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.


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