Chinese Calligraphy at HNC

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Instructor Xun with his Chinese students
Instructor Xun with his Chinese students


NANJING — The SAIS Observer recently had the opportunity to sit down with Xun Jingqi, the Chinese calligraphy instructor at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center on the art and history of Chinese Calligraphy.

“It is an art and a way of life; it’s how to express yourself, your true self,” said Xun. Calligraphy is one of the four required skills for one to become an intellectual in traditional China, the other three being the Chinese Zither, the game of Go, and traditional Chinese paintings.

Calligraphy is practiced by using an ink brush to write on a smooth-surfaced thin paper call Xuan.  In traditional Chinese culture, a person is sometimes judged or valued by how nicely he writes Chinese characters because the Chinese believe that a person’s calligraphy skill is a direct reflection of his innate qualities. The Chinese also believes that by practicing the art of calligraphy, one can mold his characters and learn how to manipulate and control his emotions, attitudes, and behaviors.

It is thus no surprise that the emperors of the past had spent much of their times practicing their calligraphy skills in order to mold themselves to become better emperors in governing their peoples. Both Chairman Mao and Generalissimo Chiang practiced calligraphy throughout their lives. Generalissimo Chiang’s calligraphy was in the Formal Form, in which the spaces between every stroke of the character have strict rules one needs to follow; every stroke needs to be rigid and the overall shape of a character needs to be square-like. This is indeed a reflection of Chiang’s personalities. He was stern and serious, always giving people the impression of a serious man who strictly follows the rules.

On the contrary, Chairman Mao’s calligraphy was in the Cursive Form, in which there are no strict rules about the spaces between the strokes of the characters. Strokes are not rigid and the overall shape of the character tends to be round-like. You kind of just go with whatever mood you are in when you practice it. This is also a direct reflection of Mao’s personalities. He was light-hearted and laid-back, always giving people the impression of a relaxed man who does not quite follow any rules.

“Writing calligraphy is just like painting since Chinese characters are logograms. Therefore spacing is very important,” Xun said. When one draws, he needs to think about the overall structure of his painting. The same is true for writing calligraphy. One needs to figure out first the form and then the character patterns in that form. One also needs to keep in mind the rules for spacing and thickness of the characters’ strokes and shapes.

The mood and attitude you are having are the most important things when you write calligraphy. To avoid misjudging spacing between strokes and characters, one’s arm should be relaxed and tensile. To achieve this, one needs to be calm and focused at all times. This is the most difficult part because he has to learn how to control his mood whether it is good or bad. In one is in a good mood, one needs to be careful not to be overly joyous since that will make his arm too relaxed. If one is in a bad mood, one needs to be cautious since that will make his arm stiff. One has to learn how to manipulate his or her emotions so that they will not affect arm movements and thought process.

“I hope that when my students leave the Center after their studies, they will bring the art of Chinese calligraphy to their home countries for others to appreciate. You folks are the bridges that will connect China and other corners of the planet!” Xun said as we concluded our interview.

He was eager and passionate when he said these words. One could see the joy radiating from his face. He was right. We are the next generation of political figures, business leaders, educators, innovators, and entrepreneurs. We have the ability and the capability to influence the world in this ever-changing village called earth. We can make a difference in people’s lives. We are the mediums of cultures and traditions.

Each of us here at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center comes from different places around the globe with very distinct backgrounds and cultural heritages. We come to the Center not only to study China, but also to study ourselves and others. We get to know each other and know each other better so that in the future, peoples of this earth will have a better understanding of each other and mutual respect for each other’s cultures and traditions. And the earth will become a better place for us and our children.

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