Abstract Ink: Japan in a Paintbrush

What does it tell you when arguably the most famous abstract artist of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso, says “Had I been born Chinese I would have been a calligrapher, not a painter”? Eastern Calligraphy, with roots dating back thousands of years, has evolved from its humble and crude stone and chisel beginnings to a means of fluid communication and high art. Shodō (書道) “The Way of the Brush”, handed down through the generations, used by Japanese princes and monks alike, is to this day regarded both as a means for communication and of spiritual awakening. Though unaccustomed Western eyes may be intimidated by its complexity, what is certain is that Shodō is more than just painting: It is a connection to thousands of years of history dating back into Korea and China; it is connecting with language at a deeper level; and at some levels it is a spiritual pathway to enlightenment.

History

Chinese Characters on a Turtle Shell

Chinese Characters on a Turtle Shell

The story of shodo begins tens of thousands of years ago before the brush even existed. In dimly lit caves such as the ones of Zhongwei, China, our ancestors took stones to stone and chiseled away into history their everyday life: horned animals, fellow hunters, bows and arrows. Written language in the East, just as was the case in the West, was born out of pictures.

least as far back as 3,000BC one finds examples written on animal bones and that can be traced directly to characters in modern use. From here these characters and their use gradually spread until at one point roughly two thousand years when it was decreed a unification of writing was necessary and a standard of 3,300 characters were selected. It was at this time that the development of a brush gave way to more fluid characters, which in turn allowed for the development of different schools of style.

However, it was not even until the middle of the first millennium AD that the use of Chinese characters made its way across Korea and into Japan. Once there, its adopters faced the challenge of matching an already existing way of speaking with a foreign way of writing. Continue reading

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The New JLPT: Review & Essential Tips

Japanese, long noted for its high level of difficulty, has become increasingly difficult to master this year with the onset of the new Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) format.

Background

In the past as is the case still today, the JLPT was divided up into several sections based on reading, grammar, and listening.  However, whereas in the past your passing score was based on your overall score, this year’s test-takers will need to pass every single section in order to be awarded proficiency in that level of Japanese.  What this means is that in order to pass the exam one must be proficient in all levels of Japanese (except speaking).  In other words you may be a fantastic reader and have a high level of kanji-recognition, scoring high in the first section; but should your ear be green and unaccustomed to spoken Japanese then your chances for passing are slim. Slim still are your chances should the opposite be true.

Another change that has been made this year is the addition of a new level between the old level 1 (the most difficult level) and 2.  This change means that the JLPT now offers 5 levels of proficiency examination.

This year I have had the privilege of being in South Korea for the summer where the test is offered twice a year (as opposed to only once a year in the United States).  My aim was 一級 (ikkyuu), the highest level of Japanese proficiency. Note: Ikkyuu is now known as N1. Continue reading

Hand-Writing All 1,947 Jōyō Kanji: Ten Things I Learned.

“The Jōyō kanji are the 1,947 most essential kanji in the Japanese language as designated by the Ministry of Education.  I hand-wrote them all.  This is what I learned…”

Waves of Kanji

Waves of Kanji

In an effort to improve my Japanese writing finesse and satisfy my nearly insatiable interest in Chinese characters I undertook the daunting task of hand-writing every single one of the 1,947 Jōyō kanji as included in this book.  I literally went through every single one of the kanji included in this reference book and wrote and rewrote them until I had gone through all of them.  The focus was on repetition and muscle memory, and maintaining the correct stroke order was pivotal to the entire exercise.

