An interview with Tatler Asia - Breaking the Rules of a 2,000-Year-Old Art Form
The Character Within A Character
What happens when the strength of a coursing river rushes through the Jameson Yap has to say.
Somewhere along the way, what started out as an ancient art form became a vital element in Chinese academic institutions, either as an
elective or a core subject. Shū fà (書法), which is mandarin for Chinese calligraphy, is a visual-and- literary art form with a millennia’s worth of history and is one of China’s many cultural treasures.
It was a skill regarded highly among royalty and scholars especially. During the period between the Sui Dynasty (581—619 AD) to the Qing Dynasty (1644—1911 AD), calligraphy was a requisite for civil service candidates who took part in the Imperial Civil Service Examination System.
Using only four tools: the brush, the ink, the paper and the inkstone, Chinese calligraphy could be found on scrolls, paintings, or inscribed on plaques of statues as well as the tablets of temples. The aforementioned tools were dubbed the Four Treasures of the Study, which is an epithet that, according to an archived Mandarin site called the International Daily News, seems to have been coined during the period of the Northern and Southern dynasties (420—589 AD).
There are five main categories of traditional Chinese calligraphy: seal script (zhuàn shū), clerical script (lì shū), regular script (kǎi shu), running script (xíng shū), and cursive script (cǎo shū). According to Huiwen Li and Yueming Yu’s Chinese Calligraphy and Culture, however, calligraphy wasn’t simply judged based on the precision of the technique used nor its aesthetic, but rather, defining characteristics such as “dynamics, rhythm, emotion and even the calligrapher’s personality” were a crucial part as to what made Chinese calligraphy such a highly- lauded art form even among Western societies.
Said characteristics were the ethos of Chinese calligrapher Jameson Yap’s River stroke, written as ‘ 流書’ (liú shū) in Chinese characters—a sixth style of script that emphasised the fluidity of calligraphy.
Unlike the structural methodologies and the emphasis on mastering the ‘perfect stroke’ in traditional Chinese calligraphy, Yap’s script is one he likens to a river with how the characters can be “completed in a single, continuous stroke or ‘in a single breath’ (referring to
‘yī qì hé chéng’, a Chinese proverb)”. Like its namesake, the River stroke has no boundaries and embodies the duality of nature—on one hand, [the script] can be brash and powerful; on the other, it can be slow and gentle. Another particular element unique to the River stroke is its overlapping characters, which Yap refers to
as a method of self-expression and a way for people to revisit the piece, “with each time revealing a different word entirely that would resonate with the viewer”.
“The River stroke depends on your moods, emotions and energy,” Yap explains. “If there were to be any rule at all for the script, it would be to convey what you mean to say with honesty. That honesty lies within you embracing your emotions, even when they are difficult. When it comes to technicality, you can have your own writing style, but you need to be daring when you put the brush on paper. You don’t need to be afraid of breaking the rules, you just need to be honest with what you’re feeling and what you’re portraying. Do it with confidence and be present in the moment; the point of the script is to enjoy the process, rather than think of it as a chore.”
To break the rules of traditional calligraphy, one needed to be intimately familiar with said rules first. While it bears saying that Yap doesn’t dismiss the practice of perfecting one’s strokes when it came to Chinese calligraphy—being ‘classically trained’ himself, so to speak—he maintains his grandfather’s stance on how a good calligrapher “should understand the characters first, its message second, and capturing its energy when written”. “I’m not saying that I disagree with traditional practices, but again, that isn’t all there is to calligraphy. It’s not just about perfecting the strokes and making the characters look a certain way,” he says. “Our approach towards the art has been mistaken from the start—all the things our teachers have taught us is simply how to write the perfect character. And that’s how you create the misconception about how calligraphy is just writing and not art.
"Without character and soul, no one
would be able to appreciate the art of calligraphy."
As he believes that calligraphy is a visual art, it isn’t necessary for one to be able to read Chinese first in order to appreciate it; because with appreciation, comes curiosity and the desire to learn. 60 per cent of Yap’s clients were non-Chinese speakers, and most of the time, when they get the piece, they would learn from it. “Take for example the tattoos that people have of Chinese characters,” he says. “While in certain contexts, especially when you don’t do your due diligence, it can be considered as both appropriating and appreciating Chinese culture. We’ve seen a lot of horror stories about how people get the wrong words inked on their bodies, which is why when it comes to my own clients, I’m careful to walk them through the entire process. I even had a client who was from Poland and wanted the Chinese character for ‘home’ because he just started a new family and wanted to remind himself that they would always take priority no matter what.
“There shouldn’t be limitations when it comes to appraising art,” states Yap. “So long as the work connects with you, you’ll want know more about the work and its meaning. It’s the same thing with any kind of art form. For me, my work serves as both a record of my life and other people’s—the beauty of it also lies with how you’ll look at it differently when you revisit the piece.”
This seemingly unbridled method was near sacrilegious to some, however. On social media,
Yap received comments that questioned if the River stroke could be even considered Chinese calligraphy at all. But over time, the very same critics eventually came around to understanding the philosophy behind Yap’s work, including calligraphers of an older generation who told him they were happy to “finally see someone trying to use a new, modern method to connect with a global audience”.
Despite the long journey ahead, Yap relishes it. “My grandfather told me that if you have the passion for what you do, put your heart into it. So that no matter how difficult it is, you’ll enjoy the process.”
Credit : Koyyi Chin