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One More Art

The Chinese Art of Writing

by Jean François Billeter
Skira/Rizzoli, 319 pp.

1.

The discovery of a new major art should have more momentous implications for mankind than the exploration of an unknown continent or the sighting of a new planet.1

Since the dawn of its civilization, China has cultivated a particular branch of the visual arts that has no equivalent anywhere else in the world. On first encounter, Westerners misnamed it “calligraphy” by false analogy with a mere decorative craft that was more familiar to them. Although it was always one of the most sublime achievements of the Chinese genius, only today are art lovers outside China progressively beginning to prospect the riches of this artistic El Dorado that has finally opened up to them.

Like painting (which, being born of the same brush, is its younger brother rather than its twin), Chinese calligraphy addresses the eye and is an art of space; like music, it unfolds in time; like dance, it develops a dynamic sequence of movements, pulsating in rhythm. It is an art that radiates such physical presence and sensuous power that it virtually defies photographic reproduction—at times, even its execution can verge on an athletic performance; yet its abstract and erudite character also has special appeal for intellectuals and scholars who adopted it as their favorite pursuit. It is the most elitist of all arts—it was practiced by emperors, aesthetes, monks, and poets—but it is also one of the most popular. Its tools—brush, ink, and paper—can be simple and cheap and are within the reach of nearly anybody—school-children, women, modest townfolk, bohemian drunks, hermits. Its manifestations are ubiquitous and diverse—from the refined studio of the aristocratic connoisseur to the gaudy signs of the marketplace. In China, the written word lives and reigns everywhere—on the walls of palaces and temples, as well as on those of wine shops and teahouses, and at New Year time, its inspiring and sacred presence graces the doors of even the poorest farmhouses in the most remote hamlets.

The practice of the art of writing is not the exclusive preserve of specialists. The calligraphic brush can yield rewards that are as multiform as the human quest itself. To the unworldly, it affords a path of spiritual cultivation, and for the ambitious it is a prerequisite to climb the ladder of a political career. Until recently, no Chinese statesman could truly command respect without being also master of the brush; social prestige as well as intellectual and artistic reputations could not be secured without a skillful handwriting. Thus, for centuries, literally millions of Chinese have devoted themselves to the exercise of calligraphy; in the practice of this art, they have sought self-expression or social promotion, self-oblivion or inner concentration; they practiced calligraphy out of necessity or out of passion—as a solace, as a convention, as an escape, as an obsession, as a liberation; for many, it was a drug, an ascesis, a private madness, an austere discipline, a way of life; the best of them found in it the perfect paradigm of Efficient Activity, a method for achieving the harmonious integration of mind and body, the key to supreme enlightenment.

The very centrality of the place which calligraphy occupies in Chinese life and culture paradoxically explains why the West took such a long time to appreciate it as an art. When two great civilizations, utterly foreign to each other, come into direct contact, it seems that, at first, they cannot exchange anything but blows and trinkets. Mutual access to the core of their respective cultures necessitates a lengthy and complex process. It demands patience and humility, for outsiders are normally not allowed beyond a certain point: they will not be admitted to the inner chambers of the spirit, unless they are willing to shed some of their original baggage. Cultural initiation entails metamorphosis, and we cannot learn any foreign values if we do not accept the risk of being transformed by what we learn.

In the case of Chinese calligraphy, the difficulty is further compounded by two more obstacles. First, by its very nature, calligraphy is intimately linked with Chinese language; its full appreciation may at times require a certain familiarity with a rich and intricate network of historical, philological, and cultural references. To what extent is it necessary to be able to read Chinese in order fully to enjoy Chinese calligraphy? A preliminary (and crude) answer may be provided in the form of another question: To what extent is it necessary to be able to read music in order to enjoy a musical performance? Such knowledge would naturally help, without being strictly indispensable—the degree of sensitivity of the spectator, or the listener, can, to some degree, make up for what he may be lacking in intellectual information.

