Here is a photo of me sitting with Grand Master Kajita Esshuu, having a chat about my upcoming Master Instructor exams in Japanese and Chinese calligraphy in one of his Japanese calligraphy studios in Tokyo. It has been a long journey up to this point, but a very colorful one. I am extremely lucky and very grateful to have found such an amazing teacher. Over the years we have become very close, and now I think of him more as of my grandfather, than just a teacher. I have 4 mandatory subject for the exam in 4 Chinese calligraphy scripts. Two of them are copies of the Chinese classics, and two are works that have set phrases to be written, but one has to write them applying his one calligraphy style. I will follow this up in my next article in details, so you can have a sneak peek into the world of brush and ink.
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Photo by Jenny Ponte
Copying Chinese calligraphy classics is the main way of studying Chinese calligraphy, and it has been practiced for over 3500 years. In this video I am copying a short fragment from a 4th century classic by the calligraphy sage Wang Xizhi. It is a text of Heart Sutra in semi cursive script. If you wish to learn more about Chinese calligraphy, its history, classics, great Masters and masterpieces, feel free to visit learning section on my website. To view my Japanese and Chinese calligraphy portfolio, see here.
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Wang Xizhi (王羲之, 303 - 361) - the Sage of Calligraphy and possibly the greatest Chinese calligrapher that has ever lived. His masterpieces are often a great challenge, as his skills with the brush were unreal. The most striking thing for me is his unbelievable sense of the balance in writing, combined with an extremely intuitive ability of adjusting shape of the characters so they fit together, but at the same time pushing that harmony to the limits of distortion. A true genius artistic indeed. Here is a short video that I captured during my daily Chinese calligraphy studies, I am copying a 興福寺断碑 (Xingfusi duanbei), which is a calligraphy text composed in 721 C.E. out of characters in semi-cursive script (行書) taken from various masterpieces by Wang Xizhi. I have another video of me copying the same classic, but I am using a different brush holding technique, you can see this video on my YouTube channel, here. If you want to learn more about Chinese calligraphy, please see the section of this website with learning materials.
Kūkai (空海, 774 - 835) is one of the most celebrated calligraphy Masters of ancient Japan. He was a Buddhist monk known as Kōbō-Daishi (弘法大師, i.e. The Grand Master Who Propagated the Buddhist Teaching). He was also a skilled poet, artist, and engineer. He was also the founder of Shingon Esoteric sect of Buddhism.
It is also Kūkai who is said to be the creator of Japanese kana syllabary, which is one of the writing systems used in Japan until the present day (aside kanji), although it was never clearly confirmed by the historians and researchers. According to legends, Kūkai composed the famous Iroha poem, which is still in use for educational purposes in Japanese schools. Iroha contains all hiragana characters, but none of them is repeated. Its text reads:
Although its scent still lingers on the form of a flower has scattered away For whom will the glory of this world remain unchanged? Arriving today at the yonder side of the deep mountains of evanescent existence We shall never allow ourselves to drift away intoxicated, in the world of shallow dreams.
(translation by Professor Professor Ryuichi Abe)
Kūkai was travelling to China and spent there 20 years of his life. His knowledge and skill in Chinese calligraphy was outstanding. His writing style (書風) was heavily influenced by the masterpieces of Wang Xizhi (王羲之, 303–361), the calligraphy sage. He brought back with him many Chinese classics upon his return to Japan in 806 C.E.
Kūkai, together with Emperor Saga (嵯峨天皇, 786–842) and Tachibana no Hayanari (橘逸勢 c. 782-842) was one of the initiators of the Japanese style in calligraphy, referred to as wayō shodoō (和様書道). Those three gentlemen are know today as "three brushes" (三筆) of the Heiyan period (平安時代, 794 - 1185).
The above two calligraphy works are my humble coipies of the famous "Letter carried by the wind" (風信帖), which was a series of letters written to another Buddhist monk, Saichō (最澄, 767 - 822), the founder of Tendai (天台宗) Japanese school of Mahayana Buddhism. "Letter carried by the wind" is a national Japanese treasure, and it is often used for calligraphy studies in Japan. It style is a brilliant blend of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy styles, of which analysis can only enrich one's skills and horizons.
See the Chinese and Japanese calligraphy history section to read more.
The above work is my copy of one of the masterpieces by Wu Dacheng (呉大澂, 1835-1902). This work is entitled "Red crane spring bronze pillar engraving" (白鶴泉銘銅柱銘), and it is written in seal script (篆書), or more precisely small seal script, which is one of the five major scripts in Chinese calligraphy. The original calligraphy was cast into one of the Zhou Dynasty (周朝, 1046 – 256 B.C.E.) bronze vessels (c. 5th century B.C.E.).
Wu Dacheng started to learn Chinese calligraphy att a young age, and at the age of 17 he began his studies of seal script under Chen Huan (陳奐, 1786-1863). In later years, the seal script and seal carving, which is an art form closely related to seal script, became his specialty. Like many of the calligraphers of the Imperial China, Wu Dacheng was a politician, serving, among other posts, as governor of Guangdong Province.
Masterpieces by Wu Dacheng are used today for advanced calligraphy studies of this ancient script. His seal script is simply outstanding. Seal script is not only a crucial script for researching and understanding the etymology of Chinese characters, but alo invaluable for advancing in one`s technique of writing.
I purposely used a long hair (5cm) thin (0.4cm) brush, to increase a difficulty of writing, and slow down the pace. Each line ought to be written with utmost care and concentration. If the focus is lost, the line will reveal the weaknesses of a calligrapher.
To your left, you see a character 書 (to write / calligraphy) written in small seal script (小篆) by the Master Wu Dacheng himself.
To view this work in a larger format, please visit my coloured paper caligraphy gallery.
Ponte Ryuurui (品天龍涙)