Introducing Asian Art: Chinese Calligraphy and Students’ Reflection

Haixia Wang (汪海霞)

University of Pittsburgh

haw27@pitt.edu

Abstract

Chinese calligraphy is a crucial part of Chinese culture and world art. The students’ reflections demonstrate that Chinese calligraphy gives students the opportunity to probe into the Chinese cultural perspectives such as philosophy and aesthetics which often plays an important role in Chinese art. The students’ reflections also demonstrate that the Chinese calligraphy is much more than a simple representation of Chinese characters. It is also a symbolic expression of the calligrapher’s inner feelings and philosophical notions of the world.

Course Introduction: Background, Design, and Goals

Chinese Calligraphy: Culture and Skills at Carnegie Mellon University is a course first developed by Dr. Huiwen Li and Dr. Yueming Yu in 2015. Since 2015, I have been teaching the course and added new course content such as Chinese painting. The three years of teaching experience gives me a chance to see students’ reflections on the original course design as well as the impact on the students’ learning outcomes. This class has been one of the most popular courses in the department, and every semester has more than 20 students for each section with more students on the waitlist. From the students from different semesters, I selected representative feedback to illustrate their learning experience.

The current introductory course on Chinese calligraphy aims at providing students with basic knowledge of Chinese calligraphy and understand that how it mirrors Chinese history, culture and philosophy. It will also introduce the fundamental characteristics of Chinese writing system, its cultural content and principles of formation as well as the skills used in Chinese calligraphy. At the end of the course, students will not only have a good understanding of Chinese characters and their cultural and philosophical background, but also be able to appreciate the art and beauty in Chinese calligraphy.

In order to help students to achieve the goal, through teaching about these art forms and their symbolic meanings, the teacher reminds the students not to deal with these cultural products and practices superficially. Rather, students should use them as a way to look into some particular Chinese cultural perspectives, and try to grasp and understand the philosophical and aesthetic concepts behind them.

Course Goal Fulfillment from Students’ Reflections

At the end of semester, the teacher requested students to provide their reflections on the course. They were asked to talk around the course goal fulfillment. The following are the selected samples of students’ reflections about experience and learning outcomes of the calligraphy course.

Joshua Inyangson: This Chinese calligraphy class has really opened my eyes to more Chinese culture.  Through the presentations every Tuesday I have learned more about the different styles of calligraphy, important people in Chinese culture and the importance of Chinese calligraphy in history.  This class has allowed me to perform calligraphy, something that I enjoy but have not been able to do in a very long time.  The constructive feedback and help that I have received in terms of how my calligraphy is going and how I can do better incredibly encouraging, uplifting and helpful, driving to try even harder to produce the best product that I can offer.  The accommodation for people’s needs during the semester by the professor has also been great and has really allowed me to love the class even more.  This journey that I have taken through the class starting from how I did not know anything about Chinese calligraphy or how to draw any of the characters to now being able to perform Chinese calligraphy and know more about Chinese calligraphy has truly been gratifying and amazing.       

Kristen Clark: My life has been so hectic in the last few years, without really anytime to calm myself and chill out. I have found that calligraphy forces me to calm down, much like meditating would. Even when I was painting these women, something I have done a dozen times over for other classes and productions, there is a special tranquility required to make a successful mark. It requires a lot of concentration and a steady hand. It feels like I just have to do calligraphy for the rest of my life so that I can have the peace of mind it gives me. It’s strange how something so simple completes my life so well.

Kumar Shaurya Shankar: I decided to take Chinese Calligraphy: Culture and Skills in the Fall semester on a whim, as I was looking at taking a class at CMU that helped channel my creative energies. To my pleasant surprise, taking the class not just gave me an outlet to learn a beautiful art skill, but also helped broaden my horizons and helped me appreciate nuances of Chinese culture vis-a-vis art and calligraphy. As a PhD student the classes served as a means of practicing mindfulness and helping clear out my headspace whilst I devoted complete attention to my brushwork - it was a refreshing oasis of calm in the sandstorm that can be the research process. Encouraged by my instructor, I attempted more ambitious work for my creative project than I had imagined when first starting the class, and I was immensely happy with the result.

