Philosophy About Chinese Calligraphy

P5: Perfection Is Relative, Not Absolute

"A general assertion is that a real artist needs to be very self-confident. I would claim the opposite: Only by casting doubts on your work till the point darkness disappears will lead to success!" ~ Elena Kuschnerova

"You are quite perfect, Miss Fairfax! I hope I'm not that. It would leave no room for developments, and I intend to develop in many directions!" ~ Oscar Wilde

The ideology of “perfection” is never “perfectly” defined due to the limited human senses and logic. Perfection exists in relative terms. What is perfect to each person depends on one's self-perception in relation to others. What is perfect to one person may not be perfect if time and circumstances should change later. 

Almost all of the people who practice Chinese calligraphy that I have met told me that the ancient masterpieces can never be surpassed - some of them are perfect - even if you have practiced very diligently throughout your lifetime you will never exceed them! My teacher used to tell me it’s almost impossible to invent a new Chinese calligraphy style because almost all possibilities had been exhausted throughout the Chinese history. He meant a new style to be worthily recognized and highly regarded. I agreed with him. However, I do not believe that it is absolutely absolute – there must be a “niche” in the “matrix” remained unexplored and undiscovered. The “matrix” refers to the position, route, force, and ending of strokes of a character. Suppose if we are to bounce a ball inside a room and let it stop naturally, is there a finite number of possibilities and ways a ball should bounce and stop? 

After studying other arts, I realize there are endless possibilities in the man-made concept of “perfection.” Perfection as set by Zhong Yao ( 鐘繇 ), Wang Hsi-Chih ( 王羲之 ) and their predecessors are not absolute. Perfection is just a phenomenon of human perception. It relies on our basic five senses. If we can raise our well-being to a higher level than we have now, more possibilities will be attainable. For hundreds of years after Wang Hsi-Chih passed away, people regarded him as the Calligrapher-Sage ( 書聖 ) and there would not be anyone better than him. (Of course, there were many great calligraphers before and after Wang that were not inferior to him!) One critic in the later dynasty ranked Wang Hsi-Chih’s Tsao Shu as number eight in history up to his time. In Wang’s time, no one could predict that in the Tang Dynasty there would be great Tsao Shu stylists like Zhang Shui ( 張旭 ) and Huai Su ( 懷素 ). Both of them created brand new looks of Tsao Shu that were far beyond the imagination of their predecessors. They mastered and surpassed previous methodologies and opened up new possibilities.  

As If Not Done By Oneself ( 非己所為

I believe most people have some kind of experience in that they do not quite believe in themselves. So do I. For example, you are an excellent singer so you were chosen to represent your school. Then you went to a national contest where many good singers competed. During the contest, you heard other singers singing pretty well and receiving a big round of applause. You felt nervous because you worried that you might not be good as they were. And some of them at the same time had the same worry as you did! Illusions, worries, anticipations... now come to our mind.

Then you went onto the stage and sang as you had practiced enough to be ready. You finished and received the “biggest” applause! And you won! But you still could not believe you were also good or maybe better than the other singers or simply yourself when you were just a “bystander.” 

My uncle was a bus driver for thirty years. Before I learned to drive, once he took me near the highway where cars were running fast. He told me, “Those cars are really running fast – fast enough to make you nervous and afraid when you are watching them. But when you are one of them driving at that speed, you don’t feel it’s very fast and you won’t be afraid at all. Even though I have been driving for three decades, those cars still look horrible to me!” 

Sometimes when I practiced emulation (Lin Mo 臨摹) of ancient masterpieces before going to sleep, I thought I just did lousily. Then I blamed myself and admired the depth of ancient masters. After I woke up, it did not look that bad because I just over-blamed myself. Sometimes, I did a better Lin Mo practice almost beyond my own realized level. I thought I was not that good as the singer did likewise. However, “that” Lin Mo work I just did was the best of my recent practice during a certain period. I just “retrieved” one of the very highest levels of my well being. And there is not only “one” of them. They can be produced, replicated or enhanced if I am improving; or there can be mere retrogression if I don’t deploy my optimal physical level and mental intensity. All of these are “recurring patterns.” I call the ones that I over-blamed myself but in reality exceeded my expectation and observable level “once in a while” “not done by myself ( 非己所為 ).” It seemed that those were done by a portion or fraction of the higher part of “me” or "someone else." Now you probably understand what I am talking about here.   