In the appreciation of calligraphy, the main advantage that can be derived from the ability to read Chinese is not so much that the viewer has access to the content of the calligraphic inscription (this content can be quite indifferent, as we shall see immediately). It is rather that, knowing the rules and graphic mechanisms of the Chinese script (each character is made of a precise number of strokes, which must be traced in an invariable, predetermined sequence), he is able to follow and to reconstruct in his mind the successive movements of the calligrapher’s brush.

The relation between calligraphic form and literary content (i.e., between the calligraphy itself and the text it conveys) might in a way be compared to the relation between painters and their models in Western portrait painting: there are exceptional encounters where the genius of the sitter may add an extra sparkle to the genius of the painter—think, for instance, of the portrait of Thomas More by Holbein, or of Chopin by Delacroix. Most of the time, however, the very identity of the model is largely irrelevant. (Who was Mona Lisa? Who cares?) Similarly, there are some instances of great calligraphies inspired by admirable texts; usually, however, the nature of the text which provided a base—or a mere pretext—for the calligraphic performance has no significant bearing upon the artist’s achievement, and there are many examples of sublime calligraphies that took flight from dull and trite dissertations.

Furthermore, there is even a style of calligraphy—a particularly exciting and creative one—which renders the original text practically illegible for most viewers: the so-called “grass-script” (cao shu) in its “crazy” form (kuang) is a sort of frenzied stenography, dashed in a wild outburst of intoxicated inspiration.2 Only practitioners and specialists can decipher it—and yet, even for the common viewer, it is one of the most spectacular and appealing styles. Its illegibility puts no obstacle to the enjoyment of the ordinary public, since—as we have just said—this enjoyment does not reside in a literary appreciation of the contents, but in an imaginative communion with the dynamics of the brushwork; what the viewer needs is not to read a text, but to retrace in his mind the original dance of the brush and to relive its rhythmic progress.

A second, even more fundamental, obstacle to appreciating calligraphy is the one I have already mentioned: that because of it the Chinese actually possess one more art: calligraphy has no parallel in any other of the great literate civilizations. As a result, the very existence of this art could not immediately register in the consciousness of early Western travelers. The reason is that, usually, people do not see; they only recognize. And what they do not recognize remains invisible to them. For centuries, foreign visitors to China, even if they were highly educated, remained simply blind to the Chinese art of calligraphy—or when they took notice of it, they betrayed a staggering incomprehension. Thus, for instance, in the mid-nineteenth century, a French missionary who, otherwise, was a fluent linguist and an exceptionally perceptive observer, with a long and intimate experience of China, could still express this typical comment: “Chinese writing is displayed everywhere for decoration, but it is unpleasant at first sight and shocks by its oddity.” In the long run, however, he admitted that one could progressively “become used to” this weird sight.

To call it “calligraphy” was a way of conceding it some sort of artistic merit. Still, the choice of this name was unfortunate and generated a deeper sort of misunderstanding. By its very etymology, “calligraphy” means “beautiful writing,” i.e., writing that is made beautiful by the addition of various ornaments, or by application of a decorative treatment, a definition which suits diverse decorative crafts or minor arts that are more familiar to us, such as—let us say—Gothic calligraphy, or Arabic calligraphy. What the Chinese call shu, however, simply means “handwriting”; the word is often paired with hua, “painting”—and in this context, to speak of “beautiful writing” would be as preposterous as to speak of “beautiful painting”: for, as J.F. Billeter points out in The Chinese Art of Writing, it is the writing itself that is the art, and it needs no adventitious or optional “artistic” complements to reach that status.

2.

