Learning Calligraphy, 19 Years Later

Aug 24, 2010

Now 74, Steven N.S. Cheung, one of today’s most influential economists, reflects on the trials and tribulations of calligraphy -- and finds himself at his creative best.


Steven N.S. Cheung

Photo credit: Southern People Weekly Magazine

I started learning calligraphy only at the age of 55. That was 19 years ago. The advance of medical science and the comfort of modern homes have granted to the people of my generation more time for work or creation. These days, the strength of my short-term memory has diminished and I get tired more easily, but my powers of imagination and deduction remain intact. Without exaggerating, the praise readers have for my writing is no less than before, while many friends in my field are of the view that I am more creative today than I ever was. Many years ago Coase1 told a mutual friend he predicted that I’d be making more important contributions to Economics in the years to come! He was probably wrong – I myself know how tired I am – but others still see no sign of decline in my ideas and works.

Many years ago Coase told a mutual friend he predicted that I’d be making more important contributions to Economics in the years to come!

This raises an interesting question. Owing to the advance of medical science and [modern] life’s comforts, a person’s creative lifespan today compared with 50 years ago has lengthened by a quarter of a century! Creation requires experience and practice. This extra quarter of a century comes at the latter part of one’s life, and counts a lot. Consider one’s creative lifespan: it begins at the age of 25 and, as it did in the past, continued till age 50; today it can go on till age 75 – a doubling. And bearing in the mind the accumulation of experience, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say the conditions for creation today are two times greater than in the past. Great scholars of the past would each write a classic before calling it a day, going into retirement. That we, today’s scholars, are no match for them is embarrassing. Smith2 wrote “The Wealth of Nations” when he was 45 – incredible!

Back to how I got started on calligraphy 19 years ago. I was then too focused on academic work, often getting carried away, and so was looking for something to distract myself with. I also considered the fact that artistic creation was something one could always pursue even in old age, and there was no harm in switching to art from academia. At the time I didn’t think that, 19 years later, my life would still be revolving around Economics. I thought I had some talent in the visual arts, but photography was too easy; and drawing and sculpture, too troublesome; calligraphy was thus the most convenient. I had the interest, my hands were sufficiently dexterous, and besides it was not hard to find an interesting teacher who was more than happy to teach me.

I didn’t realise calligraphy would be so difficult! Those who knew it had warned me it would be tough, but I just didn’t believe them. Miaozi3 gave me two lessons, but seeing that he was always moving from place to place, I switched to study under Zhou Huijun from Shanghai. It’s hard to imagine a teacher like her. Teacher Zhou can be considered as one of the rare talents who have mastered the most difficult strokes of calligraphy. She is intelligent, has an exceptional memory, and never lies; she’s a very devoted teacher. I would correct and improve my strokes following her criticisms. She also teaches one how to use paper, ink and water, as well as calligraphy appreciation.

After five years, Teacher said I had graduated in the use of the brush. She said I could be performing calligraphy on TV, my eyes were highly observant, and my posture was good – quite imposing; it was just a pity that what I produced wasn’t anything to speak of. What she really meant was that I had mastered the pose, but not the practice!

That was 14 years ago. It was then that it was decided that I would stop copying and start writing my own calligraphy. At the time, Teacher thought I still had to practise copying for some time more, but since nothing I copied looked like the original, and yet I believed I had understood how Mi Fei and Wang Duo4 expressed their emotions, it was decided that I would stop copying. From that day on, I continued to appreciate the calligraphy of the masters, but never copied again another word.

The conditions for creation today are two times greater than in the past.

My copying was a mess, and I was very disappointed, but Teacher said her copying was a mess, too, so I didn’t think much of it and continued. I didn’t imagine those messy days would continue for the next 10 years. Occasionally Teacher would recognise what I was writing, but it would be a day of pride and again, another day of disappointment. I tried practising many different forms, and each time I would fail. And I would stop for a few months, then recommence, with some improvement. Gradually I got better at it the past few years, but a few months ago, my calligraphy suddenly worsened, deteriorating rapidly. The reason: I had been writing too quickly, often resulting in the problem of pobi (破笔). Recently I finally found my own rhythm, and so the pobi lessened.

Not long ago, I brought two scrolls of work, each measuring 10 feet, to Teacher; each scroll had more than 100 characters – a demanding feat. And Teacher said “good”! It wasn’t the first time she had said so, but this time she said it with greater certainty and more importantly, the focus of her criticism shifted to the details.

That was encouraging. When I got home, I followed what she had taught me and wrote two scrolls of calligraphy. One was nearly 10 feet long, on which I had written Li Qingzhao’s “Rumenglin” (如梦令); on the other I wrote the title of a book I am publishing, “吾意独怜才”. I’ve included both in this post.

Calligraphy has indeed been challenging. Yong Yu once said it takes 10 years to master the art. I’d say that to produce something that reasonably resembles calligraphy, three to five years will suffice; but to produce something that resembles yourself, not even 10 years will.


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