Pianist Josef Hofmann believed that every composer of talent (not to speak of genius) in his moments of creative fever has given birth to thoughts, ideas, and designs that lay together beyond the reach of his conscious will and control. We say that the composer “has surpassed himself.” In saying this, we recognize that the act of surpassing one’s self precludes the control of the self.


My points are: (1) how can I make it happen more often so it won’t be just “once in a while?” and (2) how do I retrieve that level that seems “not done by myself” more often and consistently? Imagine that we have innumerous levels of consciousness with certain levels higher than some other levels. Within each level of consciousness there are innumerous smaller units of levels with some more clearer and higher than the other ones. Sometimes our body is not totally awake – some parts of our body are still asleep while some are overactive. If we can mentally and physically access that smaller and smaller units of consciousness that can raise our mind, body, and spirit as a whole and apply that to our practice, we can make progress in art indefinitely. 

If I am now a master artist and that “once in a while” work seems perfect in the eyes of my audiences, they rate it “perfect.” But later “once in a while” work of mine or others seems to exceed this one, how do people rate it? Still “perfect?” Then how about the previous one? “Ah! It’s less perfect!”  

Endless Progress

If we don’t want to believe in the notion of “endless progress,” then our progress will be surely limited! Perfection is not an end. It’s a man-made concept about levels or stages. With every repetition, an artist becomes more and more absorbed. If I train my mind, consciousness, physical and moral level higher so that I can retrieve the “higher part of me” while the other “lower part of me” keep growing higher, even if I do not get the “best of me” I still make progress compared with previous results. I am improving as a whole well-being constantly. Is there a limit that prevents us from growing this way? Yes, only if we want to stop or cannot overcome ego! If we are determined to make progress, our progress will be infinitely superior to that of the previous stages. Even if Chinese calligraphy is deteriorating in artistic levels after each dynasty, if there will be a group of calligraphers who are enlightened and skillful enough to cope with the ancient masters and then maybe surpass them, there will not be “absolute perfection” as most Chinese calligraphers assert. 

We, as practitioners of Chinese calligraphy or other arts, should think outside no box because there is no inside or outside. What is inside is also outside. In a mathematical sense, if we draw a cone without a tangible roof and floor, the cone can extend upward and downward indefinitely. Anything inside the cone can never hit the roof or floor and a thing will not be “inside” or “outside” the cone because it’s not self-contained.  

Similarly, if a reader might ask me, "Mr. Hough, are those mostly your personal opinions that you publish in your website? Or are they mostly adapted from other calligraphers' opinions? ... I find something very different or even contrary to what I have known about Chinese calligraphy?" In my humble opinion, I would suggest the reader to think into those terms: personal, public, and conglomerate. Any established methodology, principle, experience, or theory in arts were first talked about by earlier artists, which they were "personal," and then they became a "conglomerate" of seemingly acceptable "public facts" that were written into books. How many of us have thought of the validity and practicality of those "established" knowledge? 

Once a pedantic practitioner of Chinese calligraphy told me that a certain ancient master wrote about the "exact distances in inches from the brush tip (or head)" that we should hold a writing brush? He stated that when we are writing "large, medium, or small" Chinese characters, our hands should be positioned at certain distances in inches from the brush head "according" to what he had read in the "books" and what that ancient master had published. He believes that the ancient and famous masters should be correct and be responsible for those statements. Well, first of all, how do we define the exact sizes of "large, medium, or small" Chinese characters. And how can we make conclusions without considering the different specifications of brushes between our modern time and that ancient master's era and the fact that people have different hand sizes and shapes... and many other factors. 

If we were to follow the "established" or some of the widely and prevalently misleading knowledge without considering other relevant factors or to believe the man-made "perfection," then we will never be walking on the path toward perfection.

Philosophy Menu                        Home