Clichés can unwittingly reflect deeper truths. Many years ago, a facetious colleague sent me a copy of an old cartoon from Ripley’s famous series Believe It or Not! This particular item dealt with China and presented an assortment of fanciful or semi-factual distortions and common beliefs about Chinese language, culture, history, and customs. The interest of this cartoon was that it offered a fairly representative summing up of the popular perception of China in the Western consciousness. The gist of this perception was not so much that China was enigmatic, complicated, and bizarre, as more specifically that it was a topsyturvy world: the Chinese do everything exactly to the reverse of our “normal” usages and procedures. For instance, “When the Chinese build a house, they start from the roof”; “When in mourning, they wear white”; “They write upside down, and right to left”; “When greeting someone, they shake their own hand,” etc. None of these observations is actually wrong. And the general conclusion is basically valid. Here lies in fact the secret of the inexhaustible attraction which China and the West have always exerted upon each other: they stand at the antipodes of the human experiment. It might even be tempting to compare their mutual fascination to the magnetism that draws the two sexes together, but this erotic metaphor should probably be resisted here, since its inspiration is too narrowly Western.3

China poses a permanent challenge to various notions which we naively assume to have universal validity—but which prove in fact to find application only within the limits of our own cultural world. In linguistics, for instance, there is a basic axiom according to which writing is necessarily preceded by speech—and this principle actually seems to tally with common sense and common experience. If you go to China, however, your cozy certainty begins to evaporate: the primacy of speech, which has commanded all our culture since antiquity, may well have been a mere Indo-European idiosyncrasy.

When Saint Augustine first met Saint Ambrose, he was amazed by the exceptional ability which the latter had to read silently: when reading, his lips did not move and the written message would pass directly from the book to his mind, without the intermediary of sound. This talent was still so rare at the time that Augustine felt moved later on to make a special note of it, betraying his own puzzlement: 4 such was the empire of the spoken word in Western culture at the dawn of the Christian era. The first sentence of Saint John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word,” summed up the inheritance of antiquity, and defined a continuing reality at the heart of our cultural world. One could neatly propose a parallel definition for the civilization of China by formulating the reverse statement: In the beginning was the Script.

The earliest examples of the Chinese script—which mark the beginning of known historical records in China—date back to some 3,700 years ago. (As the graphic style of this writing appears already sophisticated and mature, one must assume that it already had a long history; in the future, archaeology might well unearth evidence of earlier writing.) Even though written characters evolved considerably through the ages, modern Chinese writing can still be traced back, without interruption, to these early models: there is a direct continuity. This archaic script (“oracle bones inscriptions,” found on tortoise shells and shoulder blades of oxen, where they had been carved for divination procedures) was used to forecast the outcome of all major decisions of the State: harvest and hunting, war and peace. Hence, from the very beginning, script was intimately associated with the Spirits and with political authority. These inscriptions did not record language, but meanings—directly, and speechlessly: they transcended language. One might compare them, in a way, to the symbolic or pictographic indications (increasingly complex and nuanced) that are now being used in international airports, where they provide directions without language, which every traveler understands at once, not within his own idiom, but beyond all idioms.

This Chinese emblematic meta-language developed independently from contemporary speech. For convenience, however, the written characters were progressively given conventional sounds; thus, eventually the inscriptions did not merely convey silent meanings, they could also be read aloud. In the end, they themselves generated a language—monosyllabic and non-inflected (features that remain as the special marks of its artificial origin)—and since this language carried all the prestige of magic and power, it gradually supplanted the vernacular originally spoken. Needless to say, this schematic description of the birth of the Chinese language as we know it today is simplistic and partly hypothetical; what seems certain, nevertheless—and of essential importance—is that, in Chinese, as Billeter argues in The Chinese Art of Writing, there was a unique anteriority of script over speech.

Boswell once suggested to Dr. Johnson that the Chinese were not barbarians and he invoked as evidence “the written characters of their language.” JOHNSON: “Sir, they have not an alphabet. They have not been able to form what all other nations have formed.” BOSWELL: “There is more learning in their language than in any other, from the immense number of their characters.” JOHNSON: “It is only more difficult from its rudeness; as there is more labour in hewing down a tree with a stone than with an axe.”5

It would be all too facile to dismiss Johnson’s observation on account of the prejudice it reflected. The unfortunate reality of the prejudice does not invalidate the accuracy of the observation, once we divest it from its unnecessary value judgment. Whereas Boswell was admiring the shimmering sophistication of the surface manifestations of Chinese culture, Johnson correctly perceived the essential primitiveness that lay at its core: this combination of a donné of elementary and primeval simplicity with stupendous complexity and refinement in the actual applications and modalities at the superstructure level is a constant character of the Chinese genius.

