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Calligraphy Workshop Participants Take a Trip Through Chinese History

Arthur Fanyan, Lecturer in the School of Asian Studies, teaches a workshop participant how to write the character for ‘dragon.’

Arthur Fanyan, Lecturer in the School of Asian Studies, teaches a workshop participant how to write the character for ‘dragon.’

‘Calligraphy and painting are two arts that have different names, but are one and the same,’ wrote Chinese art historian Zhang Yanyuan. Participants of the School of Asian Studies’ lecture and workshop ‘The Magic of Chinese Characters and the Secret of Calligraphy,’ which took place at the State Museum of Oriental Art as part of the Open University project, were able to witness this firsthand.

‘Renowned Chinese calligraphy Wang Xizhi said: 'Ink, flowing from the brush, pouring out onto the paper, gives form to the formless.' Calligraphy is a style of feeling, a reflection of the outside world. Unraveling the meaning of characters as a higher experience is, in my opinion, what the great art of calligraphy is all about,’ Alexey Maslov, Head of the HSE School of Asian Studies, said at a lecture that preceded the workshop. He also discussed the lesser known aspects of the history of Chinese characters, as well as normative calligraphy and the particular styles of this type of art.

‘A character is beautiful not when it is aesthetically beautiful; much more important is the condition in which a person writes the character. In this way, standardization in the 10th century takes on an enlightened understanding,’ Alexey Maslov added. The moment a union is forged between the creator and the observer looking at the creation is very important.

Before writing standards were introduced, calligraphy was evaluated on a like-dislike basis. The first collection of standard and nonstandard writing was put together under Emperor Taizong in 992 and was called the Calligraphy Copybook of Chunhua Temple. This is also when the first signs were selected as standard models, and they were subsequently copied. The collection included several thousand works.

Calligraphy is gradually becoming not only a good for connoisseurs, but also a method for thought and meditation, Alexey Maslov said. Though the first works on calligraphic meditation date back to at least the 5th century during the Tang dynasty, it is in the 10th century in particular that they started to be mass produced. It was also during this period that calligraphy masters first appeared with students lining up to study under them. A master was not able to teach more than six or seven people at the same time, however. The 10th century was also when the first calligraphic copybooks and textbooks came about. Calligraphy acquired a meaning that still remains to this day – it is a type of art as well as a subject for admiration and a way of finding a hidden and secret meaning.

After some theoretical preparation, workshop participants were able to try drawing Chinese characters on paper themselves. They were aided by the head of the workshop, Arthur Fanyan, who is a Lecturer in the School of Asian Studies. He emphasized that every aspect of this art form is important, from organizing your workspace and environment (silence is ideal) to the quality of your ink and the tip of your brush. ‘Today, calligraphy is the most accessible time machine we’ve got. You sit behind your scroll with ink and a brush sure that you just worked fifteen minutes, when in actuality, you worked for several hours,’ Arthur Fanyan warned participants.

Aleksey Maslov, Head of the School of Asian Studies

Quality colored ink generally consists of natural ingredients and minerals, such as ocher, cadmium, and others. It is best to use a separate ink slab and a separate brush for each color to avoid mixing tones.

Everything is important when writing Chinese characters, right up to the order in which you form lines, as well as how many of them you write. Starting out, it is important to keep an eye on the width of lines before trying to perfect curves. You get bright and wet characters if you move slowly and control the pressure on the brush. But a Chinese person pays most attention to the movement of your brush against the paper – tiny marks from the brush’s bristles, or a line that breaks slightly before continuing on.

Calligraphy workshop participants

The ‘four jewels’ of a master’s workroom are a brush, paper, ink, and an ink slab. Experts advise against changing out your brush in the first month. Within this timeframe, a beginner is able to get used to his tool. Those who are just starting out use the softest brush made from goat hair. For shorthand, you’d use a brush made from rabbit fur.

Participants starting to work with liquid ink and ink sets. Paper is also very important. The standard size is 130 cm x 65 cm.

Workshop participants practicing writing characters slowly and attentively. Calligraphy does not require speed.

Certificates and prizes were given to the winners of the calligraphy competition that took place at the Higher School of Economics. For seven months, students of the university-wide open course on Chinese writing and calligraphy delved into the subtleties of the art of elegant writing under the guidance of Arthur Fanyan. The winners of the competition included students from the Asian Studies programme: sophomores Bogdan Ganshin (1st place), Alexei Kotlov (2nd place), Sofia Lysenko (4th place), Anastasia Surkova (6th place); juniors Angelina Starikova (2nd place) and Dashima Badmayeva (3rd place, pictured); freshman Elizaveta Muromtseva (5th place); as well as a junior in the World Economy programme, Anna Zotova (3rd place).

Bogdan Ganshin, who is a sophomore in the Asian Studies programme and placed 1st in the competition, holding up his work, which is of a Tao Te Ching quote saying, ‘Heaven follows the Tao. The Tao follows Nature.’

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