Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Chinese and English Calligraphy (transcribing historical document)

British document from 1762 saved by Chinese family of calligraphers
An account of my experience during a visit to Utah in April of 2006:
My daughter and son-in-law have taken calligraphy classes in college and since he spent two years in Taiwan they also took Chinese calligraphy last year and gave me a couple of lessons at Christmas time.
So I by pre-arrangment, on my latest visit I ended up going straight from the airport to the last Chinese Calligraphy class of the semester at Brigham Young University. They have a fourth or fifth generation calligrapher who has won many awards in China and other countries who decided to come to the U.S. when his son came to school in Salt Lake City. His name is Duanran Fan as translated/americanized in his book or Fan Zhuan Ran as my son-in-law puts it, being more the proper Chinese way. No one ever used his name, probably because we wouldn't say it right! According to the bio in his book he has been a calligrapher for over 40 years and is the only calligraphy professor in Yunan province.

He was very gracious, asked what questions I had - of course I didn't know enough to have any. So he demonstrated quite a bit and then spent some time explaining how to tell if the calligraphy is good. Very familiar principles, like keeping symmetrical and good proportions, having equal white spaces in various parts of the character, having contrast in the stroke - a bit of narrowing and widening or smooth and squared on one end and rounder/rougher on the other-
teacher demo
(One disappointment with the few Oriental calligraphy books I've seen is that they don't explain the amount of pressure and release or tell you where it happens - there may be little arrows of direction and such but often the change of direction is not so much a stroke as a pushing down of the brush, often through wrist action. Thanks to modern digital technology I did get a couple of very brief video clips to watch over and over as I practice -not that I expect to do real oriental work but to improve on control of the brush can't hurt.)
Fan Zhuan Ran and me at  BYU
He had me demo western lettering a little (pretty rusty) and my son-in-law who was translating told him a bit about how some of the styles I was showing were from hundred of years ago - The teacher got very excited and asked when we could meet with him again.
He seemed interested in history so I looked for some handouts on historical alphabets, warmed up a lot to be able to write better, etc. It turned out that what he wanted was help with an old document handed down in his family. He had brought it to this country when he came, wanting to find a professor of archaic English, then realized that it wasn't the language but the lettering that was the problem. So my son-in-law and I spent about 2 1/2 hours transcribing this document from 1762. 
detail of document saved by Chinese family for over 200 years
It is a British legal document - was fun to see where there were corrections, differences in writing where a blank was filled in later, etc. It really took a little detective work. The family had thought it was a letter with possible royal or noble connections since there is a seal with a crown, a tax stamp, another stamp or seal of some type, etc. But it is actually very boring, mostly legalese where they used 50 words when one would do and give multiple descriptions of various properties. There is one interesting bit where if legally demanded someone has to pay one peppercorn after one year - for rent I believe. When we got back to my parent's, my dad called a neighbor who spends half the year in England searching old documents and he came and gave a little advice on words we were unsure of (said this document was much more recent than what he works with).
Technology is so amazing, my son-in-law had taken photos with his digital camera and we were able to proofread by having the document and the transcription up on the computer screen together-

After we transcribed that afternoon, we joined a calligraphy class (western) having a session in the library's Special Collections so the Chinese professor got to see and in some cases handle some beautiful old manuscripts, compare ages, and see some of the similarities with his document - like holes down the side for making guidelines.

The very best part though, is that "to give me a more real idea of Chinese calligraphy" this gentleman wrote out two scrolls for me  -on 200 year-old paper that had been "found" in his family's "stuff". The characters are written over pale wood-block prints from when the paper was made. He says they are better than the ones in his book (through pulling strings he and my son-in-law tracked down the last available copy of his instruction book that has a color section of his work in the back). He said he has not met many calligraphers over here and wanted to share with someone who would appreciate it. There are flecks of gold in the paper that he said will turn red over time.

Sorry I can't get the images to go next to each other - I'd love a good translation of the scrolls if any readers are Chinese :)

The photo of me and the Chinese teacher (above) is from when we went back to class when he was picking up final projects, and I got him to write a couple of symbols I wanted to see - I have to say that I cannot yet appreciate the "artistic style" as much, but watching him do it is absolutely wondrous! 
more teacher demo

I got invited to demo western lettering for the Chinese calligraphy guild if I ever happen to be in China - wish that were likely, but I think I would feel very unqualified anyway.

Here's a higher-resolution image for those who want to look closely 
and here's the transcript in google docs  if anyone is interested.

Hope you enjoyed my bit from the past. I still haven't figured out how to mount or frame the scrolls. He said he hadn't had time to mount them and suggested simply laying them under glass in frames so they are not glued, but that would take some pretty long frames.........

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