Western technology, with its high efficiency but narrow specialization and rigidity of function, is the product of a rupture: in order to conquer Nature, Western man chose to cut himself off from it. Chinese civilization, on the contrary, endeavored to maintain the primordial unity; but the price of its uninterrupted communion with the world was a reduced capacity to control it; this, in turn, was compensated for with increased ingenuity, subtlety, and elegance in the practical solutions devised to solve the various problems of human adaptation to material reality. In the Judeo-Christian culture, the original myth of conquest and disunion is Babel: the bold attempt at mastering the world ended in the accursed confusion of tongues—and from that point on, language was to separate people instead of bringing them together. China, on the contrary, continued to live in a pre-Babelian condition; as Billeter suggests, its script, which conveys meaning beyond language and transcends all differences of speech, links mankind to its earliest origins and proposes the very emblem of an essential unity.

3.

In China, the original function of the written word—which possessed the demiurgic power of ordering the cosmos and of generating reality—never disappeared entirely, but it was progressively eclipsed by its aesthetic virtues. Calligraphy in the narrow sense of the word—i.e., writing considered as an artistic pursuit, as a means of self-expression, and an outlet for the calligrapher’s individual sensitivity—began to develop at the end of the Han period (third century AD): from that time on, it progressively turned into a specialized discipline, with its masters, theoreticians, critics, collectors, and connoisseurs, and came to occupy the leading position among all the visual arts (with painting as its close second).

Calligraphy is executed in ink, on silk or paper, with a brush. (Even when carved into stone or wood, the carving endeavors to convey an illusion of brushwork.) The calligraphic brush is a typical product of Chinese ingenuity: once again, it marries deceptive simplicity of a structural principle with utter subtlety and versatility of its actual applications. The extreme sensitivity of this instrument has, for a corollary, its diabolic difficulty of handling. In order to master the brush (and not be led by it!), the calligrapher has to achieve a high degree of mental concentration, physical balance, and muscular control; long years of intensive training are required to reach a minimum level of competence. (The famous painter Chang Ta-ch’ien once paid a visit to Picasso and presented him with a superb Chinese brush. Picasso toyed with his new tool for the next few days; the awkward graphic mess he made of it is quite instructive.6 ) The ink, far from being stable and monochrome, offers a wide range of nuances: its shine, its depth, its blackness, its pallor, its thickness, its fluidity, its dryness, its wetness echo every mood and inflection of the brush itself, the work of which can be slow or fast, rough or smooth, impetuous or subdued, naive or cultured, violent or delicate. As a result, the textural quality of a work of Chinese calligraphy, its “fleshiness” or its “boniness,” has a sensual dimension which no reproduction can adequately convey.

The silk or paper used for calligraphy has an absorbent quality: the lightest touch of the brush, the slightest drop of ink, registers at once—irretrievably and indelibly. This is a medium that tolerates no error, no correction, no hesitation. The brush acts like a seismograph of the mind, answering every pressure, every turn of the wrist: the record of its course on the blank page is instantaneous, complete, and final.

The written characters are the only materials at the disposal of the calligrapher. Not only is he not allowed to create new graphic structures, but this limited material is itself strictly predetermined: each character must be written with a specific number of brushstrokes that are arranged in a precise pattern, and follow each other in preordained sequence. (In Billeter’s felicitous phrase, “ultimately it is the fixed order of the strokes that makes calligraphy a visible music.”) There is therefore no latitude for initiative; or, rather, all the resources of invention and creation are exclusively channeled into expression.

