Theories of Chinese Calligraphy

T4: How to Develop Mind Power in Chinese Calligraphy

"When one gets the brushwork, one also needs to cultivate Qi!
Achievement of brushwork is easier than Qi flowing in the calligraphy."

From my personal understanding, a master Chinese calligrapher who had the Cracking House Effect exemplified in his work must have highly coordinated his mind with physical body. Continuing the previous parable, if an earthquake happens the whole house may crack. An earthquake definitely has more power than a hammer, nail, or a drill. Where does an earthquake come from? It’s from the inside of the Earth or its center. Then when we try to combine our mental power and physical force for practicing Chinese calligraphy, where does the power come from? It’s from the center of our body near the navel. Under the navel, there is an imaginary or metaphysical spot called Dan Tien  (others may call it the Ocean of Energy   , Solar Plexus Chakra, or other names.) Tenors, sopranos, Yogis and mighty artists all utilize Dan Tien. Now most Chinese calligraphers, students, and beginners don’t even want to explore the possibilities and it’s not a topic in Chinese calligraphy books or lessons. They deem Chinese calligraphy simply as a writing activity, but not necessarily a way to combine physical and mental potentials.  

Characters Written When the Mind Is Clear and Focused

Say we are pushing a long pile of twenty shopping carts at Wal-mart, let’s try three different ways. First, we only use our hands or elbows to push them. They move just a little bit. Then we use our arms to push and they move a little bit more. If we coordinate our body and arms to push simultaneously, the carts move more. This is a human instinct! However, most Chinese calligraphy students and teachers have forgotten this instinct. They choose the easy path by resting the wrists or elbows on the desk and adopt the misconception of soaking part of brush hairs instead all of it. Some may lift the whole arm but may not utilize the whole body (including legs and feet.) In this way, our nature and instinct have been veiled and underdeveloped. This eventually leads to the common misleading instructions to soak part of brush hairs. As a result, the “wholeness” has been lost.  



Cursive and Semi-Cursive Characters Written with the Hanging Arm Technique

Zhuang Tzu  (  ,  the successor Lao Tzu) once said, “A true man breathes with his feet ( 人呼吸以踵 ) …”  When we are practicing Chinese calligraphy with our mind and body fully coordinated, every part of our body and level of mind are working for the same goal. Imagine if our feet can breath and function like our lungs or the conscious mind, the other parts of our body can also do the same thing! The Chinese say a foot is the second heart in that each foot has many nerves and consciousness. And you may judge a person’s health from his feet. (A rare branch of chiropractic treatment, DNFT, does use foot diagnosis instead of touching the spine or using the X-rays.)  However, most people don’t pay attention to their feet or even know how to explore their potential and possibilities. The internal force generated with the brush actually come all the way from our feet through legs, waist, torso, neck, shoulders, arms, elbows, wrists, palms, and finally fingertips and the brush tip, with the mind being the commander. Developing mind power with brushwork is very analogous to the principles of Chinese internal martial arts.

In ancient times, most Chinese kids lifted their whole arms in the air when practicing calligraphy (after they had started the basics for a while.) Now most students and Chinese calligraphers practice by resting their wrists, elbows, or arms on the desk. No wonder Chinese calligraphy is fading nowadays. However, no one can enforce us to execute such detailed or “tedious” guidelines for good Chinese calligraphy work in our modern time. The choice belongs to each individual and each will gain different levels of benefits in terms of patience, insights, and persistence.  

Oftentimes I tell my students that Chinese calligraphy is a highly coordinated activity rather than a tedious art that we have to practice for innumerous hours to be good. Most martial arts teachers tell the students when they practice martial arts forms (routines) for enough times, they become part of an individual's system. Even when our instructors don't explain to us the applications of every movement, our body reacts to real situations and applies the techniques instantaneously "without thinking" in case we should encounter an opponent. Likewise, I explain to students that the details of Chinese calligraphy are built in our thinking, nerves, brains, and body "little by little." I would tell them an important point this time and add more points later. When we see a student has practiced enough and accumulated the good habits, we move on to another level of principles. The accumulated points are already built in our system as a live organism provided that the previous principles are practiced correctly and slowly. They are already "alive" in us and need not be retrieved. And like riding bicycles and swimming, they will never be forgotten. The process of learning and building those detailed principles in writing as well as body mechanics may be long; but the processes will make us "enlightened" and benefit our lives as a whole. To bystanders, we may seem to be laboring or practicing hard; inwardly we are experiencing a journey of personal growth without limitation. Our heart delights and our well-being cultivates.

Only after the stated physical requirements of utilizing the whole body are met can a Chinese calligraphy practitioner know how to develop mind power. The highest level of Chinese calligraphy work can be only achieved with the whole arm hanging in the air – the wrist and elbow cannot rest on the desk. This requirement is true with all Chinese calligraphy styles regardless of character sizes. Almost all ancient masterpieces were done with the calligraphers’ arms hanging in the air. Even if the size of a character is smaller than a penny, the Hanging Arm Technique (  ) is required (or recommended) to create a good work and this makes it even more difficult. Most people will shake their arms and brushes when they start doing the Hanging Arm Technique. This is very normal. It will take many, many years to train our whole body and mind until we won’t be shaking; and at that moment when we realize the Hanging Arm Technique is not that difficult, we may realize that what our eyes see are illusions that made our muscles shaking in earlier stages. A good way to train our consciousness and nerves is to hold a cup of water and start walking. Try to walk around and make the water in the cup become more and more stable.

General Lee Guan (  ) of ancient China once saw a fierce tiger as he woke up and walked out of his tent. He immediately took an arrow, aimed at it, and shot it. As he made sure it did not move, he walked nearer and found out it was just a big rock. He realized he must have been drunk or too nervous. So he tried to shoot through the rock again but he never made it.

The above story exemplifies the potential power of mind (“Yi Nien  ”) if we can fully focus. If a Chinese calligrapher can fully focus like this, the intention of one’s mind and artistic intensity will definitely show in the work. Instilling mind power needs to be persistent and relaxed, but not as nervous as in the above story. Again, the focus is on the tip of the brush hairs and the source is from the center of the body with the feet being the support.

Empty the mind and hold the brush as if the brush, hand, and body are one body. The brush is only an extension of mind and intention. When we focus deeply, we will reach a higher conscious level as if the brush and our body do not exist. It’s only the mind that is working, without confinement of brushwork. Remember our mind or intention always lead before the brush or any physical movement. 

Please also refer to A4: How to Develop Mind Power in Chinese Calligraphy.


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