

An employee of the Shanghai Education Commission, who declined to give her name, says there's already calligraphy practice after school and a weekly half-hour class "isn't very meaningful."

Learning calligraphy should be natural, she says. "Good writing on homework is one way to improve calligraphy - what happens after school is very important."

The parents' positive attitude toward calligraphy is also important, she says, and they can inspire interest in the charisma of calligraphy.

"Children are naturally impatient and naughty. No one loves sitting for an hour and writing with a brush," she says. They need guidance and examples from their parents.

"In fact, it is the adults who should reconsider what should be taught. Teaching respect for and love of Chinese culture are responsibilities of the entire society," says the education commission employee. Different Strokes For Different Folks

There are five major styles of Chinese calligraphy and each is said to reflect certain personal characteristics. Writing can be deliberate or freehand and fluid, wide or narrow, smooth or angular. Characters can be open or crowded.

Certain attributes are often inferred from style, like boldness, generosity, open-mindedness, rigidity, timidity, stability and creativity.

Children are usually taught the Standard script, or Kai Shu.

Standard script 楷书

Kai Shu. Recommended for beginners because it requires patience and will power. Writers are considered peaceful, stable and mature, but they often lack creativity and imagination.

Clerical script 隶书

Li Shu. Round and smooth, with a heavy start, soft running and a deliberate end. It is said to represent even temperament and tolerance. Writers are considered traditional. They can acknowledge new things but rarely change their opinions.

Seal script 篆书

Zhuan Shu. Characters are wide and flat, closely placed, with few angles. Writers are said to be introverted.

Semi-cursive script 行书

Xing Shu. No fixed font. Writing flows or runs, which is said to indicate pursuit of freedom and individual expression. A writer creates his or her own style. Writers are said to have broad vision and a big heart.

Cursive script 草书

Cao Shu. No fixed font. Considered the top level of Chinese calligraphy. Requires a perfect combination of skills and temperament. Writers are said to be independent, free-spirited or even wild, above mundane affairs.


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