As a graduate student, it often gets overwhelming to keep thinking of research problems and deadlines. Thus, coming into class and focusing solely on doing this form of precise art helped me immensely in terms of taking things off my mind for the duration and introducing a certain zen calm in the otherwise sea of chaos. I also derived great joy and pride by sharing my work with my peers and friends who appreciated the work as well, helping fuel a positive feedback loop. In addition, I feel that being able to engage creatively in a different domain has helped me be more creative in my research that often gets stuck in a rut of thinking the same way, which is invaluable.

Morgan Stanley: Taking the Chinese calligraphy helped contrast the normal stress I experience in my daily life as an engineering student at Carnegie Mellon.  Normally, my weeks are full of rigorous math and science problems that are often stress-inducing.  Project deadlines and exams are always high stress periods during the academic semester.  Being able to take an hour and a half on Monday and Wednesday to do Chinese calligraphy has been an amazing experience.  Regularly looking forward to coming to class is not something I do not experience in most of my other classes.  What Chinese calligraphy class has taught me is that I should always take time in the day to do something that relieves stress and is fun.  In fact, my other classes have probably benefitted as a result of taking Chinese calligraphy because if I did not have an outlet to channel my stress, then I would most likely be performing sub standardly due to pent up stress.  This semester has been one of my best in terms of academic performance and I highly attribute it to Chinese calligraphy.

In summation, Chinese calligraphy has helped me in many different ways.  The class has taught me how to write in the correct stroke order which led to more efficient and aesthetically pleasing Chinese writing.  Calligraphy has taught me how to channel my artistic side as I learned to draw Chinese art.  In addition, calligraphy class has been a great stress-reliever and taught me to be patient.  The class has benefitted me in more ways than I could have imagined and the impact of Chinese calligraphy is much more than just putting characters on rice paper with ink.

Matthew Liu: Another thing that calligraphy helped me with was staying calm and relaxed, and using it as a form of relaxation. Being able to freely draw characters without worrying about the stress of school or other classes was very fun and allowed me to explore my creativity a bit more. While doing calligraphy, all other distractions are gone and you can freely focus on just the canvas in front of you. This allowed me to escape from the real world and all its problems, and I was able to enjoy the process and joy that calligraphy offers.

Sarah Shin: Chinese Calligraphy has been one of my favorite, most enjoyable courses I’ve taken during my 4 years at CMU. It’s relaxing and fulfilling, and I really enjoy creating these pieces of art. I think the characters are beautiful and the poems and proverbs that they can create are just as beautiful. They possess this sense of dignity and poise that was lost throughout the ages. I wish to continue my studies in these characters and integrate them in all three of the Asian languages.

Ryan Maha: This semester is my first introduction to Chinese Calligraphy as a whole.  From the beginning of the semester until now I feel that I have improved and become more comfortable using the brush, ink and paper.  When learning the strokes of the different Chinese characters it took me time to understand the nuance involved in pressing the tip, turning, lifting and all other things involved with making good Chinese characters.  Through many hours of practice, I feel I am a better drawer of the Calligraphy characters and of the Chinese panda.

Isabelle Chevallier: I have really enjoyed taking this class and feel inspired to continue my exploration back into Chinese culture. I have also enjoyed the other group presentations during class. Learning various aspects of culture, like the writing styles, history, and holidays, has expanded my knowledge of Chinese culture or reminded me of things I used to know. Something that was very important to me as a child were the Chinese holidays. However, after leaving the Chinese school, I stopped celebrating many of the smaller festivals and only celebrated Chinese New Year. Seeing the presentation on holidays prodded my memory of the fables of why we celebrate the mid-autumn festival and the dragon boat festival. I remember making lanterns and eating mooncake and zongzi in my classes as a child. Certain aspects of these holidays has stayed with me, but the cultural significance and tradition was mostly forgotten. Keeping these parts of Chinese tradition is important in maintaining the culture. Otherwise, it is easy to celebrate a holiday without truly understanding how it originated and the meaning the holiday has to Chinese culture.

It can be difficult to retain a culture once you have left the country, and as the younger generation of immigrants grow up and start families of their own, it can be a challenge to pass down traditions. This is why cultural courses are important, they allow people to have a deeper understanding of a culture that extends past their daily lives. Judging from the other students in our class, there are many Asian Americans who wish to reconnect with their heritage. Hopefully, the other students in this class have found the course as rewarding and fulfilling as I have and will be inspired to continue their exploration of Chinese culture.

