Sunday, January 22, 2017

Chinese Calligraphy on Paper Lanterns

This week is Chinese New Year. I wanted to celebrate but was hesitant to do a lesson on Chinese calligraphy because I remember how it took two weeks to learn (not master) our first horizontal stroke in my college Chinese Calligraphy class, and two more for a vertical stroke. I resolved to the fact that skimming the surface was better than not teaching it at all. First, my students handled ink stones, rice paper and bottles of ink. They practiced the correct way to hold a sumi brush (vertically with the thumb opposite from the index and middle fingers). We discussed the fact that there ar e more than 1,000 Chinese characters and explored how these came from pictures that evolved over a thousand years. Japanese and other Asian countries share many of the same/ similar characters, although Japanese have phonetic alphabets too: hiragana for Japanese words, and katakana for foreign words.

Each student learned to make vertical strokes to represent bamboo stalks, and triangular strokes for bamboo leaves. These brush drawings help everyone feeling successful the first day of trying. They used black watercolor paint since ink stains are impossible to get out.

Then, each student chose a character to learn. They could also learn their name in Japanese katana. Visually impaired students used a close circuit TV to magnify the writing enough to practice his name many times, first with a marker, and then with a brush.

Once students were ready, they wrote their name or character on a paper lantern. Several students who were completely blind, needed me to guide their hand, but we had repeated the process enough times that they would say, "over, down, across..." just as we were about to make each mark. Lanterns rested in #10 cans to dry and then they were hung from the ceiling.

I wish we still stressed penmanship in our culture the way that calligraphy is still valued in Asian countries. My Korean friend once told me that if you didn't have good handwriting, you couldn't get a girlfriend where he lived.  I'm glad my students got a feel for how language and writing is different in different parts of the word, and can appreciate the art form of Chinese writing.

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