Calligraphy & Character

This week at the Consulate, one of the local Chinese staff complimented my handwriting. She said it was beautiful, then added (incredibly sweetly): “Just like you!”

I’m not sure such glowing praise was warranted, but it led to my friend sharing with me one of China’s ancient idioms:

Zì rú qí rén.

Or, in its more stunning native script:

Character Like2Translation? “The character is like the person.”

In other words: Someone’s writing, the physical style of their words, is a reflection of the author’s being. Beautiful writing evidences a beautiful psyche; strained writing is the exterior reflection of a tormented interior.

This idiom is an antique one, having first been penned by Han Dynasty poet and scholar Yang Xiong. This puts the idiom’s birth somewhere between 53 BC–18 AD. That is one old aphorism–somewhere around 2000 years old, give or take.

But I don’t think this ism’s age means it’s gone cobwebby. After all, oldies are often goodies, right? And while I wouldn’t say that beautiful penmanship is a warrant of the author’s being a quality person, I would say that a person’s written words (even in fiction writing) provide excellent insight into the original scribe’s soul. Perhaps this why sharing one’s work can be so darn intimidating.

(Of course, the lit scholar in me feels compelled to provide a warning label: The contents of any given piece of writing should not be held as absolute evidence of the author’s true feelings, opinions, history, or perception; literary study via a biographic lens is but one possible method of study.)

This is probably also the point at which I should confess to being a pun junky. The fact that “The character is like the person” becomes such an excellent pun when transliterated into English is by no means a small part of its appeal. It was such a perfect pun, in fact, that I couldn’t help wondering if there was some etymological connection between the character that is the building block of Chinese writing and the character that is the makeup of a man.

I test-drove my theory on the word nerd’s best friend, Etymonline. (Yes, I’m that much of a goof-ball; I hold an etymology website near and dear to my heart.) Unfortunately, no evidence to support my hypothesis. But I was very intrigued to find that “character” as we Anglophones understand it finds its root in the

Greek kharakter, “engraved mark,” also “symbol or imprint on the soul,” also “instrument for marking,” from kharassein

Apparently, the Chinese weren’t the only early culture to cop onto the fact that there’s an intimate, irrevocable connection between what we scribble on paper and what we scribe on the ethereal material of our hearts.

Nowadays, I think we do a pretty solid job of stripping writing down to a purely intellectual project. Writing is sitting quietly and thinking deeply, right? Writing is a sedentary art, and what’s more, the words we produce are often separated from our own person. We no longer have to pound papyrus the plant into papyrus the writing canvas. We’re not plucking feathers and cutting them down for our quills. We’re not even having to contend with reinstalling ink ribbons and resetting typewriter carriages. Heck, American schools are even starting to phase out cursive handwriting from the curriculum. Because who hand-writes anymore, write right? (Ha! Pun!)

Now, I am not boo-hooing technology AT ALL. I’m far too attached to my 60+ words/minute typing speed, to Microsoft’s Track Changes tool and my ability to keep my million-and-one drafts in one convenient device. To my ability to fire off manuscripts to agents and editors at light speed from the opposite side of the world.

But I also appreciate reminders of what an outpouring of the person writing can be. And Chinese philosophy about writing definitely provides plenty. In addition to learning my new favorite idiom, I’ve also been blessed to take a few Chinese calligraphy lessons during my time in China.

My calligraphy instructor definitely fit that long running stereotype of the intense, perfectionist Chinese lǎo shī (teacher). I confess I was too American to endure it long-term. After a few lessons proved we’d be spending each 1.5 hour-class perfecting one character, I bailed. But I’m so grateful for the experience of taking the classes I did.

The way my lǎo shī spoke of writing was unlike anything I’ve experienced in the U.S. In Chinese calligraphy, the “beautiful end knob” of strokes (the swell at the end of each line, evidenced above) is highly valued; there’s a method (of which I shall never be master!) for executing that flick just so. But in guiding me toward creating the desired look, my lǎo shī kept saying the brushstrokes should resemble a bone.

And in criticizing the occasionally frayed nature of my strokes–caused when the writing brush (máo bǐ) does not have enough ink–he discouraged me from letting my strokes look like teeth.

This visual, nakedly physical imagery was a reminder of the pound of flesh (always mental and emotional, sometimes physical in the form of sleep deprivation and caffeine dependency) demanded by devotion to writing. It exacts a cost of us, a sacrificial offering of sorts. The Chinese know that the written word, the thought made physical, cannot be separated from it’s creator. And that it carries a bit of us into the world even as it exacts a tariff for its creation.

Zì rú qí rén–the character is like the person. What a beautiful reminder, a crisp truth… and a warning that what you create is a bit of yourself, bared to the world via a bit of ink and paper, screen and pixel. As writers, we bear a burden to leave behind a character by which we can stand.


One thought on “Calligraphy & Character

  1. What a labor of love writing for publishing is. Thank you for this lovely picture of the intensity of devotion required. I’m so delighted to have only to learn an English alphabet and that I didn’t have to become an artist just to send a Thank You note!


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