“Be a scribe in order that your limbs may grow smooth and your hands soft, that you may walk abroad in a white robe and that men of importance may great you with respect… the profession of scribe is more profitable than any other profession. It makes you exempt from manual labor. There is no need to carry a hoe, a pickaxe or a basket, or to row a boat. Your life will be free from care.”?
-Ancient Egyptian Instructor
To me, a 45 year old “laowai” from the United States, learning Mandarin is actually four times harder then learning English. Take the word “da,” for example. The word “da” has four meanings in Chinese depending on your inflection and pronunciation. “Da” can mean “to answer” and “to hit” and “to hang onto something” or just “big.”. And if spoken Chinese isn’t hard enough – there are over 80,000 written Chinese characters to our 26 letters of the alphabet. Not only are there over 80,000 Chinese characters- the strokes of each individual character are supposed to be written in the “correct” order. Help!
Yes, the 1994 Zhonghua Zihai dictionary reveals that the Chinese language has some 85,568 characters. Some Chinese characters have up to 10 strokes. Yikes! Sometimes, I wish there were just 26 Chinese characters- it would be so much easier. “21st Century”, is the young reader supplement from CHINA DAILY newspaper in Beijing. An article in the “opinion” section of the 21st Century said that there is a movement to change from Chinese-Simplified characters to Chinese-Traditional characters. The article also mentioned that some Chinese-Traditional characters are made up of up to 50 strokes each!
As an English Teacher at Jilin Normal University, I have received some free formal training through Chinese lessons furnished by the University and help and encouragement from my students. My progress has been slow but steady as I can utter basic words, phrases as sentences. I am seeing the most progress in my written Chinese which I more or less have taught myself through the use of flash cards that I bought in Guangzhou. After a year or so, I can recognize maybe 1200 characters and can write about 500 characters. The best part of learning how to write Chinese is that a page of Chinese characters no longer looks like a Chinese eye chart. I speak very little Chinese, can write some Chinese and I am going to take up….Chinese calligraphy? Yes, Chinese calligraphy!
The fine art of calligraphy seems to be the perfect remedy to enhance my grasp of the Chinese language, especially the written characters. My instructor is very patient and insightful, as I am just starting to realize what a monumental undertaking I am about to begin. The administration office asked just two questions to make me realize how little I knew about the task before me. 1) What style of calligraphy would you like to study? (Grass? Standard? Seal? Running?) 2) Do you want to learn brush calligraphy or pen and ink? I may be an expert “lao-shi” in the English language, but I am a novice “xue-sheng” in the Chinese fine arts.
One reason I took up calligraphy is that I thought it would be fun. By contrast, rote memorization of the basics of any language can get stale and time-consuming compared to the elegance of calligraphy. At my first lesson, I stood amazed as the “master” applied his trade. I had no idea that the canvas is every bit as important as the size, shape and type of brush. Some art canvases looked like Chinese gift wrapping paper. Other sheets were made of white linen with a background of golden dragons.
The reaction in the community to a foreigner like me studying calligraphy has been very positive. Virtually everyone I spoke to from Chinese college students to white-collar.professionals gave the exact same story about struggling to learn calligraphy as part of their grade school curriculum. Many are impressed that a foreign English teacher would actually want to attempt to master this beautiful, intricate, yet difficult art.
With time, effort and lots of patience I will soon be making beautiful flowing pictures of ancient and modern Chinese characters from the Song Dynasty to present. Taian and Mount Taishan are located in Shandong Province, home of renowned statesman and scholar Confucius (551 B.C- 479 B.C). To try and master the language of the Middle Kingdom, which has been around for over 5,000 years, is indeed humbling. I can envision logging countless hours and days striving to master my new labour of love. As I strive to perfect the ancient art of calligraphy I will keep in mind what Confucius once said, “The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones”.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is an edited version of an article first published here