Hello there! For those of you who have not read my previous posts, my name is Cynthia, and I am one of Pan Asian Repertory Theatre's administrative interns. In preparation for our world premiere production of Three Trees, I have been working on a Three Trees study guide for our school matinee program. In these guides, we include background information on historical and cultural aspects of the plays. When I first read the script, I knew that I wanted to write about calligraphy.
In Three Trees, Surrealist sculpture Alberto Giacometti receives a calligraphy set from one of his models, Japanese existential philosopher Isaku Yanaihara. Giacometti's wife, Annette, later borrows the set to create characters of her own and shows them to Isaku. Impressed by her work, Isaku teaches her some actual Japanese characters for music that, "written or spoken...[are] like music itself."
This scene stood out in my mind because calligraphy so different from sculpture and drawing, the art forms present throughout the rest of the play. So I let my enthusiasm for the topic lead me to finish researching and writing about calligraphy first.
Originating from the Greek words kallos for "beauty" and graphe for "writing", calligraphy is the art of beautiful writing. This ancient art form is held in high regard in Japan, where primary school students are required to shodo (Japanese calligraphy). However, Japan is not the birth place of Far Eastern calligraphy.
Over three thousand years ago, the Chinese first carved pictographs into tortoise shells and cow bones during religious ceremonies. They soon began etching these same symbols into bronze and other metals. This large collection of pictographs formed the first Chinese character script, daiten, or greater seal script. This character script was further standardized and, by the Ch'in dynasty, became known as shoten (lesser seal script). Under the Han Dynasty, shoten evolved into reisho (scribe's script), which first reached Japan early in the Common Era. By the fifth century CE, the Japanese were exposed to all reisho characters (which they call kanji, or Han writing) as well as the three Chinese character scripts that followed: sosho (grass script), kaisho (standard script) and gyosho (running script). The latter three character scripts are among the major styles of Japanese calligraphy.
Kaisho calligraphy is the simplest but most popular form of shodo. With its rectangular strokes, it is the easiest style to read. Those who learn to write in Japanese begin by learning kaisho, including elementary school students in Japan. Comfort with this style is necessary to begin learning gyosho, the semi-cursive style learned in Japanese junior high schools. Rounder and softer than kaisho, gyosho is still fairly easy to read and is in fact the easiest style to write.
Sosho, on the other hand, is difficult to both read and write. In this cursive style, each character consists of as few continuous strokes as possible. Once mastered, sosho is the fastest form of Japanese writing. This style is taught in Japanese high school calligraphy electives and by universities with calligraphy departments.
While these styles of shodo vary greatly in appearance and difficulty, they are all created using the same basic calligraphy tools, the Four Treasures. The first of these Treasures is the brush, or fude. Traditionally, Japanese calligraphy brushes consist of bamboo bodies and animal hair heads. However, even more modern brushes are the preferred writing utensil for shodo because they best capture the style of Japanese characters. They are also said to become a living extension of the soul, establishing the mind-body connection sought by working calligraphers. However, those who consider shodo a mere hobby may think calligraphy pens are suitable substitutes for brushes.
Inkstones, on other hand, are indispensable. Whether the suzuri is made of ceramic, clay or actual stone, the inkstone holds a pool of ink in its depression. On the higher surfaces of the suzuri, one can grind soot ink sticks to make his or her own ink.
This meditative process produces ink that is said to be more durable than store-bought varieties. When such ink is applied to strong, absorbent paper that beautifully blurs the ink, the result is a masterpiece, majestic in its simplicity.
To witness such art come to life onstage, come and see Three Trees, which will play from March 23 through April 14, 2013 at the West End Theatre.
If you simply cannot wait until the spring, watch this great calligraphers at work in this playlist.
To get started on your own calligraphic masterpieces, take a look at this YouTube user's videos.
For more information on Pan Asian Repertory Theatre's school matinee program, click here.