Albert Yuan: In my experiences this past half of a semester learning the techniques, history, and culture of calligraphy, I feel as if I have reflected back onto my Chinese heritage that I had once before thought to be forgotten. Not only has practicing calligraphy brought me peace of mind in times of distress and anxiety due to heavy loads of homework and studying, but it had also let me commune with my identity as a Chinese American. For a bit of context, my life has been filled with travel and settling into new cultural differences. I was born in the Bay Area, California and lived there until I started elementary school. I had then moved with my family back to Shanghai, China. I stayed there until high school, which I then was sent to boarding school in New Hampshire. In my most recent experiences in life, I have mainly stayed in the United States, and thus I have become insensitive to my own Chinese heritage. Although my parents had raised me very conservatively and in a traditionally Chinese manner, I still felt as if I had lost my Chinese identity in my interactions here in the United States; that is until now, having been in the Chinese calligraphy class, I have regained confidence in my Chinese heritage and have remembered much of the Chinese culture.

I remembered when I was young, my grandfather would practice Chinese calligraphy and I would sometimes watch. My grandfather would always tell me to learn and say it is an important skill for one to know as it teaches patience and humility. I didn’t understand it back then, and found calligraphy to be quite boring and repetitive. However, after learning about the intricacies and history of calligraphy, I have come to appreciate it a lot more. When I practice, I force myself to calm down and tune out of my worries. My practice also serves as a type of preparation for the rest of the day, as I remind myself to be humble and respectful to others, as I have learned in the past from my grandparents. Practicing calligraphy has also taught me that it is pointless to be annoyed or irritated by minor upsets in day to day life. For example, if during practice I had messed up on a stroke, I developed the mentality of knowing that I can just improve that stroke on the next time I write the same stroke. This is important to me as I sometimes can get annoyed for a whole day by something so minor as a minor spill of ink on my desk.

Throughout the semester, my grandfather became suddenly sick, which required me to return back to China for my spring break. This had been the first time I gone back in three years now and it felt strange to me to finally be back to the place I had called home. Luckily my grandfather’s health recovered. However during my stay, I took the opportunity to show him that I had actually begun to learn calligraphy and showed him a few of my practice pieces. He was happy to see that I took his advice and stayed in touch with my Chinese heritage. I finally understood now why he had told me to pick up calligraphy, and now I have developed an appreciation for the art and will strive to improve my skills in the future.

Conclusion

Chinese calligraphy facilitates the students’ character learning, improve their communication and comparison skills, and help them become more connected with Chinese culture and community. Regarding character learning, since many early Chinese characters are hieroglyphic or pictographic, asking the students to practice in Chinese calligraphy will increase their visual awareness of these characters and help them memorize these characters in a more spontaneous way.

Specifically, this course has helped students achieve the expected objectives. Students have developed basic knowledge of Chinese character history, writing forms, and components. They have built up a learning framework of historical and cultural background of Chinese calligraphy consisting of writing tools, writing genres development, and relationships between calligraphy and other cultural components such as art, literature, and philosophy. Through learning and practice, students have developed skills to write Chinese characters in the Regular Style and evaluate basic calligraphy works; and they have gained the ability to appreciate the art and beauty in Chinese calligraphy.

Likewise, brush painting also reveals much more than what is presented on the paper. Typical motifs in Chinese brush painting include flowers, birds, animals and landscapes. Each of these visual images conveys an artistic message that is far richer and deeper than the images themselves. This is why a scattered blossom of flowers can be used to represent the beauty and shortness of life, and a couple mandarin ducks playing on water are often seen as a symbol of love and unity.

In addition to the benefits the Chinese calligraphy course offered which mentioned above, it is worth pointing out that the subject of this course could also be easily connected with other courses that the students were taking about Chinese civilization, history and society. This gave them the chance to compare the different historical, social and cultural perspectives that they had learned in these classes, and expand their knowledge and skills to gain deeper insight into Chinese community and culture.

 

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National Standards in Foreign Language Education Project (1999). Standards for foreign language learning in the 21st century. Yonkers, NY: Author.

Schulz, R. (2007). The challenge of assessing cultural understanding in the context of foreign language instruction. Foreign Language Annals, 40(1), 9-26.

Wang, H., & Liu, G. (2014). Cultural standards in foreign language teaching: An example from thematic unit on Chinese calligraphy. Teaching Chinese in International Contexts, 7-11.