The Hongkongers keeping Chinese and Western calligraphy alive
For some, good penmanship speaks volumes about one's character, while others simply appreciate the beauty of the various scripts
It used to be that every educated person could write in a fair hand. Computer keyboards and touch screens have since made regular use of a pen something of an anachronism for many young people, let alone good penmanship.
So it's a revelation to watch 20-year-old Li Suen-wai write out, character by character, a work by Liang dynasty poet Wu Jun with unfaltering meticulousness and concentration onto a piece of grid paper by hand. His kaishu, or regular script, is immaculate: written with a gel pen, the well-spaced, straight strokes and tear-shaped dots are all executed with just the right degree of pressure.
Li has practised hard-nib Chinese calligraphy for four years under the guidance of Lui Chiu-wing, a master Chinese calligrapher and fervent advocate of the art, at his school in Prince Edward.
"Chinese calligraphy is one of the four accomplishments required of a traditional scholar. It is a part of our heritage. Its disappearance would be a cultural tragedy," says Lui, who also heads the Hard Pen Calligraphists' Association and Professional Chinese Calligraphers Association in Hong Kong, and acts as the judge at several penmanship contests.
He believes hard-nib calligraphy remains relevant in the technological age because homework and public exams still require writing and a neat hand has a good impression on the reader.
"As the popular Chinese saying goes, one's handwriting reflects one's character," says Lui. "Most of my students are selected as class representatives at their primary schools because teachers associate good handwriting with discipline and responsibility."
Lui's classes centre on pen grip, word structure and posture - all of which underlie writing success. "Most students don't write well and don't enjoy the task because their hands tire easily and become sore from holding their writing instruments incorrectly," he says.
Those who seek his help include children (some are so young they need to sit on dictionaries to see what they are writing) and adults - teachers who feel intimidated at the prospect of writing on whiteboards or blackboards, and parents who want to coach their children at home.
Li used to be among those who write with a death grip on their pens. He rectified it by spending up to five hours a day practising. Now he is the winner of several nationwide penmanship contests and even teaches hard-nib calligraphy at primary schools part time.
Most people have not put pen to paper for so long they forget how to write the more complex Chinese characters.
Li's calligraphy training has rewarded him with more than beautiful script: it has also helped him develop patience, concentration and an appreciation for Chinese literature. "Practising calligraphy is restful. I feel like I'm inside a bubble when I write," he says.
Whether or not you can link handwriting to character, neuroscientists and other researchers are finding that the action of forming script with a pen plays an important role in our cognitive processes. The precise motor control that this involves stimulates different parts of the brain. When writing by hand, feedback that this action gives to the brain strengthens learning.
A study by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer published in Psychological Science last year, for example, found that taking notes in longhand helps students digest concepts better because they rephrase the information in their own way, requiring initial comprehension. With laptops, however, the tendency is to transcribe lectures verbatim, with shallower processing of the information.
Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, also showed that printing, cursive writing and keyboard typing produces different effects in the brains of schoolchildren. She found, for example, that children who joined letters together as they wrote were able to generate more ideas and words than those who hit the keyboards - the flowing script aided not only fluency of language but also of thinking.
Of course, most enthusiasts appreciate handwritten work mainly for their aesthetics.
Kalo Chu, for example, has been fascinated by Western calligraphy since she was a child and often took first place with her twin in their school's English penmanship competitions.
Now a bespoke wedding stationery designer, Chu creates invitations, place cards and banquet menus for her clients during the week, and promotes Western calligraphy through workshops in her Central studio on the weekend.
She finds handwritten cards and letters a joy to receive. "Each person's grasp is different. The gesture is charged with emotion and character that an email or a printed card cannot convey," she says.
Dip-ink calligraphy caught her attention a few years ago, when she came across a book on the subject. Because dip pens usually do not have an ink reservoir, it takes considerable skill to control the amount of pigment to recharge the nib and the degree of hand pressure to get the ink flowing consistently - otherwise the result is scratchy letters and ink blotches. She thought it presented a fun challenge.
Chu is particularly fond of the old-fashioned copperplate script, and in her spare time she would experiment with the font using brushes, marker pens and gilding, playing around with swooshes and swirls, discovering creative ways to connect and embellish letters.
That's why her three-hour workshops focus on dip-ink calligraphy and copperplate. At beginner level, she introduces basic tools and skills and teaches students to create a poster or monogram design, which can be used to produce a wax or embossed seal. At intermediate level, students hone their skills and add decorative touches to their script.
"One of the most important calligraphic techniques is the 55-degree slant that is used to write formal historic scripts like copperplate," Chu says.
Most of her students sign up for several reasons: some are in love with the old-school charm of calligraphy; others hope to develop a new hobby or discover a new way to de-stress; a few want to ink their own wedding invitation cards.
Chu also makes time to take short classes in Britain, the US and the Philippines to stay in touch with the latest trends in the calligraphy scene.
"Meeting fellow letter-enthusiasts reinforces my passion for the art," she says. "I can also share inspiration and new skills gained from these experiences abroad with my students."
Perhaps the most established group in Western-style calligraphy is the Alpha Beta Club. Founded in 1988 by a design lecturer at Polytechnic University, it brings together enthusiasts who promote the art through workshops and exhibitions.
The club is now chaired by Brenda Ching Man-wah, who teaches visual art and Chinese at a secondary school.
Each year, Ching and committee member Cosmo Fung Kwok-chi host a series of five-lesson workshops at the club's Kwun Tong premises, where enthusiasts polish their techniques in different calligraphy styles from Gothic to foundational and Spencerian.
The society also organises one-day classes to give the public a taste of the art. For example, participants learn to use calligraphy in their Christmas cards and bookmarks, and even to make writing instruments from bamboo sticks - a useful skill as bamboo pens can be "an economical and accessible alternative for calligraphy nibs, which can be hard to source in Hong Kong", Fung says.
Increasingly sophisticated print and graphic software has dealt a severe blow to Western calligraphy, says Fung, a social worker. "When elaborate fonts can be easily downloaded from the internet, fewer people become interested in the art. Our mission is to preserve and promote this craftsmanship."
One of the highlights of their activities is an annual exhibition in November, which serves as an important channel to show that calligraphy can be expressed in much more creative and diverse ways than the stereotypical flourishes in a cursive font. At last year's show, members produced a broad range of work from abstract, deconstructed letters to a fusion of gothic letters and decoupage art.
For enthusiasts, a keyboard and printer could never convey the individuality and personal quirks of a pen in hand.