We’re drifting into gift-giving season and a favorite stocking-stuffer for Chinese students is our My First Book of Chinese Calligraphy. Originally published in France under the title J’apprends la calligraphie chinoise, the book is by Zhihong He and Guillaume Olive, both recipients of the prestigious Saint-Exupéry Prize for children’s publishing. When we discovered it, we commissioned a translation and published it in the US, where it has been equally popular with children as well as adults looking for an introduction to the Chinese writing system that’s both authentic and entertaining. Published in a sturdy hardcover, the book’s stand-out feature is a CD-ROM, which animates lessons in Chinese characters. It also includes games to practice what you’ve learned. Click on the book jacket at the left to watch a sample of the video.
The word for calligraphy in Chinese is shūfǎ (書法 in traditional characters and 书法 in simplified), which refers to “writing methods”. Its first character 書/书 has the core meaning of “writing”. Koreans took up calligraphy as seoye. Written phonetically in hangul as 서예, it comes from the Chinese 書藝, where again we see 書. Where for the second character Chinese uses 法 (methods or law), however, Korean uses 藝 for “art” or “craft”. By way of Japanese, where “ye” became “gei” and is written in the slightly simplified form 芸, that same character found its way into English in “geisha”, whose original meaning therefore isn’t what we often think—”courtesan”—but rather “artisan”. Korean seoye, then, is not “writing methods” but the “art of writing”.
Japanese-speakers will be familiar with the word shodō (書道), which also starts with 書 but then continues with 道, “the way of”, which gives Japanese “the way of writing”. I can’t see 道 without free-associating back to 道教 (Taoism), but I’m going to resist translating 書道 as the “Tao of Writing” because in the US we’ve turned “The Tao of…” into a commercial cliche. My guess is that someone has already trademarked “The Tao of Writing” for a line of plastic ball-point pens. Other pursuits the Japanese describe with 道 are 茶道 (chadō, the way of tea), 弓道 (kyūdō, the way of the bow; i.e., archery), and 柔道 (jūdō, the gentle way).
In the traditional form of 書, the upper part of the character shows a hand holding a brush, and indeed hand position is an important part of calligraphy. One place to get some additional tips about your calligraphy skills are the very fine members of the American Society of Shufa Calligraphy Education (ASSCE). Their site includes some tips for beginners in Chinese calligraphy and posts upcoming exhibits and workshops open to the public.