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Write for Writing's Sake

Maggie Lu

People will be surprised to see foreigners who don't know Chinese characters write them with a Chinese brush.

This happens in a Chinese painting and calligraphy class for foreigners.

"They needn't understand the meanings of those characters, because calligraphy is totally different from writing characters," said Chen Lifan, the Chinese teacher who started the class for foreigners to learn Chinese calligraphy and painting.

"The characters are simply various shapes in their minds, just like pictures."

The classes are held in a bar on Nanchang Lu where "Ping Tan" (story-telling and ballad singing in Suzhou dialect) and wooden tables and chairs are some of the few things present that reflects the ancient Chinese style.

Here is like an old Chinese "Si Shu" (small private school with a very strict teacher and several students).

However, Chen is not so stern as those teachers.

The first lesson is to practice "Heng" (horizontal stroke in Chinese characters) and "Shu" (vertical stroke). One woman uses the Chinese brush with her left hand.

"It's so difficult," said Ulrika Soderberg, a Swedish housewife, who is having her second lesson.

"I've seen Chinese calligraphy before I came to China and it's attractive. I should put all my effort into it when writing."

In the first class, all the tools which are called "scholar's four jewels" (writing brush, ink stick, ink slab and paper) were prepared by Chen. Soderberg said it's interesting to rub the ink stick in the slab.

On a paper pinned to the wall, Chen wrote a character slowly to show them where to start and where to end. Meanwhile, he explained to them the meaning of the characters that only appears in calligraphy.

Hands stained with black ink, the students were very careful. For several minutes they faced the soft paper, at a loss for where to begin.

Maybe in a hurry to finish, a student tore the paper and the head of her brush fell destroying the character she had begun.

Chen said some of his Western students have learned Chinese calligraphy and painting very well.

Chen was born into a family of artists. He learnt modern design in the university. But he gave up finally because he couldn't bear commercial requirements taking precedence over artistic creation.

About 10 years ago, he went to Germany to learn Western painting and taught Chinese calligraphy and painting on the side.

After graduation, he moved to Belgrade in Yugoslavia to continue teaching Westerners Chinese arts.

War in that country ended his teaching and gave him the chance to come back to his hometown Shanghai. Years of teaching experience and fame spread by his former students convinced him to open the class in Shanghai.

"It's a good way for them to understand Chinese culture and increase their interest in it. They feel the charm of the culture when they're writing," Chen said.

Chen admitted that success depend on their continuous interest and perseverance.

At the end of every class, Chen assigns his students homework. "Some students are strict with themselves."

Soderberg, still struggling with her brush and paper, said she will learn Chinese painting after she learns calligraphy well.

(Shanghai Star 10/10/2000)

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