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17. Painting of Chinese words November 26, 2007

Posted by kentneo in Art.

Wenzi – a single syllabic character (the radical) is called “wen”, the double syllabic character is called “zi”. Hua is painting, Wenzi Hua – painting of Chinese characters/words.


I recently had an exhibition at Jijen Juang (an art gallery), Mr. He Weichen came by in the afternoon to pass me some photographs and encouraged me to do more “wenzi hua”. But wenzi hua requires a lot of inspiration, so there was a lot of discussion, suddenly there was a big rainstorm, it was as if the rain came in time to keep everyone there to talk about this topic.


We first spoke about the “moustache” me, I used to not keep any facial hair but because I was quite sick last year and to commemorate the visit of my friend, Yao Tuo, I decided to keep a beard. I found the hair on my chin quite troublesome when drinking soups, so I shaved that off and just kept a moustache. I was then inspired by the Chinese word for beard (xu) and thought a lot about its character construction.


The word “xu”, actually is made up of multiple Chinese characters forming, “the man with hair”. Just take a close look at the character and the origin of the lower part of “xu”, is made of the “eye”, the “eyebrow”, and the legs of a person or “ren” in Jiagu wen (oracle bone writing). Together that part forms a pictorial image of “a person”, then to the left of that are three strokes that resembles wisps of hair and actually represents hair.


The upper part of “xu” is the word “piao”, according to “shuo wen” (the ancient Chinese dictionary), the three strokes in “piao” also represents hair. In common everyday use, there is a proverb, “Fa chui re piao”, meaning, one with long hair and beard. I remember also Fan Yue’s essay “Qiu Xin Fu”, there is a line “ban duo piao yi chen bi xi” (the man with white sideburns) and in “Hou Han Shu” (the official history of later (eastern) Han (25 – 221 CE), compiled by Fan Ye (who died in 445 CE)), on “Ma Rong Juan” (story of Ma Rong), one can think of “Yue mao fen chi piao yu” (????).


There is a distinction in the construction of the character for “sideburns” and the character for “beard”. In the old days, the character for “beard” did not consist of “piao” (denoting hair), it just used the character “hu” for the sound, later “piao” was added on top of “hu” to represent a hairy beard.


Let me explain further, Chinese words are sometimes called standard square block characters and was invented/systematized by Cang Jie (around 2700 BCE), he came from an aboriginal tribe that was rather advanced, in those days, the (Neolithic period?), people used to tie strings to record events. Later, looking at shapes of humans, sky, earth, they started to draw pictures, known as “xiang xing wen” (pictographs, words formed from things that can be drawn). Some while later that was not enough, “se ying” (or is it “ji si” or indicatives, words formed from things that cannot be drawn, e.g. directions, numbers) and “se huan” (or “hui yi” or ideatives, words formed to be understood easily after pictograph indicatives were formed).


So Chinese characters are actually not that difficult if you understand the radicals, you can begin to understand the meaning of an individual character. For example, anything with the “wood” radical, is related to trees, the “hand” radical, will have something to do with the hand and the “foot” radical, something to do with the “foot” radical, etc. This is the way to look at “shuo wen” (the Ancient Chinese Dictionary), “shuo wen” is “wenzi shue” (the study of wenzi).


In the old days, the study of wenzi was called “xiao xue” (primary studies), whereas today, “xiao xue” is the 6 years one spends in primary school. In the old days, Chinese had the learning of wenzi as the foundation of their education, as such their Chinese roots were deep and thick.


According to legend, Cang Jie was a magistrate (rank Li Guan) in the court of Huang Di (259 – 210 BCE), he was extraordinary man in that he was able to observe the footprints of birds and animals and perceive that line and shapes were distinct, he then was able to draw picture of objects to represent these various shapes and forms. It is written in [Huainanzi] that praises his genius, “when Cangjie created characters, millet fell like rain and ghosts cried in the night [As human intelligence increases, their virtue decreases]”, this is the legend to express the genius of this man, after which there was “light from the four corners [of the earth]”.


