The Way of Practising Japanese Calligraphy

/translated from: click here /
Translated by Judit Simon

The way in which calligraphy is taught and practised in Japan might sound strange to us when we first learn about it.This method that all of us - teachers and students alike - follow in our daily practice is the copying of great masters'original works.

As soon as we start practising calligraphy, our master gives us samples. First he presents us with the basic strokes, easy kanji  and as we proceed with our practice we get more and more difficult tasks. We keep copying the sample over and over again for about a month – yes, we copy it. In western art and fundamentally in all western cultures, individualism is a key notion. We, as individuals, are expected to learn to create our own personal work  and  accordingly, in our opinion a true artist is someone who is inventive, someone who is capable of creating „something new”.*
Let's not dispute the truth of the saying „There is nothing new under the sun” now...Instead, I invite you to take a closer look at the Japanese approach to practice. In Japan the copying of old masters' works is not looked upon as a shameful act, a crime or even as art forgery. On the contrary, in Japanese culture it is important to study the footsteps of renowned masters, as they had already perfected the art in which we are only beginners. What could possibly be better than to follow them? There is no need  to try and „outshine” others or to attempt to create something fancy. The task is simple: to learn and copy perfectly the master's calligraphy. Do you think this can  be done without effort? If you do, then you might need to reconsider your viewpoint. Of course I do   not wish to imply that if a copy is not perfect, then all beauty is lost. The point is that our practice is not aimed at creating something new or different. In the history of calligraphy very few calligraphers became highly acclaimed masters.
Wang XizhiThere are „Divine Calligraphers” such as Ōgishi (Wang Xizhi, 王羲之, 303–361) the Chinese master; but not everyone can become like him. Therefore, the proper way of studying calligraphy is      the copying of samples. Although both the sample and the copy may be equally powerful, it is always worth examining the differences between the two.. The aim is always the same: to attain the ability  to reproduce the sample without flaws. Here I must point out once again that the above does not mean that the copy can only be artful provided it looks exactly like the sample. My point is that first we must become able to copy anything. Then, years later we will have enough time and knowledge to create  our own individual work. When we have reached that level of mastery we can start to ponder what would  look beautiful. We should follow in our master's footsteps because under his guidance we can learn everything there is to know about the art of calligraphy . Copying artworks has formed the basis, the foundation of Japanese art for thousands of years. A perfect copy that preserves the values of the original is a fine artistic work in its own right,. It is known that at times flawless copies of original calligraphies  became as highly valued as the original ones. Furthermore, on one occassion a living master's calligraphy had so immaculately been copied  by  a student that in recognition of this outstanding work, the master handed over his own seal to the student, so that he could complete his calligraphy with that . Does this sound astonishing? No wonder it does! But please note that  in eastern cultures there are „thousand-year-old buildings”, too, which are known to have been  reconstructed time and time again over the course of centuries. Thus, from a strictly  historical point of view their age could easily be disputed. Yet those who worked on these buildings learned their art from their fathers, untiringly elaborating on every fine detail of their work.They followed the tradition of their predecessors or masters, devoting their whole life to art. The above confirms that copying is not forgery but a  very effective means of study.

We devote our lives to perfecting ourselves in one thing or another and this requires a great deal of humility. Humility helps us gain more and more knowledge, so that one day we may also become masters. But do not think that the accomplished masters ever stopped practising. In zen it is taught that with enlightenment begins practice. Time and time again the master returns to the basic strokes, repeats the writing of kanji, ever remembering that calligraphy is an art once learned, always practised. The best way is to follow our masters as they have already learned and are still learning the art we are  only aspiring to study. We must keep striving, and we should never grow weary! This way our continual aspiration will become a part of us and will guide us along the path.

* Still, it is worth mentioning that until a few centuries ago the same concept, i.e. students copying the artworks of their masters, was very much present in western art. Academic painting was based on the very same idea  that we use in the practice of Japanese calligraphy. It was not rare to see apprentices working in the workshops of great masters, helping them accomplish their masterpieces. There exist numerous paintings signed by one master but created by many more hands. Why can we not see this in the actual painting? Because the style of the master was perfectly attained by  the students.