Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Handwriting Club

I have learned that there are many clubs on campus: two English clubs, a sports club, a math club, a photography club and a chess club among others. I am active in both English clubs for obvious reasons, but the other clubs escape me. Some I simply don’t have an interest in and others I can’t participate in because of my limited language ability.

One club that I am decidedly interested in is the handwriting club. This group of students learns the history of their language by studying and practicing calligraphy.

When I say ‘calligraphy’ I do not mean the quill pens used in the sets you can buy in hobby stores anywhere in America. I am referring to the age-old writing of Chinese characters, using a bamboo and horsehair or sable brush and black ink.

To properly write traditional Chinese ideograms in this manner, you need to first fold the paper into large squares so that you can find your margins. Then you unfold this hyper-thin, see-through paper and place it on a matrix. You paint the characters within the matrix squares, from top right of the page to bottom left. To effectively use the viscous black ink you pour a little out of the bottle onto a stone with a creviced rim, dip the tip of your brush into the ink that is in the crevice and roll it on the flat stone until the brush tip achieves a nice, fine point. You are then ready to address the paper, fluently recording ideogram after ideogram.

The correct way to draw a Chinese character is from left to right, top to bottom and inside to outside. Individual Chinese characters can have anywhere from one to twenty brushstrokes. To watch a calligraphy artist draw characters is to behold an exercise of meticulous detail, precisely executed.

The kids in the Handwriting Club are not that meticulous; they have only been studying this ancient type of calligraphy for a few months. Bear in mind that writing Chinese characters with an ink pen is certainly not the same as writing with a brush. Pens are more forgiving. I have seen calligraphy artists in Xi’an execute flawless scrolls with characters no more than an inch tall. The kids in this club, for the most part, have only been holding a calligraphy brush since they joined the club on campus.

Pixie and Tony, two members of the Calligraphy Club asked me to participate in a celebration their club recently feted. They wanted me to harangue them about the difference between Western and Eastern writing. There would also be a poetry reading – I read a short Chinese verse, translated into English and the attendees would repeat it after me. Then, they would guess what poem I was reciting. The third event involved balloon popping: a set of five balloons on a ribbon were loosely tied around the participants’ right ankle. The players then have one minute to attempt to pop other participant’s balloons. The one with the most intact balloons after that minute was declared the winner. Finally, there would be a calligraphy demonstration, led by the club leader.

I was honored to join them in this celebration. As it turns out I have a huge interest both in Chinese calligraphy and in handwriting.

Handwriting is a dying art. Think about it: how often do you write anything anymore? Other than maybe signing your name, that is. Do you still write letters to loved ones? Do you write in a diary? What about grocery lists? Most of our writing is electronic nowadays. We type everything: emails, to-do lists, even diaries take the form of blogs.

As recently as 30 years ago the Palmer Method of writing was actively taught in schools. Nowadays few schools embrace it, expecting instead double-spaced, Arial-font documents to be turned in or emailed to the teacher. My grandson’s third-grade class is not learning the Palmer Method; they are teaching him block writing instead. See what I mean about handwriting being a dying art?

I thought I had plenty to tell these kids in the Handwriting Club. Namely that what they are doing by learning calligraphy is nothing short of preserving their culture. That, because simplified Chinese ideograms are taking the place of traditional characters, that such a change meant that their language and culture is evolving.

Whereas a foreigner like me, studying their language and culture can make sense of the traditional character for ‘sun’ because it looks like the sun, the simplified character does not even remotely resemble the sun. The traditional character for ‘vehicle’, logical in its composition, helps a beginner understand that that text has something to do with transportation, but the simplified rendition 车 bears absolutely no resemblance to a vehicle. It leaves a foreigner like me, studying their language, completely in the dark.

Years from now, when archeologists dig up hand-written documents in any language, what will their reaction be? In a few decades, will anyone know how to hold a pen and execute a series of words? What about the science of graphoanalysis, the method of ‘reading’ a person’s character by examining a sample of their handwriting? Will that too become a dead science?

Thus, the importance of the Handwriting Club. These kids will be around when the next scroll, written by Confucius is unearthed. They will be able to decipher what the great scholars of their country have set forth for posterity. They will perhaps teach their children the importance of handwriting, and maybe even motivate their fellow countrymen to not forget the beauty of their language as depicted in scrolls.

And in the West? Are we going to let handwriting become a dying art?

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