Calligraphy is par excellence an art of interpretation. (To some extent the same could be said of the main artistic disciplines of China—poetry, painting, music: in each, expression matters more than invention, but it is in calligraphy that this particular aesthetic feature finds its most perfect illustration.) This does not lessen the creativity of the calligrapher, but intensifies it: his is a creation of the second degree. A musical comparison may be of some help here: Glenn Gould or Sviatoslav Richter are no less artists for not having themselves composed The Well-Tempered Clavier. Great interpreters efface themselves the better to serve their models; but the more successful they are at this task, the more deeply their individual temperaments and sensitivities are being revealed in their interpretations. Every touch from a great pianist, every stroke from a great calligrapher, becomes a mirror of the interpreter’s mind.

In calligraphy, the supreme aesthetic category is naturalness. Naturalness is reached when the calligrapher can forget all rules. But it is only after he has achieved full mastery of all rules that he becomes able to forget them. Calligraphy was a favorite exercise for monks and hermits, for its aesthetic paradox echoes the paradox of ascetic discipline. Through the ages, in the East as in the West, the great mystics who achieved complete obliteration of the self were also the most forceful and original personalities. In the art of calligraphy, as in spiritual life itself, when self-denial is complete, self-expression reaches its plenitude.

4.

Jean François Billeter is a distinguished Swiss scholar who brings to Chinese studies a remarkably broad philosophical, literary, and artistic culture. Having read and admired a number of his shorter essays, as well as his doctoral thesis on a fascinating “heretic” thinker of the Ming period, Li Zhi, I had awaited his magnum opus on Chinese calligraphy with eager anticipation. The book, which is superbly produced—the illustrations are magnificent and, sometimes, also provocative and surprising—kept me enthralled in its first half and, as my earlier references to it may suggest, I have drawn abundant inspiration from it in writing this article. At a certain point, however, the book veered into what appeared to me as a rather idiosyncratic philosophy—and I must confess that I simply lost my footing (which certainly disqualifies me from writing a fair, comprehensive review). I wonder if Thoreau’s famous warning “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes” should not also be applied to discursive essays: Beware of all thoughts that require new concepts. Those which Billeter is using here baffle me all the more since, while they are probably not familiar to the Western reader, neither have they any equivalent in the rich theoretical and critical literature which the Chinese themselves have developed on the subject. In particular, his chapters on “Body Sense” and “The Active Body”—which, in the author’s perspective, are obviously of central importance—develop notions that remain opaque to me. For instance, he concludes:

Let me sum up the results of this inquiry [into the “Body Sense”], the better to apply them to the art of writing. Underlying all our relations to the visible and even to the real is projection, a complex and variable phenomenon emanating from the body proper, in other words, from our bodily subjectivity. It is by the body proper that inside and outside communicate, that our exchanges with the world take place. The body proper is the source of all spatiality, of all organization of space … and, on this background, of every image, whether perceived or produced. The process of projection … “merges with the very stuff of the visible.”

Having spent some time trying to understand these reflections, I wonder now if I did not waste my effort, for I see that in a more recent article Billeter writes: “I must point out that the notion of ‘projection’ which I previously used in my Chinese Art of Writing does not appear to me defensible any longer: it should be revised.” 7

As I was working my way with some perplexity through the central chapters of the book, I was frivolously reminded of an anecdote told by Elie Wiesel.8 A rabbi had to attend a ceremony in a nearby town. He hired a coachman to drive him there. But once on the road, at the first hill, the coachman asked him to come down and help push the coach, for the horse was old and weak. The rabbi had to push for most of the way. When they finally arrived at their destination, the rabbi said to the coachman: “I can understand why you came: you needed to ear your payment. I can understand why I came: I needed to attend a ceremony. But I cannot understand why we brought a horse along.” The question that nagged me through the exposé of Billeter’s philosophy was similar: What need was there to drag calligraphy into this?

I have little doubt that, with the passing of time, Billeter’s book will prove to be a work of major significance—but I must also admit that I am incapable of doing it justice. Before writing this article, I read it for the second time: I felt all my old bafflement and frustrations being revived, but simultaneously I was struck once again by the wealth of original and stimulating views it contains, as well as by the illuminating quotations it draws from a wide literary spectrum—Western and Chinese.

