Behind the Brushstrokes: Discovering Calligraphy

by Zach Gorman | 9/27/17 2:35am

Chinese is, by far, the most common native language in the world: about 15 percent of the world’s population learned a form of Chinese as their first language. Calligraphy, the stylistic presentation of handwriting or lettering, is ingrained in China’s appreciation of its language and spirituality. In the United States, however, Chinese scripts are often relegated to regrettable, poorly-translated back tattoos.

Wen Xing, professor of Asian and Middle Eastern languages and literatures, is changing that one brushstroke at a time. Xing’s course Chinese 62.01, “Chinese Calligraphy,” teaches students the fundamentals of the ancient Chinese art of calligraphy.

The course emphasizes the importance of brush technique in creating meaningful calligraphy with Chinese characters. In Xing’s eyes, brush technique is what separates true calligraphy from other graceful presentations of Chinese characters.

“The brush technique is the key,” he said. “It is the decisive element for doing calligraphy. Calligraphy is different from character writing. People who use a soft brush to write Chinese characters do not necessarily understand how to do calligraphy.”

This distinction may seem trivial, but it makes a world of difference in Chinese art. While most written characters are simple communication, calligraphy interprets a higher power.

“All the basic ideas and all the fundamental techniques are based on the idea of the Yin and the Yang,” Xing said. “Writing characters beautifully, like you would on a newspaper or in a book, can be very neat, very beautiful and regular, but they do not have such Yin and Yang cosmology.”

Despite Xing’s spiritual connection to Chinese culture and calligraphy, he is understanding of students who are new to the course’s content. Hailey Nicholson ’19, who took Xing’s calligraphy class during her sophomore summer, had never received formal calligraphic training and knew no Chinese prior to the course.

“[Xing] was really good about working with people to their level and giving a wide variety of the amount of commitment needed,” Nicholson said. “I was really worried going into the course speaking no Chinese, but one of the first things he said was that some of the most successful people in the course have spoken no Chinese.”

A perfect example of that is Mary Clemens-Sewall ’20. Clemens-Sewall, who has never studied Chinese, was swiftly able to achieve the calligraphic effects that are widely appreciated in Chinese culture.

“I thought that ideally the ink would be very dark on the parchment, and it would almost be as if it were printed,” Clemens-Sewall said.

However, she found that on some occasions the ink and water mixed to create a lighter, watercolor-like appearance on the parchment. She initially regarded those attempts as mistakes, but Xing thought otherwise.

“He was explaining that this was valued in Chinese calligraphy because it incorporates the dark and the light together, which is the same principle as Yin and Yang, that there’s this balance,” she said. “It comes closer to truth than having one or the other. He was very generous with his expertise and advice. I felt very encouraged.”

Roanna Wang ’13, who took two courses at Dartmouth with Xing and attended a Chinese foreign study program led by Xing, echoes the positive sentiments about the professor.

“He really cares about his students, so when he teaches he listens to you and really tries to work with you to help with whatever you need,” Wang said. “But he’s also very interesting and he likes to share his passions with the students.”

After her graduation, Wang’s design of three ancient Chinese scripts were chosen by Xing to display in an exhibition of Chinese calligraphy and manuscript art.

Though Xing harbors a great deal of reverence for Chinese calligraphic traditions, he pursues novel ideas in the field as well. Of particular note is fractal calligraphy, a new form of art pioneered by Xing. Fractals, geometrical models in which intricate patterns repeat themselves at progressively smaller scales, are used as the basis for this nascent calligraphic style.

Due to fractals’ endless repetition of patterns, Xing believes that fractal calligraphy is properly made only with specialized computer software.

“Real fractal calligraphy has to be produced by a computer with certain algorithms and software based upon traditional Chinese calligraphy,” Xing explained. “When I envisioned this kind of digital age art form, I was very excited. But it was very difficult to really produce an actual piece of real fractal calligraphy. But after many tries and studying many things online on YouTube, I was able to successfully produce fractal Chinese calligraphy.”

Addison Lee ’17 outlined the different types of fractal Chinese calligraphy that students have made.

“Some of us used Chinese characters as the seed element, the repeating element, of the fractal,” she said. “With some people their creativity was in another way, where they had a fractal pattern in the background and on top of that they put some Chinese characters in a balanced arrangement.”

During the spring term of 2017, Lee designed a fractal-based Chinese character representing Dao, the Chinese philosophical concept which Xing described as “the way of the universe.”

According to Xing, Lee’s work is the “perfect demonstration of both the art of fractal calligraphy and the understanding of the universe.”

Xing presented Lee’s fractal calligraphy at the fifth annual conference of the World Association of Chinese Character Studies in China in September 2017.

Underlying his artistic talent and support for his students, Xing has a substantial goal in mind. A primary purpose of his work, he said, is to foster an understanding of Chinese culture in students who are accustomed to Western life.

“I’m offering a new perspective to the Western students,” Xing said. “To tell them how ancient Chinese people, and also most Chinese people today, view this universe.”

Xing believes his art goes beyond the visual realm.

“The one very important thing I teach is the intellectual context of Chinese calligraphy, which is Chinese cosmology,” he said. “I always say Chinese calligraphy is not just a form of art. It is a cosmology. It is a philosophy.”