Wenzi is from “xiang xing wen” (pictographs), which then progressed to “Jiagu wen” (oracle bone script which emerged around the Shang Dynasty 1600 – 1100 BCE), in reality, by the stage of “jiagu wen”, they have already been simplified a lot. When they reached the stage of “zhongding wen” (bell gong script, used in late Shang Dynasty but abundant in the Eastern Zhou Dynasty 770 – 256 BCE), the characters had achieved the standard square blocks form and that was the juncture at which they were most attractive.


To do wenzi hua, the best is to obtain some foundation in zhongding wen as the later calligraphy scripts of “zhuan, li, cao” (zhuan script evolved around the Warring States Period (476 – 221 BCE), li script is the clerical script developed in the Qin Dynasty, (221 – 206 BCE), cao is the cursive script, originated to write quickly), especially “kuang cao” (crazy cao script, which is an extreme form of the cao script) that can be described as a flying script of the dance of the dragon and the phoenix, all branched from zhongding wen.


This “kuang cao” is a very highly stylized and takes incredible skill, the Japanese have already put this script on a lot of their expensive decorations. This is only possible with Eastern characters, why do we Chinese not also put in the effort to develop this?


According to legend, in Spain (?? Greece?) at the time of the Aegean period (prehistoric bronze age), on red colored pottery, they used symbols, it is the earliest examples of western pictographs. In 3000 BCE, Sumeria also had a type of pictograph, so did Egypt, even Burma, Nepal, Northern Thailand and Yunnan’s tribes, all have pictograph writing. With interest it is not difficult to research and look for these treasures. As Picasso and Milo Kadinsky spent a lot of effort in looking for these symbols and yet us easterners, endowed with this, don’t even ask, is this not such a waste?


The people of the Shang Gu period expressed themselves in several ways, there were four main stages, (1) they used sign language, similar to deaf people and the sounds they made then were similar to the sounds children make today, (2) they then developed into language, (3) [to record the language, a system of] string tying developed and (4) the development of words/wenzi. Even in the jungles of Philippines today, there are people living a simpler prehistoric type life and we can find these stories in the bookstore.


In the “Zhou Yi” (the core text of Yi Jing or I-Ching, the Book of Changes), there is a saying “in Neolithic times, people tied strings and knot to record for later generations, wise men knew to replace knots with words and the society no longer depended upon verbal recitals of past events.”


Apart from knotting string, there was another method of “notching wood”, in the Tang Dynasty in Tibet, the Jinuo people used this method. From “Xin Tang Shu” (the [New] History of the Tang, edited by Ou Yangxiu  (1007 – 1072 CE) and Song Qi  (998 – 1061 CE) of Song Dynasty (1044 – 1060 CE)), we can see that some tribes had no writings and knotting string and notching wood were their means of record. I have been to Gui Zhou’s Miao area, the Miao people until the Qing Dynasty (1644 –1911 CE), were still using the knotted string methods. There is a book by Yan Luyu, called “Miao jiang fongsu kao” (the customs of the Miao people), in it, “the earlier generations did not have a written word, so there is oral tradition from father to son, they use the animal zodiac to record years and months, ???”. I had a picture of the animal zodiac before from this tribe, I used it as a bookmark and now I can find where I have placed it.


From “Sui Shu” (the History of Sui (581 – 618 CE), edited by a board headed by Wei Zheng (580 – 643 CE) of the Tang Dynasty (629 – 636 CE)), we can see that Japan in the Sui Dynasty was still using a knotting string and notching wood to record events, by the Tang Dynasty, they adopted a lot of the culture from the Chinese and started to use Chinese characters which later on they developed their own writing of “katakana” and “hiragana” [as the Chinese characters could not accommodate some of their verb stems].


The Japanese know the value of learning and hard work, which is how they could go from a war torn society to a very rich country, which many now “look east” to learn. They are able to build tall buildings and construct factories with advanced technologies. So culture with science equals money, because of this the Japanese utilize “the treasures of culture” very efficiently, this we can definitely learn from the Japanese.


In the beginning, wenzi, is from from Ba Gua (The Eight Trigrams), as expressed in Yi Jing, “???????” Therefore to do “wenzi hua”, one must know something about Bao Xi’s culture, wenzi hua is not totally obsolete, one needs to “go back to the old, in order to discover new things”. If one does not practice the old, how will you know about the new? All new things are an interpretation of old things. To practice and learn from the old (or what is already known) is a sure way to success.



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