To set the record straight, I really enjoy studying kanji…really enjoy.  What to many is boring and impossible, I find meditative and relaxing, insightful and enlightening.  Within each kanji there is a story and a reason for its construction.  Every kanji is based in a history that is long and clouded and originates in ancient China making them living artifacts, speech relics that are as good today as they were one-thousand years ago.  Each stroke is carefully planned and, when performed in the correct order, smooth and natural to your hand. Continue reading

恋愛の部分:The Pieces of Love

愛。恋愛。どんな感じの意味を持ってるの漢字でしょうか。やはり、人々にとってそれぞれ違う意味があります。それに、言語についても「恋愛」という言葉は全然違う意味があるかもしれません。だから、「愛って何?」という質問は普通なのでしょう。人が人に親しくなる前に「愛している」と言ったら、曖昧な気がするかなと思います。自分の彼女か彼と一緒に永い間を過ごし、自分の気持ちをもうすこし分かるようにならないと「愛してる」と言えないと思います。それは複雑で、深い意味があるからです。

そうと言っても「恋愛」の漢字の中で色々な部分があるでしょう:漢字の部首。そして漢字は中国の発明品でしょう。でも昔に中国語なんて存在しませんでした。それゆえに誰か時間をかけて各々の漢字を開発しなければならなかったでしょう。確かに一人の人間の仕事ではなく、時間をかけ、忠実で、入念な処理そして過程だったでしょう。当時、世界のすべての言語は同じような処理過程を経験させます、そして忘れてはいけないポイントというのは言語というのはいつまでも完成することなく、常に毎日発展しているのです。

とにかく、言いたい事は中国語を発展された人がそれぞれの漢字の書き方を決める前に漢字の部首を決める事が必要じゃないでしょうか。つまり、あの中国人は、「私にとって、「恋愛」と言う感じはどんな意味、そしてどうやってその意味を書物で他人に伝えるか」と自分に問わなければならないのでしょう。それで今日のトピックは「恋」と「愛」の感じの部首:どうしてこの気持ちを伝えるために選ばれていたかとそれぞれの部首の意味をもっと調べましょう。

愛の中

愛の源

Continue reading

Calligraphy: Eastern and Western

Calligraphy: from Greek κάλλος kallos “Beauty” + γραφή graphẽ “Writing”

Caligrafia: Spanish (similar meaning to English version)

Shodo: Japanese しょ、書 sho-Writing, どう,道 do(pronounced doe)-“Way”

Shufu: Chinese 書 “Writing”、法 “Law”・”Rules”

Seoye: Korean 서 「書」Seo “Writing”, 예 「藝」 Ye “Craft/Skill/Technique”

Think of the most beautiful thing you have ever seen. Got it? Good. Now think of one of the most ordinary things on the planet earth: handwriting. Don’t just think about any handwriting though, think of your own. Now superimpose the beauty of the first thing onto your handwriting and what do you end up with? A sunrise. A quiet morning. A rainbow. A smile. What I mean is that you get a writing system that impresses the masses regardless of the content. You don’t need to know who is smiling or over what country the sun is rising to feel joyous. We experience joy simply in knowing that someone is smiling or that the sun is rising. Similarly calligraphy, if it can be separated from its inseparable relationship with the host language, is a language on its own. A universal language that resonates most strongly with art and speaks to the masses much more than the words it makes up.

What is most interesting is the universality of calligraphy. No mater where in the world and no matter what period, there is a system of writing that is considered more beautiful or more correct. For thousands of years the Chinese have developed these rules of correctness into laws governing the writing system. Elsewhere the literate scribes were the sole keepers of language and each had to adhere to strict rules regarding copying. Notably of these are the many glorious and awe-inspiring illuminated texts of the Middle Ages, the work of skilled and dedicated hands. In India too there exist beautiful styles of calligraphic text. Muslim nations will often use calligraphic text for decoration on mosques or tapestries. Around the world and over time beautiful, albeit difficult and painstaking, styles of writing sprang up alongside the development of the society to which they were (and still are) tied.

It is a common denominator, to put it in mathematical terms, that connects all languages. This blog aims to explore ways in which the languages of English, Spanish, Japanese, and Korean are tied together (or split apart) and writing style is one of those ways. On a basic level, these languages have a written form. Check. Within each language though, is there a specific style which is considered most proper or most beautiful? (I realize that the latter term is subjective) To answer this question let’s look very briefly at some possible candidates: Continue reading