To take only one example, on a question which has particularly far-reaching implications: Billeter rightly observes that Chinese traditional aesthetics dispenses altogether with the concept of beauty. On this theme, he presents a mutually illuminating series of references to both Chinese and European writers. Fu Shan, a great calligrapher of the seventeenth century, declared: “Rather than clever, gracious, deft and proper, I prefer being awkward, unpleasing, disconnected but true to myself.” Such a view, Billeter suggests, would have met with the approval of Stendhal, who always put authenticity above all other values: “I think that to be great in anything at all, One has to be oneself.” For Billeter, a similar idea of true originality was evoked by Nietzsche: “Each of us carries within himself a productive originality which is the very core of his being; and if he becomes aware of this originality, a strange aura, the aura of the extraordinary, shapes itself around him.”

In the quest for originality, the first requirement is to eschew vulgarity. Billeter quotes the nineteenth-century calligrapher Liu Xizai, who said: “The difficult thing about calligraphy is not how to please, but how to avoid trying to please. The desire to please makes the writing trite, its absence makes it ingenuous and true.” At this point, I feel tempted to mention Braque’s remark to a visitor who was showing him a fake Braque and insisted that it looked genuine. The painter replied: “How could I possibly have ever painted a thing like this—it is the exact opposite of a Braque: it is beautiful!”

I also found much of interest in the abundant and remarkable footnotes of Billeter’s book. To the common reader, this may sound (I am afraid) like some sort of veiled irony, but no Sinologist will ever mistake the sincerity and weight of this particular praise. Which one of us would not dream that it might be said of his work of a lifetime: he wrote a few good footnotes?

Letters

The Calligraphic Spirit June 20, 1996

  1. 1

    Visitors to the exhibition “Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei” (now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) will know that this is no hyperbole. Together with a selection of masterpieces of Chinese painting, this exhibition presents a number of priceless Chinese calligraphies, some of them illustrated in the volume of essays accompanying the exhibition, Possessing the Past: Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei, by Wen C. Fong, James C.Y. Watt, and others (Metropolitan Museum of Art/National Palace Museum, Taipei/Abrams, 1996).

  2. 2

    One of the most famous examples of this style can be seen in the exhibition “Treasures from the National Palace Museum”: Huai-su (eighth century), Autobiographical Essay (reproduced in Fong and Watt, Possessing the Past, plate 56). See page 31 of this issue.

  3. 3

    The view that human beings, as sexual creatures, are essentially incomplete belongs to Western culture; the Chinese view is that every individual contains in himself both yin and yang elements, and therefore should be able to achieve his own perfection in isolation. See Billeter’s discussion of this subject in footnote 23, chapter 7.

  4. 4

    Confessions, VI, 3: “When Ambrose was reading, his eyes ran over the page and his heart perceived the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent. He did not restrict access to anyone coming in, nor was it customary even for a visitor to be announced. Very often, when we were there, we saw him silently reading and never otherwise … We wondered if he read silently perhaps to protect himself in case he had a hearer interested and intent on the matter, to whom he might have to expound the text being read if it contained difficulties (…) If his time were used up in that way, he would get through fewer books than he wished. Besides, the need to preserve his voice, which used easily to become hoarse, could have been a very fair reason for silent reading. Whatever motive he had for his habit, this man had a good reason for what he did.” (I am quoting here the beautiful translation by Henry Chadwick, Oxford University Press, 1991.)

  5. 5

    Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson, entry of May 8, 1778.

  6. 6

    See the illustration on page 61 of The Chinese Art of Writing.

  7. 7

    See “Arrêt, vision et langage,” in Philosophies, No. 44 (December 1994).

  8. 8

    In a book recording a series of dialogues with François Mitterrand, Mémoire à deux voix (Paris: Odile Jacob, 1995), which, for the rest, is unfortunately without interest.

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