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1.Longevity and preserving one’s health November 26, 2007

Posted by kentneo in Art.

“Where ever people go, they should leave only footprints. The stork in winter leaves only its prints on the snow, who keeps track of everything?” This is from the poem written by Su Dongbo (1037 – 1101 CE). Some friends asked me the other day, “where are all your works?”, this question didn’t however leave me feeling poorer for I thought of the years since the 1930’s when I started writing and painting, I had sold some paintings over the years and given away others, I had passed on my essays to many people along the way, they are all scattered, I have kept nothing.


Just a few days ago, when I was researching something else and met up with my friends, again they brought up the subject of my old photo’s and writings. They encouraged me to start combining my short essays with a painting for posterity. I felt was very touched by this request as the experience would only enrich me. When I got home, I rummaged through my things, some photos, some momentos, some essays. Not long after that, I didn’t care whether the essay was old or recent, lengthy or short, I couldn’t put down my brush and was inspired to write again.


My friend, Mr. He, once took out a long piece of Chinese rice paper about 6 feet in length when I was doing my “chu yun shu”. He wanted a spontaneous reaction of my brush on this piece of paper. I then wrote the word “shou” horizontally on this piece of paper. It came out like a comet, with a long tail, I was quite pleased, my brush seemed to have a dance of its own and what it produced was “chang shou” (or long long life).  When I write (calligraphy), I feel this un-describable pleasure similar to the sensation of familiarity derived from years of repetition when you know what you are doing, kind of like exercising.


Many beginners of writing calligraphy are however are frustrated, because they can’t reach this state where writing becomes pleasurable for it takes practice and many give up. Before I tell you of the classical story of the “Bao Ding Butcher”, I do feel that many of our youth has lost out in our Chinese culture. For example, the Chinese brush, many younger people today may want to save time and effort (or find the brush too foreign an object) and choose to use the synthetic brush, which has free flowing ink instead of the traditional brush.


The Chinese culture has so many precious ways and methods that has been expressed in our flower arrangements, the culture of tea, kung fu, calligraphy, instead the Japanese have taken our culture and uphold it in higher esteem than we have, in various similar forms such as ikebana, tea ceremonies, judo and also calligraphy and now call it Japanese culture.  A few years ago, I read an article where the Japanese proclaimed that, “in 30 years, the Chinese will come to us to learn calligraphy”.


Why then do we not try harder to look to our own old ways, through continuous practice and then create something new, this is definitely possible for traditional icons of our culture. We should be able to share it with the world, as understanding culture and the expressing in art forms is a link to a more peaceful existence.


Back to the “Bao Ding Butcher” story, originally from Zhuang Zi’s (399 – 295 BCE) “Yang Sen Zhu” (preserving one’s health). The short form of the story, is about a butcher who is able to carve up meat as if it were an art form, even with his eyes closed he can guide his cleaver quickly and efficiently without wastage. When asked how he could do this, he replied, in the first three years I saw a cow as a piece of meat and simply chopped up the meat and had to sharpen my knife every few days. A few years later, I learnt that the carcass is made from muscle, fat, flesh and organs. As I understood these parts and their form and texture, I learnt how to use my knife more efficiently. Now after 19 years of being a butcher, my knife is always sharp, I need not sharpen it. I breeze through the meat without much effort and can cut meat with my eyes closed as well.


The message in this story is that in no matter what we do, it is first unfamiliar, as we familiarize and improvise and learn the technique or “kung fu”, we become better and more skilled and art and writing calligraphy is the same. If we think of the brush as the knife in the butcher story and we are familiar with the techniques needed, the next step of execution comes quite naturally and it feels extraordinary to be able to create.


Writing calligraphy is like exercising, Mr. Kan (one time Vice President of Taiwan) once said that if you did and hour of large calligraphy, you will be sweaty and stay healthy. I paint everyday and end up sweating a lot, that should give me longevity and I wish you all a long long life.




In short, calligraphy in its physical form will give you health, in an abstract form, it will tie you closer to culture and to be really good at it you have to do it a lot.



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